Contemporary Music Has No Artistic Value, Is This a Fair Comment?

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An oft heard criticism of contemporary music today is that they are more “noise” than “music”. Be it hip-hop, rock, heavy metal, Rhythm-and-Blues (R&B) or any of its likes, cultural snobs have dismissed them as unworthy in comparison to the classical music from masters like Beethoven, Bach, or Strauss. These critics often see contemporary music having no artistic value as these music genres are often considered to be outside the traditional and accepted cultural canon of artistic works.

Such works are also considered to be “meaningless” as contemporary music are seen to be more of works of commercialism rather than art, and hence culturally “meaningless”. Nevertheless, one might successfully argue that such criticisms of contemporary music are often unfounded as contemporary music is as culturally meaningful as classical music. Contemporary music is often seen as anthems of today’s society, as identity markers for social groups and in some cases, even agents of change. Despite the charges that they are commercially crass, contemporary music today do have artistic values.

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Traditional or classical music are often held up as the paragons of culture as they are seen to be “meaningful”. More often than not, traditional music of the Western canon was composed for religious purposes, as it was usually the Church who commissioned such works, like Handel’s “Messiah”. Even in the Eastern tradition, music was often associated with worship of deities or kings and rulers. As such, music was often written in traditional music meter with regular rhythm. If lyrics were included, the words were often written in praise and adoration of gods.

Hence, they are seen to be artistically more valuable as they are seen to be more “meaningful”. By this measure, contemporary music was often considered to be artistically meaningless as it was, as critics charged, a cacophony of sounds with illegible lyrics. Such music is also seen to be “meaningless” because they are written without purpose except for commercial purposes. However, such criticisms are often missing the point. Just because contemporary music is not written in praise of gods or kings does not mean that it is artistically meaningless.

Contemporary music can be considered modern day anthems of social issues. Many composers and singers have successfully used their music to raise social awareness of issues of the day, while being commercially successful. For example, during the Vietnam War, John Lennon’s hauntingly beautiful 1971 anti-war song “Imagine” expressed the thoughts of many during the war years of a utopia in the world, is just as relevant today as it was back then. More recently, after the events of September 11, Black Eye Peas’ song “Where is the love? pointed out the irony that existed in America; that while America combats terrorism, they are neglecting equally urgent problems like racism and government hypocrisy. Indeed, if artistic value is equated with meaning, then contemporary songs are in no way artistically “inferior” to music from the traditional canon in this aspect. In many of the traditional musical canon of the East or West, many compositions were sometimes written unique to various tribal groups as a means to establish identity.

What we normally call today as folk songs, these songs were written as a means to transmit cultural, historical events or moral values across generations. On this aspect, again, many critics like educationalists and parents have lambasted today’s contemporary music and artists for promoting all the wrong values and lifestyle of drugs and guns through their music. Granted that there is some merit to their criticisms for, indeed, some of today’s artists’ lifestyles and their songs are not what mainstream society would call “virtuous”. Gangsta rap” would certainly fall under this category of violent songs which promotes a lifestyle of drugs and guns. However, we have to understand that such genres are not necessarily considered mainstream contemporary music. Just like songs of old act as tribal markers, contemporary songs of today have in some ways become markers of social groups or generations. While they might not be used in the traditional sense of cultural or historical transmissions, contemporary songs have used by artists as a means to capture the struggles experienced by their generation.

In actual fact, while genres like “gangsta rap” or hip-hop might contain violent lyrics, most are, in fact, an expression of life in the inner-cities of America. Their songs are a reflection of the despair faced by many living in such squalid conditions, and these people identify themselves with these songs. These songs have become the primary means for them to express what they perceived as social injustice towards them. Even in Singapore, during the 1970s and 1980s, we had locally produced music called “xinyao” (literally Singapore songs) that expresses the daily struggles, dreams and aspirations of a typical Singaporean then.

While we are not condoning the violence espoused by some contemporary songs, certainly we cannot dismiss such music as artistically worthless as they are merely a reflection of societies, albeit sometimes the uglier side of life. Ultimately, to say that contemporary music has no artistic value is ignoring the enormous influence contemporary music has as agents of social change. Some social critics have scoffed the supposed influence contemporary music has as agents of social change because of the heavy commercial interests in modern music industry.

These people believe that, with heavy commercial interests involved, it is well-neigh impossible for recording artists to do anything that will be contrary to the interests of major recording labels and their profit margins. Recording artists would then have to compromise their artistic integrity for money’s sake. However, increasingly, we are seeing more contemporary artists with a social conscience, and are using their enormous popularity as a way of raising awareness of social issues and forcing social change.

Famous events like Woodstock on 1968, promoting love and peace amidst the dawn of the conflict in Vietnam, Band Aid on 2004 for raising funds for famine, and Live Earth of 2007 for environmental awareness have served to highlight the importance of using contemporary music to raise awareness of social issues. Even non-governmental, non-profit organizations like “Blues for Peace” (for promoting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours), and “Justice Through Music” (education of civil rights for youths in America through music) have sprung up in order to tackle social and national problems.

Singers and songwriters believe that, with their popularity, they can move their fan-base to pressure political and business leaders into action with their songs and music. In most parts, while their successes might be slow in coming, certainly we cannot deny their artistic value in moving masses with their songs and music into action. Victor Hugo once said that, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent. ” Indeed, contemporary music follows a long progression of means by which Mankind expresses his feelings, aspirations and fears.

For those who staunchly hold on to the view that contemporary music has no artistic value simply because it is artistically meaningless or just a wild cacophony of sounds, are simply ignoring the power that contemporary music has in capturing the moods and feelings of modern day societies, or the power in moving masses into action. It is not that contemporary music is in any way inferior to traditional, accepted canon of music. One has to see that contemporary music is doing what its predecessors were doing in the past, only in a modern context, creating meaning and value for modern people.

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Contemporary Music Has No Artistic Value, Is This a Fair Comment?. (2017, Mar 22). Retrieved from

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