The following article was written by OPENWIDE Volume 14 Web Editor Emily Stewart for our January 2014 issue. It was featured along with Arts and Entertainment Editor Jenna Taylor’s article, found here.
Have you ever blared a favourite song to drown your problems? Though few would admit to using popular music as an emotional crutch, it’s difficult to deny that playing an uplifting track can be good for one’s morale. I often find comfort in knowing that an artist cared enough to write relatable and uplifting lyrics about getting through tough times, especially in a musical climate where sensationalism and superficiality seem to be some of the biggest sellers. When pop musicians take the rare step away from the normalized drivel about relationships and parties, they put out a more personal song with a positive message.
Granted, this is not a recent trend. While many would use the example of Gaga’s “Born This Way,” the pop music industry is no stranger to motivational content. Consider Queen’s uplifting power ballads “I Want to Break Free,” “Don’t Stop Me Now,” and of course “We Are The Champions” – classics that have dominated the airwaves and inspired many to raise fists since Freddie first belted these tracks out in the 70s. Today’s pop music scene might be a far cry from the Queen era, but from Hedley’s “Anything” to Kelly Clarkson’s “People Like Us,” inspirational songs remain a staple in the pop artist’s repertoire. Motivating lyrics are not only a refreshing alternative in a musical climate chalk-full of songs about drinking, sex, and drug use (look no further than “Blurred Lines” for recent examples of that), but they also provide something more meaningful – an emotional element that pop culture in generally devoid of. These songs reflect the rare instances of celebrities mobilizing a medium in a way that promotes self-reflection and personal growth, which enables discourse around pertinent social issues. Macklemore’s hit “I Can’t Change,”* for example, is a progressive step in a genre dominated by sexism and homophobia.
Yet the trend towards such positive tracks has faced its fair share of criticism. Chris “Motionless” Cerulli, lead singer of the American metal band Motionless in White, expressed his frustration towards the subject on his Tumblr blog. Cerulli criticizes artists for selling out and consumers for naively accepting what he feels is little more than a marketing strategy. He likens this trend in the music industry to socially-conscious marketing employed by corporate brands. Cerulli writes, “Do people not realize they are being scammed? Are people too stupid to see that the ‘message’ is a money-making, failsafe plan? These bands and companies realize that people are responding heavily to the ‘message’ thing and many of them have no problem using that to their advantage.”
Cerulli’s claims highlight a complex issue that differs greatly from to artist to artist. While he’s flattered fans are touched by his work, Cerulli contends that his music is a reflection of his personal experience and is not written with the purpose of providing listeners with emotional stability. He believes that while a listener is free to draw personal meaning from a song, this does not make musicians responsible for reaching out in an effort to console their audiences. He says rather bluntly: “If in fact you were on the brink of any self harming action…it was YOU who pulled yourself from the ledge. You saved your own life, you are the hero. Why are people not willing to take credit for their own actions?”
Still, does this mean we should condemn musicians who produce positive messages? Music, pop or not, functions as an effective coping mechanism. While pop songs might carry the reputation of being a lighter medium, its positively-inclined songs nevertheless leave listeners better off. It’s true that not all songs relate directly to fans, but that doesn’t mean individual listeners shouldn’t draw inspiration from them and can’t apply the lyrics to their own circumstances. After all, isn’t this one of the most important social roles of art? Feeling inspired by positive lyrics in a pop song is no different than feeling the same way after reading a book or poem, looking at a photo series or watching a film. To ostracize pop music as a craft that can never be used positively, whether on a personal or broader social level, is to wrongfully vilely the medium. Musical therapy, though based in classical songs, has proven itself to have positive effects in hospital environments, and has been in practiced since the mid-fifties. Who’s to say that pop music can’t provide similar relief?
Awareness surrounding issues like bullying and mental health has increased in the past few years, and the music industry is beginning to take notice. Simple Plan’s organization, The Simple Plan Foundation, specializes in assisting troubled youth. The band explains that interacting with fans post-concert and reading emails made them aware of the mental health issues affecting teenagers. The band writes, “It breaks our hearts to see so many young people fighting to survive while feeling depressed or lost. We want our Foundation to help them find their way and show them that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, that things can get better.” Simple Plan’s well-received “This Song Saved My Life” is based on what fans wrote to the band in thanks for releasing music that had helped them through difficult times.
The Canadian Mental Health Association reports the second leading cause of death for young Canadians aged 10-24 is suicide. With this saddening statistic in mind, it is evident that an immediate, accessible outlet – even a short-term one – is crucial. Music can often play that role, easing pain or stress through its simple melodic rhythm. Canadian electro-pop artist Lights told the Huffington Post Canada that her fans consistently write to her about their problems. “Maybe their family or friends don’t understand the weight of the scenario, so they’re telling someone like me who they don’t even know. That’s heartbreaking to me because there’s not really much I can do about it except for trying to encourage people to be confident and not ashamed of anything”. While Lights remains humble about the support she provides her fans, her situation demonstrates just how much listeners connect with her music.
There’s no denying that the media industry profits hugely from the positive social engagement of entertainment. Giving Circles author Angela M. Eikenberry notes, “Many corporations that sign on for cause-marketing campaigns enjoy higher sales and wider publicity for their products and services, improve their image with consumers, expand their markets, and boost employee morale.” Yet in the case of music with a positive messages, perhaps selling out to mass audiences isn’t such a negative thing. Pop music is a powerful tool, having the potential to reach large, international audiences. Using such a vast medium can positively influence a vulnerable and impressionable youth and teen market. It’s true that songs won’t fix everything, but they can certainly help raise awareness and ease the pain.
*EDITOR’S NOTE: The song “I Can’t Change” refers to “Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert