Is pop music’s power to influence fading? — Photo by Eiimon [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via Flickr

The Power of Pop Music in the Modern Age

All my life I’ve believed in popular music as a force for change but can Pop Music maintain its impact when we are able to access so much so easily?

There is no doubt in my mind, pop music has helped to change the world.

Whether it be The Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 or David Bowie’s 1972 performance of Starman on Top of The Pops, popular music has consistently encouraged people to question authority, push against accepted norms and strive to undermine the status quo.

More than this, Pop’s direct social and political influence is tangible. Perhaps most notably in 1960s America, where the music of Tamla Motown crossed the racial divide, bringing white and black people together in dancehalls and concert theatres as the battle for civil rights raged on the streets outside.

Popular music has consistently encouraged people to question authority, push against accepted norms and strive to undermine the status quo.

Bob Dylan and Joan Baez protesting the Vietnam War; The Sex Pistols taking ‘God Save the Queen’ to No. 1 on her Silver Jubilee; The Clash and The Specials ruminating on Thatcher’s Britain in the early 1980s: Pop music’s history is rich in meaning, artists from throughout the latter half of the last century still have an immense hold over how we see ourselves as a society today.

If anyone were to question pop’s ability to bring about change, I’d tell them the story of Tony Wilson’s Factory Records — whose rise is documented in Michael Winterbottom’s film ’24 Hour Party People’ (Wilson played by post-Partridge Steve Coogan to devastatingly mesmeric effect). It is the Icarus tale of the small, independent record label, based in Manchester in the late 1970s and early 80s, which produced music from a string of idiosyncratic bands such as Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, whose art turned a provincial city previously associated with post-industrial malaise into the hippest place to be in the country.

The Beatles perform I Want To Hold Your Hand on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964

Pop music put Manchester on the map and arguably contributed to reinvestment, regeneration and the resurrection of the city into the modern media metropolis it recognises itself as today. A double-edged sword of course, much of the stardust that made its scene special instantly evaporating amongst the rubble of demolition and the rise of bland modern architecture inherent to major national business centres.

As I survey the current political plight of both the US and the UK — for these are the two nations who have produced the vast majority of modern popular music — I find myself pondering the whereabouts of contemporary acts with the same influence and impact on perceptions of current affairs.

Let’s face it, there’s plenty to rage against, from Brexit to the greatest refugee crisis since World War 2, the rise of Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump to the ongoing threat of climate change, yet pop music seems to have meekly demised into vacuity.

There are exceptions to this perceived rule of course, I think of Beyoncé, the artistic embodinent of the Black Lives Matter campaign, and perhaps to a lesser extent Lady Gaga, railing against perceptions of sexuality and gender with admirable, if not altogether sonically satisfying results for this writer.

However, 2016 has seen two of its most revered pop star icons pass away in what has felt like a watershed moment in pop music culture: David Bowie and Prince were great examples of the kind or unanimous cultural icon that, despite the Beyoncé’s and the Gaga’s, seem less likely to exist for music lovers of the future.

Pop music put Manchester on the map and arguably contributed to reinvestment, regeneration and the resurrection of the city into the modern media metropolis it recognises itself as today.

Perhaps this relative modern day desert of defiance is the result of the post-millenial monopoly on pop music by the talent shows, contestants picked from obscurity primarily for their lack of iconicism and therefore malleable to the wonts of a handful of pop impresarios? Yet, even their appeal is waining, sales falling in equal measure to the ratings these shows now garner.

As I struggle to understand the root cause of pop music’s demise as a cultural force, I’m increasingly convinced it’s not so much the method of music making that’s the heart of the matter but the means by which it is conveyed to its audience.

When we look back at those significant pop moments of the last century we see one thing in common: they were a communal event, a ‘happening’, indebted to the medium of broadcast television.

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust on Top of the Pops, 1972

Thus it was when The Beatles and Bowie were beamed into living rooms of entire families crowded around the same TV. Even LiveAid, for better or worse, had the ability to draw the focus of an entire nation in its sense of occasion, the majority ‘taking part’ either in the vast bowl of the old Wembley stadium, or, more likely, via the wonder of the ‘gogglebox’.

The rise of multiple channels and social media has changed the entire dynamic of how culture is consumed. It is no longer communal in the true sense, no matter how keen the use of a #hashtag. Families may still sit together in the same room of an evening but each will be glued to their own device, consuming their own culture via the method of their own choosing, so is the impact on any audience of a single event, a single performance, by a single ‘star’, on a single channel, desperately dilutted.

The same can be said of music festivals. LiveAid was a huge event I doubt could be replicated now, in an age when there is a festival for every taste. Where once Glastonbury and, perhaps, Reading would provide focal points, they too have become merely extra entries in the ever growing summer festival calendar.

If you were going to make the effort to seek out and play the music which had been the talk of the classroom, you were damn well going to invest emotionally in the artist behind it as well.

And then, of course there’s streaming. When the delivery of music was via physical records, that had to be purchased from a record shop, at a price, and ‘put on’ by laying vinyl on a turntable and resting a needle in a groove, music required not only a financial investment but a physical one too. If you were going to make the effort to seek out and play the music which had been the talk of the classroom the day before, you were damn well going to invest emotionally in the artist behind that music as well.

With pop music so easily and cheaply accessible that kind of investment is no longer required. There’s no need to make a choice about where to spend your pocket money or your hard earned wages and with that realisation comes a major problem…where, when presented with the almost infinite riches of Spotify, do you start?

What does that small thumbnail image of an album’s artwork really mean? Who is the faceless, imageless artist who created it? What does that artist stand for? Why should I choose to listen to a particular album over the hundreds of thousands of other albums available? What is the need for an album anyway when a playlist offers prize pickings — all killer, no filler?

A young Pete Doherty, later to form possibly the last era defining British band, The Libertines, queues for the Oasis album Be Here Now in 1997

I now sometimes find it almost impossible to choose what to listen to. Far from encouraging me to seek out new music, I revert to what I know and love: that music which already has meaning to me. Meaning that a swathe of new releases might never have.

I conclude the more ubiquitous access to music has become the less its impact upon us as a society. I realise now that I would rather queue outside HMV for hours at midnight to get my hands on an overhyped, ultimately disappointing, third Oasis album than have access to an infinite wealth of ‘critically acclaimed’ music at the click of a button.

Bowie has gone. The Beatles too will all be gone, even the questionable euphoria of the Britpop era now seems like an apocryphal tale of an ancient time and, as the memories fade into history, perhaps pop music of any meaningful political or social impact will also be lost forever. Pop will eat itself is the claim. I wonder if we already find ourselves gorged by the plentiful feast before us.