Music in Culture Essay

Music in Culture

If there is one thing about music that amazes me, it is its power to represent and embody the culture and times of a specific people and generation - Music in Culture Essay introduction. I grew up in a household with the most diverse tastes in music. Sunday mornings would see my dad listening to his collection of albums by The Beatles.  Mom on the other hand would be humming along to the songs of the Mamas and the Papas particularly the vocal solo performed by the rotund but sweet-voiced Mama Cass Elliot as she prepared breakfast. The song “Dream a Little Dream of Me” by Mama Cass is her absolute favorite.

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I myself have different preferences for music. Sure, The Beatles and other old time bands were really cool, but I don’t think my ears are quite ready to appreciate them as much as my parents do.

My taste in music is about as moody as I am. There are times when I feel upbeat and can listen to the reggae music of Bob Marley and his group the Wailers. On what I’d like to call my brooding days, it would have to be songs by rock alternative bands such as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Hanging out with my friends? It’s hip-hop and pop music all the way.

For this paper however, I’d like to discuss three of my more often played albums: Legend by Bob Marley (original release date October 1984) Californication by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (released 1999) and one of my more recent favorites Elliot Yamin by the American Idol finalist Elliot Yamin (released March 2007).

The first reggae song I ever heard was “No Woman No Cry” by Bob Marley. At that I remember thinking how upbeat and different the rhythm was from popular music. I actually thought it was just an off-shoot of hip hop as both share a pretty offbeat melody. It was my dad who enlightened me and told me that reggae has been around for decades and that its music stood for so much more than ordinary entertainment. My curiosity got the better of me so I borrowed his copy of the Legend album and settled down to listen.

And yes, I freely admit curiosity can make one just go and do things. After all, I do belong to the generation that took apart cassette tapes and switched reels to listen to the much- hyped “backmasking” and the supposedly “satanist” lyrics in the days of rock and metal bands Guns and Roses and Metallica.

The intro of the song “Buffalo Soldier” was the first that made me listen up a bit more.

“Buffalo soldier, dreadlock rasta:
There was a buffalo soldier in the heart of America,
Stolen from Africa, brought to America,
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival.”

— 1st stanza of Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” (1984)

I was surprised how at how anyone could be singing of something like slavery in such an upbeat and for lack of a better word, “catchy” manner. While I’m aware that music has been used to support and promote causes through the years, there was something ironic in the quality of the revolutionary nature of the lyrics combined with something close to dance music. It would have  been quite easy to miss the real sense of the song unless one were really listening for it.

If music were a religion, Bob Marley and his group the Wailers would be among its high priests. Actually, reggae music was born of a religious movement called Rastafarianism that finds its roots in the Afro-Caribbean country of Jamaica.  The Rastafarianism began in the 1930’s during the days of slavery. Africans were being kidnapped and shipped abroad to be sold as slaves in white man communities. Those left behind suffered intense oppression and discrimination at the hands of the white colonialists in their own land (Parker).

The establishment of the Rastafari movement came to be a form of “identity” that African Jamaicans could call as their own. They believed that the forced departure of Negroes from their homeland of Africa is only a temporary phase and that one day, all black people will be repatriated in Africa, specifically, Ethiopia (Dolin).

Marley who was a practicing devotee of Rastafarianism brought the movement to the international spotlight along with the acclaim his music received all over the world. Besides including the Rastafari elements of dreadlocks, rasta talk, ganja (smoking of marijuana) and returning home to Zion (Ethiopia) Marley also turned his songs into social commentaries. He would sing about the inequality and injustices suffered by the Africans as well as the humiliation endured by his people as slaves.

For me, the song that best embodies the struggle against oppression and slavery that was the dominant theme in most of the songs on Marley’s album is “Redemption Song.” (“Legend”)

Redemption Song by Bob Marley

Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
But my hand was made strong
By the and of the almighty.
We forward in this generation
Wont you help to sing
These songs of freedom? –
cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.
Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our minds.
Have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them can stop the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look? ooh!
Some say its just a part of it:
Weve got to fulfil de book.

Wont you help to sing
These songs of freedom? –
cause all I ever have:
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs;
Redemption songs.

