The Soundtrack to Our Dystopian Future

The last few years have shown that popular music with a political message is often slept on by mainstream music outlets and of course, by the Grammy’s. Kendrick Lamar’s vitally important messages about race on “To Pimp a Butterfly” were snubbed by the latter. Whilst, M.I.A’s album, “AIM” was ignored by far too many, paralleling the ignorance that the western world has been accused of harboring toward the Syrian refugee crisis which M.I.A’s album confronts. But still, in some more subtle ways, the pop music we sing along to in the car or at the club is calling attention to the growing dark problems in our world today. So, maybe there is still hope for meaningful pop.

I started to notice this last summer when Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home” was an inescapable hit. The song was written by five men and sung by five women. Some called it an “utterly standard pop song” while other publications gave it a high spot on their end of year list. However, this song is anything but the product of a machine that the media has depicted it as, even if it’s intention was to be as such.

The song and its accompanying music video satirize the over sexualization of our youth culture, with lines like “I’m sending pic after picture, I’mma get you fired.” Fifth Harmony’s young fans are the first generation to grow up with the nude picture sending friendly app Snapchat, and with a critical listen, this song appears to be mocking them rather than celebrating. Critics of younger generations and millennials alike often correlate selfies and the rise of social media with the decline of work ethic. But the aforementioned lyric deliberately teases the idea that today’s youth value digital sexual relationships over working for the man. Another standout line, “nothin but sheets in between us, ain’t no gettin’ off early” asserts Fifth Harmony as women in charge of their sexuality, a concept that may seem foreign to many baby boomers. The song is less about living at home to serve a man as it might come across upon first listen, and more to do with the shifting gender dynamics in both at work and at home life.

Forbes reported that in the next 9 years 41% of people will indeed, work from home. While this may appear like a simple pop tune, it’s lyrical themes dive into the constant conversation of millennial laziness, and the change in economy and jobs that dominate our newsfeeds. While “Work from Home” dominated the charts and our parties, it’s unclear whether or not the Fifth Harmony fans received the satirical message.

More recently and less subtly, Katy Perry’s catchy “Chained to the Rhythm” blatantly roasts the apathy of today’s people. “So comfortable, were living in a bubble”, she sings, pointing out that people are willingly giving into the corporations that exploit our minimum wage earnings for the comfort of sharing a picture on Instagram and increasing our social popularity. That’s a great line, but the chorus is really what makes the song sound like it could be part of the soundtrack to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.

 Turn it up, it’s your favourite song

Dance, dance, dance to the distortion

Turn it up, keep it on repeat

Stumbling around like a wasted zombie

Yeah, we think we’re free

Drink, this one is on me

We’re all chained to the rhythm

To the rhythm to the rhythm

 These lyrics remind me of so many parts of Nineteen Eighty Four, most notably the two minutes of hate, and the classic lines “war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength”. It also reminds me of the encouraged culture of excess that we see in our world today which imitates another literary masterpiece, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in which the drug soma is promoted as a remedy to all much like alcohol is in mainstream culture today. Though Perry’s perspective on millennials may differ from that espoused by Fifth Harmony it is clear that she is still putting forth her political opinions through the medium of pop.

With online streaming and illegal downloads, pop music today is far from the kingdom that it used to be. Songs made for the Top 40 formula are crafted by several individuals from different economic backgrounds and experiences. It’s a far more accessible and equal industry than it has been in decades past. Therefore, pop music is more likely to be written from a place of political unrest, and less likely to be just taken at face value. I argue that this is good news for young listeners, and bad news for record label executives seeking to sell the status quo to over educated, underpaid and rightfully angry young people. “Time is ticking for the empire”, Skip Marley sings in his verse on “Chained to the Rhythm”.

Songs like this remind me of David Bowie, and most notably his 1981 hit “Fashion”, a dance club ready jam with a subtle jab at fascism. These songs trick everyday pop listeners, moms driving to their kids to school, kids trying clothes on in forever 21, into thinking more critically about the world they live in and the culture they subscribe to. Pop music is slowly but surely becoming the anthemic soundtrack to the dystopian movie that were all living in.

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