Some popular songs from across the decades which illustrate various social trends.
The 1960s…. I Can’t Get No Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones (1965)
No, it’s not (just) about sexual frustration, in a word (or rather a concept) it’s about anomie… with possible links to Strain Theory.
The 1960s witnessed the acceleration of consumer culture, and in this song Jagger outlines his frustrations at the commercialization of everything. He’s a rebel, and yet he’s part of the system, maybe realizing he can’t escape it….. socially induced cognitive dissonance, aka anomie.
The 1970s.. Imagine, John Lennon (1971)
Sociology started in something of a Utopian spirit, even if August Comte’s hopes for a Positivist ‘progress through order‘ was somewhat different from John Lennon’s take on Utopia, so what other song was it going to be from the 1970s? Other than this:
Pink Floyd… Another Brick in the Wall (1979)
To my mind the contrast between ‘Imagine’ and this song just about sum up the mood change in British society from the beginning to the end of the 1970s. NB If Pink Floyd thought education was bad back in the 1970s, that was nothing compared to terrors of performativity unleashed by Marketisation in the 1980s, talking of which….
The 1980s…Like a Virgin, Madonna (1984)
You’ll struggle to find a better representation of dawn of postmodernity than this…it’s all here – the beginning of self-branding, and the themes of reinventing yourself (it’s in the title, unless I’m reading too much into it!).
The 1990s… Outside – by the legendary George Michael (RIP), 1998
As it says in the comments – it’s the ‘best ‘proud’ I’m gay’ song ever, but we can do a little better…
If you contrast how the public persona of GM in Outside has changed since his ‘in the closet’ days of ‘Last Christmas‘ this can be used to illustrate the extent to which social attitudes to sexuality changed between the years 1986 to 1998… in fact, according to this Guardian article, George Michael used this song explicitly as a message that he would not be shamed about his sexuality. To bring this a bit more up to date – you might also like this performance of George in the first ever ‘Car Pool’ (2011).
Of course you could even backtrack to Humphries’ Tea Room Trade Research (1968 I think that was) to further emphasize changing attitudes to sexuality.
The 2000s… Add Me, Chumbawamba (2008)
Add me, Add me,
Me mother says she wish she never had me.
Add me, add me,
Would you like to add me as a friend?
You’ll never guess what this is an early critique of!
The 2010s… Ghosts of Grenfell, Lowkey (2017)
Just watch it. Every single victim is named at the end…..
And maybe to avoid a tragedy like this happening again, what we need is the…
Chas and Dave may not realise it, but I think many of their songs demonstrate how their (working class male) experience of the shift in gender-relations and the emergence of the pure relationship hasn’t been a comfortable one…
‘London Girls’ seems to be a a clear indication of what they want in a woman….a simple, traditional ‘girl’ who does your washing, mends your clothes and doesn’t complain when you leave your tat lying around the house…
Sorry to say lads, but that kind of traditional ‘gal is a rare find these days, especially among working class couples, where it’s more likely that both partners will have to work to survive, so they’re pretty much setting themselves up for frustration wishing for the past.
In another song, ‘Ain’t No Pleasing You’, Anthony Giddens might point out that this is an inevitable consequence of the ‘Pure Relationship’ now being the typical type of relationship in late-modern society.
From this analytical point of view, the lads might lament a little less – it’s not that one of them in-particular was never good enough, it’s that in the age of individualised relationships, where we both expect more but don’t have the time to make sufficient compromises, most (yes – MOST) relationships are doomed to failure.
The Song ‘Rabbit’ seems to further indicate a negative experience of their partners’ constant chatter – despite having ‘wonderful arms, and…. charms’ (I kid you not, it’s an actual line in the song), they can’t stand her constant talking.
Ulrich Beck might point out that this is something which is much more likely to be expected in the age of the negotiated family, where the expectations of relationships constantly shift, and so require more discussion to keep them on track.
You could also interpret Chas and Dave’s music as something of a reaction against cosmopolitanism – they’ve been around the world, yet all they want is Jellied Eels and a Pint, thank you very much. I guess if they wan’t cheering up, they could always go down to Margate… I’ve heard it’s pretty reactionary down that way….
