The Postmodern Pop Artist: Music, Sampling and Social Commentary
Postmodernism has long been a contentious subject to confine and define — in part because that very act has the opportunity to be dismantled. What we do know, is that philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard had a significant influence on the subject. He contends that for something to be definitionally beyond modernism there needs to be a significant knowledge and understanding of modernism; Only through this understanding can those notions be rejected (Gloag 2012). On a macro-level, this is where Lyotard’s discussion of metanarratives comes into play.
Purposefully simplistic, Lyotard states that, “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives” (Butler 2002). This refers to a state of refusal to believe constructs and concepts put forward in the world. What’s more, Lyotard considered contemporary artists as having the esteemed job of questioning the metanarrative and the contextual rules that surrounded both the creative practice and narratives encircling the spaces the work within (Butler 2002).
Under the ambiguous and hard to define concept of postmodernism, popular music is not only representative of postmodern culture, but, as Frith and Horne (1987) state, “pop songs are the soundtrack of postmodern daily life.” But what this means, is that whether it’s Ariana Grande or The Clash there are incredible implications on philosophical, social, political and historical knowledge thanks to postmodern creative endeavours. This then promotes the cyclical nature of postmodern culture because the consumption of pop music becomes postmodern, particularly when people seek out music like those provided below.
Interestingly, Gloag (2012) considers the role music played in the formation of modernism and the strange juxtaposition that assumes it plays a large role in postmodern discourses alongside the tension where music is interpreted — perhaps misguidedly — as resistant to the critical engagement that is indicative of postmodernism. This was a result of four assumptions outlined by Scott (2011): (1)the notion that audiences only passively consume the culture industry, (2) constant changes to the historical traces of music developments and influences, (3) turning a blind-eye to the legitimacy of creativity in music while missing the social significance of music, and (4) the technological impact on music notably through sampling.
So, let’s break this down. On one hand you have the debate of art imitating art, a pastiche, or sampling in the music industry. The music industry is no stranger to sampling, and mostly, samples are accredited from the outset. In part, this is because sampling started in a space of functional musical genealogy that promotes authenticity through history (Goodwin 1991).
As a nod to the music that came before, sampling is prolific in the music industry. Some examples include: M.I.A with ‘Paper Planes’ (2007) which uses the song ‘Straight to Hell’ by The Clash (1982); 2Pac featuring Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman ‘California Love’ (1996) which samples Joe Cocker’s ‘Woman to Woman’ (1972); Ke$ha’s ‘Take It Off’ (2010) uses ‘The Streets of Cairo’ by Sol Bloom (1893); Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ (2019) samples ‘My Favorite Things’ (1959) from The Sound of Music; and ‘Crazy in Love’ by Beyoncé (2003) takes heavy inspiration from ‘Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)’ by Chi-Lites (1970). These tracks all capitalise on the creativity or popularity of previous songs.
On the other hand, there are musicians and artists pushing the boundaries set in place or providing music that questions established norms. When we’re talking about the social commentary or the uneven power distribution in society it comes entwined in a web of validity. Important to remember here, postmodernism is an attractive philosophical standpoint for a new generation of intellectuals who do not exist within the category of the traditional ivory-tower critics (McRobbie 1994). Becoming anthems and texts that promote conversations about current issues, music has immense potentiality for social change.
In 1992, Rage Against the Machine released ‘Killing in the Name’ which was a song written in response to police brutality. Nearly 30 years later, and the song is, unfortunately, just as applicable in today’s climate (see Genius).
When we add in the power of the internet and visuals through the cinematic music videos possible today, artists have the authority to make bot their songs and videos send a message or only one. In 2018, Childish Gambino — also known as Donald Glover and star of postmodern Television show Community — took his platform and made a statement on gun violence and race in America (see this Time article for an analysis on the symbolism of the video). The video has garnered 730 million views since its release.
In October of 2020, Ariana Grande, in the lead up to the United States presidential election where two white men over the age of 70 were vying for the position, released her new song aptly named Positions along with a music video. This song hits stereotypes on two fronts. The first is through the lyrics of the song which are literally about sex positions and changing her position within the relationship, moving out of the kitchen to the bedroom. Depending on the angle (no pun intended), this is a story of female empowerment. But then there’s the music video where we see Grande in the White House as the President speaking to a cabinet full of women and having to quickly switch between different roles while undertaking that role. A clear commentary on several categorical identity politics like gender, age and class.
Earlier, I said that these musicians have the capacity to make real change…and that’s true. But there’s a defining factor that impacts the gravity of any message they are trying to send — whether or not there is a calculated social or fiscal gain from the action. At the end of the day, these artists are a part of a much larger machine. That said, they all hold weight, and they all have meaning. However, regardless of the intent of the author of any given text, there are influential factors at play. From a postmodernist perspective, we shouldn’t take anything at face value. That includes the positive and negative motivations and outcomes, and the realisation that dismantling societal norms takes time, persistence, and informed action.
- Butler, C. (2002). Postmodernism: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Frith, S. & Horne, H. (1987). Art into pop. New York: Methuen.
- Gloag, K. (2012). Postmodernism in music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Goodwin, A. (1991). Popular music and postmodern theory. Cultural Studies, 5(2), 174–190.
- McRobbie, A. (1994). Postmodernism and Popular Culture. London: Routledge.
- Scott, D. B. (2011). Postmodernism and music. In S. Sim. The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism. London: Routledge Taylor & Francis. Pp. 182–193.