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Popular Music: Meaningful Contributions to Social and Political Change Essay

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Updated: Jan 25th, 2020


To many people, music is a form of art that exists alongside other forms such as storytelling and painting. Music comprises the use of sound and intonations of speech to create deliberate rhythms that appeal to the human ear. The unique potential of the variations of rhythms available has made music one of the most popular concepts across the contemporary world.

The concept of music has been around for longer than man can remember and it serves numerous purposes with the most common being the provision of entertainment to people (Froneman 2014). Over time, some scholars have sought to explain the role of music as a form of communication and its application in most societies around the world as a means of enhancing their unique identity socially.

Such scholars have also sought to help people in understanding the effects of music on emotions, thus leading to specific reactionary behaviour that subsequently affects the way people choose to interact with their environment. This paper seeks to expound this topic by providing a critical assessment of ways in which forms of popular music can meaningfully contribute to movements seeking social or political change.

Such explanation lays its basis on an analysis of differences in perception of music, emotional appeal, cultural identity, and elements of education and entertainment.

In order to create a better understanding of the concept, the paper includes two examples of initiatives that have achieved societal development through the application of popular music. Both cases comprise initiatives that emanated in the United States of America and resulted in both social and political changes within different governments around the world

Conventionally, from the word ‘popular’, popular music could be taken to underscore some kind of music that is a darling to many people. However, from a critical and scholarly point of view, this definition is too vague and thus, it leaves out the building blocks of what exactly popular music stands for in society.

Music has different classifications depending on various factors including the period in which the music was developed, the type of instruments that the musicians use, the cultural identity of the society that subscribes to the particular form in question, and the audience.

According to musicologist, Philip Tagg, ‘popular music’ is a classification of music that derives its classification from socio-cultural and economic aspects (Kotarba et al. 2013).

In his explanation, Tagg describes popular music as one that comprises several essential elements including mass distribution, the presence of a broad heterogeneous audience, the economic value of such music as a commodity, and its acceptance in a capitalist society that allows the distribution of such music under laws of free enterprise (Kotarba et al. 2013).

Essentially, Tagg’s description creates the presumption that popular music is a category of music that is widely acceptable within a majority of the age groups in society. Such popularity within the society often derives from the ability of music to create some appeal, whether emotional or otherwise, thus creating a market for it that is allowable under the laws of a particular society.

Middleton (2002) presents a similar, but varying opinion by stating the identification of the scale of activity surrounding the music as the definitive factor. This assertion means that the establishment of whether music falls under this particular category depends on elements such as sales, recordings, and airplay.

Although these definitions incorporate much of the gist behind popular music, some scholars argue that the presumption of an aggregated market overlooks the diversity of audiences of music, thus resulting in definitions that are lacking. Whichever the case, the element of popularity that makes the music stand out bears universal acceptance.

It is important to note that although the definitions of popular music create an impression that it is one particular type of music, this kind of music covers several genres including, but not limited to, jazz, reggae, rock, and rhythm and blues (Kotarba et al. 2013).

In different times in the history of humankind, different genres of music have become ‘popular’ depending on the society where the music draws the greatest audiences and the message in the particular hit song under consideration.

Due to the enormous reach that popular music has in terms of its audience, this category of music has become one of the most popular means through which people are seeking to pass social and political messages communicate. Ordinarily, the most conventional method of passing political and social messages to large audiences is usually through campaigns.

Such campaigns often include talks on the message in question and encouraging participation from audiences in order to ensure that people receive the message clearly. However, conducting such campaigns through lectures can sometimes result in boredom and monotony, thus creating the need to use a medium through which people are willing to listen (Vershbow 2010).

Due to the entertaining nature of music, most people are often more willing to listen to songs and subsequent messages in the songs regardless of one’s preferences in terms of genre. Popular music forms one of the best categories to apply due to its broad reach, emotional appeal, and diversity of ages its audience possesses. Apart from being an excellent economic commodity, the socio-political potential of popular music is enormous.

Some of the most notable socio-political problems that people have applied popular music to in order to create movements, thus enabling change include poverty, hunger, education, and economic stratification.

In 1985, a group of musicians whose music qualified as popular music in the United States of America, viz. Supergroup USA, which comprised musicians such as Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Lionel Richie and Michael Omartian, participated in the famous song called We are the world in a bid to alleviate a hunger crisis that had hit Africa at the time.

The group created a movement that highlighted the problem to governments and aid workers worldwide and it served as motivation to other countries around the world to get themselves involved in aid efforts, through the sale of more than twenty million copies. The initiative was the work of activist Harry Belafonte and fundraiser Ken Kragen (Holden 1985).

