Words: Jon Kean – Deputy Editor – Bristol in Stereo
It’s not that long since music lovers were rather sceptical about songs with a ‘message’ and lyricists who took up any of our precious listening time to promote any sort of worthy lesson. Being advised/told what to do or think by our pop stars was all a bit sententious, just a bit too Bono.
Yet popular music has modelled plenty of healthy philosophy over the years. Let us not forget Whitney Houston sounding millennial back in 1986, mindfully advising us that “Learning to love yourself can be the greatest love of all,” the less confrontational equivalent of Joe Talbot growling “If they spoke to you, like you do to you,/ I’d put their teeth through. Love yourself,” on IDLES’ ‘Television’.
There can’t be many more divisive figures in pop history than Michael Jackson. When he sang ‘Earth Song’ in 1996 at the BRIT Awards, Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker was suitably irked to invade the stage, bend over and make a wafting gesture from his (clothed) arse. Yet if you take the lyrics on face value, they ask pertinent questions about how we mistreat our environment and what hope we’re likely to leave for our children. You could feasibly hear, “I used to glance beyond the stars,/ Now I don’t know where we are,/ Although I know we’ve drifted far,” set to a much different beat, coming from a less questionable mouth and think, “I’m with you, brother,” rather than some manifestation of the phrase, “Go away sharply.”
70s punk was predominantly ‘smash the state’. Now, so much of it is ‘smash the (unhealthy) state of mind’ or ‘smash the (unfair) status quo’. Rap too often used to harbour tedious materialism and objectification of women. Now we can hear Kate Tempest’s compassionate social comment, “And yes our children are brave,/ But their mission is vague” on ‘People’s Faces’ or Loyle Carner model unconditional love and modern masculinity towards an imaginary little sister on ‘Florence’.
It’s hard to deny that we live in curious, cartoonish, adrift times politically, personally and socially, so maybe it’s no surprise that we’re more willing to receive such direct societal, spiritual or ethical messages from our musical artists. Maybe we’ve reached an impasse where the environmental and mental health of the world means we can’t shrug off these messages anymore. Maybe we used to object to the deliverer more than what they said. This wisdom now comes from very different performers at earlier stages of their careers, within the context of a changed industry where success does not bring unreachable wealth. It makes artists sound more like us, their words more genuine.
Popular music’s role is shifting from diversion towards direction, and when you’re lost, why not let someone show you where to go?
See the lyric video for Kate Tempest’s ‘Firesmoke’ here: