Today’s pop musicians take simplified approach to tough times (2009)

Musicians have a long history of chronicling the eras they live in and tough times seem to inspire great creativity. Today, musicians seem to be taking the easy way out, but that may not make their music less meaningful.

Belts are being tightened everywhere. Record companies are looking for new business models in a bid to survive as consumers become more discerning about where they spend their precious disposable income. Like any business at this time, the music industry is suffering from anxiety.

But, financial implications for their livelihood aside, how are musicians reacting to this time of uncertainty and insecurity?

In an interview earlier this year, ex-Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher said – with tongue planted firmly in cheek, one suspects – that he hoped that the current financial crisis would continue, so “a few more decent albums could come out of it.” He said that times of social and economic upheaval and uncertainty usually inspired greater creativity from musicians and artists.

Music has a long history of cataloguing changing social trends, political uncertainty and global insecurity. Popular culture theorists are generally united on the thesis that hardship normally creates important music.

“Historically, artists make their best music – in hindsight – when they’re struggling and when they’re trying to find their voice,” David Sanjek, professor of music and director of the Center for Popular Music at the University of Salford, told Deutsche Welle. “They’re normally trying to find a way out of a hard social situation and are using that to inspire their music and lyrics, so Noel Gallagher’s statement has an essence of truth about it.”

Philip Kiszely, a cultural historian and lecturer for the theater and performance degree program at the University of Leeds, believes that, while hard times like the current global economic situation can inspire musicians to react and speak out about society’s anxieties, times of prosperity can have a similar effect on creative output.

Punk bands from the late 1970s, like the Sex Pistols, emerged from a difficult period in British history, which included the Three-Day Week energy conservation measure and the trade union strikes during the Winter of Discontent, Kiszely told Deutsche Welle.

“But if you look back at the 60s, it’s kind of the opposite,” he added. “The Swinging London scene with the Beatles and Rolling Stones was all about fashion, privilege, and economic prosperity. In the 60s there was this feeling that things were happening, things were changing and you see that in the music that was created at that time. So music and lyrics were affected by the social climate, but in a very different way.”

The 1980s were a more dramatic example the social context affecting musical and lyrical output, according to Kiszely.

“There was a real reaction on both sides of the Atlantic to a political swing to the right,” he said. “Bands were getting politicized, not just along party lines but also in gender politics, and they were protesting against being shoe-horned into a wider, right-wing reactionary culture.”

There was a very radical music scene in Europe and the US during the 80s, where the music and lyrics had a real connection to the socio-political situation of the time, he added.

As for the current era of upheaval and uncertainty, Kiszely named British rock bands Arctic Monkeys and Reverend and the Makers as “the most interesting contemporary bands in terms of reacting to the times and the social climate.”

The Arctic Monkeys represent a new era in that they developed through MySpace. “Making it big without any real record company support is very ‘now’ but it also resonates with the past,” said Kiszely. “Reverend and the Makers, meanwhile, really address current issues in their lyrics and engage on a level beyond the music.”

Jon McClure, lead singer of Reverend and the Makers, said he believes that musicians have a responsibility to chronicle the times they live in but he feels that the majority of contemporary artists are not living up to the politicized and socially-aware heroes of the past.

“We’re in two wars, we see body bags coming home every single day, we’re melting the ice caps, we’re in one of the biggest financial crises the world has ever seen and we’re seeing human rights abuses all over the planet – how can we, as artists and human beings, not comment on that?” he told Deutsche Welle.

If aliens came to earth and examined the cultural output of Western Europe and North America from the first decade of this century, they’d have a hard time finding evidence that there had even been a war in Iraq or that the financial system was corrupt and broken, said the singer.

“The job of art is to reflect the world around it and, in my mind, art has wholly failed the masses in the Noughties,” said McClure. As for the music industry, he said there are currently more rappers than bands who are “articulating the times we’re living in.”

David Sanjek agrees that the musical output of the first decade of the 21st century may lack substance, but he argues that the reflection of our times may come not from the music’s obvious message but from the meaning people attach to it.

“Audiences at times of social discontent don’t always go in search of music which is addressing the issues of the time,” he said. “In some cases we see people looking for music that isn’t overtly political or ideological but finding meaning in it anyway.

“In ten years, we could look back and say that the music of our time was very popular but not very challenging – but it doesn’t have to be challenging,” he added. People are “choosing to spend their disposable income on music that makes them feel better.”

First published on Deutsche Welle: