As Childish Gambino shows, pop music can be powerfully political – despite censorship

This is America. Childish Gambino/YouTube

It is a violently subversive darkly comic take on police brutality, white supremacy, and US machismo – and Childish Gambino’s music video, This is America, has been released to critical acclaim, 133,000,000 YouTube hits (and counting), and minimal backlash.

It may seem incongruous, then, that in 1988, Noam Chomsky and Ed Herman proposed that the media industry would not oppose state or private power in any fundamental way. Herman and Chomsky highlighted five causal factors that led them to this conclusion: concentrated corporate ownership; the prevalence of advertising money; the reliance on official information sources; the disproportionate ability of powerful organisations to issue flak against dissenters, and a pervasive axiom that the Western economic system is a panacea.

These same factors are prominent in entertainment media, too. In fact, the national security apparatus – especially the CIA, FBI and US Department of Defence – has vetted more than 2,000 audio-visual products over the past century, including Meet the Parents, Black Hawk Down, and Hulk.

Vetted music

Similar political and corporate forces, we think, shape the output of the US and UK music industries. There is undoubtedly a music “mainstream” which acquiesces to state power or even produces outright propaganda. Artists such as Mariah Carey, Katy Perry and Cher have appeared in music videos made with US military assistance, functioning as recruitment adverts. And just before the Persian Gulf War, 100 celebrities including Celine Dion, Will Smith and Michael Bolton recorded “Voices That Care” to praise American troops with immortal lines like:

Right or wrong, we’re all praying you’ll remain strong
That’s why we’re all here and singing along.

Similarly, whatever their good intentions, pop stars like Bono and Bob Geldof, and major events like Live8, were coopted by the state, their radical aims subsumed within the established structures of international power.

Nor are musicians somehow immune to specific political legislation. The Northern Irish Troubles resulted in the censorship of several prominent songs. Wings’ Give Ireland Back to Irish (1972) and the video for The Police’s Invisible Sun (1981) were banned by numerous broadcasters in the UK. Similarly, Michael Howard’s Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, touted as a way to crack down on antisocial behaviour, in practice restricted the political potential of free parties, squatting, direct action and a repetition of 1967’s “summer of love” and its 1988 ecstasy-fuelled revival, which promoted the ideals of peace, love and cooperation.

There are also cases of direct peacetime censorship, particularly where powerful individuals are challenged directly. The BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority banned the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen during the monarch’s 1977 Silver Jubilee simply on the grounds of “bad taste”. And in 2013, the BBC banned Ding, Dong, The Witch Is Dead! due to its linking with Margaret Thatcher’s death.

During the 2017 UK general election campaign Liar Liar GE2017, a song by the reggae band Captain SKA, which criticised unfulfilled Conservative party campaign promises from previous elections, was banned by all major British broadcasters. This was despite the fact that it did not endorse any one party over another, as would be required for Ofcom to intervene.

Stage against the machine

But all told, it’s a little easier to release a subversive song in the mainstream than most other forms of media. In the past half century, rock and punk artists, in particular, have struck a rebellious tone without losing their contracts. Even the Sex Pistols stayed signed to major labels with their records readily available.

More recently, British-Iraqi hip hop artist Lowkey criticised the government over the Iraq War and Grenfell Tower disaster, while still signed to Sony. And a string of recent songs have insulted the sitting US president, Donald Trump, including Mr. Tangerine Man, yet there has been no form of ban.

How can we explain the greater opportunities for political subversion? Well, the typical three-minute pop song simply cannot contain as much incendiary information as a motion picture or news report, which makes any individual song less of an obvious concern. When The Black Eyed Peas released their hugely successful anti-war song Where is the Love? (2003), it associated the CIA with terrorism and faced no hint of censorship – but this is less surprising when one considers that the most specific adjective it uses for the agency is “big”.

In addition, the low production costs and sheer number of songs – in comparison to movies - allows greater artistic risk-taking, both in terms of money and outcomes.

Subversive poetic material can also be more easily hidden in metaphor, wordplay and nuance, as was famously achieved by The Shamen in 1992 with their class A drug-friendly hit Ebeneezer Goode. Occasionally, even grassroots films like the documentary Deadly Deception (1991) have broken through and triggered significant direct reform of government and corporate activity. In this case, it prompted General Electric to close its armaments division. But if songs can be successful by simply appealing through posturing to a niche audience, why should they trouble anyone anyway?

The 17th-century Scottish political activist Andre Fletcher once said: “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.” As it stands, activists do not have control over the laws. But there is space for musicians to be more political in their art, even if the potency of the form itself has some limitations.

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