American conservatives typically do not discuss culture, especially those involved in the political sphere. They may have typically talked about the need of censorship or the decline of music and Hollywood, but even topics like these are side notes on mainstream media or left to more obscure internet pundits. Pop culture has real implications not just for American society but on how foreign nations view the United States as well.
Music is powerful. As Erik Mehlson explained at TedTalks, “Culture is an accepted set of beliefs, values and practices. It informs the way we think and act. I like to think of it as if our bodies and brains are computers, then culture is like an operating system.” For those who are concerned about the values that current pop culture espouses, how it affects our youth, and how it represents America, they ought to roll up their sleeves and do something about it. Should our culture really be defined by jiggly booty twerking, pot consumption, a lazy command of the English language, and vulgar hyper-sexualization? Isn’t there more to our values?
Conservatives need to begin asking hard questions on how we got to the status quo. Then, they need to figure out what structurally can be changed to increase the quality, diversity and prowess of American pop music.
The Berlin Wall & The Power of Pop Music
Anyone who walks the Cold War section of the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin, will immediately be impressed by the size of the installation and the emphasis it places on American culture from the 1950s onwards. Where the Stasi and brutality of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) is highlighted on the East, the western section is like a love letter to the United States and its allies. From the Hershey’s candies dropped during the Berlin Airlift to the rousing speeches of JFK and Ronald Reagan, America was credited with uplifting the nation with a sense of optimism. Specifically, it’s pop music!
In International Relations, a nation has two means of spreading influence and exerting power. One way is through “Hard Power,” or brute strength via military and diplomatic capacities, and the other is through “Soft Power,” or culture, ideals and values. It is theorized that America and Western Europe’s slow and steady success during the Cold War, was the result of not just armaments, tanks, aircraft carriers and bases, but also the freedom, romance, and rebellious optimism of NATO countries’ pop culture in the 1980s.
As Harvard Academic, Joseph Nye, explained to the Foreign Policy Association, “When the Berlin Wall went down, it did not go down under an artillery barrage and Hard Power. It went down by People wielding hammers and bulldozers. Their minds had been changed. They’d been persuaded, and that’s an example of Soft Power. People on the Eastern side [of Berlin] had lost their faith in Communism.” In other words, it was the western power’s culture that inspired them. The ideas and values they had inherit had an emotional, even spiritual impact on the people.
David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy is often accredited as a prime example of this. Mixing American, British and German influences he created three albums that captured the spirit of oppressed Berlin. His song “Heroes” became a Berlin anthem, and many accredited his (and others) concerts as a main factor in attracting East Berliners. During a 1987 concert, Bowie’s performance at the Reichstag was literally heard on the East and became a symbol of freedom.
As explained by Far Out, “While the concert was being held in West Berlin, the event’s location meant that East Berlin could also hear the enigmatic singer’s dynamic performance. Rumors that the festival deliberately turned the speakers in the other direction have never been confirmed but the vibrations of the show could be felt across the wall.”
The Fall of the Berlin Wall is a great example of the affect music can have on societies. It played a key role in collapsing one entirely! Many other nations, both democratic and totalitarian, have utilized cultural institutions and content to raise the spirits of its citizens or its foreign interests abroad.
Culture is powerful. Culture is downstream from politics. That’s why culture matters, especially music. This is nothing new. Aristotle was so concerned about the power of music he thought that it should be government directed and censored. He mused, “Music has the power of producing a certain effect on the moral character of the soul, and if it has the power to do this, it is clear that the young must be directed to music and must be educated in it.”
What Does American Pop Music Say About Us Now?
Analyses of pop charts have shown since the 1990s there has been a fast decline in sonic and lyrical quality. Soon most song lyrics won’t even challenge the average 7-year old. Music of more recent years is unique in that its common themes are narcism, vulgarity, and darkness. In regards to Soft Power and American culture, what does our pop music say about us now? What does Niki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” Miley Cyrus’, “BB Talk,” or Justin Bieber’s “Yummy” say about our society?
With two-thirds of pop charts being taken up by Hip Hop and Mumble Rap, it is clear this is America’s largest musical export. It is also clear there isn’t musical diversity. And what does this culture say about America, at home and abroad? There are of course some artists in this category who could be classified as clever and with high values, but most people associated this genre seem to espouse p*ssy, krunk, and weed. Not to mention most Hip Hop hits are homogenized and lyrically lazy. For American Exceptionalism, this genre may be contagious at the people level but many in the upper rings of society are tiring of the behavior it encourages. So much so that countries have decided to limit and ban artists or the genre entirely, due to its vulgarity, its affect on youth or the conduct of the stars themselves.
Any conservative worried about anti-American sentiments brewing around the globe, who has a genuine concern about the future of western civilization, or who cares about the effect pop culture has within our society, ought to speak more openly about the state of music, film and fashion. And then come up with solutions! Conservative YouTubers like Paul Joseph Watson and philosophers like Sir Roger Scruton discuss the lack of quality, but it is also important for us to ask how we got here and what can be done? Complex questions with complex answers but conservatives, and all Americans, should start discussing this.
Small Steps to Tangible Solutions
No one is calling for the United States government to become actively involved in censorship or determining what makes good music. As noted by Nye and others, the power of Britain’s and America’s Soft Power was that its Civil Society, for a period, created an environment that allowed creativity to prosper. But, as we’ve seen since the late 1990s, musical diversity has dried up. There’s been a great homogenization of the charts, lack of new musical movements and a hyper focus on the most bang for the buck.
The old music business model of “uncool” white-collared businessmen throwing money at aspiring young artists to see what stuck are over. As Frank Zappa explained:
“Remember the 60s? That era that a lot of people have these glorious memories of?… they really weren’t that great, those years.” Ever the grumpy uncle. But Zappa does get nostalgic for one thing, and it’s an unexpected one: the music business. “One thing that did happen in the 60s,” he says, “was some music of an unusual and experimental nature did get recorded, did get released.” The executives of the day were “cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product and said, ‘I don’t know. Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out. If it sells, alright!’”
Nowadays, music labels are unwilling to take risks on new artists or music movements. They’d rather invest in already established artists. They take legacy artists and keep them pumping in as much tour, advertisement and sales money as possible. Ever wonder why there are no more one-hit wonders? Ever wonder why the Billboard chart hits all generally sound the same? Ever wonder why Award’s shows have had the same pop stars (i.e. Drake, Niki Minaj, Khalid, J.Lo, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Maroon 5, Justin Timberlake, etc) running the show for decades now? Ever wonder why pop stars don’t evolve or experiment the way the Beatles, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Cher, Prince or even Madonna have? Ever wonder why artists have to take so long between albums, spending one to two years on tour?
Again, conservatives need to talk more of pop culture in all its forms and focus on a way the structure of the music industry can be changed to increase diversity, artistry, and values of pop music. It is a hard uphill battle but worthy of more discussion and tangible solutions. Rather than just lamenting the decline of culture and its vulgar, narcissistic depravity, we must put a greater focus on how to change our culture for the better. Whether that’d be rich Republican businessmen becoming patrons to experimental, high quality artists or a band of lower income, like-minded people that crowdfund such musicians, something must be done. Change could also come from legal changes that make it easier for small music companies to do business and struggling artists to be full-time artists.