Tuesday, December 1, 2009

passivity in pop music

I’ve found that most mainstream pop/rock songs are fairly “active.” Rare is the radio track where the singer bemoans the state of the world without offering up a remedy; more often than not, the performer adopts a stance. Take Rage Against The Machine (pic at left), a band who blasts the policies of the U.S. Government at every turn. They encourage activism and political protest. Frank Zappa’s albums are riddled with social commentary (listen to “Trouble Every Day” off 1966’s Freak Out!), but he’s no armchair critic. Rather, he encourages youngsters to “drop out of school before your mind rots from our mediocre educational system.” (Zappa, like Morrissey and Roger Waters, loathed formal education.) Many of Zappa’s quotables can be taken as tongue-in-cheek, but there's no denying his dogged attempts to disrupt the status quo and de-stupify America. In 1967 the Beatles suggested a more organic, hippyistic solution to the world’s problems, maintaining that “All You Need Is Love.”

Now, I realize I’m oversimplifying things here. Not every artist has a game plan, nor--for that matter--are most artists tackling weighty, macro issues in the first place. Localized topics (love and relationships, innocuous storytelling) are more likely targets for the stock songwriter you’ll find on the FM dial, and these songs, by their very nature, don’t demand action. They exist as (sometimes-) pleasant vignettes, which is fine.

All that said, finding radio-friendly songs utterly devoid of hope isn’t as easy as one might expect. Think about it: Many casual music listeners latch onto pop because they find it empowering. Action is power, and the more rah rah mantras a writer can shove into his three-chord song, the better the chance that a listening public will eat it up. (Consider: “Living On A Prayer,” “Born In The U.S.A.,” “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party!).”) Passivity in society is not only looked down upon but scorned, which is why I imagine we don’t hear more songs like the two I’m about to expose. Let’s unveil the sloths!

Last week at Paragon, I was subjected to John Mayer’s “Waiting On The World To Change,” a beige, inconsequential number that means absolutely nothing. Gee, I thought, it’s odd to hear a song where the singer has openly admitted defeat without entertaining any possibilities for resuscitation. He acknowledges that the world kind of sucks, but it’s clear he has no intention of doing anything about it.

Do I blame him? Hell no! I agree that the world kind of sucks sometimes, but I don’t have any grand plans for cataclysmically shaking things up and patching the leaks. Not my department.

Ten Years After’s “I’d Love To Change The World” was released in 1971 on their A Space In Time record. The song title is optimistic enough, but a quick peek at the lyric sheet suffixes that thought train with, “…But I don’t know what to do/So I’m leaving it up to you.”

Never mind that John Mayer is a joke, and Ten Years After is kind of cool. These songs are carbon copies of each other. Only one other song struck me during the writing of this blog, and that’s “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” a White Stripes cut from 2003’s Elephant (vid below), which is a variation on the same theme.

What biggees have I overlooked? (Don't cite any of the original punk bands, because I think that's a whole 'nother blog entirely.)


Brooke said...

Dylan's - The Times They Are A-Changin' - has similar lyrical theme of social commentary.

Also, Mayer's song frequently draws melodic comparison to Curtis Mayfield's - People Get Ready.

Elwood said...

Is this Brooke Lada?

Ford said...


The White Stripes song is actually a cover of a Burt Bacharach song; if you can believe it. You also need to point out the strange anti-gay stuff in the Ten Years After song, what the hell is with that? Also, I think the reason the Dylan stuff rocks is that rather than passive, he was always recognizing the inevitable. Meaning he was neither snobbish and annoying (hello Rage against the Machine) or passive like Mr. Mayer. Just good observations put into song, which always works.

austinsamsel said...

solid post g braddah, i definitely enjoyed it. i can really only think of rap songs like by 2pac/lil jon that r called like "i dont give a fuck" but that isn't really pop/rock, though i would call it pop. now i am beginning to feel like passivity is bigger in hiphop music?