Pretty much every week I fill this column with words about music. This is pretty standard fare for a music column. However, like most pop music writers, I’ve rarely broached the more fundamental, almost embarrassingly simple questions. Like: what do we actually make pop music for? And – seriously – how useful is it beyond of entertainment and escapism? Part of the reason these questions don’t get asked in this sort of context is because they’re huge questions, and could warrant a library’s worth of writing. But even if you can’t drink the ocean, it can worth dipping your toes in.

Popular music criticism – understandably – tends to zoom in, not out. It’s not commonplace to see a discussion of what a record or performance could mean beyond its own internal logic – those things like style, genre, signifiers, structure, melody, rhythm and timbre, variables that can be played within an elaborate game of composition and performance. In certain contexts, social commentary does emerge around contemporary music – and lately there’s been plenty of debate on issues like cultural appropriation, gender representation and race relations in pop. Yet these conversations seem to revolve around issues that crop up incidentally and prove to be problematic. What about the actual political use value of pop music? We’ve all encountered overtly political music – and it’s tempting to ignore the topic, since plenty of it is cringeworthy. Beyond hyper-self-conscious efforts (“Do They Know It’s Christmas?”) I do wonder: what can pop music achieve, how can it affect a place, steer a cultural mood?

Questions like these are usually left to the ethnomusicologists, music therapists, pontificating hippies et al. Generally, the question of purpose or use value bears an insinuation – a suggestion that music ought to influence society, or represent something beyond itself and its sonic/emotional content. Which good-time-lovin’ musicians and listeners might deem haughty, pointlessly intellectual, and unfair.

After all, we all already know about pop music’s common use value, more or less. I figure it boils down to roughly five things, though you could itemize it a million ways:
1. It sounds “good” (i.e. interesting, or fun, or comfortingly familiar – it has a positive memory association). (Mate, why are you listening to D’Angelo? Well it sounds good, doesn’t it, you gronk).
2. We relate to the moods or sentiments it conveys. This music SOUNDS how I FEEL, man!
3. It provides an aurally pleasing departure point for other good things in life like dancing, moshing, driving, beard-stroking, jogging, drinking and having sex; it acts as a sort of helpful cue and soundtrack for different components of your lifestyle.
4. It provides “cultural capital” – mate, you haven’t listened to Einstürzende Neubauten? I have. I have the t-shirt and the vinyl. I am a better, cooler person than you, and it feels good.
5. If you make music yourself, it’s a means of oh-so-important “self-expression” – an expressiveness which can be enjoyed vicariously by the listener.

We take these utilities for granted, and perhaps rarely discuss them for the same reason we rarely ask “why did we invent tortillas?” – it seems too straightforward to warrant a conversation, or at least to produce an interesting one. And yet beyond these familiar, internalized notions, it seems that the political usefulness of pop music is a mysterious and little-understood variable.

Without a doubt, my interest in this topic has been piqued by the hefty waves of discontent rolling through my peer group in response to the incumbent federal government’s policies, and the recently announced budget of 2014. Still, that notwithstanding, I’ve long been fascinated by stories of pop music that has measurably effected the political sphere around it. Like, say, Os Mutantes (“The Mutants”) a still-active Brazilian group who formed in the 1960s, and upon integrating with the colourfully countercultural Tropicália arts movement grew to be considered a legitimate threat to the Brazilian Military Government. With their oddball rock-and-roll sound and strange art-world influences, they became of a local emblem for the era’s openness to sex, drugs and party culture, plus the subversive qualities of the modernist avant-garde. Their shows would be interrupted and raided by the military; the Mutantes played up to their reputation, mocking their oppressors with ironic uniforms and releasing unapologetically experimental records. It would be foolishly romantic to suggest that they played a vital role in bringing down that government, which lasted from 1964 to 1985. But they, and Tropicália as a whole, were a genuine force of resistance. It is impossible to say to what extent they mobilized the culture against oppression, and to what extent they reflected a countercultural zeitgeist. These two things are tightly intertwined.

Beyond the general and fairly bland notions that “everything is political” (because everything has motivations, implications and consequences) and “everything is music” (because everything is vibrations in space), music and politics in the vernacular sense have a long and tangled history. Let’s quickly call upon Plato, who had elaborate, specific and ethically-driven ideas of what should be fostered, and what shouldn’t be permitted, in music (flutes are out, by the way… apologies to all Platonic flautists reading). You might think Plato is a cool guy, but he was none too keen on the development of musical styles:

“Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.”

This might seem dramatic, but I’d suggest he’s at least right about the second bit. There’s a synchronicity between musical shifts and shifts in “the state.” Cause and effect may be hard to establish, but if you want to maintain the social status quo, it’s best to keep music stagnant, and vice versa. Of course, we all learnt in high school English class that art is shaped significantly by its context. More intriguing is the question of how much art can shape sphere in which it exists.

