By Erica Russell
On Wednesday (July 24), English pop-rock band The 1975 released the first song and opening track off their upcoming album, Notes on a Conditional Form. Though the band has woven political commentary into their signature neon-hued synth-pop of previous releases, the self-titled track makes it plainer than ever, featuring teenage Swedish eco-activist Greta Thunberg delivering an impassioned oration calling for mass action against climate change over a plush, ambient soundbed. The 1975's decision to introduce their forthcoming body of work with a green-minded altruistic gesture (proceeds will go to the Extinction Rebellion initiative) is powerful, though perhaps not surprising considering the current musical climate.
Pop music has long served as an oasis for listeners looking to leave their worries — whether banal or more existential — behind, whether suspended on the dance floor or drowned out in their headphones. Across recent years the genre has, even according to academic studies, become tangibly sadder in both production and lyrics — perhaps an obvious byproduct of the increasingly tumultuous world systems from which popular music springs. More than ever, it’s proving impossible to tune out the socio- and eco-political crises piling up in our daily news cycles. It seems our pop stars are feeling the pressure, too.
Over the past seven months, there’s been a noticeable spike in politically charged mainstream pop releases. This is not to say pop hasn't touched on politics in the past. Quite the contrary: Artists like The Beatles, Janelle Monáe, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Beyonce, M.I.A., Lady Gaga, and so many others have made both subversive and overt social statements with their songs and music videos. But the political climate in 2019 — the immigrant detention centers that are more akin to WWII internment camps, the rise of draconian abortion legislation that strips women of their rights to bodily ownership, and the lax firearm laws that continue to result in deadly mass shootings — has proven an especially ripe ploughland for cultivating lyrical and visual inspiration for artists who are less concerned with escapism and cathartic release than they are with actionable change.
The discourse surrounding women's rights and sexual autonomy, one of the zeitgeist's loudest politically charged discussions, picked up speed in late 2017 thanks to the viral #MeToo movement, which gained greater momentum in the public consciousness throughout 2018. But there’s been an uptick in expressed frustration from musicians this year, with a number of Top 40 artists lambasting patriarchal oppression head on.
In May, Halsey made a bold feminist statement with "Nightmare" which features lyrics like, "I've been polite, but won't be caught dead / Lettin' a man tell me what I should do in my bed." The following month, Miley Cyrus released the deeply political music video for her She Is Coming single "Mother's Daughter," the visual for which celebrates intersectional feminism by including bodies of all shapes, sizes, colors, and genders. The clip also features a number of poignant feminist statements, including the visual of a woman breastfeeding and the declaration that "I am not an object." Lyrics including "Don’t fuck with my freedom" make explicitly clear who Cyrus is criticizing.
Also this year, Kesha, who has been embroiled in a legal battle with her alleged abuser Dr. Luke since 2014, released a protest song called "Rich, White, Straight Men." Over humorously cabaret-style production (a playful nod to the current circus of the American government), she lampoons hypocritical immigration policies, anti-LGBTQ sentiment, and pay disparity: "If you're from another land and come here / You won't have to climb a wall / And if you are a boy who loves a boy / You'll get a wedding cake and all / And if you are a lady and you do your lady work / Then you will make as many dollars as the boys / Not just two-thirds," she sings.
Pop heavyweight Taylor Swift, whose generally apolitical former public image made some listeners bristle, was met with both applause and criticism when she released the pro-LGBTQIA+ music video for "You Need to Calm Down" during Pride Month in June. Nevertheless, it notably became her second No. 2 hit of the year. The visual finds the artist taking a firm stance against anti-LGBTQ sentiments as she laughs off homophobic protestors with picket signs and sings lines like "Control your urges to scream about all the people you hate / 'Cause shade never made anybody less gay."
Indeed, political unrest has extended far and wide across the popsphere: Other releases have taken aim at gun control (Madonna's controversial "God Control" video), human rights (Marina's "To Be Human"), and global warming (Lil Dicky's feature-laden "Earth") — the latter a topic Grimes has pledged to explore, albeit subversively, on her planned forthcoming album, Miss Anthropocene. Even radical self-love, itself a highly politicized movement, is part of the conversation: Lizzo's "Soulmate," MUNA's "Number One Fan" and Ava Max's "So Am I" all reject societal pressures to bend to expectations and perform or look a certain way.
Outside the mainstream, independent and emerging pop artists are continuing to make their political stances heard loud and clear: Dorian Electra's "Flamboyant" plays with outdated gender performance expectations; Lola Blanc's "Angry Too" is a rallying cry against misogynistic violence; Miya Folick's "Malibu Beauty" rails against gendered beauty standards.
With the 2020 election around the bend and issues like climate change, abortion, gun control, and LGBTQ+ rights gaining increased urgency in the public consciousness, it's unlikely that pop music's current trend of politically charged releases will decelerate. If anything, it's only going to become more difficult to separate the artist from the message, especially as that message becomes more overtly political. Now that the pop anthem is the new protest song, singing along to your favorite track can make your voice heard in more ways than one.