MTV: The television channel introduced in 1981 that would change music forever. No longer would music solely be about the music. Before we’d focus on riffs, chords, lyrics, or voices; now, an entirely new segment of music had been introduced: videos. Could MTV potentially be to blame for the shift in music over the years? Possibly. Is it safe to say that music became more about image than depth after its introduction? No doubt. Does that mean that creative, thought provoking music completely disappeared? Of course not.
The 1980s pushed boundaries. It was in this decade that music slowly started to conform into the industry we see today. After the introduction of MTV, videos became more of a necessity in order for artists to gain popularity (especially with the youth population). Take Michael Jackson for example. He was already an extremely popular, talented musician heading into the decade; however, his music video for “Thriller” transformed his legacy forever. With arguably one of the most popular music videos of all time (which turned a song into a 14 minute long horror film), his career skyrocketed. Would the song have received as much attention if the video hadn’t accompanied it? It’s hard to say for sure—but I’m going to say probably not.
You can’t talk about music videos in the 80’s without mentioning Madonna. Videos such as “Like A Prayer” or “Like A Virgin” are why many people refer to the decade with a superficial attitude. Most of Madonna’s songs and videos centered on sex appeal, which ultimately helped skyrocket her to the top of the charts. She is a prime example of a star whose appearance aided her success. Sure, her music was good. Sure, she had talent. But that doesn’t make up for the fact that sex sells, and she was selling a lot of it.
The launch of videos often resulted in superficial music; however, this doesn’t mean that all 80’s music lacked luster. The decade was known for its timeless rock groups (Bon Jovi, Guns N’ Roses, ACDC, Journey, U2, R.E.M., the Rolling Stones, etc.), but surprisingly, it was also a strong period for the development of protest music and the socially conscious hip hop movement.
Let me begin with “Straight To Hell” by The Clash, which protested against social injustices and addressed economic issues, matters pertaining to the Vietnam War, and racism. The Clash has been said to be one of the “most important socially conscious bands of all time.”
Then there was “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2. Not only does this song directly address the Bloody Sunday massacre that took place in Northern Ireland in 1972, but it also serves as a message of hope urging people to solve their problems together and refrain from using violence. Bono and the rest of U2 still remain one of the most socially conscious bands to this day.
Boogie Down Productions served as a leader in the socially conscious hip hop movement during this time period. Their song “Stop the Violence” campaigned against violence within the hip hop community.
To me, the 80’s accurately set the tone for decades to come in the future. It was a decade with a mix of superficial music videos and meaningful protest songs, but guess what got the most attention? That’s right, the videos. It was at this time in history that popular music started to shift into a downwards spiral.
Let’s move on to the 90’s (the music that I grew up with). Personally, when I think of this decade, I immediately think of the artists that I listened to as a kid: Backstreet Boys, N’SYNC, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera…. This music was the epitome of pop culture during this time, as boy bands and female solo artists completely dominated the decade. As a kid, I never focused on the content of the songs at all. I never paid attention to the words, or what message they were sharing. To be honest, I just enjoyed what sounded good and what music videos looked good. It’s this mindset that has carried through to our current youth generation. Sure, I love listening to Dave Matthews, Pearl Jam, and the Foo Fighters now that I’m older… but as a kid I didn’t even know they existed.
The 90’s were arguably ruled by a mixture of pop sensations and powerful singers (Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston). In order to find solid protest songs, you have to dig deep. One band that comes to mind is Rage Against the Machine. This group was known for their political music, and they were even spotted performing at Occupy Wall Street a few years ago.
One singer/songwriter of this decade who has been socially conscious for MANY years is none other than Bruce Springsteen. As one of the most popular artists of all time, it’s refreshing to see that he’s stuck to his roots. He’s never been afraid to sing about personal experiences or issues that he felt needed addressing. He also continued (and still does) to set affordable ticket prices for his shows in order for all fans to have the chance to attend. His song “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was one of the standout protest songs of the decade. In this track, he gives social activism and the great depression a modern setting, linking the past with the present. It’s artists like Bruce who keep the spirit of social activism alive in an era centered on young pop sensations.
As years go on, it seems as though rich, political music becomes harder to find. While many assume that it’s simply disappeared, it hasn’t. Political music continues to be written and recorded, it’s simply the industry that’s changed. Creative, meaningful songs that SHOULD be heard are often hidden under a pile of pop anthems. More often than not, these pop songs come from young, attractive stars who sing lyrics written by other musicians. In order for our music culture to go back in time, we need to start paying attention to the artists who aren’t getting the attention. It’s these songwriters who truly have the best message to share.