Essays on Pop Music

However popular music itself has very limited ability to create lasting communities, merely the temporary “community of the audience… the imagined community of the individual fan… or the transitory community of the teenage rebel” (Rolston 56). However, where stronger communities already exist, such as ones based on race or ethnicity, it is reasonable to expect that popular music can speak for their wants and needs. Rolston refutes this bystating that the music then “simply provides a service, and excuse for the faithful to get together. It confirms, it does not convert… where a song is used by people united by politics, then it merely has to confirm their sense of unity” (Rolston 56).

To find evidence of Rolstons statement, one needs only look to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” – perhaps Bob Dylan’s most famous protest song. For a song used in support of the American civil rights movement, the lyrics are addressed not to the community Dylan is supporting, but to the opponents of the movement. In the songwriter’s own words “I knew exactly what I wanted to say and who I wanted to say it to” (Rolling Stone). What makes Dylan’s song a protest song in Rolston’s eyes is its focus on the community it is protesting against, it never acknowledges the community it is serving and supporting. As a point of difference, the song at number one at the time of release of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” was The Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week”, another one of Rolston’s “silly love songs”.

Alternatively, Denisoff and Levine approach this subject from a more statistical angle. They see popular songs “as a form of background noise, which has little meaning when examined as a total entity” (Denisoff and Levine 117). Given this belief, they expected that listeners of Top Forty songs (a chart with positions held almost exclusively by pop music) to not be comprehending the sentiments of the songs.

If listeners could not comprehend the true meaning within pop music, how could such a song in the genre also be a valid protest song? To find the effectiveness of protest music (propaganda) Denisoff and Levine measure the effectiveness as involving three components: the material’s significance to the listener; how easy it is for listeners to understand; and whether or not the message of the material then compels the listener to take action in one form or another. Denisoff and Levine (118) insist that “the words of popular songs are not particularly important. Therefore, the lyrics of popular songs with a sociopolitical context should not be particularly legible to those hearing them on the Top Forty idiom.” They theorize that listeners who have been exposed to popular music that is also considered to be protest music will not be able to truly understand the song’s message and so any greater action or social effect of the pop/protest song will be severely limited. Denisoff and Levine test this theory by using the popular 1965 protest song “Eve of Destruction” which featured on the Top Forty chart for a number of weeks. Of the 400 people tested, “14 per cent interpreted the song correctly and 45 per cent partially correctly.

Twenty-three per cent gave totally incorrect answers and 18 per cent did not respond” (Denisoff and Levine 120-121). Interestingly, the nonrespondents were considered as not having been affected by the song, which seems to support Denisoff and Levine’s statement of popular music as “background noise”. The fact that pop songs are commonly only partially understood, coupled with the fact that pop singles have rather short lifespans, especially those that generate controversy (as a protest song might tend to do), suggest that whilst it is possible to have a popular protest song its message will tend to be lost by the time it hits the mainstream (i.e. top of the charts).

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