Music: A Force for Change, or an Architect of Destruction?

Today we're talking about the power of music and the impact it can have on our social environment. Is music the key to fixing a problematic world, or could it be used to hasten its demise? Let's think about this!

Studies have already proven that music can make it easier to learn a foreign language, boost your long-term memory, and of course alter your mood.  It's a powerful part of the human condition, and a mainstay of our culture down through tens of thousands of years of history.  

It can also be used as a catalyst for social change, good or bad.  In fact, music is a key delivery method in getting messages across to target and/or receptive audiences who resonate with its key points.  When the Beatles released "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" in 1964, it was instrumental (no pun intended) in helping fire up the flower power movement.  25 years later, Public Enemy's "Fight The Power" would have a similar effect by galvonizing people of all races and spurring them into political action.  When used responsibly, music can tackle all manner of topics and generate a positive outcome.  When used recklessly, it can ignite a powder keg of social chaos.

When Ozzy Osbourne sang "Suicide Solution" way back in 1980, the American public was already launching its first volleys against heavy metal music.  The media picked up on this current and ran with it, amping up the hysteria with innuendo linking heavy metal music to organized ritualist Satanic groups.  Of course, it was nonsense, but that didn't stop the parents of 19 year old John McCollum from launching a lawsuit directed at Ozzy Osbourne and placing blame for their son's suicide.  Both Osbourne and lyricist Bob Daisley offered different explanations about the song; the former suggesting it was a song about late AC/DC vocalist Bon Scott (who also died in 1980), and the latter alluding to Osbourne's notorious substance abuse habits during that time period.  In the end, this was a case of artist expression vs. real-world consequences, and it was ruled that the case had no legal standing.  After all, as suggestive as its lyrics may be, "Suicide Solution" was not advocating suicide, but examining it from a harsh and difficult perspective.

Fine, but what about blatantly obvious negative music?

When the Cure released "Killing An Arab" in 1979, the political climate in the Middle East was already tumultuous to say the least.  While one might speculate as to the message based on a first reading of the lyrics, it didn't stop radical racist groups from openly embracing it, while the much larger majority condemned it as a racist piece.  Neither side bothered to learn that the song was inspired by Albert Camus' novel "L'Étranger," whose main protaganist murders an Arab man due to a love quarrel.  

And that's the point.

Most music is meant to be taken with a grain of salt, and its lyrical content analyzed and understood in context.  Sometimes it's up to the listener to decipher the meaning for him/herself.  When this step is skipped, problems arise.  We've seen it countless times, from Slayer's "Angel of Death" (a frantic musical paper on the nefarious works of Nazi scientist Josef Mengele) to Prodigy's "Smack My Bitch Up," (a heavy breakbeat track meant to emphasise living life intensely), and even Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care About Us," (widely thought to be anti-semitic, yet completely the opposite).  

So, who's at fault?

There's an argument to be made that a song like NWA's "F**K The Police" isn't going to do anything except amp up an already angry crowd.  The question is, should the song be taken as a commentary on inner city police corruption, or a call to violent action?  Here's where it gets dicey.  It's a combination of the listener refraining from drawing impulsive conclusions about a song which could lead him/her down a bad path, and the responsibility of the artist to make sure they aren't going too far.  Controversy has long been a part of some of the greatest music in history, but it has to be handled carefully.  Industrial giants KMFDM were put in the hot-seat following the original Columbine school shootings way back in 1999, yet their aggressive music was at best political and social commentary with a left-leaning stance, and in no way promoted hatred or violence.  Could the same be said of national socialist "hatecore" punk groups?  Certainly not.  These groups openly advocate hatred against minorities, Christians and homosexuals (to name a few), and their message isn't set in particular context, but obvious and open.  

So, what's the solution?

Should we ban or censor music that doesn't sit well with us?  The public seems divided on this one, as evidenced by our current western political climate.  We've always been advocates for free speech, even if we don't agree with what's being said.  The reason is simple.  When you silence people, you don't get to hear their side of things, and without that, there's nothing to fight against.  By the same token, artists need to be very careful of the message they're sending, especially since young people soak up music like a sponge, and the ideas a song is laced with.  This means that it starts with the artist, and ends with the listener.  Say your piece, but if it comes from a bad place, ask yourself if your message is going to make the world better, or worse.  Many bands and artists have managed to take very negative experiences and turn them into something positive, which is a skill we should all be practicing in our everyday lives.  It's especially important for the music world, due to how influential it can be.  Billie Holiday was hip to this notion way back in 1939 when she released "Strange Fruit," Aretha Franklin used it to empower women in the 1960s with "Respect," and even Aerosmith got in on the action when they brought Run DMC into the fold for a new version of "Walk This Way," which opened the doors for rap artists to gain a foothold in mainstream music.  

Everyone has their politics, their beliefs and their solutions, but now's the time to start sharing them, instead of using them as batons against each other.  We're living in strange times, but these are the times when music has a choice: to stoke the fires of resentment, rage and violence, or to start something incredible, uplifting and positive that serves as a bridge to bring people together.  We here are at Klickjam prefer the latter, and we hope you do, too!