music as social action :: Blog
A brief Q&A published yesterday by NPR addresses this class in substantive ways. In it, the network's music critic, Ann Powers, discusses the failure of Timberlake's halftime show — not based on artistic merit but because he was specifically not political.
Cast your mind back to the Super Bowl performance in 2016. Remember Beyoncé's spectacle, its racial encodings, its occasionally overt discourses about systemic American violence? Remember the backlash that struck within hours? Conservative pundits found the show "outrageous," and not in a good way. The combination of musical text and costumed subtext constituted, for some, a "Black Lives Matter rallying cry." Beyoncé was celebrated by some for her stance but scorned by many simply for bringing (black) politics into a (white) leisure space. (This New York Times columnist evaluated the day's histrionics in an astute piece that mentions a historical example of racial imaging — precisely the type Stuart Hall discusses!)
So what now to make of criticisms of a white pop star for not being political enough in the same literal and figurative arena? Where is the middle ground, and who could possibly claim it?
Powers asserts that "we are living in a moment of struggle, and we want our pop music to also reflect that struggle." Really? (As is always important to ask amid these kinds of discourses: who's the "we" she's claiming this for?) What's changed in two years to contribute to this about-face? "We want statements and struggle in our pop music, not just another smooth dance mix," she concludes.
The goal of this course is to chart how and when that actually might be the case. What kinds of statements of struggle do we want in pop music? Who's "we"? In what situations do they contribute to social change? Why do those messages succeed or fail? Does medium matter? Crucially, when might statements of struggle not be welcome in pop? And when — as we'll begin seeing examples of this week and especially next — does "just another smooth dance mix" actually become political despite the intentions of the artists and producers? (Hit it, Martha!)