When Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States on Jan. 20, Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” sat atop the pop charts. The ode to escapism might not have captured the mood of the whole country (everyone didn’t vote for change, after all), but it definitely reflected the sentiments of most of the musical community.
During the past few years, countless artists have vehemently despised George Bush, while voicing support for Obama. In the U.K., the Guardian noted “You could construct a decent box-set of anti-Bush songs… covering ground from Bright Eyes to Eminem, Pink to Public Enemy, Jay-Z to Elbow.”
All of which begs the question: what’s next? If history is any indicator, expect dance music. Lots of it. Lady Gaga seems to have lobbed the first volley in what might be the biggest dance music blitz since the disco era.
It’s easy to see why. When musicians are dissatisfied with presidential administrations, they write protest songs, march on Washington and mouth off on stage. When they’re happy, they make dance music. And even if some artists don’t follow this pattern, the public’s buying patterns do. So, for the most part, that’s meant Republican administrations have inspired much of the best pop music of the past decades. Maybe they can put that in their next platform.
Dance music can be lots of fun, but the periods when it dominated the pop charts have historically been dreadful. With the economic crisis growing grimmer daily, these times cry out for thoughtful music. Pop music is usually at its best when artists challenge the status quo and another period of non-stop dance songs will definitely make the music industry even more irrelevant.
A twist of Kennedy
The pop charts of the past 50 years bear this out (and we’re talking about music known by zillions here, not under-the-radar hipster stuff). Early rock ’n’ roll made a political statement because it represented a rebellion against the repressive Eisenhower era. Few of us are old enough to remember John F. Kennedy, but the optimism brought about by his election is thought to have inspired the Twist craze. You don’t remember the Twist? OK, neither do I. But Chubby Checker’s cover version of Hank Ballard’s song got to No. 1. Twice.
Soon other artists began to twist the night away, like Sam Cooke, Joey Dee and even Bobby Darin (a Kennedy supporter). More dance crazes followed. It doesn’t take a musical scholar to deduct all of this wasn’t as “artistically significant” as what came after. When the country soured on Lyndon Johnson’s policies and social unrest was everywhere, artists like Bob Dylan stepped up with protest songs that defined an era.
Richard Nixon’s election in 1968 may have ultimately been bad for the country, but it was great for R&B. Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown and Marvin Gaye all responded to the change they couldn’t believe in with hard-hitting messages. But just around the time Nixon resigned, someone decided to take the message out of dance music.
Along came disco — a music that definitely didn’t rock the boat (to paraphrase one of the genre’s first songs). It’s probably not a coincidence that disco began to dominate just after Jimmy Carter was elected. Like Kennedy, Carter was a young president supported by young voters and musicians. Again, the country wanted to shake its collective booty. Had an older president gotten the nod, a different mood might have befallen younger folks.
That’s what happened a few years later when Ronald Reagan got elected. Bruce Springsteen responded with “Nebraska” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” two albums that chronicled the plight of people who weren’t helped by Reaganomics. Punk rock also became more of a force, especially the Los Angeles hardcore scene, which often seemed driven by anti-Reagan vitriol. The same could be said about rap.
Escapism is no escape
Although people remember the 1980s for escapist MTV videos, there was more going on than new wave, hair metal and Madonna. Springsteen, of course, was arguably the biggest rock star of the decade, but the political climate also pushed John Mellencamp and Don Henley into becoming socially conscious artists. As for new artists, there were Bruce Hornsby and Tracy Chapman, who topped the charts with politically driven singles, and Suzanne Vega and 10,000 Maniacs who also scored substantial topical hits.
Grunge and alternative music hit its heyday during the early years of Bill Clinton’s administration, but it broke commercially before he was ever elected. In other words, all that youthful angst and dissatisfaction came out of the first Bush presidency (like father, like son).
When Clinton got elected, we once again got a giddy dance pop explosion, which this time took a few years but started around 1995 (remember La Bouche?) and culminated with lots of former Mousketeers becoming pop sensations. It all fit the mood of the times, but few people would call this music brilliant, much less innovative.
That brings us back to the present. As the Clash sung in one of their hardest hitting political songs, “Clampdown,” “What are we gonna do now?” As of this writing, unemployment is hitting record highs, the banking system is in a shambles, and people on both the left and right seem ready to revolt at the way Wall Street bailouts have translated into fat cat bonuses and even Super Bowl bashes.
What we need now are mainstream artists brave enough to be as outspoken as they were during the previous administration’s reign. Who’ll sing about “the countless confused, accused and misused,” like Dylan did in 1964? “Just Dance” doesn’t speak to the nation’s malaise. But something like Henley’s “The End of the Innocence” might. Or Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution.”