It’s well known that music can have an anthemic function, that it can enhance solidarity and rally people around a cause. Percussive rhythms and vocal songs have long been used for warfaring and ceremonial purposes. Before the Zildjian company started making cymbals (which are now rock-industry standard) for artistic purposes in the 19th century, it made them to scare off enemies of the Ottomoan Empire. All totalitarian regimes have espoused certain propoganda-ready styles and denounced other, freer, more individualistic approaches. There is no doubt that music becomes a more potent tool, the more it is resented by the powerful. That’s a good start.

In the 1959, the folk song ‘We Shall Overcome’ emerged as an unofficial anthem of the American Civil Rights movement, performed by the liked of Pete Seeger on Joan Baez (the latter led a crowd 300,000 strong in singing the song at a march on Washington). In 1965, president Lyndon Johnson used the title phrase in a speech, thereby expressing his support for the protest movment in a remarkable turning point. Rarely has a song lyric meant and achieved so much.

Protest songs can be easily spotted, throughout history and across the world. From classical music (Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco) to hip hop (“Fuck The Police,”) there’s no doubt that protest songs can transcend their specific origins to become enduring, adaptable things. Australia is no stranger to them either. Here we seem to focus most heavily in indigenous rights (see: Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty,” and Midnight Oil’s “Beds Are Burning” among dozens more) and the folly and futility of war (tunes like Eric Bogle’s “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,” Redgum’s “A Walk in the Light Green” and The Herd’s “77%.”

But the fact that these songs are political does not, in itself, prove much. In a modern pop context – outside of crucial pushes like the Civil Rights movments – do political messages in pop songs actually sink in?
In 2010, the University of Minnesota’s Mark Pedelty and Linda Keefe conducted a rigorous study of students’ listening habits versus their topics of discussion. The academic pursuit confirmed what you might assume: students who listened to “political pop” were significantly more politically engaged than those who stuck to apolitical chart-toppers.

For sociologist and cultural theorist Theodor Adorno, music “possesses a unique ability to awaken our soporific social consciousness.” But Adorno was averse to pop music, believing it to be shallow and commercial, contending that “must resist commodification in order to be a powerful force for socio-political change.” He espoused specific approaches and sounds, and as such echoes Plato: music has an interent political power, but there’s a right and a wrong way to use this potential.

On the one hand, it’s hard to deny that much of the world’s most popular “political music” seems entirely benign. Bands like U2 and Rage Against The Machine preach anti-establishment politics, but exist in – and receive their platform from – the corporate music industry. If they were a genuine threat to the status quo, they probably wouldn’t have record deals. And while their songs may grow from specific concerns, the end result is often too vague, too generic and fuzzy, to rally listeners around any particular push for change.

But that doesn’t mean that pop songs are mere window dressing in the sphere of political change. To cite one recent example, I’d argue that Pussy Riot, while more noted for their antics than their music, needed the latter to attract a spotlight – which has allowed them to illuminate the injustices of the Putin regime around the world. Their August 2012 single “Putin Lights Up The Fires,” was more than a fashionable accessory to their politics; it was a passionate centrepiece, a great punk song, and a sort of lifeblood driving the message forward through amplifiers and airwaves.

Joan Baez has shared her own thoughts on the matter of pop and the way it can reach people: “I think that music is probably the only medium that really does cross all boundaries, and all languages, and all countries.” Perhaps it’s not the only one, but the cross-pollination of music around the world has been manifest in every potent example, from the subversive weirdo-pop of Os Mutantes to the anti-Apertheid anthems of South Africa. But Baez, who sang “We Shall Overcome” to that 300,000 strong crowd, has no illusions about the interdependency of music and action. “The social change is never really made by music,” Baez continues “it has to be backed up by what you do.” Which for Baez, and others, has meant civil disobedience and getting arrested. The pop song is, perhaps, benign – until it is put in the right place at the right time.

On Sunday, I attended Melbourne’s “March In May” protest, a peaceful stroll (in a 25,000 person group) through the CBD. For the most part, the March was quiet, somehow strangely subdued. The moment I felt my heart rate pick up was when a drum fired up amid the throng, and began pounding rhythms upon which chants were layered. This mustered a certain amount of enthusiasm from the surrounding marchers. But when the group turned a corner – from Bourke onto Swanston street, towards Federation square – we saw a band setting up, a rock band with a saxophone. The band fired up with an ebuillient groove and the crowd erupted into cheers and applause. There was nothing political about this band’s music, but at that moment, it put wind in the sails of countless protestors. It was not the substance, it wasn’t exactly a self-contained ideology, but it was an invigorating force.

Which is partly why music need not be “political” in the way we might commonly talk about it in order to have a real political impact. An instrumental house music dance party – if held in parliament house, say – could have a tremendous impact. “The dangerous thing about listening to music,” said Tori Amos, “is that you don’t really know the effect it’s going to have.” The same can be said about the music you make and share. Which is why, in a time of great political discontent in Australia, the role of pop music might just be getting more interesting, more dangerous, every day. And it needn’t be “Beds Are Burning” to ruffle a few feathers.