Harvard University’s Stephen Walt asks a good question at his Foreign Policy magazine blog:
I’m … struck by the apolitical nature of modern popular music … especially given the contemporary context of two lost wars, persistent economic problems, and widespread contempt for politicians of all kinds. You’d think this would be a moment where at least one or two artists would be writing political songs and attracting a huge audience, and maybe even using their art to inspire political change. But I get little sense that contemporary musicians are shaping political attitudes or behavior as they might have in earlier eras.
Smart guy that he is, Walt himself provides several possible answers: there’s no draft; genres are segmented; the availability of so many media platforms; there’s no demographic counterpart to the Baby Boom generation.
These are not competing explanations. Each is a compelling factor. I covered pop music and film at the Washington Times from 2002 to 2009, in the teeth of the Bush years, and I heard a ton of protest music from: NOFX, Foo Fighters, Sum 41, the Offspring, Ministry, John Mellencamp, the Beastie Boys, Conor Oberst, Paula Cole, the New Pornographers, Bruce Springsteen, Anti-Flag, Neil Young, and who-knows-whom-I’m-forgetting. I had the semi-pleasure of reviewing, in 2004, the Vans Warped Tour, a festival devoted to punk rock and extreme sports. The place was rife with anti-Bush hostility.
And so I think Walt is wrong when he says that there’s “no real Left anymore.” But he’s right that none of the acts mentioned above is capable of “shaping political attitudes or behavior as they might have in earlier eras.”
At least, not in the sense that Walt means politics.
When you think of the attitude-shaping influence of acts like Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and the cast of Glee, there’s an identifiable connective thread between them: an ethos of self-acceptance and tolerance, and a hatred of bullying. They are apolitical if by politics you mean wars or elections — but not so in a moral or communitarian sense.
I can’t say our culture couldn’t use some more old-school raising of rock-and-roll middle fingers:
But there’s an appreciable current of outward-directed energy from the musical mainstream. Do I love it? Hardly. Still, it’s worth noticing.