Stand up and Sing
Still, the contest got on my nerves a little. While I realize that Sullivan probably makes a distinction between air-headed posturing and compelling protest songs, the whole tenor of the “Shut up and Sing” contest seemed to suggest that pop musicians have little business mixing with politics at all. One of Sullivan’s correspondents cites Dennis Leary’s comment on Sting, “Save the world? Try saving your fucking hair!”
Now, I know this wasn’t the point of the contest, but it’s too often the case that musicians (and celebrities more broadly) who dare to tread into political waters earn what many consider deserved mockery for their naïve and hypocritical, “limousine liberalism.” From this view, pop stars should stick to what they know best; they should “shut up and sing.” As my fellow blogger Wiz noted about the character attacks endured by M.I.A because of her politically-charged lyrics, if she was “was singing about the stuff that Britney Spears or Taylor Swift sings about– which is to say, nothing at all– then no one would care. If she was simply a walking ad-campaign, all consumerism and plasticity like those popstars, [the media] would have no problem with her. But because she dares to try to express political thoughts, she makes herself a target.”
So, with all due respect to Andrew Sullivan (who I greatly admire), I would like to start our own little contest here at PhD Octopus. It’s entitled “Stand up and Sing.” It’s a chance for our readers and my fellow bloggers to submit the best pop songs (broadly defined) that deliver a political message (again, broadly defined). These are songs that provide pointed social commentary without falling over into smugness. It should go without saying that the entries should also be good songs. Here at PhD Octopus we’re all about quality and content.
I’m going to get the contest going with three songs, which share little in common except that they remain relevant and come out of the 1980s—a period too often eclipsed by the 1960s in discussions of protest music.
I actually heard the first song on my list, “Smalltown Boy,” by Bronski Beat four years ago through Andrew Sullivan’s website, which shows that he does have an appreciation for strong socially conscious music. Sullivan called the video “the record of the beginning of a revolution.” It’s a powerful song; there should be more like them on the radio today:
My second selection comes from hip-hop group Public Enemy. While everybody knows their famous anthems about fighting the power and not believing the hype, I wanted to highlight their tale about one man taking on the prison-industrial complex in “Black Steel in an Hour of Chaos.” As the United States continues to hold the dubious record for the highest incarceration rate in the world and with a hugely disproportionate number of them being black males, the anger Chuck D expresses at his government and the prison system remains sadly pertinent over two decades later:
Finally, I thought I would include a track that, on the surface at least, seems to confirm to some of the worst stereotypes about politicized pop music. The song includes a man making adolescent facial poses while smearing himself with what appears to be ketchup; it includes another man rapping about Nostradumus in a vampire costume; and it takes its courageous stand against the controversial issues of “world destruction.” Still, Sex Pistols front man John Lydon and hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa teamed up in 1984 for what turns out to be an oddly compelling, politically-charged single on the threat of nuclear war. Note how Bambaataa also seems to prophecy the threat of Islamic terrorism eclipsing that of communism way before most of the pundits got around to doing so. I include this song to show that even vague, seemingly self-indulgent pleas on behalf of “humanity” can also make for some pretty good music too:
That’s it for now. Please include your suggestions for the “Stand up and Sing” contest in the comments section or email to firstname.lastname@example.org