Is it just me, or has pop music stopped saying anything about anything? Think about it, when was the last time you heard a pop song actually tackle a major issue of the day. If you’re British, then it probably would have been Plan B’s ‘Ill Manors’ which valiantly tried to tackle the establishment’s hypocritical reaction to the London riots. As an attempt to channel working class frustrations into a grime song, it’s pretty admirable, but let’s face it, it’s hardly ‘God Save the Queen.
Pop has always been a bit shallow, but the absence of any political pop is deafening, especially when you consider that there is so damn much to write about. We live in an age of massive social and political upheaval where families have to decide whether to heat their homes or feed their children. The last time this happened we had everyone from Frankie Goes to Hollywood to UB40 writing songs that tackled issues like gay rights, Thatcherism and the plight of the unemployed, so how is it that whenever you flip on the TV or the radio in Cameron’s Britain, all you’re confronted with are some sexed-up teen pop star banging on about some person they fancy? Where’s the new Bob Dylan to articulate our pain to a soothing four/four beat? It’s an attitude that was perfectly summed by The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr a few months ago as she summed up the growing frustration felt by the people who grew up with The Clash and The Stranglers towards a generation that seems to be so apathetic it hurts. “Where's the new Morrissey?” she pleaded, before compelling the kids to “Write a sodding song about it. Or failing that, have a revolution”.
The problem with these arguments is that they take a very circular view of history. To mangle up a quote from Marx, they tend to believe that history repeats itself first as tragedy and then as farce, therefore if we are living through a period of that seems to echo, then it follows that cultural responses to that would take on similar forms and messages it did in the past. However if you think about it for more than two seconds, you’ll quickly realize that music does not exist in a state of splendid isolation and collective amnesia; it is always deeply tapped into the factors and attitudes of the day, exploring new technologies and building on its own past (as much as people want to pretend that modern pop is just a rehash of the stuff that happened in the early nineties).
In fact plenty has changed since the Thatcher years. I think we can all agree that the internet has radically changed the way we listen to music. Once upon time, record labels were the masters of their fate in so far that they controlled almost all the ways music was produced or consumed. It was they who picked the talent, recorded the music and owned the machines that printed the CDs, LPS and cassettes that people bought. The music biz doesn’t work like that these days. Ever since services like Napster, iTunes and Spotify started to change the way people consume music, the music industry has been battling to keep up. The old narrative where magazines, the radio and MTV told you what to buy is gone, replaced by a multitude of voices that all compete for your attention and offer instant gratification at the click of a button.
Major labels have never been the place you went to for creative freedom, but thanks again to the internet, they have become even more risk averse. While the internet has given the industry more space, it has also given marketing bods a better idea of what makes a hit than the pot-luck approach that existed before it. The gambling aspect of taking on a new artist has been reduced significantly. For example, let’s say that you worked on at a large corporation where your boss was always breathing down your neck and the only way to get that promotion is to pick a sure-fire winner, are you going to back the band with 192 likes on Facebook or the band with a million likes on Facebook? It’s a no brainer and it’s the sort of thinking that has resulted in a slow yet steady homogenisation of the voices filling our airwaves.
The thing is though, as easy as it is to point fingers and say it’s all big business’s fault, it’s simply not true. The most horrifying fact that lies at the heart of the matter is that anyway you feel like boiling it down, you are the problem. It’s your fault that music has become so monotonously bland and the reason people don’t make political pop music is because people don’t buy political pop music. Asking Universal to fuck off their profits sign Billy Bragg-style singer songwriters is like asking bankers to hand over the bonuses en-masse to community art projects in Uganda; well-meaning but extremely unlikely to actually happen.
It’s been said Britain has always led the world in two areas, biscuit making and social change. Like it or not, we are not the same people we were, even ten years ago. Our massive, ongoing experiment with consumerism has created a society that places owning things at the heart of everything, and the lack of any real political voice in pop’s pantheon has more to do with the public’s appetite for politics rather than a lack of artist’s making political statements. Even if Britain is as community spirited as it has always been, research done recently by the BSA also shows that younger Britons (and westerners in general) have become more individualistic since the 1980s. They are more likely to express themselves through what they what they buy than joining a political party or a trade union, so now it’s no surprise that the Randian "get rich or die trying” message at the heart of a lot of modern music strikes such a chord with them.
That’s the thing about pop music; it’s popular music, shaped as much by the listener as it is by the people who make it. As much as I desperately want to believe that there is some deeper meaning behind every song, pop music has always been more like musical wallpaper than a running social commentary, and any attempting to be critical is basically trying attach meaning to something that is inherently meaningless. The idea that pop music can ever be an anything more than an echo-chamber for mainstream tastes and attitudes is an illusion and anyone waiting for the likes of Pixie Lott or the Black Eyed Peas to suddenly come out with something profound is going to be waiting for a long time. These are the pop stars of today because these are the pop stars we deserve. It’s just like The Jam once said, "the public gets what the public wants".