“A Change is Gonna’ come”: The Attempts of the Populace and the Popular to Transform Politics and Culture through Popular Music
This essay will be a brief foray into the ways in which popular music artists and audiences have pushed for political and cultural change. The essay will discuss certain happenings and people within popular music which and who (respectively) have pushed for a different world. This essay is not set out to argue that any of these concepts and/or ideals have done anything to change Western politics or culture or, in fact, that they ever fully could (such juvenile arguments are best left in Sixth Form common rooms), but it will be a commentary and a description of certain significant elements, song lyrics and audience reactions which tried to push for transformation.
This essay will give a brief overview of three significant elements within the medium of popular music which have attempted to push a transformation agenda (c.2500 words is nowhere near enough of a limit to properly comment on any more than three, still the essay will provide brief rather than in-depth analysis of said elements), they are, namely, the importance of the political consciousness in the lyric to Sam Cooke’s 1964 hit A Change is Gonna’ Come; the political aspirations of Joe Strummer, frontman of The Clash and later Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros and subsequently the response of his audience; and the dichotomy of Eminem: part base humour spouting misogynist and homophobe, part serious social and political lyrical activist and the response from the media and fans alike to his preaching and actions.
Sam Cooke: The Changing Man
Once upon a time the soul artist Sam Cooke gave the world a statement to mull over which can be seen as a pre-cursor to many a later pop star’s efforts to change the world. That message, given during the 1960s’ Civil Rights Movement in the USA, was “It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change is gonna’[sic] come”.[i] By spouting this idealist message to the world Cooke was, in part, pleading for a change to the racial disharmony in the USA and, in part, giving a defiant statement of intent on behalf of African Americans across the USA. Cooke’s statement actually said much more than this, but we shall work with the two aforementioned ideas as a template for now. Whether he knew it at the time or not, Cooke was acting as an influence to many who preceded him, giving them an idea that the popular music lyric could be used as more than just a tool for demonstrating one’s love for a spouse or desired lover. By using his voice to address the socio-political state of his nation, Cooke was telling other artists that they too could do more than rhyme ‘maybe’ and ‘baby’ to fit within three and a half minutes of pop Though this may not have been his intent, it was certainly a consequence of his actions. Sam Cooke was not the first or only person to do this. Woody Guthrie had done it in numerous songs before him, Bob Dylan did it at around the same time as he did and Morrissey did it after him. Cooke’s actions, however, must be seen as vital to popular music lyricism. One such man who would have taken inspiration from Cooke was a young man born John Graham Mellor, who became better known to the World as Joe Strummer.
Joe Strummer: Social Commentator
Joe Strummer often talked about the effect the radicalisms of the 1960s had on his world-view, speaking of his “coming-of-age” in 1968.[ii] In 1976 Joe Strummer was playing in a pub rock band named The 101ers[iii] when he “saw the future”[iv] [paraphrase] in the form of punk rockers The Sex Pistols. Strummer was then approached by Bernie Rhodes (eventual manager of The Clash)[v] to join a new outfit he was managing called, rather ill-advisedly, London SS. To cut a rather long and heavily mythologised story short, Strummer joined and so became The Clash, originally consisting of Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, Terry Chimes and Keith Levene (who would soon leave and end up in the post-punk outfit Public Image Limited with John Lydon). Bernie Rhodes, having been heavily influenced by the 1968 student riots in Paris, told Strummer that he must write about what is around him and comment on the world, telling him to “write about what’s important”.[vi] The upshot of this inspirational pep-talk (as with many stories around The Clash, one must take it all with a pinch of salt due to the revolutionary fervour the band’s members have built around themselves) was that Strummer decided to write a bunch of song lyrics centring around such stream-of-consciousness issues as political landscapes (see 1977 from the album The Clash), the problems facing young, working and lower-middle class men and women in Britain in the mid-1970s (see Career Opportunities from the album The Clash) and insurgency riots on the streets of Britain (see White Riot from The Clash) which would make up the backbone of the band’s eponymous first album. This collection of initial ‘punk rock with social conscience’ lyrics would lay the template for all of Strummer’s future lyrics where he would go on to challenge the vacuous, right-wing world of advertising (see Koka Kola from the band’s third LP London Calling); Armageddon through the horror of nuclear warfare (see London Calling’s title track); and racial resentment throughout Britain (see Something About England from the fourth Clash album Sandinista) amongst other things.
