We make music; it doesn't make us
The songs are not telling us what to do. Instead, they are mirrors into what's cooking inside our membranes as a society. The argument over whether music is a bad influence on society should refocus on whether society is a bad influence on music.
The infamous credit card through the posterior swipe in Nelly's "Tip Drill" or the recent uproar over Miley Cyrus' decadent "twerk" performance at the MTV Video Music Awards are not cases of artists simply conjuring up wild, bacchic imagery out of nowhere. Like the protest music of the 1960s, what dominates the airwaves today is simply the aural embodiment of who we are at the moment.
It is no surprise that conservative groups in particular, and kings of dysentery like Rush Limbaugh flip out at moments like Cyrus' grind at the award show. They will immediately point fingers at the artists as if the artists are wizards creating stews of depravity for us, empty, stupid vessels.
Even as the world economy is still wobbling, we are still drunk on the capitalist, consumerist ethos that has been the norm everywhere since the Berlin Wall came tumbling down in the late 1980s. Culturally, we do not admire radicals or rebels, Che Guevara has been replaced by Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
It makes sense that this spirit has deeply infiltrated the music being produced. In a society that worships materialism and product placement, where people camp out for the sake of buying a cellphone and stampede like cattle on Black Friday, it makes sense that we would reach the point where artists swipe credit cards on other human beings.
This is why you have a stark contrast between artists from a few decades back like Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine, who made music about social struggle and the importance of history, and someone like Jay-Z who has produced mass anthems of little depth, celebrating the image of power, wealth and privilege.
In September 2012, Jay-Z even lambasted Occupy Wall Street, telling the New York Times Magazine, “I’m not going to a park and picnic. I have no idea what to do. I don’t know what the fight is about. What do we want; do you know? Because when you just say that ‘the one percent is that,’ that’s not true. This is free enterprise. This is what America is built on.”
While waiting to go onstage in downtown Santa Monica, J Brave, a member of the underground hip-hop group Luminaries reflected on the influence of the current economic culture on contemporary music.
"Capitalism is like a virus," he said. "It's a plague that has taken over the world. It has infiltrated hip-hop. It's corporate entities that fund war. They benefit from the weapons and bombs in the same way some people are benefiting from a certain kind of hip-hop."
In 1947, German cultural critic and sociologist Siegfried Kracauer published his seminal work "From Caligari To Hitler: A Psychological History of the German Film." Kracauer argued that German expressionist films from the 1920s and 1930s, which included horror classics such as "Nosferatu" and "M," provided a look into the mental state of German society as it marched steadily toward fascism.
The films of the era were either dark, violent and disturbing like "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," where the images were distorted and all public officials are corrupt, or ultra-nationalist like Fritz Lang's "Die Nibelungen," which glorified Aryan myths and expressed a society seeking solace in its cultural symbols, a mood Hitler would fully take advantage of.
The films of the era did not drive people towards Nazism; they merely displayed a society ripe for it. This is how music works in our time as well.
Consider "Alabama Song" by Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht, later made famous when The Doors covered it for their debut album in 1967. The lyrics are a dark, almost suicidal cadence that state, "Show us the way to the next whiskey bar. Oh, don't ask why, for if we don't find the next whiskey bar, I tell you we must die. Show us the way to the next little dollar. Oh, don't ask why."
Modern hip-hop and pop are our own modern cabaret. If they glorify suicide, drug use, murder, and even rape in some cases, it is because such is the terrain we inhabit. Mass shootings, people going insane, and live broadcast suicides are being projected on a daily basis on the news and YouTube. While we should not shut our eyes to the world around us, we are not fighting these days for any answers or alternatives.
When mass shootings occur, the debate rages around gun control, not why people are flipping out. How could we not expect songwriters to tap into the zeitgeist?
Lady Gaga did not make us, we made Lady Gaga. Like few artists, she captures the artistic, social age we live in. Her style is a blender of all the hair, clothing and makeup fashions that are popular, and her lyrics are drones that sound like diary entries and not profound reflections. The sound of the music is an electronic sheen appropriate for an era where digital is replacing everything.
This does not mean it's not fun to listen to it, but it is difficult to claim these artists are setting the course for society.
One of the great classic examples of the debate over the influence on society is that of Elvis Presley. When Elvis raided that brand-new device known as television in American homes in 1956, his hip-swiveling, curled lip crooning shocked parents everywhere. Thus the debate erupted over whether rock 'n' roll would make the kiddies into animalistic hooligans. On the Ed Sullivan show, they only filmed Elvis from the waist up lest any teenage girls become inflamed by his swiveling.
But rock 'n' roll was simply the final, sparked match for a post-World War II society living in a culture of strict conservatism and defined social norms, as best depicted in Sam Mendes' film "Revolutionary Road." The Beat poets and Jack Kerouac would also emerge in this period with books and words of defiance and rebellion, sexual adventurism and hedonistic lifestyles. But they were made by their times, not the times by them.
If we want the music to change, we should first change our surroundings. If we are not ready for that, then change the dial or just enjoy the beat.