Should Artists Tackle More Topical Issues in Their Art?

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The recent announcement that Foals will be releasing not one, but two whole albums this year, the first bits of new music since 2015, has brought a massive buzz. From first impressions of their brand new single ‘Exits’, it is clear that the now four-piece, despite showing diversity in style in their previous work, are taking their music in a new direction: While the distinctive, techno influenced sounds provides a sense of familiarity with their previous works, layers of East Asian inspired melodies and heavy, ominous guitar riffs infuse the single with a unique and intense texture which distinguishes it from their typical style. From this track alone, it can be assumed that the rest of their incoming plethora of music will be equally as exciting and experimental.

But the interest may not stop at the production. In a recent interview in light of their upcoming albums, Foals frontman Yannis Philippakis stated that he was “embarrassed to be a 21st-century human”. In recent years, topics critiquing problematic aspects of society have become increasingly common in popular music, showing a growing concern about making a difference. Last year, Childish Gambino tackled race and gun violence in ‘This is America’, whilst The 1975 critiqued the state of the modern world in ‘Love It If We Made It’, but in a society where the actions of celebrities are constantly under scrutiny and surveillance, should more artists be taking responsibility to tackle such issues?

There is definitely no obligation to do so. The majority of mainstream artists stick to typical subject matter of relationships, sex, partying etc. This can, in some ways, work to their advantage. It arguably makes a single more marketable when it is less serious. Take, for example, Eminem’s album Revival. The media promotes songs such as the Ed Sheeran collaboration ‘River’, which is about a failing relationship, but how many times do we hear the anti-Trump anthem ‘Like Home’ playing on the radio? 

It should also be considered then that, particularly in the context of chart music which has a great exposure to a wide audience, listeners may not appreciate having controversial issues forced upon them through the media. In light of the highly divided reactions towards the recent Gillette advert, it has been made apparent that bringing awareness to issues and encouraging the audience to make a difference does not always have the intended positive impact. When people use media as a source of entertainment, the promotion of important issues can elicit unintended feelings of blame or victimisation. Therefore, to do so may tarnish an artist’s reputation in the media. Having said this, if a musician already has a large fan base, negative media attention from expression of a dividing opinion is unlikely to be particularly damaging, and therefore to a point, an artist can cover whatever issues they choose.

Not only are lyrics on safer, more light-hearted aspects of culture looked upon without scrutiny, but the lack of unique or political messages often allows for easy listening. Not everyone will analyse the meanings of lyrics, and therefore expressing important ideas may not always be effective. Having said this, messages in music are often subliminal; while values presented in music on the radio aren’t picked apart by the average listener, much of today’s youth culture reflects the ideas we hear in these songs, posing the question of whether these artists are choosing to focus on aspects of life that the audience already identify with, or whether the content of music influence the choices of listeners. If the answer is the latter, then in some ways artists do have a responsibility to tackle difficult issues regarding injustice and inequality, as audiences may be influenced by this and encouraged to think about these issues and express their opinions.

Musicians have the privilege of a stable platform. If an artist is particularly passionate or angry about an issue, they have a highly effective and prominent mode to express themselves. And while in the mainstream media this can spark controversy, the issues presented in the music, even if negatively received, will have attention drawn to them (if the reception is particularly divided, the issue will become even more topical). This may bring light on important questions in our society that may have previously been overlooked by the audience. Essentially, while there is no explicit responsibility to tackle topical issues, there is much to be said about whether an artist chooses to use their popularity and credibility to shed light on societal issues, or to pick safe topics that are easily marketable and more palatable to the average listener.

So will Foals be tackling 21st century societal issues in their new albums?

Phillippakis has previously spoken about how much of his music’s content emerges; documenting feelings and thoughts in notebooks which inspire the subject matter for his songs. If the state of humanity is something concerning him, perhaps this is set to emerge in the new albums. ‘Exits’ alone touches upon issues such as the environment and our lack of privacy in modern life, so it can safely be said that many more issues will be emphasised in their incoming music. Either way, I’m excited to see what their new albums bring.

Foals on how new single ‘Exits’ reflects ‘the state of where we’re at’ in society

Katy Henderson

Header Image Credit Alex Knowles