Here music editor Gwendolyn Elliott and staff writer Kelton Sears examine a

Here music editor Gwendolyn Elliott and staff writer Kelton Sears examine a question asked in a recent essay by New York Times critic A.O. Scott: “Is our art equal to the challenges of the times?” We asked both whether modern pop music, in its various forms, is up to the task.

Just Gimme Some Truth

By Gwendolyn Elliott

“We are in the midst of hard times now,” A.O. Scott wrote, “and it feels as if art is failing us.”

I was floored by the thought, though it’s not as though feeling let down by the usual suspects—the politicians, the corporate execs—is anything new these days. But musicians? My favorite bands and artists, my heroes? It was a sobering notion, and not because it was off-base—but because I realized I’ve been feeling the same.

Among the cultural figures (including rapper J. Cole, filmmaker Ken Burns, playwright Lisa D’Amour, and others) Scott queries, asked if it is “the responsibility of artists to address social issues like race and class in their work?” the panel’s sole musician, Cole, replies: “It’s sad. There was a time when you looked to musicians, writers, poets—the creators—to put social conditions in words you can hold onto or feel challenged by. Hopefully, it will come back.”

Joan Baez. Photo by Marina Chavez

I hope so, too. But I wonder how and when. In October I asked Joan Baez how she gauged the artist’s response to Ferguson, about the role of protest music in the digital age, and whether she thought lasting change could come about the way she and her contemporaries made it happen in the ’60s. Her replies were well-articulated and thoughtful, yet she seemed unsure what, if any, revolution might be brewing within contemporary music as a means for change—or, as Scott writes, “to tell the truth.” Speaking about the need for an anthem, and how there must be “at least the feeling of a movement,” a comment she made about Obama’s first presidential campaign stuck with me: “Maybe out of that some songs would have come; I don’t think they had the time.”

Revisiting the conversation, I’m stuck on they. Who didn’t have the time? Campaign organizers? Democratic voters? Songwriters? What would it take now to create and popularize a song like “We Shall Overcome,” which Baez says was formed out of “deep politics and deep organizing” and involved “much activity and togetherness”—a song that fulfills Scott’s concept of art that “sum[s] up the injustices and worries of the times, and put[s] a human face on the impersonal movements of history”?

Today’s music landscape is more compartmentalized, highly tailored to the tastes of its intended audiences. There’s a Nickelback song about Ferguson, “Edge of a Revolution,” that’s insincere and filled with platitudes—generated seemingly for mindless mass consumption. There’s a cameo-studded track from The Game, “Don’t Shoot,” with a poignant message—but rap music, especially a track like this featuring a controversial figure like Rick Ross, can be polarizing. There’s Bill Callahan’s “America,” a tongue-in-cheek view of heartland values, or Father John Misty’s “Bored in the USA,” but their fans are a niche subset of the indie world. These blips on the radar are worth mentioning, but ultimately they fail to meaningfully capture the average digitally tethered attention span for very long. What’s more, none, as far as I can tell, have unified a listenership enough to coalesce the prevailing feeling of the times into any kind of lasting movement or message.

We have music festivals aplenty

—Coachella, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch!—but they seem more about having a good time than raising any kind of awareness. What about Farm Aid, Live Aid, concerts for Tibet and Bangladesh? Supposing the aim of art, and music in particular, is to reflect our hard times, shouldn’t artists be collaborating like that more than ever, on a grand scale, regularly? Or write meaningful lyrics about domestic violence, as Tracy Chapman did over 20 years ago? Or homelessness, like Guthrie and Dylan? How about a song about the mentally ill, depleting oceans, or global warming cracking the Billboard 100?

Themes of gun violence and police brutality are coming back into view—as they should be—but what kind of chance does Cole’s heartfelt “Be Free,” about Michael Brown, stand to register on pop consciousness when the two top video results for it total fewer than a million views—compared to something like Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” fast approaching 200 million?

Perhaps comparing today’s music with that of the ’60s—or even the ’80s, the decade that produced songs like “Fight the Power” and “We Are the World”—is unfair. A genre like rap didn’t exist during the Civil Rights era, and there were fewer styles of popular music for listeners to identify with. Perhaps it was easy for “We Shall Overcome” to unify the masses because that’s all there was. But there’s no question there has been a huge shift in how music reflects the times, and I keep waiting for something; a song, an album, as Scott says, something like “a Woody Guthrie ballad,” to cut through the fog, to strike at something deep and powerful; a piece of work that moves millions as opposed to factions—and I’m still waiting.

