Pop Politics

What’s Behind the Pop Hooks That Dominate the Radio

By Yasrab Khan

To a lot of people, most of the music played on the radio is one dimensional, a type of heavily processed rhythm with no real substance, overplayed themes of love or sex, made to gain profit. Recently, there’s been an abundance of celebrity figures, such as popular musicians, taking a political stance, which has led a discussion on the inclusivity of politics and entertainment. Politics in music is not anything new; from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” and Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” to Green Day’s “American Idiot,” it’s evident that music can be politicized. Once in a while, however, a song will top the charts and have everyone singing along, without knowing that the underlying meaning is melancholic and more politically involved than the upbeat tune would imply. I’m referring to Portugal. The Man’s hit song “Feel it Still.”

The optimistic, happy tempo masks the darker message within the song, about a time of political unrest and instability, and how it lingers long after. When asked by NME, a British music magazine, about the inspiration behind the lyrics, the band stated the Civil Rights Movement, war protests and LSD testing as events in 1966 that helped shape the chorus line. As for the year of 1986, they listed the emergence of New York hip hop and the Beastie Boy’s album “License to Ill” in particular, stating that it was about “essentially a rebel just for kicks.”

The BCC Voice consulted with Berkeley City College student Pooja Shori, a self-described “music enthusiast.” She is a religious radio listener and her favorite genre of music is pop. Shori considered what “Feel it Still’s” traction means for pop music in 2018. “Portugal. The Man,” she said, “has infiltrated pop radio with cleverly melodic political dialect.”

Shori shared that she first got to know the message behind the song from the popular music streaming app Spotify, which collaborated with Genius, a “music intelligence” company, to share with listeners what the artists were feeling when they created the tracks, and reveal the inspiration behind the lyrics. Introducing the artists’ own perspective has been a huge eye opener for many Spotify users.

“It’s definitely necessary to combine politics and music,” says Shori, “music has always been influential, and especially in this political climate; it’s songs with a message that really contribute to our society. When songs like this are played on the radio, it not only provides entertainment for the audience, but effectively educates them in a creative manner.”

Another song that shares a similar theme is Foster the People’s “Pumped up Kicks.” This song also reached a high rank on the billboard charts and its upbeat tune and catchy chorus had listeners oblivious to its darker meaning about the mind of a psychotic kid wanting to shoot up a school, in response to the increasing gun violence across the United States.

Mark Foster, front man of Indie Rock group “Foster the People,” explains in a 2011 Rolling Stone interview that he feels youth are becoming more isolated and that this has become an epidemic. He compares the perspective in “Pumped up Kicks” to how Truman Capote took on the killer’s perspective in “In Cold Blood,” and states that it’s about teen psychology and the growing mental illness among this new generation. Foster wanted to create a dialogue that would get people talking about the current state of America, and he did indeed get a reaction. The song was so controversial that it was banned from some U.S. radio stations, for insensitivity in the wake of so many school shootings.

Songs like these raise the question of the inclusion of politics into entertainment and whether it belongs there or not. Some believe it is beneficial for popular music to reflect the news media, while others may believe the opposite, that politics and music are separate and combining them can be inappropriate. A lot of the time, music is viewed as an escape from reality and making a song political can feel counterintuitive to some, while feeling revolutionary to others. Songs like “Feel it Still” offer a kind of compromise that can have you thinking critically about current affairs while still dancing along.

At the top: Photo Credit: Pooja Shori

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