Humans have always used music as a form of self-expression. We sing when we are happy; we sing when we are mourning. We make playlists for our partners as a form of love. We remember our loved one’s favorite songs. We make music to feel free from societal norms. The oldest preserved melody is the Hurrian Hymn; it was written in ancient Mesopotamia to worship the goddess of the orchard, Nikkal. Ancient Mesopotamians wrote this song to declare their love for their goddess and her generous nature.
As humans turned away from the ancient gods and to other forms of authority, we soon learned that not every leader was as kind and generous as Nikkal. When we began to rebel against various authorities in our lives, once again, we turned to music.
The Harlem Renaissance was one of the earliest examples of music being used as political commentary in the 20th century. The Renaissance began with famous Black artists, like Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes, exploring jazz as a form of rebellion. Jazz is an innately rebellious genre of music, with its improvisational phrases and experimental time signatures and chord progressions.
Many artists used this rebellious nature as a form of political commentary. For example, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” was a written as a direct, intense commentary on the prevalence of lynching in the South. Holiday’s original record label refused to record the song due to its political subject matter, but the song still went on to sell over one million copies. “Strange Fruit” is an uncomfortable song, but it resonated with oppressed people in America in a time of continued conflict between Black and white communities.
Moving forward in American history, there are plenty of examples of political rebellion through modern music. The U.S. entered the Vietnam War right as rock and roll reached its peak popularity, and many rock artists used their platform for political activism. “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen wrestles with the idea of patriotism and how veterans of the Vietnam War struggled to come to terms with supporting their country that did not support them in return.
Many draftees of the Vietnam War were blue-collar workers. Blue-collar workers and other industrial workers have faced discrimination throughout U.S. history. Springsteen writes lyrics like “Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand” to describe how joining the military was seen as a solution to the supposed irresponsible tendencies of young workers.
Despite its seemingly patriotic title, “Born in the U.S.A.” was a direct criticism of American nationalism and the role of the worker in American society. Springsteen’s song was incredibly controversial as lots of right-leaning politicians chose to ignore the true meaning of the song and attempt to use it as a symbol for support of American policy.
In fact, when President Ronald Reagan asked Springsteen if he could use the song in his re-election campaign, Springsteen replied with a resounding no. “Born in the U.S.A.” went on to top musical charts, becoming the perfect example of popular songs used for political critique.
We are undeniably living through a tumultuous period of U.S. history, and popular artists are continuing to use their platform to discuss their political ideals. Hozier, a blues/folk/ rock artist from Ireland, wrote his song “Take Me to Church” to tackle the issue of the separation of church and state, especially with the Catholic Church.
This song’s lyrics are incredibly controversial, yet it reached first place on the charts in 12 different countries and was nominated and performed at the 57th Grammy awards Hozier writes lines like “She demands a sacrifice / Drain the whole sea / Get something shiny” to personify the Catholic Church’s greed for power throughout history. “Drain the whole sea” refers to the term “The Holy See,” which was often used as an alternate term for the Catholic Church, and Hozier has openly discussed how he thinks that the Church should be drained of its power.
Hozier also writes, “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies / I’ll tell you my sins so you can sharpen your knife,” to discuss how the Church profits off others’ pain and suffering, especially the suffering of the LGBTQ+ community. By combining these caustic indictments of the Church with beautiful metaphors for love, Hozier wrote a song that serves as both a scathing political critique and a symbol for dark, beautiful romance.
Phoebe Bridgers is another artist who uses her platform to discuss controversial topics. Bridger’s music is often described as “anxious” or “obsessed with death,” as it perfectly describes the emotions of oppressed people across the world.
One of her songs, “Garden Song,” describes some of the horrors of modern America. Bridgers writes, “And when your skinhead
neighbor goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard then.” According to Bridgers’ X (formerly known as Twitter), this line is a direct reference to a racist skinhead (neo-Nazi) neighbor. Bridgers wonders whether beauty in the garden can be cultivated from the violence of killing the neighbor — and whether or not we care about what it takes to grow.
She also discusses the issue of technology addiction, writing, “And when I grow up, I’m gonna look up / From my phone and see my life,” alluding to the fact that technology can cloud the realities of the world and separate humans from their communities and from each other. Most of the imagery in Bridger’s songs are dark and terrifying, but they speak to a wide variety of people because of the intense political climate that we currently live in. Bridgers’ songs tackle the truth about the world we live in with refreshing honesty.
Political undertones add a rich depth to music, making it more than just a melody. Music is a form of escape, but it is also a form of confrontation. Politics are inescapable in a modern world, and many artists chose to face political struggles through their work. Their music is a form of self-expression and is, therefore, innately political.