music as social action ::
A few recent releases point in different directions along the spectrum of social and political music we'll be examining in this class ...
First, Smithsonian Folkways — a record label with a rich history of making political recordings available to the public — has issued a new, nicely curated box set featuring more than 80 songs, with a title that aims at the heart of this class: The Social Power of Music. The selections draw from the mid-20th century folk music we'll examine at the beginning of our discussions, as well as reaching farther than our mostly American focus. Sample the tracks here.
Secondly, just last Friday a new album from Marvin Gaye was released. Not "new," of course — Gaye has been dead since 1984 (exactly 35 years ago tomorrow). The music itself, as well as the reasons it hasn't been heard until now, are central to some of the concepts we'll explore in this course. The album is on Spotify now, and it's a master class in communicating overtly political messages over a danceable, even sexy groove. The title track begins by considering the very act of doing so — "Talkin', talkin' to the people, tryin' to get 'em to go your way" — before praising an unnamed political candidate for having "a master plan" for society. We'll listen to some of Gaye's popular material from this era midway through the course, but checking in with this new/old set of songs makes for a nice dip into the conversations to come.
Also recently, here's a new protest ballad by pop band The Killers, "Land of the Free."
The lyrics address a litany of issues, from President Trump's border wall to gun violence ("How many daughters, tell me how many sons, do we have to put in the ground before we just break down and face it? We’ve got a problem with guns"). The Killers hail from Las Vegas, site of one of the country's deadliest mass shootings, where they recently headlined a charity concert for the victims.
Participation!: If Brandon Flowers, singer for The Killers, is angry about an issue in society, why doesn't his song — a tender piano ballad — sound angry? What is the effect of using different types of music (hear the wide variety on the Smithsonian box set above) to channel political messaging?
Welcome! As mentioned here and in the syllabus, this blog will be run as an off-site place to continue and expand our discussions of protest songs, propaganda music, and the social movements with which each interacts and acts through.
Looking forward to meeting all of you next Monday — in the meantime, the following short video from Vox is a good scene-setter for our explorations along a similar scope of history and genres.
There's also an interesting recent podcast on NPR that tries to round up some of the best political pop music from 2018. The episode was sparked by a comment by an NPR commentator: "You can't find good political music." Oh yeah...? But focus on the various definitions these podcasters apply to what makes effective political music (and — effective at what?). Hear it here.
Bring to class any thoughts or questions spurred by this, especially in relation to the assigned readings!