P.S. When it comes to the Heathrow Christmas advert – I’m with Charlie Brooker – This is just too weird, they should never have gone there!
Blame Relative Deprivation and YouTube for this Post!
So there I was on Zoopla having a new years gawp at how I could buy a three bedroom end of terrace house in Margate for £50K less than my two bed flat in Surrey – and that ‘Down to Margate’ song popped into my head. A few clicks and a few songs later the idea for this post just sort of emerged… Sorry!
Racial inequality and injustice are core themes within A level and degree-level Sociology, and there are a huge variety of songs across many genres which deal with such themes. The selection below deal with issues and concepts such as prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, Islamophobia, and many are critical of the nation state in perpetuating racial injustice through violence and moral panics.
The amount of such songs probably reflects the fact that their authors’ really aren’t being heard through regular channels, hence the musical outlet. Below are my top ten songs about race and injustice which can be used to illustrate various sociological themes. If you have any alternative suggestions about other songs which should be included please provide them in the comments.
10 – “War”, Bob Marley and the Wailers (Rastaman Vibration, 1976)
‘One Love’ and happy-spliff posters only represent a slither of Bob Marley’s philosophy – take a closer look at the lyrics of many of his songs and you’ll find a more serious political side to them – the opening verse of ‘War’ illustrates this perfectly..
‘Until the philosophy which hold one race superior And another Inferior Is finally And permanently Discredited And abandoned – Everywhere is war – Me say war’
In later verses there’s a vision of globalisation based on human rights and international morality, and there seems to be a critique of the role which various nation states have played in preventing this from happening, a theme which you’ll find in some of his other songs such as ‘No Woman, No Cry”, which has precious little to do with romance btw.
9 – “Columbus”, Burning Spear (Hail H.I.M., 1980)
There’s not a great deal of sociological/ political content in ‘Columbus’ compared to some of the other songs on the list, but it does provide us with an unambiguous criticism of colonialism and reminds us that much of our history comes from a Eurocentric perspective.
‘Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar Christopher Columbus is a damn blasted liar Yes Jah
He’s saying that, he is the first one Who discover Jamaica I and I say that, What about the Arawak Indians and the few Black man Who were around here, before him’
8 – “Beds Are Burning”, Midnight Oil (Diesel and Dust, 1987)
This song protests the forcible removal of the Australian Aboriginal people, the Pintupi, from their western desert homeland, to the Northern Territories. During the 1950’s, the western desert was used for missile testing so the government forcibly relocated the Pintupi. Their land was not purchased from them and they received no compensation for their troubles.
The relocation didn’t just remove a people from their land; it also forcibly removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their parents, who were dispersed into separate government and religious institutions and foster care. They became known as “The Stolen Generation”.
‘The time has come
To say fair’s fair To pay the rent To pay our share
The time has come A fact’s a fact It belongs to them Let’s give it back’
Midnight Oil performed this song at the close of the 2000 Sydney Olympic games to a world audience of billions of people, including Prime Minister John Howard. The entire band was dressed in black with the word “sorry” printed on their clothing because the Prime Minister refused to apologise on behalf of Australia to the Aboriginal Australians for how they were treated in the past 200 years.
A good candidate for the angriest of the songs on the list – but it is none the less an authentic account of perceived police racism in LA in the 1980s.
‘Searching my car, looking for the product Thinking every n***a is selling narcotics You’d rather see, me in the pen Than me and Lorenzo rolling in a Benz-o’
There’s not really too much to say about this one, other than it’s a useful, and classic, illustration of NWA applying labelling theory – the version above is the classic, but they’ve been performing this live even in recent years to a popular reception.
6 – Sonny’s Lettah, Linton Kwesi Johnson (Forces of Victory, 1979)
Sonny’s Lettah was written in protest of the so-called ‘Sus law’, which allowed police to detain people suspected of having “intent to commit an arrestable offence,” in England. The story of Sonny is a condensation of various experiences gathered by Johnson into this one song.
