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Rhythm and Soul: Music achieving social change

By Kathleen McWilliams
On February 26, 2014

Most people know from a basic anthropology class that sound originated to facilitate communication. In the same vein, theorists such as Charles Darwin theorized that music was created as to sexually attract mates. While this theory explains birdsong and a whole lot about Justin Beiber, a 2013 study by psychology and neuroscience researchers at the University of Colorado and the University Of Ontario Institute Of Technology looks at music as "social glue."
According to Chris Loesch, one of the primary researchers, "music evolved in service of group living." His study looks at ritualized drumming, music played at military and sporting events and gauges people's reactions. His hypothesis was that people react the same ways to music because the music has evolved to carry a meaning that binds sectors of society together.
Now, I'm a big fan of this theory because I've always thought that music has played a large role in social change. I grew up listening to a lot of music that taught me about social problems and achieving change, so I naturally accepted music as a venue for social justice. Three decades ago social commentary was a large part of the music industry. Chart toppers like Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye and Crosby Stills and Nash were writing songs heavily based social issues during the time. Stevie Wonder's 1973 "Living for the City" was No. 8 on Billboard's charts and was song completely about how poverty and racism were still rampant issues for African Americans in the South. More importantly, the song reflected the struggles of living in urban areas on blue collar jobs. With lyrics like "is father works some days for fourteen hours/And you can bet he barely makes a dollar/His mother goes to scrub the floor for many and you'd best believe she hardly gets a penny/ Living just enough, just enough for the city," Wonder paints a vivid picture for his listeners about the hardships of urban life.
Bands like U2 tackled massive political problems in their songs from the assassination Martin Luther King, Jr. in "Pride (In the Name of Love)" to massacre of political protestors in Derry, Northern Ireland in 1972 in the song "Sunday Bloody Sunday." Similarly, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young tackled the shooting at Kent State University in 1970. After student protests against the Vietnam War turned violent the Ohio National Guard shot at the protestors killing four and wounding nine. The pop song that reached critical acclaim memorialized the injustice and preserved the history of the incident for generations to come.
When I thought about modern artists who tackle social justice issues in their music I have to admit I couldn't think of many. Certainly many of the groups I listen to don't really have much to say on the subject, perhaps because the United States in relatively at peace with itself. I did think of Jay-Z's "Somewhereinamerica" that discusses how racism is alive and well in the United States. It is a good example of a song that strives to be about more than just shocking. It's a song with a conscience. Similarly, Macklemore's "Same Love" goes above and beyond the call of duty for pop music. While we live in a progressive part of the nation it bears saying that some people don't see homosexual or pansexual relationships as "same" and "equal." While we hopefully all live to see a generation where all sexualities can love with the same equality, Macklemore has immortalized the cause and will remind future generations that we cannot take our human rights for granted. Muse's 2009 album "The Resistance" is great album almost entirely devoted to subtly mentioning social justice issues. "MK Ultra" is a song about government experiments with LSD on soldiers after the Vietnam, while United States of Eurasia (Collateral Damage) explores the political instability and international community's ignorance of the problems in that area of the world.
In terms of Loesch's study, it does seem that music is a platform for social commentary and, perhaps, if enough people are affected, social change.

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