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Sánchez: A reflection on this election year’s music and its political undertones

Eddie Sánchez, Op-Ed Contributor

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On occasion, I’ve joked that music is always better during an election year, particularly when a Republican candidate is especially vitriolic or divisive. Politics can give musicians and recording artists a sense of urgency that is necessary for the most effective and emotionally impactful records to happen, just as love and heartbreak prompt beautiful ballads. Politically-inclined lyrics have raised our generation’s consciousness about pressing social inequalities and popularized using music as a method of activism.

We are experiencing a renaissance in American music, particularly from black artists, largely because the internet has given everyone an uncensored voice and global means to distribute content. Even an artist as acclaimed and successful as Beyoncé has more artistic license now that she can release music online, free from concerns of getting censored by the FCC. Internet streaming helped allow Beyoncé the freedom to release bolder, more politically-engaging material over the past few years, beginning with her eponymous album in 2013 and reaching its zenith with this year’s “Lemonade.” The album’s lead single, “Formation,” is an unapologetic, trap-flavored manifesto about black pride and black female empowerment. Beyoncé’s call for her fellow ladies to get in formation was greeted with controversy from some parts of her white audience, but overwhelming praise from fans and critics.

Beyoncé was not alone. Solange, her sister, received a similar amount of positive attention this year for her album “A Seat at the Table, which also directly addressed issues concerning black womanhood using mature, poetic lyrics and eccentric, baroque-tinged R&B. Kendrick Lamar’s “Untitled Unmastered” beautifully supplemented his groundbreaking 2015 release, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” which dealt with systemic and cultural racism as well as the “survivor’s guilt” he has experienced as a black man who made it out of the tough streets of Compton. And less intentionally political, but nevertheless relevant, is Chance the Rapper’s “Coloring Book,” which serves as a love letter to Chicago and a glorious counterargument to the patronizing, racist rhetoric that Trump subjected the city to during the presidential debates.

Further challenging social norms, Japanese-American rock artist Mitski made us ask what it means to be someone else’s “Best American Girl.” Thanks to accessible online distribution platforms like Bandcamp, the transwomen-led hardcore punk group, G.L.O.S.S. (Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit), achieved a fair amount of attention this year for their politically volatile demo, “Trans Day of Revenge.” Even the late David Bowie, a British veteran who actually pioneered the world’s earliest, most inventive expressions of gender-fluidity in rock music, released his final album early this January. “Blackstar” is one of the most shocking swan songs that the music world has ever experienced. Not only was the record a herald for a boundary breaking year, but the album, heavily inspired by “To Pimp a Butterfly,” was a symbol for the way that old political and aesthetic ways of thinking are learning from and yielding to the new ones ahead. These artists pushed our musical and social consciousness and further broke with traditionally rigid white and male dominance in storytelling.

Music serves as a powerful tool to reclaim public narratives around race and identity, which is especially powerful in the context of this election year’s divisive and racist rhetoric. Trump rejects “political correctness” in favor of simply “locking her up,” building a wall to keep the rapists (Latinos) and terrorists (Muslims and Syrian refugees) out, and, in reference to women, “grab(bing) them by the pussy.” Artists have used the power of popular media to respond to these systemic oppressions.

Protest imagery, whether consumed on Twitter or through song, are vital to spreading awareness and creating social change. The democratic, populist power of the media has uplifted some of the most important progressive movements in the past century. This includes the Black Lives Matter movement which, frustratingly enough, might not have been possible without the global access to horrific videos of the brutal murders of black men and women at the hands of the police. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was bolstered by national access to the televised documentation of black protesters marching the streets.

Yet politically engaging music from these prolific artists isn’t enough to keep us satisfied with the social progress we still have yet to make. In this election, narratives that dominate our perception of what it means truly to be American are also being contested. If pop music is any indication, progress, empathy, diversity and the fight for equality are leading the polls.

Eddie Sánchez is a Communication senior. He can be contacted at eddiesanchez2017@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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