I consume the news on a fairly steady basis and, similarly to how I felt during the Iraq war, I feel far removed from the wave of political protests taking place.
Without media reports, would I know that a wave of women is protesting sexual harassment? Would I know that blacks are upset with what they deem racist policies from the Oval Office? Would I know that “dreamers” are worried about being deported or that college students are seeking safe spaces from views they deem hateful? I don’t think so. I think I’d be ignorant of movements such as these because most of it doesn’t happen in my corner of the world.
While I sometimes enjoy my distance from the national issues, the media plucks us from our comfortable “safe spaces” and makes us aware of the issues, which is beneficial and makes life a little more interesting and full. There’s a yearning inside most of us that wants to know what’s happening beyond our own direct experience, and the media serves to fill that need.
There are several levels of newsworthiness, however. Just because something makes it to the front page doesn’t mean it’s important. The real test comes when you hear a news item repeated second-hand. When people at work or at the gym or at school discuss current events, you know it’s a big deal.
The false nuclear warning in Hawaii is a recent example. If I hadn’t heard about it on the news, I would have heard about it at work the next day. Same with New England Patriots games, especially during the playoffs. Those are things people talk about at the water cooler. Some news is so important it reaches you even if you didn’t watch it, read it or hear it first-hand.
There’s another way you can tell if a news item is really important, and that’s when it permeates other forms of media. When a Hollywood film delves into current events – for example, movies that discuss the Iraq and Afghanistan wars or race relations, such as Jordan Peele’s recent blockbuster “Get Out” – you know those issues have become important to the wider culture.
What’s funny, though, is how today’s popular music totally ignores politics and current events. I can’t think of any modern songs or bands, at least ones with mass appeal, that mention current events in their lyrics. Movies and late-night talk shows aren’t shying away from hard-hitting topics, but the music industry is. And I bet this weekend’s Grammy Awards will similarly avoid political topics, just as the nominees’ lyrics do.
Growing up in the 1980s, my favorite bands were U2 and Midnight Oil. They didn’t avoid geo-politics; hard-hitting topics were their bread and butter. U2’s Bono sang about South African apartheid and the troubles in the band’s native Ireland. The Oils were rabid environmentalists before environmentalism was popular, and their lyrics advocated for indigenous people’s rights in the band’s native Australia.
Go back five decades and you find even stronger examples of how pop music impacted the society at large. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and a whole slew of 1960s-era artists reflected and directed the counter-culture and anti-war movements. Whether you agree or disagree with them, it’s hard to argue they didn’t impact their culture. Music was a barometer for the culture back then. It isn’t now. Modern political movements lack a soundtrack. The music industry isn’t leading or even playing backup to today’s political protest movements.
Modern lyrics, such as those penned and voiced by Bruno Mars, Pink, Taylor Swift and Adele, ignore anything political. Even my favorite modern band, Coldplay, is nominated for a song, “Something Just Like This,” that lacks any deeper meaning. Today’s music may have catchy beats, but, as Bob Seger sang, it doesn’t have the same soul.
So why aren’t artists trying to impact, or at least reflect, current events? Are they and their record companies afraid to offend? Do they think listeners can’t handle or don’t want politics creeping into their playlists? I don’t think so. It’s more the case that the events going on in our larger culture aren’t legitimate enough to earn a mention.
The civil rights issues of the 1960s and the Vietnam War worked their way into the music of the day precisely because the issues were matters of life and death. Despite the loudness and persistence of modern protestors, today’s issues simply don’t have the same gravitas. They seem conjured by coddled young people, utopian idealists and political professionals who sow division to score votes each November.
And the dismissive music industry, surprising as it may sound, admirably sees right through it all. Perhaps someday they’ll sing with meaning again, but that day is not today.
John Balentine, a former managing editor for Sun Media Group, lives in Windham.