Although the activist and the fundraiser had no experience in music, their idea was a great success and it has served as a roadmap for similar initiatives since then and in the contemporary times. For instance, in 1991, Michael Jackson followed the footsteps of Kragen and Belafonte and started his initiative to promote the rights of children in Africa and the rest of the world through his music.

His song, Heal the world, is one of the most celebrated songs of all times due to the impact it had on societies worldwide regarding their levels of intervention in childcare issues and the amount of funding the project got from the sale of singles all over the world (Miles 2009).

The two examples prove the viability of Philip Tagg’s definition, especially with regard to the importance of the popularity of the music in establishing its potential social and political outcome. Although Kragen and Belafonte are not musicians, their understanding of the economic value of popular music as a commodity resulted in the realisation of its potential in solving a societal problem in a continent different from their own.

Michael Jackson tapped into the same idea without necessarily looking at the economic aspect of his gesture, yet the message in his music reached audiences in societies all over the world, thus resulting in initiatives from different government and private organisations to help in educating, feeding, and building shelters for children in vulnerable situations.

Middleton’s (2002) explanation thus proves similarly viable, regardless of its limitations in perspective. The scale of activity of such music allows for social benefits to more audiences that would otherwise not get the message through ordinary verbal campaigns across different countries. The use of music also reduces the number of time campaigners would need to deliver the campaign messages to populations all over the world.

Aside from the social effects of popular music visible in the above examples, the two initiatives created political implications for governments in the societies in question, albeit subtly. The primary way in which such initiatives affect societies politically is through the creation of awareness and emphasis on existing social problems to which governments need to pay extra attention.

Often, government representatives work on a priority basis when trying to solve economic and social problems facing their societies mainly because the financial health of their cities, states, or countries does not allow them to solve all problems at once.

Although this method of handling affairs works well in most cases, it sometimes results in oversight on the intensity of some situations, thus creating a bigger problem than such governments first perceive.

In other cases, government institutions pay too much attention to some problems and forget that others exist, also creating problems for the society (Hoch 2000). Through various initiatives and the creation of movements for social and political change, popular music serves as a reminder of some of the problems that governments need to focus on as well as creating a clear picture of how situations are regarding the said problems.

For instance, in the earlier examples, the governments of the United States of America and the African states in which the crises were most evident refocused their attention on the issues that the songs highlighted, thus leading to political interventions through restructuring of policies. In 1985, more than fourteen million people in Africa, inclusive of children, ran the risk of death due to hunger and malnutrition.

The release of the song, Heal the world, by Supergroup USA and the view that a group of famous musicians had noticed the gravity of the situation in Africa, prompted the American government to create policies that would help nations, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, in resolving the hunger problem in a better, efficient, and prompt way.

In that year, the government of the United States created an initiative that provided emergency food worth $250 million in addition to the food aid the government gave donated to people in most of the areas affected. The total funding the government provided in terms of emergency and regular food aid and disaster relief programs totalled over one billion dollars (Reagan 1985).

The intervention by the American government during the 1985 hunger crisis in Africa pushed African governments to focus on proactive policies that would help them in preventing such crises in years to come.

Some of the ways through which governments worked on their prevention strategies included promotion of policies to foster agriculture, increase in contingency funding for any future eventualities, re-education of populations on proper farming methods and importance of developing food sufficiency, and environmental interventions to ensure the improvement of problem areas.

Such interventions required strategic planning to ensure the elimination of the problem at the time and prevention of future disasters of a similar fashion. It also needed government institutions to rethink their priorities in a bid to protect the lives of their people.

Often, governments focus on their roles as business entities while transacting in trade and thus they tend to neglect some of their roles in ensuring the protection of lives for the people within their territories (Ip 2010).

Those that remember this role tend to focus on it from the perspective of prevention of borders from outsider attacks, and thus they overlook environmental threats to the lives of the people. For instance, during the food crisis, governments in East Africa realised the intensity of their refugee problems, as nations such as Kenya had to provide food for citizens as well as refugees in camps within the country.

Michael Jackson’s song, Heal the world, highlighted the plight of children living in poverty and other adverse situations, especially in Burundi. Although taking care of children in any community is more of a social duty, the political implications of such a problem are hard to ignore.

The song indirectly highlighted the inadequacy in the methods that the government of Burundi and other countries were applying in dealing with issues of low mortality rates, increasing populations, and provision of social services and amenities to their communities. Usually, low mortality rates translate to more births and consequently children in a specific society every year.

