At the end of last month the BBC website ran an article publishing 20 songs that their readers thought had changed the world. A stirring selection, characterised by John Lennon’s heart-stopping ‘Imagine’, Joan Byers’ rallying hymn ‘We Shall Overcome’ and Billie Holliday’s haunting vocalisation of murderous racism in America’s deep south, ‘Strange Fruit’.
But what struck me more than the spine-tingling music was the complete lack of contemporary songs in the list. None of the 20 tracks were released this side of the millennium and all but one of them came before the nineties, before I’d even been born.
Convinced that the BBC’s (older) audience was to blame, I started racking my brains for songs that had shook the world in my own lifetime… the closest I got was Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’. A fantastic song no doubt, but it’s difficult to make a convincing argument for it “changing the world”.
And the more you think about it, the less surprising it all seems. Music is a key indicator of the personality of a society. It reflects the issues, feelings and mood of a culture. John Lennon spoke for a generation of disillusioned people when he sang, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one”. In one song he epitomised all that the civil rights movement of the time were reaching out for, dissatisfied with the rampant materialism and wars that dominated society in the 20th century.
And so too does contemporary music reflect modern society. Today, popular music veers between the vast soundscapes of the Electronic revolution kicked off in the late 80’s, the graphic Hip-Hop of the 90’s and the Indie revival of the early 00’s. Sure, these are styles and trends borrowed from past times and re-appropriated for today’s audience. But the ideas behind and confronted within modern music are much more indicative of the culture we live in and ultimately the generation we are.
The society that spawned us has left us in a peculiar limbo. On one hand we’re the first of the ‘digital natives’, the first to have mind-boggling amounts of information at our fingertips, courtesy of a wonderful little thing called the Internet. And yet our generation is coming of age in a time of mass unemployment, sky-rocketing living costs and global warming. We’re the first generation since the war to be poorer than our parents. Many of us will never own our own home. We live in a time of chronic uncertainty, caught between austerity and over-spending, lost between the West and the East of a globalised world.
So it’s only natural that we reflect this. We’re vague. Ambiguous. Difficult to pin down. The hipster phenomenon has catalyzed a constant desire to reject stereotypes and evolve at a pace so rapid that no commentator can stroke their beard and muse on our ‘definition’. You just need to glance at any comments section on Vice to see vast swathes of self-conscious ‘on trend’ kids kicking up a fuss about what’s really ‘happening’ and what scene is currently most salient.
For this is who we are; Generation V, Generation Vague. You could even say that it all began centuries ago, that we’re an unexpected offshoot of modern art and the shift from the explicit to the symbolic. Musically, we’re the first generation to fully embrace the themes of modern art. We’re the first to have the confidence to stand up brazenly and say, “You can’t tell me what this song means, what this stands for.”
The most obvious example of this is Electronic music. Lyrics are eschewed in favour of complex layers of sound, with a focus on composition and musical dexterity. For many tracks, the only indicator of a song’s meaning or purpose is the name of the song itself. The music can mean anything to anybody; the musician establishes the mood and the listener interprets the rest in whatever way they wish.
The biggest artists on the Indie scene may still rely on lyrics, yet even they struggle to convey a direct message or obvious meaning in their songs. Symbolism and metaphor are ubiquitous in modern lyrics, meaning that deciphering, say; Fleet Foxes’ latest album is just as difficult as getting to grips with the meaning of any of Four Tet’s instrumental driven offerings. The examples are endless… Foals, Bon Iver, Beach House, Bonobo, The Horrors and even latter day Radiohead (just compare In Rainbows to Pablo Honey) all use symbolism to a level that drives the listener to uncertainty.
I don’t believe this to be a bad thing. Music is now more varied, diverse and experimental than it has ever been. There are more genres, sub-genres and musical niches than there are Justin Bieber fans, which can only be a good thing. But it feels quite strange to be part of a generation whose cultural output revolves around abstract concepts and cloak and dagger demonstrations of discontent. It just doesn’t feel like we stand for anything.
And as such, it might be some time before a song is direct and explicit enough to pull together our vague generation into one voice. It might be a long time before music can change the world again.
Do you agree? What songs do you think have changed the world in our lifetime?
This article originally appeared on Turn On Tune In on 12th February 2013