In this post, Jessica Feezell, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of New Mexico, looks at the relationship between politics and music. She analyses what effect music can have on people’s political beliefs, and argues that the politics of music is a much under-utilized area of research.
“So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street?
When gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me?
-Kendrick Lamar, “The Blacker the Berry” (2015)
Researchers regularly explore the influence of various sources of political information including campaign advertisements, news, social media and entertainment such as late night comedy on people’s beliefs about politics. One source of information that has been largely overlooked, however, is music. In the current media environment, where those who want to avoid political information can do so more easily than ever before, it makes the question of ‘what can be learned from music’ even more pertinent.
Many of us can probably think of examples of music with political messages such as the folksong “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” or Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” to name a few. More recently, Kendrick Lamar’s latest chart-topping album, To Pimp a Butterfly, has been called a “conversation” about race and racism in America.
These examples show that music can convey political information. We know much less about the effects of politically-tinged music on the listener. To study whether and how music shapes knowledge about politics, I surveyed a random sample of undergraduate students at a large public university in California in 2006 (n = 900). To measure the presence of political information in music, I ask subjects whether the genre “contains an identifiable political message,” and if they “have ever learned about political issues through [genre] music” including open-ended options for elaboration. Subjects were asked to identify the one genre of music that is their first preference for listening. The three most popular genres of music were Alternative music (n = 217), Rock and Roll (n = 156), and Hip Hop (n = 78).
Among the Alternative music listeners, 63% responded that they feel that this music contains an identifiable political message. When pushed to identify exactly what that political message was, there was broad agreement that it is left leaning, anti-war, and somewhat revolutionary. One respondent wrote that Alternative music is “anti-establishment with a smack of liberalism,” another stated, “It encourages an alternative lifestyle and more liberal beliefs. It encourages tolerance and stresses the importance of remaining true to oneself.” Additionally, 44% of Alternative listeners reported learning about political issues through the music. Among the open-ended responses were such issues as “U.S. foreign policy,” “poor health conditions in Africa,” and “the War on Terror and U.S. involvement in Iraq.”
Seventy-eight percent of the Rock and Roll listeners also said that they felt Rock music has a clear political message. The messages that were identified by listeners in the open-ended responses were similarly anti-government, anti-war, and left leaning. But Rock listeners also felt that it promotes collective action. One subject wrote, “Political activism in some music; generally liberal oriented,” another said, “It really depends on the song. Most Rock and Roll music, I feel, is about going with what’s in your heart and standing up for your beliefs. For this reason I feel that people see rock and roll music as being about rebelling.” When asked whether subjects had ever learned of a political issue through Rock music, 59% said yes. Respondents identified political issues such as, “the Tibetan freedom movement,” “the Kyoto protocol,” “the Vietnam war and draft,” and “the Armenian genocide.”
Finally, 72% of Hip Hop listeners said that they felt this genre was political. The subjects said that Hip Hop music addresses socioeconomic issues, racial tensions, and concern about an unrepresentative government. There were many responses offered for this genre that include, “Fighting for the interests of the poor and minorities,” “Much of the hip-hop I listen too (Immortal Technique, Nas, etc) is very socially and politically oriented, spreading important messages through the music,” and “All about the government and racial discrimination.” Additionally, 67% of Hip Hop listeners said that they have learned about political issues through the music such as, “poverty, inequality, and discrimination,” “racial profiling,” and “Mumia Abu Jamal case, complicity of U.S in cocaine trade, etc.”
My research demonstrates that listeners perceive that music contains political information and that people have learned about specific political issues through listening. One important qualification that runs through many of the comments is that the messages within the genre vary somewhat from artist to artist. Additionally, selection effects, demographic influences, and causal mechanisms are important considerations to include in future research. At a minimum however, music often contains political information and it is seemingly able to subvert selective avoidance of such information, as it is primarily entertainment. This line of inquiry becomes even more imperative as people increasingly select entertainment over news and avoid political information all together. Furthermore, media effects tend to be strongest among those with low levels of political interest who are least likely to tune into more traditional news sources and perhaps more likely to listen to music.
Jessica Feezell, PhD is an Assistant Professor of Political Science and 2015-16 Teaching Fellow at the University of New Mexico where she specializes in American politics and political communication. Professor Feezell’s current research explores the intersection of digital media and political behavior, with a focus on youth, as well as incidental exposure to political information from non-traditional sources. Her work has been published in several journals including PS: Political Science and Politics, Journal of Information Technology and Politics, New Media and Society, International Journal of Communication, Computers in Human Behavior, and Public Understanding of Science.
Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog, email our editor Nicholas Try at firstname.lastname@example.org