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May 11, 2014 | by  | in Features |
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Raging Against the Machine

Music has been inextricably linked with social and political movements throughout history. But what does our generation have to argue about, and how are we using music to do so?

In 1969, Jimi Hendrix performed a guitar solo of the American national anthem at Woodstock. For the audience in front of him, the performance was an appropriation of patriotism which represented a desire to resist the capitalist culture that America had come to represent. Even for younger generations who were not alive at the time, the festival has remained a bastion of free expression for the last half-century.

Today, the largest music festivals in the world – the largest being Donauinselfest in Austria, which attracted over three million people in 2013 – are almost entirely profit-motivated. Reviews of Coachella 2014 placed just as much emphasis on fashion and celebrity appearances as it did on the music. The most politically motivated musical event in the past year seems to be Miley Cyrus smoking a joint at the MTV Europe Music Awards, but this could be construed as a career-bolstering move just as much as an act of resistance against drug law.

Indeed, today’s musicians have a lot to live up to in terms of using music as a mode of social resistance. Here’s a brief synopsis of the precedent that has been set throughout recent pop history:

1960s – The Beatles. While their early records were relatively family-friendly, songs such as ‘Taxman’ and ‘Revolution 1’ express clear ideas about social unrest. They were also proud users and supporters of various drugs, with John Lennon claiming (but Paul McCartney denying) that the entire album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) was about marijuana. The rapid popularisation of rock music which surrounded The Beatles’ career showed a strong generational resistance against the comparatively prudent lifestyles of their parents.

1970s – Spurred on by the high tension of race relations in the United States and an almost-global popular resistance against the Vietnam War, this decade saw musicians becoming more explicit in their attacks against politics and policies. Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On? was a close examination of racial tensions, and Bob Dylan’s Hurricane (1975) was a bold display of support for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter who he believed had been wrongly convicted of murder due to bias against his black ethnicity.

1980s – The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag. The birth of punk. While some punk bands were just an excuse to play loud instruments badly, the culture surrounding the punk scene in both America and Britain is consistently recognised as representing a sexual and political emancipation among youth of the time. Anything that governments did which might piss people off became a target for these bands.

In New Zealand, Blam Blam Blam released the now legendary single ‘There Is No Depression in New Zealand’ in 1981. The song is a poignant display of irony, and was ubiquitous during the Springbok Tour protests which were happening at the time.

1990s – Hip-hop and hardcore bands which wrote exclusively political songs became popular in the ‘90s. ‘Killing in the Name’ by Rage Against the Machine is still a standard song at house parties and clubs, 23 years after it was released. It has become a symbol of political unity among Gen Y.

Hip-hop brought a new kind of critique to popular music. Instead of simply wanting to “fight the power” (to quote Public Enemy), issues of masculinity and minority racial groups became the central themes of the genre. ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ by Coolio, ‘C.R.E.A.M’ by Wu-Tang Clan. The Notorious B.I.G. and 2pac. These songs and artists offered graphic representation of the experience of being a black American man growing up in a cycle of poverty and violence.

***

In both of Barack Obama’s Presidential campaigns, world-famous musicians were eager to offer their support. Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, and a myriad of other artists performed at his inaugural events and campaign tours. For the most part, New Zealand’s general elections have failed to actively engage with popular musicians and other art forms.

To be fair, the fervour of literally millions of American patriots filling entire stadiums during political rallies is hard to top – especially when rugby is the only thing that can attract a crowd larger than 30,000 people in New Zealand. But does this mean that there is no enthusiasm at all among local musicians towards current politics?

Well, no. It’s just that the issues receiving attention from local musicians aren’t the same issues being broadcast on Campbell Live.

Gender Equality – Lorde has rapidly gained attention over the past year for her views on gender and sexuality. During multiple interviews and written in viral tweets, she has consistently expressed her desire for women to be seen as equals to men, for no form of sexuality to be marginalised, and for all women to be considered beautiful for their unique physical image.

But New Zealand has already legalised gay marriage. Labour has already proposed a target of 50 per cent female MPs. New Zealand already has one of the lowest gender-pay gaps in the world. How much of an impact can one 17-year-old pop star make when many major policy changes have already been made, or are progressing rapidly towards enactment?

Liberalisation of Drug Laws – The world recently celebrated the glorious event of 4/20. For the past two years, Puppies has hosted a ‘420 Eve’ event featuring musicians who make their love of weed (among other drugs) extremely clear through both their social media presence and their music. But only a few hundred people will have actually heard of this event. Furthermore, I am yet to hear anyone suggest that the 420-loving musicians who performed there have considered making political traction with their support for decriminalisation of marijuana.

Beyond small niche groups, there are certainly other musicians who also share a love of dak/grass/pot/ganja etc. Katchafire regularly include explicit lyrics about smoking pot (such as in ‘Collie Herb Man’), and Home Brew and Kids of 88 have also shown lyrical favour towards the drug. But the most recent release from any of these artists was in 2012, and they are not exactly attracting international – in fact, barely even national – headlines.

Ultimately, who cares that some (most) musicians get high? Certainly not the government.

So what?

New Zealand is small.

We haven’t started any international conflicts. We are yet to breed any type of violent radicalism or terrorism. Our parliament is technically bipartisan, but not dramatically so.

Based on the precedent set by musicians in the 20th century, artists are only willing to dedicate entire songs or albums to political causes which have already garnered political traction – and therefore popularity – with the public.

So unless New Zealanders start giving more of a shit about local politics, our own personal Woodstock is a distant dream.

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