Where Have All the Angry Mainstream Musicians Gone?

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Is there a difference between the engagement and approach of past and current popular musicians? Getty Images/Corbis/HowStuffWorks

If a law professor, a brain surgeon and a pizza mogul can do it, maybe a hip-hop superstar can too. Kanye West is apparently running for president in 2020, on a to-be-determined platform that probably includes straight talk, social justice and the death of fish sticks jokes. If he wants an all-rapper White House, Yeezy doesn't need to look too far: Run the Jewels' Killer Mike recently took Bernie Sanders out for soul food in Atlanta after endorsing The Bern in his run for the county's highest office in 2016.

But for the limited action on the hip-hop front, the music world has been fairly silent of late when it comes to talking politics and social issues. Every once in a while Neil Young or the Dropkick Murphys come out of their recording studios to tell some hack to stop using their tunes on the campaign trail, and political music's still found among independent and local acts. But the total number of big-name, chart-topping artists making activism and outrage a focal point of their actual art these days is negligible.

"As somebody with roots in punk culture, and who has been a countercultural observer and participant for many years, I'm mystified by the lack of social consciousness or political anger or plain anger in both pop and alternative music," says Bruce Pavitt.

Pavitt knows what he's talking about. As the founder of Seattle's Sub Pop Records, he helped tear the lid off of the grunge rock scene in the '90s and launched bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney.

He's not alone in wondering where all the angry – or even just politically aware – musicians are holing up. It was all the way back in 2000 when Rage Against the Machine rocked outside the Democratic Convention to protest the two-party political system. It's been more than a decade since Kanye took issue with George Bush's respect for black folks five years later. And the 1960s and '70s had numerous prominent political songs topping charts. (To be fair, it may be that we remember them more – there was certainly no shortage of apolitical pop back then, too.)

"It's quite disappointing, and almost embarrassing, to be in the industry today," Scott Cohen, the co-founder of digital music distributor and artist management company The Orchard, says. "Imagine if people like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber and One Direction used their voices to highlight some injustice in the world. Whether it's the environment, or world hunger or human rights, just pick a cause."

Cohen is a minimalist and strict vegan, but he says performers don't have to be as intensely committed to certain causes. "The music doesn't even have to be political, just use your voice to say something," Cohen says. "Pay attention to what's going on in the world."

The arrival of the Internet and the dawn of the digital age were supposed to mean that bands would no longer be slaves to their records labels. That, of course, would seem to make it easier for artists to speak their minds and push some envelopes without having to worry about their corporate backers. But a funny thing happened on the way to establishing the new music order. 

Could it be that if artists have to express themselves but also handle worrying about what sells, they're less likely to make a statement?

"It's not a matter of 'Hey, I just put a song out and now I'm going to have a career,'" Cohen says. "The Internet, and marketing and reaching an audience has become far more sophisticated than ever. Make no mistake, we're still in a world where the record companies dominate."

Cohen and Pavitt have different takes on whether recording and other forms of corporate control are stifling the artistic strife. The LiveNation and Ticketmaster 2010 merger means one entity controls the overwhelming majority of U.S. concert ticket sales. Meanwhile, Clear Channel owns about 1,200 radio stations nationwide, a drastic difference from just 20 years ago when companies were more limited in their ownership capabilities.

"There is centralized control over commercial radio and booking, which casts a chill over content," Pavitt says.

But Cohen says he doesn't hear record companies telling artists to watch what they say. "I'd like to see someone give me an example of record companies telling their artists, 'Don't talk about helping the rain forest,'" he says.

So then what's tamping down the political talk? Is it the lack of a clear villain a community can rally against? Is it widespread social justice fatigue? Or could it be that today's hit makers are just mellowing out on some of that new Willie Nelson weed?

Maybe the music world really does need a certain mic-hogging MC to bring politics back to center stage.