The term “woke” has been coined on social media as being the state of realising the current political state that has developed in 2016. The rise of “woke pop” appears to be starting with recent releases from Beyonce, Katy Perry, Lady Gaga and Skip Marley. But is it a genuine revolution in popular culture or something that will be short-lived? Just how impactful has this been so far?
Politics in pop is nothing new. Social and political issues have rightfully bled into pop culture on numerous occasions through modern history as ‘pop stars’ use their platform to express their dismay at social conditions. However, in the past few months it’s becoming more explicit and less hidden with some big names releasing songs damning social issues.
The first major expression of ‘woke pop’ in the current era came from Beyonce last February with the release of “Formation”. The song marked a damning verdict on America’s racial climate and highlighted the level of discrimination faced by black people and more specifically an empowerment anthem for black women. Debuting the song at the Super Bowl was an incredibly brave move, with Beyonce using her platform to give her message the greatest exposure possible. And yet despite the cultural phenomenon of “Formation” things did not improve. Perhaps because it remained largely catered to her existing audience and the liberal community. “Formation” wasn’t a song that received massive airplay and therefore its impact was naturally limited amongst the wider population.
On top of these social issues came political turmoil. The election of Donald Trump was met with widespread outrage and grief across the A-list spectrum and amongst the liberal community across the world. This provided the social conditions necessary for “woke pop” to spread further into the mainstream. Lady Gaga recorded a track “Angel Down” for her latest album released at the end of 2016 about the racial tensions in America and the lack of governmental interference. However, her diminishing popularity and lack of commercial release for the song meant the song once again remained hidden from the wider population.
Katy Perry’s burst back into pop has very much taken aim at Trump. She is the first popstar with the ability to reach a large scale audience, with all due respect to Beyonce and Lady Gaga. “Chained To The Rhythm” is exactly the type of “woke pop” that is needed to begin the revolution and new trend of pop music. At first glance it appears to be another typical throwaway pop song, but the message of the song becomes clear through the lyrics. For me, Skip Marley really steals the show here. In the video, he marks an important moment in Katy Perry’s awakening as she releases the backwards nature of American society and begins fear the world. The song and video achieves the perfect level of happiness being masqueraded with a dark and haunting subtext. She is willing and urging the audience to join in her awakening and “break free” from the rhythm (a metaphor for the existing order of society).
The song has gone on to achieve a decent level of success and exposure, but will this finally mark the point in which “woke pop” becomes a revolution? Will Katy Perry herself continue to follow this new path and give popular music a purpose once again other than sex, love and ‘getting dollar’? I’m inclined to say yes. Now that we’ve seen such a high profile artist, who remains popular with more conservative members of the population, take this stance, others will use their platform to follow suit. Whether they’re as big or impactful as Katy Perry, I don’t know. Her collaborator, Skip Marley, has released a debut single called “Lions” which similarly marks a call to arms against the social situation. He remarks that the younger generation are the “chosen ones” to start the revolution. One artist that I think will definitely come back with a political bang is Lily Allen. She’s a vocal dissenter of right wing mentality on social media and will no doubt use her platform as an artist to express her discontent.
Only time will tell whether this is the beginning of a new “woke pop” era. The conditions are there for it to happen. It’s now time for artists to make use of their platform as a mechanism to hold the right wing governments of the west to account for their failings, along with the media, and I am confident this will become an increasing trend in popular music.