Living Outside, Looking In: Alienation in Popular Music

- By Ryan Graham

In his classic ode to hip-hop "I Used to Love H.E.R", Common diagnosed the marketplace as an undermining factor to the essence of an art form that formerly provided him bliss. While we can surely acknowledge the point behind his troubled lament, a question arises with regard to the medium by which Common and others have voiced their concerns: Is not the content of popular music largely subject to the capricious whims of a public that would prefer not to deal with matters of social relevance?

Judging by the content of modern radio and music television, the answer might appear to be yes. But the answer, of course, does not rest on a false dichotomy of popular music reflecting either a dedication to social criticism or bubblegum sentiment. If anything, social concerns and bubblegum sentiment in popular music ride the same audio-visual crest of mass culture; it's only when they wash against the shore of a listening audience that we are able to gauge the quality of their influence. Despite the existence of musicians who employ social observation in their art, popular music remains a commodity largely controlled by the market forces that shape other "big ticket" genres in the culture industry. For every Dead Prez there will be a dozen Nellys', because the latter is more marketable to the public and relatively non-threatening to our social and/or political presuppositions.

In considering how commerce, art and social criticism can dovetail into something capable of shifting the awareness of listeners en masse, there are compelling examples to be found in the works of Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, The Clash and other recent musical articulations of social thought. An interesting aspect of social criticism in popular music concerns the occasional focus upon psychological states, such as alienation. In the music of artists like Bruce Springsteen and Radiohead, alienation often constitutes a species of discontent with one's working conditions and social relations. Alienation arises from a psychological chasm that separates personal satisfaction from the process and product of labor. It is through labor that we locate perhaps the most ubiquitous of human activities, we spend the bulk of our lives working, if for no other reason than basic survival.

A substantive critique of modern society, under the bloated materialism inspired by capitalism, involves more than naming the beast but also discussing how we feel about it. The middle manager, earning middle-class wages, working a corporate job that he finds foreign to any sense of meaningful activity and his teenage counterpart, earning minimum wage, working the fry machine at a local fast-food joint may have more in common than what we're told in our economics classes. If both feel subject to an economic order that deletes personal satisfaction from the performance of one's work, then their thoughts will drift into the realm of alienation. Music creates a space for us to ponder states of alienation, while moving us closer to an emotional core that compliments our rational considerations.

Bruce Springsteen was not the first to give voice to the struggle of the working class in America; the music of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan laid considerable groundwork for him. Like his predecessors, Springsteen doesn't spoon-feed the message to his audience, preferring instead to tell stories with open-ended interpretations about the lives of the working class. Other than its subtle brilliance, a special quality in Springsteen's music stems from how it is been written over the course of America's deindustrialization. Springsteen's music embodies a type of historical narrative in relation to the displacement of the working class. In "Glory Days", he sings of a man whose father has lost his industrial job due to encroaching old age.

My old man worked 20 years on the line/and they let him go
Now everywhere he goes out looking for work/they just tell him that he's too old
I was 9 nine years old/and he was working at the Metuchen Ford plant assembly line
Now he just sits on a stool down at the Legion hall/but I can tell what's on his mind

Glory days yeah goin back
Glory days aw he ain't never had

The old man never located a compelling sense of freedom and creativity in his labor, but that doesn't preclude him from experiencing a sense of nostalgia for his factory job. Springsteen understands how workers feel a sense of pride in their work, regardless of the physical toil that it takes upon the body and draining of the soul. While the nature of Springsteen's music is unmistakably American, the content is universal in how it distills life under capitalism, a mode of production that obscures the dreams of the working class rather than promoting them. In "The River" we are made witness to a decline in the spirit of a man whose youth has been lost to years of drudge labor. The river is where he and his girlfriend would go to revel in their youth; a time of impetuous living when we desire for the possibilities to stretch into an expanse of the unknown.

Me and Mary we met in high school/ when she was just seventeen
We'd drive out of this valley/ down to where the fields were green

We'd go down to the river/And into the river we'd dive
Oh down to the river we'd ride

Life in a dead town with no options other than carving a local niche for himself bears heavily upon the narrator, as his life invariably reflects an undesirable mode of being. Alienation manifests itself here as a longing for the freedom he and Mary had in younger days, before the onslaught of responsibilities brought on by her pregnancy, marriage and a union job.

I got a job working construction/for the Johnstown company
But lately there ain't been much work/on account of the economy
Now all them things that seemed so important/Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember/Mary acts like she don't care

Our narrator has become something that he never wanted to be, which leads him to question the value of dreams if they're never realized.

Now those memories come back to haunt me/They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true/Or is it something worse. . .

The narrator of "The River" has seen his dreams recede with the years that have passed and wonders if who he could've been is a lost abstraction. There are modes of being that we perceive as being unattractive by virtue of the misery they reap like, for example, a life of alcoholism. In avoiding alcoholism, one also sidesteps the possible risks associated with the abuse of liquor: self-alienation, alienation from loved ones, health problems, etc. Given that drug-based alienation doesn't carry the arbitrary stamp of approval by the overarching structures of a capitalist society, why do other types of alienation receive a pass? Is it that we as workers are expected to make certain concessions that inspire psychological discontent, in the name of appearing productive to society?

Not all musical expressions of alienation necessarily paint psychological discontent in exclusively economic terms. Since their inception, Radiohead has captured one of the more encompassing views of alienation ever put to music. Tangible feelings of dread that arise from not being handsome enough for the girl or living a drone-like suburban existence course through their songs. Unlike the music of Springsteen, Radiohead doesn't always want the imagery to be easily discernable in the lyrics you hear. At times one is uncertain if there is a coherent set of images that's struggling to break through the erratic sound textures. In "Fake Plastic Trees", a less ambiguous offering, Radiohead authors a sonic tapestry of human lives that never reflect authentic emotions or desire.

She lives with a broken man/A cracked polystyrene man/Who just crumbles and burns
He used to do surgery/For girls in the eighties/But gravity always wins

The theme of human life as a plastic reconstruction of consumer appetites continues as the narrator likens his 'love' to a soft drink. She looks like the real thing/She tastes like the real thing
My fake plastic love

At the root of it, the marketplace has alienated the narrator from within and made all meaningful relationships to other human beings impossible. Instead of using the working class as a template for analysis, Radiohead moves up the economic ladder into the world of professional labor. The subject in question is a plastic surgeon who alters the outward appearances of women to match their inward alienation. The class distinction between Springsteen's working class and Radiohead's middle/upper class is relevant towards furthering our understanding of worker alienation. A conventional view holds that with better pay comes a more comfortable acceptance of one's labor. However, this view becomes untenable in light of the alienation that underlies any employment which leaves us feeling hollow in the performance of it. A notable trick that we play on ourselves involves drowning our alienation in consumer delights. Instead of fostering happiness via an authentic view of the self, consumption only increases the level of alienation as it reconfigures personal well-being in terms of product ownership. Ultimately the gist of "Fake. . ." centers on the weariness of living a life parallel to who we are, due to social expectation leaning in favor of the lie.

The narrative function of popular music does more than marry sentiment to sound, it also raises critical consciousness about the nature of our societies. Radiohead and Bruce Springsteen have sold millions of albums and are critically acclaimed for what they do, which is enough to be considered successful pop musicians. A careful ear must be given, however, to how we assimilate their music and that of other artists like Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions and Talib Kweli. Occasionally, music is conceived for a purpose other than the bottom line interests of record company executives, and that is the foundation from which these artists compose their work. As students of society and popular music, there are unique interpretative visions that await us all, if we give an audience to what's being said. Ryan Graham is an activist from Los Angeles, he can be reached at:

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