One reason Joe Strummer was so equipped to communicate with the populace and push for social and political revolution was because he was, primarily, the lyricist within the framework of The Clash. Strummer was one half of a song-writing partnership with Mick Jones - whose main duties within the pairing were arranging song structures and overseeing melodic and rhythmic needs within the songs. When communicating a political, social, romantic or generally emotional or abstract message, bands often look to their lyricist. Though it is fair to say that one can denote emotion through sonic tools such as melody, harmony or even rhythm (think minor chords denoting sadder, more melancholic emotions), the written word is arguably what does it explicitly. Where Strummer played slashed, stab-like guitar chords to bring a timbral fire and presence to the band’s catalogue, it could feasibly be argued that the way in which he used his words for social attack always held more weight with the general music-buying public. One can see that argument justified in a moniker ascribed to the band, where their fans labelled their heroes as “The Only Band That Matters”.[vii] Such direct sloganeering, it could be reasoned, came about as a direct result of Strummer’s sloganistic language in his lyrics acting as influence on his admirers. If one thinks about lyrics such as “In 1977, there’s knives in West 11”, a nod to the criminalisation of the Notting Hill area where Strummer resided (see 1977 from The Clash); and “London calling to the faraway towns” a play on the BBC World Service transmission statement to occupied countries during World War 2 of “this is London calling, this is London calling” (see London Calling from the album of the same name) to call out a statement of defiance in the face of nuclear war, one can see why the fans were so interested in allegorical sloganeering to convey their message. If it was good enough for Joe Strummer, their ‘demi-God-like hero’, it was good enough for them, the fans.
Eminem: “Let’s Get Down to Business”
Sloganistic language has been a vital part of the development of the popular music lyric. When pushing for that all important goal of political and cultural transformation many a lyricist has used different ‘puns’, ‘catchy buzz-lines’ and ‘shock tactics’ to lure in the populace. These three examples of sloganeering tactics may well lead one to think of a certain blonde-haired, foul mouthed, but ultimately talented young man. If the image one is led to is that of Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), then one may well be showing one’s age. Nostalgia has settled in on punk rock and all of the connotations now shown through the fish-eye lens of modern media streams are of youth rebellion and exciting, pulsing, heart-racing exhilaration. No longer is Johnny Rotten labelled as vile. One such man whom one may also look to in this regard is Marshall Mathers III of Detroit, Michigan, USA, better known as Eminem. Eminem, much like Rotten, is now starting to enjoy a freer time of it all due to the initial furore over the vulgarity in his lyrics now having subsided and the current press streams just admiring him for his talent and his overall message.
Eminem burst on to the popular music scene in 1999 with his debut hit My Name Is. Heavy MTV and radio coverage of the track in ’99[viii] subsequently led to a star being born. The song had lyrical content which energised the youth in the West and disgusted their parents. So it was, then, that Eminem was the new divisive figure between the youth and the mature. He proclaimed in My Name Is that “God sent me to piss the World off”[ix], which prompted music writer Garry Mulholland to write in his book This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco that “it had been 25 years since he sent the last one”[x] in reference to the aforementioned Rotten. With the LP released on the back of the single (The Slim Shady LP) Eminem set his lyrical stall out. The album contains lyrics which detail misogyny, homophobia, a hatred of his parents, lewdness, drug-taking and much, much more to get the backs of the right wing press up. The album caused much outrage amongst middle- America and, alas, a ‘Mommy protest’ to the lyrical content of this album and its successor The Marshall Mathers LP. Eminem notes, in a rather sarcastic tone, in his 2002 song Cleaning Out My Closet from the album The Eminem Show “Picket signs for my wicked rhymes”[xi] in a nod to this particular incident. This very protest took place outside the Staples Centre in Los Angeles on February 21st, 2001. Eminem was performing his hit song Stan that evening with Elton John (the openly gay singer-songwriter). The National Organisation for Women (NOW) were picketing against the sexism and violence in the lyrics in Eminem’s songs. NOW’s members were clearly aggrieved, but had debatably missed a point. Art sometimes has to be provocative so as to keep pushing boundaries. If people like Eminem did not exist then the “standardisation”[xii] theories which Theodor Adorno ascribed to popular music in his 1941 essay On Popular Music could only withstand to be true of today’s pop. This audience push for political and cultural change was arguably hindering the progress of future liberalism. Song lyrics only exist as language and if anybody decides to take that language and turn it into action then it becomes their actualisation rather than the words of the provocateur that commit the crime.
