SMASH THE CHARTS – POP, POLITICS, AND PUSSY RIOT

by Mike Vinti

It often seems today that everything exists in its own sphere — music in one box, politics in another, and visual art in another still. This is self-evident when you take a look at a lot of popular culture. For example, the rise of TV shows and films, such as The Interview, that use politics as backdrop for their plot, yet fail to engage in any substantial political critique.

The same thing has been taking place in music for the past twenty years, and musicians who have attempted to rectify this have either been relegated from their illustrious chart positions, or left to the underground.

This separation has made it harder for writers and artists of all stripes to experiment with the boundaries of their medium, and there’s been a death of explicitly political works of culture which make into the mainstream because of this. Of course, challenging the dominant perception of your chosen field always creates a stir. However it seems now, more than ever, musicians aren’t even being afforded the chance to do that.

Look at the reaction to Kanye West’s Yeezus back in the tail end of 2013; critics went mad over it, validating Kanye’s claim as the musical messiah, even Lou Reed came out on Team Yeezy. Yet much of his traditional fan base hated it.

What happened to Kanye post-Yeezus is fascinating. He became more ‘mainstream’ than he’d ever been, the controversy around Yeezus and marrying Kim Kardashian catapulting him to media omnipresence.  Simultaneously, he was pushed into the underground. No longer the beloved rap-star of Graduation and College Dropout; Kanye became a divisive figure in popular culture, one everyone has heard of but not that many people actually like. He is hailed by music journalists and the internet’s music nerds as king whilst at the same time being a kind of joke to the mainstream, its media in particular.

For much of the press, Kanye West is a headline generator before he’s a musician — his antics at the Grammys and subsequent comments fuelling gossip sites for the following days. He’s accused of taking himself too seriously yet he debuted his latest single on Saturday Night Live; he’s attacked for being too obscure yet he’s married to possibly the most famous woman on earth; he’s ridiculed as arrogant yet he makes some of the most emotional vulnerable music of the current age. Kanye got experimental and the mainstream cast him out.

A similar thing happened with Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP and her attempts to explore Warhol through music, it sold big but its cultural impact was muted by ridicule for even trying by many mainstream outlet — in 2015 no-one is talking about Lady Gaga.

(Lady Gaga ARTPOP © 7zeros)

All this compartmentalisation has meant that musical culture has become pretty bland when it comes to the charts.

Writing for Stereogum in 2013, Chris DeVille coined the term ‘monogenre’ seeking to explain how the boundaries between musical genres had become blurred in favour of an all-encompassing approach to song writing — think Pitbull’s ‘Timber’ or that Coldplay and Rhianna collaboration. While DeVille sees the monogenre as no threat to popular-music, its emergence has ushered in an age of universal pop music, where beardy singer-songwriters rule, and dull, compressed EDM fills the dancefloors — Hozier is just Chet Faker with longer hair. Musicians are free to combine elements of any genre they choose, yet if they dare step outside the confines of their label as ‘musician’ they’re instantly dismissed.

Look at the number of female artists who have declared themselves explicitly non-feminist.

Defenders of the charts may point to Taylor Swift or Beyoncé as examples of monolithically popular artists with some form of political message. Both have professed their feminism publicly and are relatively empowered for female pop-stars, but refusing to believe your gender is inferior to men is hardly a grand political statement and frankly it’s a disgrace it took this long for female artists of their calibre to be accepted as openly feminist.

Back in the ‘70s the Punk movement redefined who could be a musician and what it meant to be one. All of a sudden kids from poor neighbourhoods who could barely play were being celebrated as much for their politics as their songs; music became a political tool, one to fight against the ideologies of Thatcher and Reagan. Today, music is broadly sanitised and any idea of music as activism seems alien and vaguely amusing. Can you imagine a mob of Kanye West fans taking on David Cameron?

The mainstream’s obsession with making sure everyone stays in their neat sphere of cultural influence has stripped popular music of its politics. However there is still hope. On Wednesday Pussy Riot released their first English-language track.

(Pussy Riot, ‘I Can’t Breathe’ © 1.ytimg)

It features members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Miike Snow, Russian group Jack Woods, and punk legend Richard Hell. The track is entitled ‘I Can’t Breathe’ and the video features Pussy Riot being buried alive. It is, as the title suggests, a response to the recent death of Eric Garner. Recorded while Pussy Riot were in New York, at the height of the protests over the grand jury ruling, not to indict the police officer who killed Garner, and is dedicated to all those ‘who can’t breathe’.

Pussy Riot are a fantastic example of how music can expand beyond the boundaries we have given it and ‘I Can’t Breathe’ is as much a work of art or a piece of activism as it is a song.

Their music seeks to affect change and aims to help people to understand the convoluted and shadowy world of politics, particularly in their native Russia where the press can’t be relied upon to express the concerns of dissenting citizens.

Pussy Riot prove that political music can be more than preachy — it can be an active, powerful form of dissent. Today climate change poses an increasing threat, corporations exert huge influence over our governments, and we’re still no closer to world peace. There’s plenty to dissent over, isn’t it time the charts reflected that?

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