A pedagogy of pop? Contemporary popular, protest music, and social change

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world
– Lennon and McCartney, 1968, ‘Revolution’

My research locates and engages with a ‘popular myth’ that occurs in contemporary mass-mediated culture: that popular music can and has inspired or led people to think and act to change the world or bring about social change. That it has inspired and motivated people to question, challenge and confront authority. That it has informed and inspired people to act on and redress social injustices and inequalities; and that this has led some to act in processes for social change. At the core of this largely mass-media propagated meta-narrative is the notion that some popular music in the last half of the C20th (and today) contained significant angst, social protest and reactionary politics. This has, the myth goes, manifested over time as rebellion against parents, social norms, institutions, the government and even subversion of dominant paradigms.

Dylan and Baez – WashingtonAs an idea, this most likely entered into the mass consciousness of advanced capitalist (formerly ‘Western’) democracies during the cultural milieu and social upheaval of the 1960s. In popular consciousness artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs of the ‘folk movement’, authored and performed ‘finger-pointing’ or ‘protest songs’, and took part in much spectaclised events (such as Dylan and Baez performing at the 1963 March on Washington) with a perceived view to ‘change the world’.

In one of the rare, more critical engagements with this topic (Rhythm and resistance: explorations in the political uses of popular music) Ray Pratt suggests there is a ‘nostalgic fetishization’ of such sixties music ‘as an expression of more fundamental social longings’ of these times. He urges us, however, to not dismiss ‘efforts to establish a political popular music’ as merely nostalgia.

In their workings with Music and Social Movements, Ron Eyerman and Andrew Jamison also refer to this epoch of commonly perceived social and cultural transformation ‘sound-tracked’ by popular music. They suggest its role might occur in mass-mediated culture as the ‘sixties’ in ‘popular consciousness’. While popular music may not have significantly inspired people to direct social action, through mass media exposure ‘sixties music’ has brought considerably broader attention and interest to social causes, such as the civil rights and antiwar movements. Finally, R. Serge Denisoff’s work though now rather aged, remains key in its pioneering investigation into possible causal links between ‘songs of social significance’ and social change. He argues:

the notion that song has political power is as old as Plato. The idea that music is frivolous can similarly be traced back to the ancients. Somewhere between these positions lies the most fruitful area of investigation. (Denisoff RS 1972, Sing a song of social significance)

It is within these broad parentheses that my PhD thesis, ‘A pedagogy of pop? Protest music, adult learning and education for social change’, begins to explore the many myths, stories and narratives that comprise the rather gestalt space known as rock, pop or popular music. It is a popular music that has risen to global prominence to become a significant ‘space’ within (and, on occasions, against) the broader popular culture of dominant, advanced capitalist and (economically) globalised nation states. Its rise has been funded by capitalism and propelled by technological changes, particularly in mass communications. Early last century, popular music became a commodity with its mass production as recorded music, mass distribution, and exposure through global mass media, via radio, television and later the Internet.

As the popular music of late modernity or postmodernity, it has also been referred to as a ‘soundtrack to our lives’ or ‘times’. While critics have continued to question its aesthetic as art or its capacity to cause an audience to think about or question the world, it has also been argued that popular music has reflected an epoch of much cultural and social transformation. My work questions this notion of popular music as ‘reflector’ of the times, somewhat along the lines of Michael Franti’s song, ‘Television the drug of the nation’.

I ask if popular music, contemporary to these contexts, might also be considered a ‘director’.

From its beginnings as the ‘rock ‘n’ roll rebel’ – heavily inspired or derived from African-American culture, electric blues, rhythm and blues and gospel, combined with what Elvis himself has claimed ‘folk or hillbilly music’ – to the endless plethora of genres and sub-genres taking place today, rock (or pop) is the popular music of advanced capitalism. From its emergence in the post-Second World War boom of 1950s North America, with ‘baby boomers’ coming of age as ‘teenagers’ (itself a marketing construct), disposable incomes, and the somewhat newer notions of leisure and recreation time, to the social and cultural milieu of the 1960s, where teenagers of the ‘rock ‘n’ roll decade’ apparently came of age with a social conscience (marketing was then directed at a constructed ‘youth culture’). Through the so-called indulgent 1970s, punctuated by angry punk rock, into the 1980s, where many agree that if popular music did offer resistance and challenge to ‘the system’, it was through hip-hop. The 1980s were also the decade of ‘Band Aid’ and ‘Live Aid’, which Bob Geldof has referred to as massive global education campaigns aimed at ending famine.

In the 1990s there was the alleged nihilism of ‘grunge’ and an overt and sharply political melding of heavy metal, punk and hip-hop with bands such as Rage Against the Machine. Popular music has followed as capitalism has risen to the pinnacle of globally triumphant neoliberalism. My thesis works with the notion that at least some of the popular music contemporary to this epoch has also questioned – even contested – capitalism as the dominant and dominating paradigm that makes it possible. In large part my thesis is that while popular music, as the music of capitalism, mostly works to support dominant paradigms and ideologies, it also offers ‘spaces’, particularly through the global mass-(multi)media for these to be questioned, challenged and contested. If contemporary popular or protest music has provided such inspiration or influence in processes of social change, if it questions, challenges and contests dominant paradigms and ideologies, then this involves learning, processes of education and (public) pedagogy.

These possibilities and potentialities are named and explored in my thesis as ‘adult learning’. My work has associated this with three theoretical fields most commonly discussed in relation to the field of adult education for social change: radical adult education, critical or post and public pedagogies. I then frame the radical and social change possibilities offered through these fields within ‘a pedagogy of pop’ or ‘protest music’. I am arguing that contemporary popular music has ‘a pedagogy’ and pedagogical dimensions. That it is or can be in part educative – teaching and learning – in a process of knowledge and meaning construction or production: a pedagogy of pop.

In part, I aim to learn more about people’s – as an audience of contemporary popular music or as a performer – ideas, opinions and experiences on this, through my Pedagogy of Pop blog. There you can find out more about my PhD thesis, how to contact me and about further participation in this research project.

John Haycock

John Haycock is a PhD candidate with Work and Learning Studies in the Faculty of Education at Monash University. His research interests include critical, post, public and radical pedagogies, and adult learning and education for social change, particularly where these intersect with cultural studies. Currently, his primary research focus relates to his PhD thesis ‘A pedagogy of pop? Protest music, adult learning and education for social change’.

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