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery;
None but ourselves can free our mind.
Wo! Have no fear for atomic energy,
cause none of them-a can-a stop-a the time.
How long shall they kill our prophets,
While we stand aside and look?
Yes, some say its just a part of it:
Weve got to fulfil de book.
Wont you help to sing
Dese songs of freedom? –
cause all I ever had:
Redemption songs –
All I ever had:
Redemption songs:
These songs of freedom,
Songs of freedom.

“Redemption Song.” Marley, Bob. Legend.(1984)

As to why reggae singers like Marley chose to express their music in the offbeat way it is known for, I have a personal theory. I think that as everything about their culture were forcibly being repressed, they found that to sing in a light hearted manner made it easier to hide the true meaning of their songs. Lyrics written in Rasta talk (an intentional corruption of English) made it harder for their oppressors to understand what the songs are truly saying.

I also think that the upbeat melody in some way helped alleviate the suffering of the African-Caribbean people. In some ways, they were getting the better of their oppressors who probably stamped along to the music as did the rest of the world without knowing that the songs were about them.

Listening to reggae music made me realize that one can have so much anger or sadness yet express it in a way that is not harmful or hurtful. It’s just a matter of being creative about it. It makes me sad though how in the recent years, this wonderful music has been treated more as a fad than as an expression of culture. Half the time I doubt if those sporting dreadlocks and trying so hard to act “rasta” really know what reggae and Rastafari are all about.

This brings me to my second choice of albums, “Californication” by Red Hot Chili Peppers. Unfortunately, I am not as yet capable of the serenity and creativity of Marley in expressing his anger and opinions so music that tends to be more blunt about such issues and emotions hold an appeal not only for me but I believe, a majority of teenagers in my generation.

 Alternative rock (also known as “college rock”) started off as a label for rock music that did not fit into any mainstream genre in the 1980’s. The music itself came from underground bands made up mostly of college kids who wanted something different from what were available on the music market, hence alternative rock is also known as “college rock” and “indie rock”(Hibbett).

The term “rock” in reference to alternative music is something that my parents find baffling. Having been raised on rock defined by the Rolling Stones and The Who, calling the collection of guitar rifts and styling as “rock” are beyond their powers of comprehension. I think the term my mom used in describing my collection of alternative rock CDs my “angry music.” My dad ever so direct, just called it “noise.”

There are many explanations as to why alternative rock became so popular among teenagers and college students. Some say that it’s just an appreciation of the guitar stylings of people like Slash whose guitar solo on the song “Sweet Child Of Mine” remained an anthem for people who were teenagers at the height of Guns N Roses’ fame.

Marry me girl be my fairy to the world
Be my very own constellation
A teenage bride with a baby inside
Getting high on information
And buy me a star on the boulevard
It’s Californication

Space may be the final frontier
But it’s made in a Hollywood basement
Cobain can you hear the spheres
Singing songs off station to station
And Alderon’s not far away
It’s Californication

—excerpt from lyrics of “Californication,”(19990

Personally, I think its just another case of needing identity. Most of the music in alternative rock deal with issues that teens face. For instance, the album’s title “Californication” (1999) alone blends together the words “California” and “fornication” or sex. The songs contained in the album all carry dark themes of angst, isolation, loneliness, cynicism, promiscuity, coercion and disgust at trends and systems. In a word…Puberty.

Puberty can be quite a confusing period.

Maybe its hormones, maybe it’s something else entirely,

But I do believe that the expression of all the issues

that confront and challenge most teens and young

adults are very well expressed in alternative rock. Is it a sort of rebellion against the establishment? Probably, though there is a question whether such rebellion is a conscious or unconscious act.  I admit that there are times when I feel pressured with stuff I’ve got to deal with, it helps to just turn the volume up high and let the Red Hot Chili Peppers do the railing and screaming for me.

Admittedly, some of the songs in the album can be quite dark and alarming for parents who do get to decipher the words. In the song “Otherside,” for instance, there’s a line that says something about slitting one’s throat. While the song as a whole I more of an expression of frustration (at least to me it is), the morbid nature of the lyrics commonly used in alternative rock may alarm some.

I think it’s the surreal and dark natures of the songs are what attract most people my age to them. I find it immensely therapeutic just listening to this particular CD when I am feeling particularly frustrated. If I were to guess why, I’d say its because the performers are doing and saying exactly what we “angry young people” find difficulty to express. I also don’t believe that this need for something “angry” or “rebellious” is something that is unique to today’s youth.