The ‘lettah’ is written from a man to his mother explaining that he’s in prison – for defending a friend who was detained and beaten by the police for no apparent good reason.
‘Me and Jim stand up waiting pon a bus not causing no fuss when all on a sudden a police man pull up out jump 3 police man De ‘ole a dem carrying baton
Ma Maa, meck a tell yu weh dem do to Jim Ma Maa , meck a tell yu we dem do to him Dem tump ‘im in ‘im belly an’ it turn to jelly Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im back an ‘im rib get pop Dem lick ‘im pon ‘im head but it tuff like lead Dem kick ‘im in ‘im seed an it started to bleed
Ma Maa I just couldn’t just stan’ up deh a no do nutten…’
In contrast to NWA, this is the most depressing song on the list, testimony maybe to the power of the narrative voice: the fact that it’s just one personalised (albeit hypothetically mish-mashed) case somehow has more of an emotional impact than many of the other songs which are more generalised and abstract.
5 – “Talk That”, Rival (Lord Rivz EP, 2011)
Written on the back of the London Riots, grime artist rival reminds us that there are literally hundreds of thousands of marginalised young people living in London who don’t identify with The City, the Olympic Park or Buckingham Palace – theirs is a life of blocked opportunity, crime and violence.
“A lot of people ask me why I speak so much violence, so much pain, so much rage,
That’s all I know”
4 – “Fortress Europe”, Asian Dub Foundation (Enemy of the Enemy, 2003)
A song dealing with asylum seekers – Asian Dub Foundation believe Britain’s boarders should remain open because Britain needs immigrants, with even illegal immigrants generating wealth. They also believe that the media making the link between asylum seekers and terrorism does not reflect the reality of most asylum seekers, i.e. most of them (near enough all of them in fact) are not terrorists.
‘Safe european homes built on wars You don’t like the effect don’t produce the cause The chip is in your head not on my shoulder Total control just around the corner Open up the floodgates time’s nearly up Keep banging on the wall of fortress europe Keep banging Keep banging on the wall of fortress europe’
3. “Rong Radio Station”, Benjamin Zephaniah (Naked, 2006)
Deals with the role of the media in maintaining ideological control/ hegemony/ false consciousness. You have to watch it with the video – it adds another dimension!
‘For years I’ve been sedated Now I think I’m educated I’ve been listening to the rong radio station and every time I felt ill, I took the same little white pill I’ve been listening to the rong radio station, When I started I was curious but then it got so serious I was cool when I began but now I really hate Iran And look at me now I wanna make friends with Pakistan I wanna bomb Afghanistan’
2 “Terrorist”, Lowkey (Soundtrack to The Struggle, 2011)
Serves to remind us that while ‘terrorism’ is almost exclusively associated with Islamic Fundamentalism these days, there are in fact many violent, politically motivated actions which maybe should be regarded as terrorism, but aren’t labelled as such.
Tell me, what’s the bigger threat to human society BAE Systems or home made IED’s Remote controlled drones, killing off human lives Or man with home made bomb committing suicide
If you look back over the past century, there are dozens of cases of western governments using violence to pursue their political goals – but when powerful organisations use smart-weapons to kill innocent people thousands of miles away, this is ‘legitimate force and collateral damage’, but when some Muslims do the same in the West, but with cruder home made weapons, they get labelled ‘terrorists’.
In versus two and three we get a nice historical overview of recent democratic regimes in developing countries which the West overthrew using military force, and in verse three a broader account of non-Islamic forms of terrorism.
1 – “Freestyle”, Akala (Fire in the Booth, 2011)
Eight minutes of freestyling by Akala, covering numerous sociological issues. Common themes in Akala’s songs include war and conflict, racism, social injustice, and false consciousness – nicely illustrating many of the concepts developed by Marxist and Interactionist thought.
‘We can all fight our brothers over crumbs,
Harder to fight the one who makes guns’
NB Akala is very knowledgeable about the history of class and race relations in the UK – you should look at some of the videos with him talking/ being interviewed for an accessible introduction to this area of sociology.