“The Nostalgia Factory of Popular Music”: A Conclusion
All of this tumult gave Eminem a pedestal. His fame grew to a perhaps unprecedented level for a rapper. He was the name on everybody’s lips. In his second album Eminem had started to move toward more socio-political comment in songs such as Stan – where he details the psychosis and mental instability of a deranged and obsessed fan - and Amityville – where he details the socio-economic problems in his home city of Detroit – and began to move away from being base for the sake of being base. By his third album he was tackling such subjects as the U.S. Army (see Square Dance) and the 911 atrocities (see My Dad’s Gone Crazy) and by his fourth album Encore he was tackling George Bush’s reign as the US President (see Mosh). At the time of releasing his third album Eminem was being lauded as some kind of lyrical genius by ‘baby-boomer’ journalists who had once vilified him [paraphrase].[xiii] Suddenly middle-America had accepted him.
All of this brings this essay to a point: once the artist (in this case Eminem) has been around long enough to let the dust settle on his/her controversy, the wider audience and press (in this case middle-America and the right wing press) let nostalgia kick in and embrace this new-found (to them) maverick. This is this essay’s and, in fact, this writer’s fundamental response to being asked to explain the ways in which popular music artists and audiences push for political and cultural transformation. This process is something which I will call “the nostalgia factory of popular music.”
As renegades have come and gone in the popular music industry, much of the mainstream, big-selling pop has stayed the same. Whether it is Sam Cooke pleading for a change in ideals in a country where he is singled out by his race or it is Joe Strummer commenting on the political agendas of Western governments or it is Eminem discussing the true indignation of young males across America, lots of the big selling popular music has come out of Tin Pan Alley-esque ‘factories of art’ where ‘boy-meets-girl’ archetypes are pushed through into the lyric itself. While Cooke was asking for that change his peers over at Motown were still churning out hits such as Baby Love and Sweetest Feeling. A few years after the break-up of The Clash came Stock, Aitken and Waterman and their brand of sickly-sweet romance-tinged sequencer pop. Alongside Eminem and his boundary pushing lyrics were stars such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera feeding the masses the bubble-gum pop they so clearly craved. All of this leads the essay to a closing note: pop lyricists have pushed boundaries in attempts to transform the political and cultural landscape, but all in all racism still unfortunately exists, Western governments still fight needless wars and the right-wing press can still control the masses and make them believe that a pop star is vile just for being provocative. Though they may have tried for transformation in the political and cultural spheres, the fact is that they haven’t even changed the music industry really. One can only try.
[i] Cooke, Sam; A Change Gonna Come; RCA Victor; 1964.
[ii] Temple, Julien cited Strummer Joe; The Future is Unwritten (Documentary Film); Vertigo Films; 2007.
[iii] Salewiecz, Chris; Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (p. 153); Harper Collins UK; 2007.
[iv] Gilbert, Pat cited Strummer, Joe (paraphrase); Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash; Aurum Publishers; 2004.
[v] Salewiecz, Chris; Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (p. 155); Harper Collins UK; 2007.
[vi] Salewiecz, Chris; Redemption Song: The Definitive Biography of Joe Strummer (p. 167); Harper Collins UK; 2007.
[vii] Gilbert, Pat cited Strummer, Joe (paraphrase); Passion is a Fashion: The Real Story of The Clash; Aurum Publishers; 2004.
[viii] Bouazza, Anthony; Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem (P.38); Corgi Publishers UK; 2004.
[ix] Eminem; My Name Is (Single); Interscope Records; 1999.
[x] Mulholland, Garry; This is Uncool: The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk and Disco; Cassell Illustrated; 2004.
[xi] Eminem; Cleaning Out My Closet (Single); Interscope Records; 2002.
[xii] Adorno, Theodor; On Popular Music; Studies in Philosophy and Social Science, New York: Institute of Social Research; 1941.
[xiii] Bouazza, Anthony (paraphrase); Whatever You Say I Am: The Life and Times of Eminem (P.132 - 134); Corgi Publishers UK; 2004.