My parents often talk of having driven their own parents up the wall with their Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix records. I honestly don’t think the need for our special kind of music is any different from other generations that also had music that they found expressive and reflective of the things they are going through.

We young folks aren’t always angry and frustrated though. For example, one of my more recent favorites is American Idol runner-up and pop singer Elliott Yamin (2007). My friends who share my appreciation for Yamin’s music agree that the mellow tones and sentimental themes that Yamin sings about stirs something with us, cliché though that may sound.

One however wonders what makes pop music so popular.  Understanding them won’t need deep thinking or analysis such as classical music or other genres do. Fact is they are so easy to understand that one might be tempted to call it “shallow” and obvious.

            I think it is this very shallowness that makes people appreciate pop songs. There is no need for deep thinking, no hidden messages or rhythms to study before the music is understood. If Elliott Yamin sings he’ll “Wait for you,” that is exactly what the song is about…nothing more to it.

 The reason for popularity of pop I believe lies in its non-threatening nature. The melodies are simple, the lyrics make sense without having to involve one in critical interpretation, and the themes more often than not, are “nice” themes such as beauty, love, desire, ambition and other non-controversial things. It appeals without being aggressive. After listening to other music genres ranging from highbrow classicals to the speaker busting rock, pop music comes as a pleasant respite. All one has to do is to sit back and enjoy the music.

Academics dismiss popular music as just another common activity that people indulge in. Because a lot of people like it, it’s popular… nothing too complicated or academic about the term. In fact, it has been labeled downright “insufficient” by most music scholars (Moore 2).

In my personal world, I have moments that I call my MTV (music television) moments. These are defined by situations where a song seems to be perfect fit to what I was feeling at that exact time. Music as a tool and representation of culture is pretty much like one of those MTV moments.

What do I mean by this? The three albums I’ve chosen for this paper have come out at different times with different issues. Marley’s songs reflected the oppression and the African people’s struggle against it. This is amplified by the lyrics and melodies that seek to comment against the current regime at the same time uplift people’s spirits with reminders of their beliefs and faith.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers reflected the struggles for self-identity and confusion that most young adults are facing today. The difference between youth music now and that of generations before is that there are different issues facing each generation. With the teens of the 1960’s and 70’s the bigger issue relevant to all was that of war. Hence, movements and songs reflected either pro or anti-war sentiment. That is not to say though that they had their own version of “self-identity” music with their own version of brilliant but tormented singers like Janis Joplin. Today’s youth have more space to focus on their own concerns such as peer pressure, raging hormones, stress and identity confusion. These are reflected in the often-disjointed lyrics of alternative rock.

Music has so many genres that speak for and to a wide variety of people. While there may be different reasons why people like the music they do, the one thing that is constant about music is that it reflects the times and issues prevalent at a particular society and time period. And because music brings with it messages and themes that are familiar, people are able to relate to it and embrace it.

More than entertainment, music serves as a multi-tiered reflection. It embodies feelings and issues both personal and public. The dynamics of change that affects life and trends will also affect music. This much is evident in the way parents may have difficulty accepting the music of today as “music.” Someday soon, the children of today will be having their own version of “angry” and “expressive” music, while we future parents can look forward to screaming at our kids to either turn the volume down or pull those earplugs out please for just one second.

Works Cited

Dolin, Kasey Qynn. “Words, Sounds and Power in Jamaican Rastafari.” MACLAS Latin American Essays (2001): 55+.

Hibbett, Ryan. “What Is Indie Rock?.” Popular Music and Society 28.1 (2005): 55+.

Marley, Bob. “Buffalo Soldier” Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers.Island

 Records. 1984

Marley, Bob. “Redemption Song” Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers. Island

Records. 1984

Marley, Bob. Legend: The Best of Bob Marley and the Wailers.Island Records. 1984

Moore, Allan F., ed. Analyzing Popular Music. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Parker, Jason. “From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology.” The Journal of African American History 91.4 (2006): 497+.

Red Hot Chili Peppers.”Californication.”Californication. Warner Bros / Wea Records. 1999

Red Hot Chili Peppers.”Otherside.”Californication. Warner Bros / Wea Records. 1999

Red Hot Chili Peppers. Californication. Warner Bros / Wea Records. 1999

Yamin, Elliott. “Wait For You” Elliott Yamin. Hickory Records. March 19, 2007

 Yamin, Elliott. Elliott Yamin. Hickory Records. March 19, 2007

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