When I think of the cookie-cutter music so often churned out today — the visceral club beats of a Nicki Minaj or Kesha, the vapid tween-targeted sugar pop of Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers — I can't help but remember a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, back when the legendary French sociologist went on his famous tour of America in the 1830s:
"It would be to waste the time of my readers and my own if I strove to demonstrate how the general mediocrity of fortunes, the absence of superfluous wealth, the universal desire for comfort, and the constant efforts by which everyone attempts to procure it make the taste for the useful predominate over the love of the beautiful in the heart of man. Democratic nations, among whom all these things exist, will therefore cultivate the arts that serve to render life easy in preference to those whose object is to adorn it. They will habitually prefer the useful to the beautiful, and they will require that the beautiful should be useful."
As an antidote to the cynicism one might feel from recent artistic trends that seem to bear out de Tocqueville's observation, I've decided to spotlight five underrated recent songs ("recent" being a relative term here) that I believe deserve more attention. These pieces deserve praise not merely for sounding great, but for saying something substantial while doing so.
1. Akala: Find No Enemy:
What makes "Find No Enemy" so refreshing, aside from the smoothness of the track itself, is the deftness with which it deflates the cognitive processes that prompt us to classify and prejudge each other based on racial, sexual, and national criteria. The ideas he presents in this song aren't especially new (one thinks back to masterpiece's John Lennon's "Imagine"), but he makes his points with praiseworthy eloquence. Even better, he cites specific present-day examples — the massacres in Africa, Islamophobia throughout the West, the war in Iraq, inner-city racial profiling — that take his denunciations out of the realm of the abstract and firmly roots them in the soil of the world we inhabit today.
2. Dispatch: We Hold A Gun:
As Brad Corrigan (aka "Braddigan") of Dispatch put it, "We Hold A Gun" is a scathing condemnation of the American education system. "So many schools receive funds based on grades and standardized testing, so you can have illiterate kids going through the system who don’t have a clue about who they are and what they were made for. That song is meant to be a little bit jarring in the imagery, but at the same time, absolutely we can make a change, absolutely we can take better care of our kids."
3. Macklemore: Same Love:
Considering the homophobia that runs rampant in the hip-hop community today, Macklemore should be lauded simply for having the courage to make a song about gay rights, regardless of its ultimate quality. Fortunately, though, "Same Love" is one of the best rap songs produced in a very long time, from Macklemore's disarmingly forthright acknowledgment of his own childhood misconceptions about homosexuality to the manner in which he deconstructs the anti-gay rights arguments so often used today. Most striking of all is the narrative framework which he uses to send this message — i.e., that of a lifelong relationship between two homosexual lovers. Rarely do hip-hop songs manage to tug at the heartstrings, but "Same Love" pulls it off.
4. The Mars Volta: The Widow:
Like "We Hold A Gun," "The Widow" is notable for its jarringly descriptive language. Whereas the Dispatch song is intended as social commentary on America's education system, however, "The Widow" provides a glimpse into the mind of a drug addict (a topic with which The Mars Volta was tragically all too familiar, due to the death of their sound technician Jeremy Michael Ward to a drug overdose). Given the extent to which music often deals with drug addiction in a casual or even playful fashion, this song is a nice break from that pace to show the other side of the proverbial coin.
5. 3 Doors Down: Citizen Soldier:
Yes, I know, it isn't fashionable for a liberal columnist to feel moved by songs that appeal to patriotism, military heroism, and other tropes of American nationalism ... but as both a historian and, yes, as an American, I find that this song just gets to me. The lyrics are a tad generic, but the historian in me can't help but love the music video, which very cleverly juxtaposes images from America's current conflicts with those from our past, tracing all the way back to the Revolutionary War. Given the left-wing iconoclasm that pervades all realms of mainstream American culture, straightforward adulation of our men and women in uniform is just as courageous as any progressive statement one might see made in a song.