Politics in Music Videos: A Sonic Protest

by Ada Anderson

Introduction

In class, we recently discussed Beyoncé’s 2016 film, Lemonade. The hour long film is an album music video with monologues scattered throughout. In this production, Beyoncé incorporates visuals, lyrics, sound, and poetry to expose and confront the injustice against the African American body in the United States. It is the combination of these various fields of art that allowed Beyoncé to make such an effective and powerful project. With Lemonade, Beyoncé has torn down artistic boundaries to create a masterpiece that highlights how music and film complement each other. For people who listen to music for the sound rather than the lyrics, the film provides a visual representation. For those who are interested in the meaning of lyrics, the film offers an extension to their interpretations. Beyoncé recognized the power of film and music together and capitalized on this discovery to make a political statement. While there are certainly films and songs with political undertones, Lemonade arguably opened doors for political and social music videos. 

Thus far, my generation, Generation Z, has proven to be a very politically active cohort. Our progressive outlook has, in many ways, been reflected in our choices of music. As politically and socially themed music has become more popularized in our generation, artists have become more open with their beliefs. Many artists have taken after Beyoncé by taking advantage of the music and film duo. In this essay I will examine how musicians like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, and Kendrick Lamar have penetrated the film industry to expand on the political and social themes of their songs. 

‘The Man’ by Taylor Swift 

Although the singer/songwriter has notoriously abstained from expressing her political and social opinions throughout the majority of her career, recent albums, instagram posts, and documentaries have revealed a strong, politically progressive Taylor Swift. On her 2019 album, Lover, her song and supplementary music video, “You Need to Calm Down,” screams gay pride while the song, “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince,” creates a fantasy high school that reflects American politics. The fourth track on the album, “The Man,” combats the patriarchy with clever lyrics and Swift’s signature “easter eggs” (visual clues or hidden messages) found in the music video. 

Throughout her career, Swift has been criticized for her relationships and portrayed as a crazy and manipulative girlfriend in the media. In the past, she has spoken out against these sexist undertones in an interview with the Australian radio station, 2DayFM. When asked about how she feels when people say she only writes about boyfriends, Swift replied:

‘Frankly, I think that’s a very sexist angle to take. No one says that about Ed Sheeran. No one says that about Bruno Mars. They’re all writing songs about their exes, their current girlfriends, their love life and no one raises a red flag there.’

Swift clearly was aware of the sexism of the media in 2014; however, it was not until 2019 that she put it into writing. The hook of the “The Man,” “‘Cause if I was a man/ then I’d be the man,” although simple, offers a complex critique of gender double standards. Swift’s replacement of the indefinite article, “a,” with the definite article, “the,” makes an explicit argument: if she were put up to the same standards as a man, she would be the boss, the king, the one everyone aspires to be. 

In the music video, Swift has transformed into a man with the help of professional makeup and fake beard hair. However, this transformation is not revealed until the credits of the video are rolled. By hiding her identity for the duration of the video, viewers are led to believe that the actor playing Swift’s character is actually a man. The surprise reveal adds to the significance of the video as it is yet another piece of evidence that suggests if Swift was (secretly) in a mans body, she would be idolized. 

The first scene starts out in an office, mirroring the iconic Wolf of Wall Street scene where Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is worshipped by his employees. 

The man vs Leo

This is not the only time DiCaprio’s doppelgänger is seen in the video as he is later pictured on a yacht with a group of women. This scene and Swift’s lyric “I’d be just like Leo, in Saint Tropez,” directly reference images released of the actor on a tropical vacation with multiple women. Swift uses DiCaprio, who is seen by fans as “the man” to emphasize gender double standards. As a woman, Swift has been endlessly ridiculed for her serial dating life while DiCaprio is applauded for his bachelor behavior.  By contrasting herself to DiCaprio in this video, Swift claims that if she were a man, the media would view her the same way it views DiCaprio: strong, confident, and powerful.

Swift continues this narrative of the double standard as she sings “every conquest I had made/ would make me more of a boss to you.” This lyric points out how men view women as a “conquest,” something to achieve. It also alludes to the indignity that is attached to female sexuality. A later scene where Swift’s character is depicted leaving a woman in bed after a one-night-stand reinforces this lyric’s message. Upon the character’s departure, he is shown running through a hallway where he is greeted with extended hands of praise. This hallway-of-high-fives is a direct contrast the walk-of-shame so often associated with women. While a man gains respect the more sexual partners he has, a woman loses it. 

TS hands

In the bridge of the feminist anthem, Swift compares her music to the music of popular male artists. Swift sings:

"What's it like to brag about raking in dollars
And getting bitches and models? 
And it's all good if you're bad 
And it's okay if you're mad 
If I was out flashin' my dollas 
I'd be a bitch, not a baller 
They'd paint me out to be bad 
So it's okay that I'm mad"

In the supplementary scene of the music video, Swift’s character and other male figures are pictured taking shots off of women, showering in money, and locker-room talking. The lyrics and the visuals of the music video work in unison to manifest Swift’s outrage around the acceptance of derogatory lyrics that objectify women. While Swift is angered by the profit that men make off of this patriarchal writing, she also points out that if the tables were turned, she would be looked down upon for writing about similar topics.

