Listen Up: There’s Power in What You Put in Your Ears (Part 1)

A person playing a guitar

During my JV year, my in-city program coordinator facilitated a conversation on how to live more justly in a consumer society. Amidst the usual talking points–where we buy our groceries, where we buy our clothes, where we spend our time, how we get to work, what news media we consume–I remember thinking about the influence of music. Processing in the moment, I remember voicing something like “to be a better informed person, I should really consider which artists I’m listening to and where my main consumption of music is coming from.” If our news source can massively influence the way we perceive events, people, and issues, wouldn’t something as prominent as music make just as much of an impact in the digital age?  

Music has always been influential and, in turn, political. The other day I was listening to an episode of NPR’s Code Switch that discussed the social impact of anthems. This podcast brings the backstory to why certain hits were, and continue to be, sentimental to so many people. 

Their first example is Noel Estrada’s “En Mi Viejo San Juan” (1943).  The hosts describe, “The song coincided with the start of the biggest wave of migration in Puerto Rico’s history.” Puerto Ricans migrated to the US after the “booming post-world war economy” while being simultaneously “pushed” by the US industrialization that destroyed the farms of the working class. The song, a melancholy yearning for home, was held close by thousands of people who could not return back to Puerto Rico after leaving in hopes of better work.

Moving chronologically 20 years later, the hosts remember Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions’ “We’re A Winner” (1967). At the height of the Civil Rights movement, this soul bop repeats the chorus “we’re movin’ on up” to an upbeat rhythm. A 60s hit, this track made major movement in the music world, as it was written, sung, and performed by and for black people. Sam Gooden, who sang alongside the group, notes: “this particular song is a song that I think we should use to spread…Dr. King’s message across the country.” Despite the racist exclusion from radio stations for being the wrong type of sound for a mainstream audience, the song moved on up into the homes of thousands of people.

Aside from these two examples given by NPR’s Code Switch, there are hundreds of artists that have channeled their anger into artistry, creating a mass social impact throughout the decades. 

The Beatles introduced new musical concepts through protests for peace to an audience (i.e. white, teenage girls) that was generally ignorant of social issues. Bob Dylan’s folksy “Blowin in the Wind” urged people to take a stand for injustice amidst “the beating of civil rights demonstrators and the escalating nuclear arms race”. It should be noted that while his hit blew up the charts, Dissent reports that he “took the tune from ‘No More Auction Block,’ an anti-slavery Negro spiritual.”  

More recently in American Top 40, Beyonce’s audio-visual release of Lemonade (2016) announced black female power and strength, making global space for speaking against racist violence, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, which continues to bring attention to systemic racist violence against black people.

Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” also responds to the widespread violence against people of color as well as mass shootings, commenting on the need for gun control in the United States. Written and produced from global hurt, pain, and oppression, these tracks, as well as tunes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s continue to form and shape the way in which people respond to injustice, and, more specifically, systemic and blunt racism. 

Furthermore, after researching protest music charts like those on Forbes and Vox, it became apparent to me why even dance-pop tunes like Lady Gaga’s release of “Born This Way” (2011) made a huge social impact: it unapologetically claims queer celebration amidst pain, hate crimes, and suffering. Representation in all of its forms is more critical than ever in the streaming age because access to content is so readily available. As a fan of new age pop myself, I was excited by Hayley Kiyoko’s release of Expectations (2018), which was prominent in that it represents a queer Asian woman “making it” in the business, openly singing about love and heartbreak. It brings power, liberation, validation, and a sense of self to see someone like you expressing themselves publicly.

With greater ability to record, produce, and share audio files in modern society, the influence of music is rapidly expanding into cross-genre forms and creating niche cult followings. Because of this, DIY music projects now have a greater chance of reaching a wider audience. Laugh if you’re so inclined, but the ripple effect of “Old Town Road” is a ripe example of how one song’s popularity can bring attention to the bigger issue at hand.

Punch Up the Jam, a music-comedy podcast on the history and makeup of a song, covered an episode on the origins of “Old Town Road”, where I learned that before Billy Ray Cyrus was placed on the track, Lil Nas Xs “Old Town Road” “charted on the “Billboard Top 100, the Hot Country chart, and the Hot R&B Hip Hop chart.” The song was soon disqualified on the country charts because, “with its Nine Inch Nails banjo sample and cowboy theme, [it] ‘does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.'” When I investigated why exactly Lil Nas X was removed from the country scene completely, I joined skeptics in questioning “whether or not Billboard’s actions were racially motivated.” Other country-pop artists like Maren Morris have been awarded the privilege of both genres.

Lil Nas X released a statement saying, “it’s country trap…it should be on both charts.” At the end of the day, the controversy was swept aside and most people simply enjoyed this remix from two unsuspecting artists. 

While I tend not to buy into celebrity drama all too often, I find that “Old Town Road” raises the question of racism and equality within an industry that is extremely powerful, prominent, and accessible. While this song wasn’t bluntly excluded from mainstream radio like “We’re A Winner,” it faced prominent backlash from the country music community, despite its original categorization of “country.” Similar to “Old Town Road,” Beyoncé performed her Texas and New Orleans-infused song “Daddy Lessons” (from her aforementioned Lemonade album) with The Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards in 2016, yet this song was “rejected by the Grammy Country Committee.” While all of the artists involved in both record-smashing hits approached the tracks with a sense of togetherness and community, they both faced roadblocks from “country” fans and music institutions alike.

The success of songs like “Old Town Road” and “Daddy Lessons” display progress in how far music (and music genres) have come. However, it raises concern for the harmful and unjust systems that continue to hold artists and musicians back from their fullest potential. It also gives us a window into noticing the systems that prevent Q/TPOC artists to emerge into mainstream listening.

Thinking through what it means to be an “ethical” music consumer, I come back to the question that continues to nag the boundaries between my right and left brain: should we separate the artist from the art?

Living a life committed to social justice is living a life committed to awareness and allyship, especially in an industry that produces art that all of us enjoy.  Recognizing the need to unpack the weight behind considering (or not considering) the artist with the art, I hope to dive deeper into the philosophy and politics of what just music consumption may look like on an individual level in the Part 2 of this feature.

Photo by Ahmed Rizkhaan on Unsplash

About Emily

Emily Win (she/her/hers) — Regular Contributor, Editor — She is currently earning her MA in Creative Writing and Critical Life from the University of Leeds in Leeds, England, but she embraces Toledo, Ohio as her hometown. Her passion for faith and justice led her to Saint Louis University, where she continued to explore issues of poverty and homelessness through tutoring, mentoring, companionship, and outreach. During her year as a Case Manager at a teen crisis shelter she learned that she loves working with teenagers and hopes to continue this work in some capacity in the future. Emily’s personal and professional interests exist in the intersection of writing, literature, and activism, specifically in regards to sexuality and gender. She is currently working on a collection of poetry/creative non-fiction that exposes, complicates, and affirms the relationship between womanhood, queerness, and Christianity. (Tucson 2017-2018)