Social Justice Through Music

Social Justice Through Music

Music is the language of the world. Music has the power to convey messages to audiences larger and wider than any news source, website, or media outlet. Some musicians and groups have begun to understand the power of their influence and used that influence to spread messages about social justice. For the most part these messages have been criticized. “Just stick to entertaining” is what the masses have requested. I disagree, I feel that the power to advocate and speak out through music and lyrics should be used as a tool to teach and disseminate knowledge about the social issues facing our society today. For this project I have sampled a series of recent songs with lyrics that do just that.  

War

The first two songs I looked at for this project were two war protest songs aimed at revealing the true social and psychological cost of war. “Survivors Guilt” by Rise against, released in 2011, is written from the perspective of a veteran returning from deployment. “Carry on, don't mind me, all I gave was everything,” one lyric states. This is a criticism of the way that returning veterans are forgotten in society. The Department of Veterans Affairs will receive $198 billion for the fiscal year of 2019 to cover the cost of educational assistance programs, housing assistance programs, medical care, psychological treatment, and employment assistance programs to over 20 million veterans (Department of Veterans Affairs). This just up from $186 billion for 2018. However, the Department of Defense is scheduled to receive over three times this much in 2020 (U.S. Department of Defense). This to me speaks of misplaced priorities.

“I fought your fight, bought your lie. In return I lost my life. What purpose do I serve?” This lyric is a critique on the American military in particular and it’s aim at policing the world. Currently, there are approximately 200,000 U.S. troops deployed overseas. Deployed domestically across the U.S. is another 1,116,000 troops (Desjardins, 2018). As of 2018 the national defense budget was increased to just shy of $700 billion (U.S. Department of Defense). But why? What is the purpose of all of these deployed troops. While the U.S. admits to involvement in war throughout seven countries, U.S. troops are deployed in 177 not including our own (Desjardins, 2018). So, along with the artist, I ask what purpose are we serving?

The second song I evaluated was “Zombie” by the Cranberries released in 1994 and adapted by Bad Wolves in 2018. In the Cranberries original version, the song was released as a protest against a protest. At the time, the Irish Republican Army was in a 25 year dispute with the British who had deployed troops in Ireland. The strife between the two powers led to the death of many civilians, leading to this band writing a song that paid homage to those civilians while simultaneously criticizing the ongoing superfluous discord. The Bad Wolves group recognized that the ongoing war between several countries costs lives everyday. Adapting the lyrics to shed light on that reality was their goal.

Some of the thought-provoking lyrics used by the Cranberries were “Another head hangs lowly, child is slowly taken. And the violence causes silence, who are we mistaken?”  This lyric was taken to imply the civilian deaths accrued by the costs of war and a call to the Irish nation to do better. Bad Wolves kept this lyric, but instead as a call for humanity on the whole to do better. “It’s the same old theme since 1916” was used by the Cranberries to mark the beginning of the issues between the British and the Irish. Bad Wolves would adapt this lyric to say “It's the same old theme in 2018” as a way to say that it’s ongoing but it’s getting old.

Suicide/Mental Health

Struggling with mental illness is challenging for anyone. However, discussing mental illness has always been a taboo topic and heavily stigmatized. With suicide being the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, talking about suicide and preventing it has become a major public health concern (National Institute of Mental Health). This is what artist Robert Bryson Hall, stage name Logic, wanted to capture in his 2017 released song “1-800-273-8255.” The title of the song, cleverly, is the number to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

This song depicts imagery of someone struggling with thoughts of suicide, who feels entirely alone, yet progresses into someone who begins to value his life. This progression is beautiful and powerful. He starts the chorus in the beginning saying, “I don't wanna be alive, I just wanna die.” Then he goes on to tell the story of why he feels this way saying “I never had a place to call my own, I never had a home. Ain't nobody calling my phone.” This speaks of a lack of social support and social connection that leads people to experience depression and feelings of purposelessness.

However, in the second chorus, the lyrics progress to say, “I want you to be alive” and “I know you’re the reason I believe in life,” and finishing off powerfully with “It can be hard, it can be so hard, but you’ve gotta live right now. You’ve got everything to give right now.” I have personally experienced the impact that these statements can have on someone who is in a place of mental instability. Finally, in the end, the artist finishes off by saying “I finally wanna be alive, I don't wanna die today, I wanna feel alive.” I think the storyline that these lyrics follow is important and powerful because anyone going through depression or contemplating suicide can find something in this song to relate to and cling to for hope. Hearing the story of someone who made it through a dark time and came out a new person, can make the difference in someone making the decision to take their life.

The second song analyzed for this project was a song that has the opposite progression yet is equally powerful and meaningful. “Ghost” by the group Badflower, was released in 2018 and contains lyrics of a person’s struggle with self-harm and suicide. With lyrics such as “I struggled with the veins and I didn’t bleed enough” the artist is describing a failed attempt. Then he goes on to say “Take the blade away from me .. I am afraid that all the blood escaping me won't end the pain, and I’ll be haunting all the lives that cared for me.” This lyric depicts two, important behaviors that those who are contemplating suicide tend to exhibit: feeling like a burden to family and friends, as well as withdrawing from family and friends (National Institute of Mental Health).

The artist ends this song with the lyric “I cut a little deeper and the pressure stopped my heart.” While this is not the ending that anyone wants, for those struggling with chronic mental illness, depression, pain and so forth, to some it can seem like the only option (National Institute of Mental Health). What is important to gather from these lyrics is that, clearly discussing issues with someone contemplating suicide can be an important preventative measure. Had someone in the life of this protagonist, recognized the signs and symptoms to begin with and intervened, the story would have ended much differently.  

