Sunday, February 21, 2016

Where has all the nuclear war gone?

Listening to JD Twitch's excellent "Nuclear War" mix over the weekend got me thinking about how the fusing of music and politics has changed since the 1980's. 

Beyonce's "Formation" has been fiercely debated online and in countless critical assessments, with the reactions split between "finally, it's about time Beyonce added a explicitly political, confrontational element to her music!" and "who does Beyonce think she is by jumping on this political bandwagon?" 

Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Two Tribes" (one of the songs featured in Twitch's mix) was a gigantic hit in the UK, spending nine weeks at number one.  Its equally iconic music video is one of the best of the 80's.  There's a tendency to look down one's nose at the 80's (I don't, but others certainly do) as the selfish "me" decade with its slavish decadence and laughable hairstyles.  As in, people sure were dumb to be duped by all that flag waving, Cold War propaganda -- thanks to new technologies, the flow of information is less controlled and  our bullshit filters are stronger.  A generation ago we were sheep, now we have the tools to be more analytical, more cynical.  And yet, it's impossible to think of a phenomenon like "Two Tribes" happening today.  Can you imagine a hit pop song today about nuclear deals  and/or confrontations with Iran or North Korea?  (incidentally, "Two Tribes" was a chart topping hit in the UK and a number of European countries, but only reached #43 in the US.  This can be Exhibit A if you ever need to elaborate on the oft-repeated claim that Americans don't understand irony)

Sure, every generation in music has its touchstone issues.  Nuclear war was a hot topic in the 80's but different issues take precedence these days, and that's fine.  Still, even after all these years and countless "Two Tribes" listens, it's almost shocking to hear a pop megahit that so boldly mocks major world leaders, that is something that doesn't happen anymore.  In 2016, we should be more accepting of bold statements by major names in music, but instead, I see a stronger division among critics between artists who should be "allowed" to be political and those who shouldn't.  I don't see where people get off trying to disqualify Beyonce for not having the proper "credentials" to make a statement like "Formation". 

Social media has lead to a democratization of celebrities that in this instance, is far from a positive.  It's not like Holly Johnson had a degree in international relations that qualified him to write "Two Tribes", but at the time, people were more content to leave the art to the artists.  Now, we can maintain the illusion that musicians are exactly like us because we assume we can get close to them via their Twitter feeds.  So why are they any more qualified to speak out about racism or nuclear war than we are?

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