Chin: Pop Politics

by Clara Chin | 2/17/16 6:45pm

While much of the Grammy Awards consists of music mashups, cheesy acceptance speeches and minor upsets, something else came to the fore this year — politics. Both big winners at this year’s ceremony, Taylor Swift and Kendrick Lamar, have become political figures in the public eye. But, they’re not alone. Through their performances and speeches, pop musicians have become increasingly engaged in politics. In some ways, musicians have become pop culture activists. While the politicization of music might be conducive to highlighting important issues, there is a catch. At times, the intersection of music and politics oversimplifies the big picture and discourages deep thought about current events.

Musicians are hailed as idols or icons in many ways. Americans, especially young people, turn to their favorite artists as a way of expressing their personalities. They also look to musicians for fashion trends in magazines. Younger musicians are pressured to act as role models for kids, encouraging them to study hard and engage in healthy, risk-free lifestyles. Since people look up to musicians in many aspects of their lives, it seems only natural that they’ve now become political signifiers.

Musicians have become more than artists or entertainers alone, they’ve become people who fight for common causes and even visit the White House (as Kendrick Lamar did in 2015). Many worry about political apathy among teenagers and young adults. So if ‘trendy’ people, like Grammy Award winners, can say a little something about social issues alongside their music, then perhaps they’re combating this apathy. Maybe they’re promoting healthy political engagement. As a society, we could better understand issues like racial injustice and women’s rights, or at the very least, we should increase interest in such issues.

Kendrick Lamar, through his visits to the White House and song lyrics about police brutality and racial injustice, has become one of the most prominent entertainment activists in the Black Lives Matter movement. Lamar’s politics work because his political message is nuanced, informed and accessible. Lamar frequently references history, literature and other rappers in his songs, connecting modern issues like Black Lives Matter to a larger context. The song “King Kunta” is a reference to Kunta Kinte in the novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” (1976). In his song “Complexion,” Lamar asserts, “All my Solomon up north, 12 years a slave.” He is referencing the enslaved Solomun Northup and his narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave (1853).” In addition, Lamar builds on rap politics of the past, sampling voiceovers from Tupac.

At the Grammys, his performance turned many heads as band members played incarcerated African Americans. Later in the performance, he included a tribute to African dance.

Lamar also acts as a policy advocate, visiting the president to talk about the Black Lives Matter movement and the mass incarceration of African Americans. Lamar already engages youth through his pop politics, but he takes his activism a step further through interactions with policymakers.

Swift engages young people in similar ways. She has built an image on “girl power” and women supporting other women. Swift is also an active philanthropist, topping DoSomething.org’s, a non-profit with the aim of motivating youth, “Top 20 Celebs Gone Good” list. However, her simplified brand of feminism is an example of how pop politics can be shallow. At the Grammy she said, “As the first woman to win album of the year at the Grammys twice, I want to say to all the young women out there: there are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success.” While such a remark could be interpreted as a feminist statement, Swift seems to be simply calling out Kanye West, the rapper who famously interrupted her acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.

Swift has been widely criticized for advocating feminism only when it is convenient for her and ignoring intersectionality. The women featured in her video “Bad Blood” (in which Lamar happens to be one of the few people of color), are predominantly Caucasian women who are thin and tall. Swift did not even identify as a feminist until recently. She has neglected the historical context of feminism, at first refusing to identify as a feminist because she thought it was about “guys versus girls.” While Swift may be encouraging women to support each other now, her inattention to detail have misled people about important issues.

Maybe musicians are trying to build their fanbase through politics. The opposite could also be true. Musicians might be trying to rally political followers through their musical popularity. Either way, the intersection of music and politics is crucial because it raises awareness about social issues. Nevertheless, pop stars are artists and ultimately, businesspeople. Oversimplification and marketing might stand in the way of clear political education. While looking to pop stars may help young people begin to think about politics, it is only the first step.