Substance Abuse

Mental health disorders and substance abuse disorders were comorbid in over 8 million Americans aged 12+ (American Addiction Centers). In 2014, over 21 million Americans were struggling with a substance abuse disorder such as drug or alcohol addiction or prescription drug abuse (American Addiction Centers). In 2017, over 11 million Americans, aged 12+, reported abusing prescription pain relievers (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration). Substance abuse and drug addiction is a public health crisis; It is time we change the way we talk about substance abuse and addiction disorders.

An excellent example that displays the prominence and prevalence of the substance abuse crisis, and more specifically the opioid crisis, is the 2017 released song “Rx (Medicate)” by Theory of a Deadman. In the beginning, the group makes several references to current trends in behavior “crushing candy, crushing pills” and “textin exes, getting my feels.” Then he sheds light on the harsh reality with “twenty more dead on the evening news.” In the chorus, the artists add, “all I want’s to feel numb, but the medications all gone,” and, “all I want’s to get high and forget this so-called life.” The lyrics are harsh yet capture the sad reality of the culture of drug use.

This band ends the song with “Your friends are high right now, your parents are high right now, that hot chick’s high right now, the cop is high right now, the presidents high right now, your priest is high right now.” The most important concept present here, is that no one is untouched by the damage of the drug addiction crises. Whether directly or indirectly, it affects everyone. Secondly, treatments for substance abuse issues consist of inpatient and outpatient health services, group counseling services, individual drug counseling and so forth (National Institute of Drug Abuse). A more literal interpretation of the song lyrics: the solution to the drug addiction issue is by increasing social connection; how do we do this if everyone is addicted?

The second song I looked at was “Sober” produced by Demi Lovato in 2018. In the wake of her overdose in July of this year, she released this song as an illustration of her ongoing battle with addiction, a battle she regrets losing. “Wake me when the shakes are gone and the cold sweats disappear. Call me when it’s over and myself has reappeared,” she sings. This is her recognizing herself relapsing and awaiting the withdrawals. In her chorus she shares, “momma I’m so sorry I’m not sober anymore, daddy please forgive me for the drinks spilled on the floor.” She is ashamed both for herself and her parents. She then says “I’m sorry for the fans I lost, who watched me fall again. I wanna be a role model, but I’m only human.” If these statements say anything to me, it again expresses the importance of social connection and social acceptance.

In the case of the artist herself, Demi, she has spoken out countless times about how she suffers from eating disorders and substance abuse disorders, supporting prior research regarding comorbidity between mental health disorders and substance abuse. In this song, it is important to note, that not only was this a rendition of what the struggle looks like for so many who suffer from drug addiction, but it alludes to the prevalence and comorbidity of multiple substance abuse disorders such as alcohol or prescription abuse in tandem with something like depression or an eating disorder.

Conclusion

Included in this paper, are few recent examples of artists and entertainers who have aimed to use their impact on large audiences and talk about social issues. Some of these issues were very personal to the performers and some were not. However, by spreading their art far and wide they have brought attention to issues and called for activism in ways that have not yet been attempted by the psychological or sociological spheres of research. As scientists, taking advantage of music or possibly other art forms to spread knowledge about both emerging and ongoing social issues, is a must.


Resources

American Addiction Centers. (2018). Statistics on drug addiction. Retrieved from: https://americanaddictioncenters.org/rehab-guide/addiction-statistics

Back, D., Brenner, D., Connolly, T., & Dandeneau, J. (2017). Rx (Medicate). [Recorded by Theory of a Deadman]. On Wake-Up Call. [CD].  London, England: Kensaltown.

Barnes, B., Blair, Z., McIlrath, T., & Principe, J. (2011). Survivor’s Guilt. [Recorded by Rise Against]. On Endgame. [CD]. Santa Monica, CA: DCG Records and Interscope Records.

Caracciolo, A., Hall, R. B, Ivatury, A., Robinson, K., & Taggart, D. (2017). 1-800-273-8255. [Recorded by Caracciolo, A., Hall, R.B, & Robinson, K.] On Everybody. [CD].New York, NY: Def Jam Recording and Visionary Music Group.

Desjardins, J. (2017). U.S. military personnel deployments by country. Retrieved from: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/u-s-military-personnel-deployments-country/

Espiritu, A., Katz, J., Morrow, J., & Sonetti, A. (2018). Ghost. [Recorded by Badflower]. On, OK, I’m Sick. [CD]. Los Angeles, CA: Big Machine.

Lovato, D. (2018). Sober. [Recorded by Demi Lovato]. On Don’t Forget. [CD]. Santa Monica, California: Universal Music Group.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Types of Treatment Programs. Retrieved from: https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states/types-treatment-programs

National Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Suicide Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml

O’Riordan, D. (1994). Zombie. [Recorded by The Cranberries]. On No Need to Argue. [CD]. Dublin, Ireland: Windmill Lane Studios.

O’riordan, D. (2018). Zombie. [Recorded by Bad Wolves]. On Disobey. [CD]. New York, NY: Eleven Seven Music.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Mental and substance use disorders. Retrieved from: https://www.samhsa.gov/disorders

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2018). Department of Veterans Affairs: Budget in brief. Retrieved from: https://www.va.gov/budget/products.asp

U.S. Department of Defense. (2018). Shanahan talks strategy, space force, budget. Retrieved from: https://www.defense.gov/explore/story/Article/1673927/shanahan-talks-strategy-space-force-budget/