Unlike adults, children have sensitive needs, and thus they require more attention, especially concerning the protection of rights such as education, good health, housing, and proper nutrition. It is thus up to every government to adjust its policies to accommodate any significant increase in the number of children it has to cater for every year (Mosher 2008).

Some countries such as China and Germany use restrictions on the number of children that a person can have in his or her lifetime as a strategy to ensure predictability in the number of children to cater for while formulating strategies and budgeting for social amenities and services.

Due to such statutory restrictions on the number of births per year, these countries have been in a position to provide quality healthcare, schooling, housing, and nutrition to children and develop programs for special needs children such as orphans (Knudsen 2006). Other countries choose a different approach in developing policies that take care of their children population.

The majority of societies in Africa find statutory limitation of the number of children that a person can have as impractical and morally wrong. Conventionally, the decision on whether one should have children and the number of children to have rests on an individual’s decision except in China where the authorities introduced the one-child policy, even though the policy has been annulled in the recent times.

In such instances, the most that a government can do is to monitor the mortality rates and create policies concerning social amenities and services that are flexible enough to cater to any sudden changes to the population of children during any given year.

Although this strategy gives more freedom to individuals to determine the number of children that suits their desire, it also leads to unpredictability with regard to issues such as the amount of medication the government needs to budget for and the number of teachers to employ to ensure children obtain high-quality education (Buchholz 2007).

The importance of implementing such strategies goes beyond the childhood phase for as the children grow into adulthood, governments also need to consider the number of job opportunities available for the growing labour force and ways in which it can utilise such growing numbers without compromising the quality of life possible for the young people.

Lack of proper policies for the provision and development of job opportunities creates the possibility of a rise in crime rates, thus resulting in another problem that would require the government’s intervention (Barrett 2002). The importance of Michael Jackson’s initiative through music is thus clear as well as the reasons that it attracted the attention of governmental and non-governmental institutions.


Music has been a form of art through which human beings derive pleasure via entertainment. It is also one of the most common methods of communication to date due to its emotional appeal.

Various people have recognised the potential that music creates for dissemination of information to masses of people within a timely manner over time and they have taken advantage of it in addressing social and political matters that affect populations within specific societies.

Such people have utilised and they continue to utilise the advantages of popular music in making meaningful changes through initiating organised movements. The definitions of popular music by Tagg and Middleton have been monumental in the recognition and utilisation of this particular category of music to highlight important issues, generate solutions for existent crises, and prevent their recurrence in future.

Ken Kragen and Harry Belafonte created an initiative to aid in the alleviation of hunger in Africa in 1985, which comprised the musical contributions of famous musicians such as Lionel Ritchie, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson.

The popularity of the music that these musicians made resulted in the success of the single; We are the world, in fundraising and communicating the gravity of the hunger crises to governments all around the world. The result of the initiative was an intervention by the American government that involved a change in financial policy for aid funding in African nations.

Similarly, Michael Jackson’s movement to change the situation of children in vulnerable environments all over the world proves that popular music is a useful tool in creating political and social change in the society.

Reference List

Barrett, C 2002, Everyday Ethics for Practicing Planners, APA Planners Press, New York.

Buchholz, T 2007, New Ideas from Dead Economists: An Introduction to Modern Economic Thought, Plume Publishers, New York.

Froneman, W 2014, Subjunctive Pleasure: The odd Hour in the Boeremusiek museum, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Hoch, C 2000, The Practice of Local Government Planning, Internal City/County Management Association, London.

Holden, S 1985, ‘The pop life; Artists join in Efforts for Famine Relief’, The New York Times, 27 February, p. 31.

Ip, G 2010, The Little Book of Economics: How the Economy Works in the Real World, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken.

Knudsen, L 2006, Reproductive Rights in the Global Context, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville.

Kotarba, J, Merill, B, Williams, J & Vannini, P 2013, Understanding Society through Popular Music, Routledge, New York.

Middleton, R 2002, Studying Popular Music, Open University Press, Philadelphia.

Miles, T 2009, ‘Michael Jackson’s Heal the World Released to Support New Liverpool James Bulger Centre for Bullied Children-Liverpool News’, Liverpool Daily Post, 8 October, p. 46.

Mosher, S 2008, Population Control: Real costs, Illusory benefits, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey.

Reagan, R 1985, Statement Announcing an African Hunger Relief Initiative, <>

Vershbow, M 2010, ‘Role of Music in South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Movement’, Student Pulse, vol.2 no.6, pp. 1- 4.

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