by Mike Vinti
It’s been a pretty big couple of weeks in the pop world. Prince died, Beyoncé pulled a well, a Beyoncé, and today (Friday April 29th) Drake has released his new album VIEWS. If ever there was a week to remind us of popular music’s impact on society and culture, this is the one.
While each of these moments are significant in their own right and worthy of articles of their own, of which there have been many, together they’ve demonstrated the power of music to unite people. Be it through, grief, shock or pure unadulterated hype, the three most significant cultural moments of the past eight days have used music to bring people together and for a few days at least, forget about those intent on tearing us apart.
popular music in particular has become increasingly obsessed with the individual in recent decades
As politics becomes even more divisive with the the rise of demagogues like Donald Trump, and more a source of despair than hope, people are increasingly turning to culture to find common ground. We’ve seen this with TV shows, Game of Thrones being a prime example at the minute, film and, of course, music. Culture has always served this role in society, it’s the way in which we explore our collective hopes and fears, how we communicate with those we’ll never meet face to face. However, as has been well documented, ‘mass culture’ and popular music in particular has become increasingly obsessed with the individual in recent decades, and the utopian potential of pop music, demonstrated during its birth in the 60s, has almost been erased. Almost.
There was a fourth demonstration of how powerful a unifier music can be this week, though you’re unlikely to see a Pitchfork op-ed about it any time soon. On Wednesday, the courts ruled that the 96 victims of the Hillsborough disaster has been un-lawfully killed, finally putting to bed the decades long smear campaign and cover-up led by the Sun, the Tory party and the police. In celebration of the verdict and to commemorate the dead, Liverpool Football Club fans and citizens from across Merseyside took the streets of the city to sing the Liverpool FC anthem ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone.’
As songs of unity go, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ is pretty hard to beat – however, the sound of thousand’s of voices echoing its lyrics through the streets of Liverpool lends the song a feeling of catharsis and defiance not normally afforded at football matches. It may seem tenuous to compare the two, but Beyoncé’s LEMONADE fills a similar role in the cultural landscape. While those in Liverpool sang to celebrate that justice has finally been served, on LEMONADE Beyoncé sings to highlight injustice that is still present, using her fame and status as a lightning rod for issues of feminism and civil rights.
Beyoncé demonstrates that pop music’s ability to unify people can be used for radical purposes
Those with doubt, whom I’m sure are a fair few, consider this: Beyoncé is arguably the biggest pop star on earth, Taylor Swift may have had a good couple of years but Beyoncé has been topping charts for almost twenty. While most artists of Beyonce’s size release album after album of vague, lowest common denominator pop, with LEMONADE Beyoncé has made an album that actively confronts the status-quo, challenging a large section of her presumed audience on their politics. Beyoncé references Malcolm X, samples a feminist Somali poet and got HBO to broadcast an hour-long testament to black female empowerment for free to the entirety of the US. Taylor Swift might have her ‘girl gang’ and tell boys they should be feminists but she doesn’t walk down the street with a fucking baseball bat singing about what a bad-ass black woman she is.
By doing all of this, Beyoncé demonstrates that pop music’s ability to unify people can be used for radical purposes. If the biggest pop star in the world can make an album that explicitly calls for the empowerment of black women, then it is entirely plausible that the rest of the pop world can become a space for political and utopian ideas once again. Similarly, the tributes to Prince from across the world show that music has the power to transcend prejudice and oppression. Prince was a short, black, non-binary Jehovah’s Witness from Minnesota whose music has become synonymous with sex and masculinity. Prince was almost the literal opposite of white patriarchal ‘man’ and yet he became an icon throughout the world, his very existence as a pop star was utopian and radical.
If there’s anything to take away from one of the most talked about weeks in pop music it’s that we should learn from Prince and take inspiration from Beyoncé. We should champion artists that are attempting to create community and togetherness through their music and we should celebrate the unity inherent in music, together we can make pop music radical.
Featured image: source unknown