"But you who philosophize disgrace, and criticize all fears", a young Bob
Dylan wailed off on a signature track for Times They Are A'Changin'. "Take the
rag away from your face, now ain't the time for your tears". The emotional and
social plea found in the musical halls of Dylan's The Lonesome Death of Hattie
Carroll is emblematic of an era where topical songwriting, and songwriters,
confronted injustice with the keen eye of an artist.
Today, music takes the safest approach to topics. Turn on a radio and
you'll be whisked away by females protesting that you should "just dance" and
male vocalists confounded by the prospect of "tryinna find the words to describe
this girl without being disrespectful". And if you can identify these musical
voices, they're not the only culprits. Name any pop star with a top ten album
and you're bound to find the same three topics, regurgitated ad nausea. These
are: dancing, women, and heart break.
Pop music has mostly relied on these tried and true topics. Even our most
beloved figures sang about these topics 50 years ago (Elvis, anyone)? Dylan, and
those like him during the '60s, captured the zeitgeist and political upheaval
and managed to put this strife into lasting artistic impressions in the form of
notes and sound.
America's current political state of being is perhaps one of the most
tumultuous since the Great Depression and World War II. With two wars, record
unemployment, a congress bought off by the ever increasing dominance of
America's few major corporations, and an uncertain economic future, America is
at a precipice. Yet for all this turmoil, America's music has ramped up the
incessantly banal. Our approach, like it was after September 11th, was to just
dance and shop away the concerns from our daily lives. A war is a world away,
except at the airport.
Americans are seeking a way to reconnect with one another over the
injustices in the world. There are tea party movements, Glenn Beck watch
parties, health care rallies, and protest movements of all kind about the
internet. Music has responded to its most precious task of bringing people
together by doing so in the most inoffensive and uninspiring way it can: to
induce a state of ignorant blind euphoria.
Listeners turn to music less and less to reflect about the world and their
position in it, and more to get happy and dance drunkenly with one another.
Particularly in the younger generations, the thought of listening to a song
where a slightly disheveled young man croons "killed by a blow, slain by a cane
[...] doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle" would strike them as "too
depressing" to merit further listen.
There was a belief in the 1960s that music could change the world. This is
not a belief that should be given up. America's plights, for better or worse,
appear to be boiling, and music will need to do more than cultivate a sense of
collective euphoria for whatever little amounts of joy remain at America's
splintered core. Music can heal and cull from America's depths the deep morals,
ideals and promise always beating at its center. As a culture, we must open our
eyes. If not, our cynicism will lead, just as it did in Dylan's song, to our
"burying the rag, deep in our faces" and finding, unwillingly and unwelcomed,
that "now is the time for our tears".