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We live in an era in which music is one of the most powerful forces available to those wanting to initiate social change. Music is a medium for philosophy, which potentially spreads very quickly from culture to culture, especially today with the internet, and the growing popularity among mainstream audiences for multi-cultural music. More and more, mainstream music is becoming eclectic of many culturally different kinds of music, as “through the conduits of commercial culture, music made by aggrieved inner-city populations in Canberra, Kingston, or Compton becomes part of everyday life and culture for affluent consumers in the suburbs of Cleveland, Coventry, or Cologne” (Lipsitz, 4).
However, because mainstream music is governed by capitalist business people, mainly in the United States, it is difficult for philosophies of any controversial or subcultural significance to find their way into the mainstream rotation. As a result, artists who want to “make it big” find it difficult to do so without “selling out”�hiding or denying their cultural identities and camouflaging or ignoring issues they find important in order to please the people capable of making them famous. Also, society loses out, because with the musical front being one of the few major means of sharing philosophies and convictions, if it is being starved of most or all significant content, all society is left with is a set of shallow values and short-sighted, self-centered attitudes.
In his book, Dangerous Crossroads, Lipsitz gives an example of a band from a third-world country which attempted�and succeeded�to make mainstream rotation in Britain and America. In 18, a reggae band called Musical Youth, made up of all adolescent boys, released their version of a song called, “Pass the Kouchie.” The song originated from a band called the Mighty Diamonds; they adapted it from an older song called, “Full Up.” In “Pass the Kouchie,” the Rastafarian tradition of passing the kouchie is celebrated. This ritual consists of passing around a pipe used for smoking marijuana, called a kouchie. The significance of this ritual lies in Rastafarian religious beliefs that the natural herb, “ganja,” was given by Jah, their god, for them to take in in order to blot out the oppressions suffered by the Jamaican people (Lipsitz, 4). The main line threaded throughout the song asks, “How does it feel when you’ve got no food?”; the answer comes “Pass the kouchie….” To this day, the song is strongly associated with resistance to oppression by black nationalists (Lipsitz, 4).
When musical youth decided to cover the song and attempt to take it to mainstream audiences, their manager, Peter Collins, and the record company they signed with, demanded that they change the song first, because of its questionable content. Thus the word “kouchie” was changed to “dutchie,” which is a pot used for cooking. As a result, all the depth of the song was lost; the answer to the question symbolic of oppression became “one-dimensional and literal” (Lipsitz, 8), rather than symbolic of resistance from and rebellion to oppression, as was the answer in the original version. The reasons behind this change were strictly business�there was money to be made if the song was to make it to mainstream music scene, and the marketers knew that the only way for that to happen was if the song was stripped of controversial content (allusions to an illegal practice by a controversial subculture). In the process, it was also stripped of its cultural and societal significance.
Lipsitz argues that this form of selling out was justifiable; because rather than denying their identities, the boys of Musical Youth were merely camouflaging them, in order for their culturally-significant song to be introduced to widespread audiences. As a result, aspects of Rastafarian culture were introduced to masses of people who may have otherwise been ignorant of these people. Thus, he claims that multi-cultural music, even in its sold-out form is important for mainstream markets, because it potentially educates otherwise ignorant people of cultures they might not have heard of (Lipsitz, ).
But one must consider, with the lyrics to the new version of the song becoming so covert in terms of their cultural significance, how can an entirely ignorant audience be expected to pick up on the subtleties in the song and thus become educated on this culture? The truth is, the song was changed in order for it to be turned into a commodity and ensure its popularity; and hence, bring in a profit. Consequently, the questionable though culturally significant material in the song was removed or hidden to the point that audiences remained ignorant of it. It served no purpose concerning the education of its audiences, but no thought was given to this issue, because that was not the intention behind bringing the song into mainstream rotation.
Music that originates in the United States, the pop culture capital of the world, and becomes highly popular is starved of any kind of real social significance as well, which is highly evident by top forty charts, record sales, and television shows like Total Request Live, on Music Television. This show consists of the most popular music videos, which are voted for online by pop culture’s biggest audience today�adolescent music listeners. Kids go on the internet or call an eight-hundred number to vote for their favorite songs/videos, then the show shows each of them in order in the form of a countdown. Hence, it is a perfect means of observing what the most popular music consists of in today’s society, to the people who will someday soon be society’s major members and leaders.
Upon observing a recent episode of the show, it became clear that the songs voted for make no mention of the social problems in existence, nor any kind of social reform. They present values that are shallow and existential.
The very fact that “Pass the Kouchie” had to be stripped of its cultural significance in order for it to be mainstreamed shows how shallow the industry is.
Ironically, mainstream marketers are the most powerful people in the music industry in terms of their ability to bring to public attention important societal and world issues. They decide what will become popular culture�what mass audiences will be exposed to. Because of the massive amounts of people exposed to popular culture,
“in its most utopians, popular culture offers a promise of reconciliation to groups divided by differences in power, opportunity, and experience. Commercial culture puts people from diverse backgrounds in contact with one another, creating contrasts that can call attention to existing social divisions as well as to the potential for eventual unity and community.”
Unfortunately, these capitalist marketers do not make use of the status and power of their positions for the betterment of the social conditions of the world. As it seems, quite obvious at this point, the perhaps most powerful people in the world are only interested in monetary profits�no matter what the social costs or losses.
So, if the most powerful people one of the most powerful industries in the world refuse to do anything to further the knowledge of various dire social conditions throughout the world, what can be done? It is up to the artists themselves, and those who have retained education about these social conditions, to educate everyone else and thus help instigate social changes. It seems that the people who attempt to do this are only those that are members of societies in which the circumstances are highly devastating. But these are also the places in which mainstream rotation access is not centered, such as Fela Kuti from Nigeria (Lipsitz, 140). Perhaps it will take equally harsh circumstances in places like Britain and the United States before the voices of oppression and revolution will be heard, and everyone can be educated and employed to take action in the fight for worldwide social justice.
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