In the modern world, music provides more than just entertainment; it has become a way to spread political messages. Pop musicians, some with millions of fans around the world, have been more willing to challenge established conventions, knowing that their songs can potentially possess a profound and life-changing effect. One of the most avant-garde artist since the advent of 21st century is Lady Gaga, who actively challenges the society through her music. (Istanders).
Inspired by other similarly outspoken pop icons, including David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Andy Warhol, the “Bad Romance” singer has been praised by many for embracing and celebrating different identities. (Istanders). In her arguably most political number “Born This Way”, Lady Gaga claims that everyone is perfect “ [be]cause God makes no mistakes”, regardless if they identify as “gay, straight or bi”. (Lady). Controversially combining religion and sexuality, “Born This Way” not only became a smash hit around the world but also cemented its place as a standard for modern political pop songs.
Years later, the rap duo Macklemore & Lewis, most known for their Billboard #1 hit “Thrift Shop”, continued the conversation about sexuality with the song “Same Love”. Written in the aftermath of the Defense of Marriage Act in California, which allowed states to refuse Same-Sex Marriage, “Same Love” was an even more pointed protest of homophobia in the society. (Normalizing) Ladened with explicit lyrics condemning the discrimination towards the LGBT community, “Same Love” demonstrated the rap duo’s intolerance of marginalizing minorities.
Though it was never as mainstream as “Born This Way”, the tune proves how musicians are using the music as a medium for speaking up. (Normalizing) Apart from sexuality, feminism and female empowerment have become more visible due to the tireless efforts of many pop singers. Beyonce’s eponymous 2013 album, for example, directly criticized unnatural ideals of beauty present in pop culture today. (Alter) Lauded by Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Adichie as “flawless”, Beyonce’s album was not an “accidental feminist” creation but result of conspicuous efforts to cultivate empowerment as part of her image. Alter)
Several tracks on the album, including “Pretty Hurts”, “Drunk in Love”, and “Blow”, normalized female sexuality and criticized societal beauty standards. (Alter) A continuation from her many albums since the early 2000s, Beyonce utilizes her music to make the public aware of the unfair restriction and unrealistic goals the public has collectively set for women. No matter what causes they support, pop singers have begun to use their songs as a medium to propagate political messages that are usually dismissed and not taken seriously by the public.
One of the most salient aspects of pop music, albeit not always appreciated, is its frank discussion of otherwise taboo topics. Especially after the counterculture movement during the sixties, pop music has taken its place as a vanguard of liberalization, often broaching topics that would be eschewed in regular conversation. David Bowie, an inspiration for countless singers from alternative star Lorde to DJ Calvin Harris, established his place in pop history for playing with the idea of gender identity. Morris) Tired of the strict patriarchal society of the Post-War America, he became one of the first mainstream male singers to express femininity, and at times androgyny, openly. (Morris)
Bowie took an interest in stereotypically feminine things (i. e. makeup and fashion) and showed America that gender can be fluid, revolutionizing the way many Americans thought about their own identity. (Morris) Extending beyond his public persona, Bowie’s albums, particularly Ziggy Stardust, was full of references to gender fluidity. Morris) Never been one to shy away from the spotlight, Bowie paved the path for many scintillating and groundbreaking musicians that sought to preserve and build upon his legacy. One of whom, unequaled in terms of worldwide success and popularity, was Madonna. Possessing a legendary role in pop music, Madonna is one of the best examples of pop’s pervasive and, at times, scandalous nature. Ever since her meteoric rise to fame in the 1980s, the “First Lady of Pop” has openly discussed numerous topics, including racial acceptance, abortion, sex, and religion. Markowitz).
She even once went so far as to say “I’m not the same; I have no shame”. (Markowitz) Despite her aberrant behaviors, Madonna continues to electrify millions of fans across the globe. More importantly, during the late 1900s when neo-conservatism grasped America, she stood out as one of the few celebrities who was willing to shake up the status quo. Her ceaseless attempts to bring up uncomfortable topics and flout the social norms endeared her to rebellious teenagers during the 80s and 90s. Markowitz) A crucial part of Madonna’s public image is her unabashed display of sexually explicit content, a result of increased objectification of the female body endorsed by the society.
Parallel to this growth of female sexualization is the rise of the adult film industry, which became an ubiquitous facet of popular culture during the same time. (Levande) The sexual innuendo made in numerous pop songs, from “Like a Virgin” by Madonna to “Anaconda” by Nicki Minaj, and the proliferation of scantily clad singers in videos as a way to boost sales both contributed to the increased acceptance of pornography. Levande) In addition, several singers have gained fame from posing for pornographic magazines or filming adult videos and used it as a mean to advance their careers. (Levande) Inadvertently, these singers helped bridge the gap between the two domains, blending risque material with popular music. The daring of these musicians to incorporate previously taboo ideas in their songs transformed pop music into an outlet for discussing things that others would be prohibited from saying. Moreover, pop music can drastically impact how people view the world and introduce new ideas that they have never been exposed to before.
Teenagers today are listening to music more than ever before, making pop music seminal to their identity and character growth. For every hour of pop music they listen to, there are “about 35 references to substance abuse”, all of which could unconsciously influence an adolescent’s “personal identity, memory, and mood” (Parker-Pope) The effects of bombarding mainstream music with these messages have not been well-studied; however, similar exposure through television, film, and magazines have been linked to a hike in misdemeanor amongst teenagers. Parker-Pope)
Consequently, many parents are more cognizant of the influence music in teenagers’ life, fearing pop music would have similar effects as visual media did. Additionally, unbeknownst to most people, pop music has also fostered special religious cults that try to disseminate their ideas to average Americans. The rise of heavy rock in the 80s, simultaneous with Reagan’s presidency, led many to accuse it of being subversive and diabolical due to their dark messages and harsh sound. Wright) In reality, little proof suggests rock listeners would be more prone to violence or crime, and most of the stigmas associated with this genre are simply the prevalent belief of the conservative public at the time. (Wright)
These beliefs waned gradually in the late 80 but were rehashed by the growing popularity of Marilyn Manson around the turn of the century. (Wright) Self-identified as a follower of Satanic beliefs, Manson shocked the world with his lewd and seditious music. (Wright) Though many other cultic singers exist, Manson achieved unrivaled ainstream success, selling more than 50 million albums worldwide. Despite the flood of backlash his music received, Manson successfully popularized to the mainstream media a new genre of music it had never before encountered. A less widespread, yet equally, unique form of popular music is technoshamanism, the fusion of Electronic Dance Music (EDM) with ancient, indigenous rituals. (Lynch)
Under the influence of psychedelic commonly found in numerous nightclubs and raves, some DJ created this new genre of music by utilizing technology as a way to achieve spiritual healing. Lynch) Despite seeming preposterous to the public, technoshamans have gained cultic followers who seek to connect with their inner-self and the universe through a transcendental experience provided by technology. (Lynch) Just one of the many other musical cults in the world, technoshamanism illustrates the ability of popular music to introduce new ideas to the public. Although the public is not always receptive of these novel beliefs, sometimes even labelling it as sacrilegious or dangerous, pop music has proven to be fundamental to the influx of alternative ideologies in the modern society.