Corporate Music Steers Clear of Politics


In what has become a number of years now of opining on entertainment from a leftist viewpoint – maybe better said my leftist viewpoint – for The Progressive Populist, what had been an annual year-end review of significant political music has now become an yearly lament on its paucity. And this year was the lowest ebb yet.

I do make note through each year of at least some of what I may hear that qualifies for coverage here. This year I cannot find or even think of one notable work of political music. Yes, I no longer avidly scan the spectrum of popular music as I did in my younger years. In part because, yes, I am older, also in part because the profession of music journalism that was a good part of my career has drastically shrunk in size and pay, and in part because my (I would like to think) well-honed aesthetic finds much contemporary music mediocre and far less than satisfying, to put it kindly, and too often just mere twaddle.

But this is the first year where I can recall nothing, nada, not even one damn song that caught my attention to write about in this space as the year comes to a close. Yes, I listen less intently. But for political music to have any impact beyond preaching to the choir much less rousing those already committed to the causes, it has to break through all the static, chatter and chum and really reach people – the masses.

Yes, musical artists do still write and perform political music on the fringe and in even some large margins. But it’s also never seemed more marginalized if not largely absent from the general public consciousness as it is today. As I set out to write this, I began to wonder if political music as we once knew it is over, dead as a dormouse, at least as a significant cultural force.

And that thought saddens me greatly. From the moment I got my first transistor radio in 1959, music with political themes and potency were part of the aural landscape, soon after to blossom with the early 1960s folk revival and much that followed in its wake. The growth of the long-playing record album fostered new levels of political and cultural information transmission.

I explored before in this space many factors why political music no longer plays much in the mainstream: the rise of media narrowcasting and tight corporate commercial radio playlists that don’t just shy away but flee from any genuine political controversy; artists without the means and guts to break though and sustain a high-profile career making musical commentary and writing rabble-rousing songs; changes in music format technology and sales as well as consumer patterns, the decline of music as a primary music force and means to convey big thoughts and ideas. ... I could go on. Yes, the deck is stacked against political music, heavily in fact.

But I read an article a few months back that hit on what I must cite as the main reason and not just a factor for what could be the death of political music: most people simply do not want serious politics and issues as part of their entertainment. It bother and irks many, enough to turn them off and drive them away.

So if in the end there is anything to blame for this sorry state of affairs, it really is, well, we the people. Maybe not people like most of us, dear readers. But should I really say instead people like “them?” (I’d rather not.)

And “us” does apply, I’m afraid, as responsibility for the great dearth of political music does fall on our American mass culture. Which is still a reflection of who we are en masse, a conglomeration in which we are all, blameless as some of us may largely be, still responsible for the too-often sorry state of affairs.

One could also add economics, especially if one subscribes to Marxist analysis (his strong point) and believes that culture, economics and human behavior are inextricably interwoven. But that would be digressing down an intellectual rabbit hole, valid as it may be, when the core of the matter is simple: Most people today have little if any interest in political music, too many do not like and some even decry it and find it repels them.

And that certainly spells close to if not doom for it, best as I can tell. But then again, things change and so do people. Right now, I don’t hold much hope for political music ever being any kind of potent creative force in the foreseeable future. I never thought this day would come.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2013

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