By David Lorango
"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 heartbreak.
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".
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