I’ve Learned More From M.I.A Than From The New York Times

By Kelton Sears

When I read A.O. Scott’s article, I immediately thought of M.I.A. More than any other artist throughout my life, M.I.A. has tricked me into ingesting and confronting the world’s harsh political realities by getting me to shake my ass while doing it. She’s the reason my tiny 14-year-old self had a conversation with my stepfather about the Sri Lankan civil war, the Tamil Tigers, the refugee experience, and all the heady things I’d learned simply by being an M.I.A. fan in 2005. (He’d asked because of the “terrorist” imagery on the cover of her first album, Arular.) These are things I definitely wouldn’t know about if I’d stuck to Blink-182.

M.I.A. Photo by Morgen Schuler

To date, M.I.A. has never stopped teaching me about the world. The notorious 2012 video for “Bad Girls,” starring a gang of women in hijabs pulling insane car stunts, taught me about the Women to Drive Movement, an Arabic female-empowerment group fighting for the right to drive motor vehicles, an action historically denied by the Saudi regime. I didn’t really dig into Wikileaks until she had Julian Assange open for her in New York via Skype. At her Sasquatch performance, she cheekily flew drones over the audience that she’d rigged with LED peace signs, left over from her video for “Double Bubble Trouble,” in which kids flash 3D-printed guns. I’ve probably learned more about the world through M.I.A. than I have The

New York Times.

In interviews, M.I.A. has talked about being influenced by the sounds of Public Enemy bumping through the walls of her childhood flat in London. I also grew up listening to Public Enemy and politically charged hip-hop. (Is there really any hip-hop that isn’t politically charged?) I can remember learning the words to N.W.A.’s “Express Yourself” in sixth grade after discovering the song on a ’90s rap party mix I burned from a friend. I rapped the song to my dad to impress him—he was proud, but also curious if his 12-year-old was listening to Straight Outta Compton. I hadn’t even heard of it, but you can bet I downloaded it on Limewire soon after and immediately learned a hell of a lot about race politics.

Killer Mike still does that for me. His dad was also a police officer, funnily enough. Listen to “Reagan” from his album R.A.P. Music and try not to learn something. In a CNN interview about Ferguson, Mike proclaimed he was a proud “gangsta rapper” before clarifying, with a grin, that he chose his stage name because “I kill microphones, and I trust that people are intelligent enough to get that.” He went on to deliver one of the most insightful interviews on Ferguson I’ve seen to date.

“If I want to understand the dreams of the gentry and the nightmares of the poor in early-19th-century England, I turn to Jane Austen and William Blake,” A.O. Scott writes. “All the news you need about class divisions in Paris and London later in that century can be found in the pages of Balzac, Dickens and Zola. And now? Should we be looking high or low?”

Fifty years from now, if you want to know what 2014 was like in America, listen to Killer Mike’s albums with El-P, performing as the duo Run the Jewels. There’s a reason the first line you hear after you hit play is, “You might wanna record the way you feelin’ like history being made.” Killer Mike even calls out Chuck D about a minute later. Run the Jewels and its sequel will undoubtedly be just as vital a historical record of today’s political, sociological, and economic climate as Straight Outta Compton or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back are indelible records of the realities of America circa 1988—or as Blake’s poems are of early-19th-century England.

As J. Cole says at the beginning of the roundtable, “It’s not anyone’s responsibility to do [what] they don’t want to do, if you don’t feel it. But don’t just act like you care. I don’t want to hear that song.” This I think is the key. Art doesn’t always have to confront the challenges of the times. Sometimes it’s simply an escape. I would call Caribou’s new album Our Love an amazing work of art, but it doesn’t make me think about the world at large, race, inequity, or capitalism. It makes me think about love and dancing—two things that are also important to the human condition. But then as Ken Burns says, “It is not so much a question of should artists address social issues like race and class in their work. For some, it is unavoidable.” And for people like Killer Mike, M.I.A., and a bounty of other contemporary artists (Mykki Blanco, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Beyonce), this will always be unavoidable.