Can popular music change the world?

The aim of my research project is to explore whether popular or protest music has been an inspiration for or led to processes of social change; and whether this has involved processes of learning and/or education.

Popular and protest music’s role in shaping public consciousness and the social and cultural history of the last almost 60 years is relatively well documented. However, while connections are often drawn between popular music and social change in popular culture such as films, and the mass media, the role of protest music and its influence in processes of social change is relatively under-researched and under-theorised.

I would like to hear what other people think of this. For example, some common responses to this proposal is that because popular music is commercial music, it can only have little effect in social change. Others have argued that while popular music in the 1960s contributed to social change, for instance the civil rights and anti-Vietnam/American war movements, it has had little effect since then. They further argue that particularly since the 1980s, popular music has been taken over too much by corporate interests and any message has been lost in this.

What are your thoughts on this?


2 Responses to “Can popular music change the world?”

  1. Jennifer Mitchell 8 November, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    On the relevancy of protest music shaping public consciousness, I think there is no doubt that it did in the past, and still does in myriad ways today, without a lot of people realising it. Music impassions people, especially when attached to big ideas, like war, and nuclear disarmament, (Midnight Oil comes to mind) or, also in the 1980s in Australia, The Goanna Band had that great song, “Solid Rock” – which myself and my friends all loved for it’s great drums, and hot singer (he was hot then – a long time ago). I still remember all the lyrics .

    But it DID awaken a consciousness about Aboriginal culture and disenfranchisement among my X generation, which has only strengthened, I think, the subsequent Gen Y revaluing of Indigenous culture in Australia, and put the the inequalities and racism still endured by Aboriginal people in the minds of young people. The various Indigenous bands which emerged later, The Warrumpi Band, and Yothu Yindi, for example, added to this cultural awareness, especially, I’d say, among the educated middle classes (but this last isn’t a researched opinion).

    But I don’t know that I fully agree with one of the possible positions you canvass above, that protest music is not influential because it is commercial. It seems to me that commercial music becomes widely popular, and can thus reach a bigger audience. It becomes associated with “issues” and can be wheeled out to symbolise and magnify those replayed, or revisited cultural moments. Some might argue that this weakens the impact of a protest song – that it is ‘defanged’ of its critical potential by being made ubiquitous.

    But I disagree. There is something strangely powerful about hearing those songs from my youth, and I do feel this (maybe nostalgic) power can be harnessed as a teaching tool. Stories from historical moments in the past, film footage of Vietnam war protests, vision of the Franklin Dam protesters, etc, can be linked with songs, and thus give the critical message a broader range. This can all be included as part of a critical pedagogy – the song, its issue, its images and historical moment, its reception, its replaying and remembering. These linked visual, lyrical, personal and collective aspects of music work together to build the critical message, and to reinforce it in the receptive imagination.

    Fabulous thesis topic!!

    • ="Haycock, John" 9 November, 2010 at 6:34 am #

      Thanks for a wonderful post and also for some of the images you have evoked, particularly of some Australian ‘protest music’ of the 1980s. Every now and then I hear the Goanna song, ‘let the Franklin flow’ and remember the images of the protest.

      I do agree that commercial (protest) music can be powerful too, for the reasons you mention – that its potential is increased by reaching a wider audience. I think commercial interests can also work to silence the message before it is perhaps even transmitted.

      I also agree with your comment about critical pedagogy, and hence the name for my thesis and this blog. I think that all popular music, whether it is protest or not has a pedagogy. I will post more on this later, but for now… thanks again for a great read.

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