Tennis

During the bridge, the party scene transitions into a final scene set at a tennis court. As Swift’s character becomes infuriated at the referee, the imagery becomes very familiar. The scene parallels Serena Williams’s infamous argument with the referee during the 2018 US Open final. During this match, Williams was cited by referee Carlos Amos for three code violations: for receiving coaching signals, for breaking her racket, and for “verbal abuse” (Amos) towards Amos (Mitchell). These citations cost Williams the match and sparked conversation surrounding both sexism and racism. Williams was framed as hysterical when her expression of frustration was equivalent to those of male tennis players who are seen as emotionally invested and competitive. Swift speaks to this double standard in the lyric “and it’s ok if you’re mad” as well as in her 2020 documentary, Miss Americana, where she claims that “a man is allowed to react. A woman can only overreact.” There is an age-old standard that women should remain calm and lady-like at all times. Anything a woman does to deviate from that state of neutrality is labeled as crazy or hormonally driven. These standards have made it hard for women to speak their minds and to express their opinions because they fear they will be discredited for being a woman.

Although Swift effectively conveys her message surrounding female expression of anger in this scene, it is important to note that Swift also overlooks intersectionality here. While in the video, Swift uses the US Open final as a more broad representation of women’s anger, the event is more specifically a representation of Black women’s anger. The Angry Black Woman stereotype that displays African American women as irrationally and quickly infuriated has silenced Black women for generations. Beyoncé combats this stereotype in Lemonade through scenes that validate her anger as well as featuring Williams in the video.

The stern and straightforward beat that is accompanied by short, succinct lines throughout the song makes it so anyone listening can clearly hear and understand Swift’s lyrics. This musical clarity speaks against the stereotype that women are hard to understand and irrational. Swift’s deliberate effort to make the song coherent, audibly and thematically, makes it impossible for critics deem it subjective. “The Man” is meant to reach the masses and expose gender double standards, slut shaming, and the objectification of women. Swift’s final line in the bridge, “so it’s okay that I’m mad,” concludes her argument. After using lyrics, sound, and film to present her evidence, Swift feels her anger towards the patriarchy is proven valid. Her production has made these double standards nearly impossible to dispute. Through her musical activism, Swift is telling girls that it is okay “to wear pink AND [express] how [you] feel about politics” (Swift, Miss Americana). 

Credits

“The Man” not only validates Swift’s frustration as a female pop star but also validates the frustration of all women across the world. As a female college student, “The Man,” although satirical, made me feel empowered as it provided assurance that I was not alone in feeling misunderstood or creatively limited by gender standards. To end the music video perfectly, Swift shamelessly rolls the credits reading: “Directed by TAYLOR SWIFT,” “Written by TAYLOR SWIFT,” ”Owned by TAYLOR SWIFT,” “Starring TAYLOR SWIFT.” This fitting conclusion disregards pressures to be humble and works as a final reminder to Swift’s female fans to take pride in themselves and their hard work. Taylor Swift is defining what it means to be the woman: strong, confident, and powerful.

‘bury a friend’ by Billie Eilish 

Anxiety and depression have recently been labeled as an epidemic among teenagers by CDC researchers as suicide rates “increased 56% between 2007 and 2017” after being stable for two generations (Curtin and Melonie). Consequently, artists like Kid Cudi, Logic, and Twenty One Pilots have integrated personal mental health struggles into their music in efforts to normalize conversation around the topic: a concept that has been brushed under the carpet for generations. A leader of this conversation is Billie Eilish, an 18 year old Gen Z’er who is using her musical talent and lyrics to destroy the stigma looming over mental health. With her career debut with her 2017 album, Don’t Smile at Me, Eilish’s popularity among our generation has grown rapidly. As her popularity has become more widespread, so have conversations concerning mental health, especially among adolescents. 

Eilish’s second album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? is titled after a ponderous lyric in the tenth track, “bury a friend.” Sonically, this track is one you would hear in your nightmares; a disturbing and eerie melody that Washington Square News writer, Michael Muth, perfectly describes to “bur[y] itself under your skin.” “bury a friend” embodies the grotesque with Eilish’s signature whispering voice, haunting moans, and sampling of a tooth drill recorded at the dentist (Coscarelli). This macabre aura to the song puts listeners on edge, cuing them into the psychologically deranged mind of a monster. 

The accompanying music video opens up to a man in bed, presumably asleep. The song begins with his deep voice, summoning “Billie.” The camera cuts down to underneath his bed where Eilish begins to sing as a creepy, demonic presence. Eilish is the monster under the bed, and as she explains in a Genius interview, “‘bury a friend’ is literally from the perspective of the monster under [her] bed” (Eilish qtd., Mench). Eilish’s character starts with the chorus of the song that consists of a group of questions:

"What do you want from me? Why don't you run from me? 
What are you wondering? What do you know? 
Why aren't you scared of me? Why do you care for me? 
When we all fall asleep, where do we go?"

Eilish’s monster is wondering why she gives into its darker side, why she is so interested in its evil presence. Here, Eilish personifies her anxious and depressive thoughts into one dark presence. Although Eilish distinguishes herself from this antagonistic persona, she recognizes that she and this being are one and the same. This is a common technique that writers and lyricists use because for many, struggles with mental health can feel like a battle against an uncontrollable power coming from within. In the song, Eilish is asking herself as well as listeners why we allow ourselves to embrace our darker sides when they only bring pain. The last question of the verse, “When we all fall asleep, where do we go?,” can be interpreted as a metaphorical question representing the unanswerable question: where do we go when we die? The monster, and therefore Eilish herself, is pondering suicide and this philosophical question only emphasizes her fascination with the possibility. 

Eilish Under Bed

The second verse continues with the monster’s suicidal monologue as Eilish is seen stumbling down a hallway. As strobe lights flash, Eilish sings “Today, I’m thinkin’ about the things that are deadly/ The way I’m drinkin’ you down /Like I wanna drown.” The monster is “drinking” her – literally consuming her. 

needles

Eilish manifests this theme of tortuous consumption with imagery in both her video and lyrics. In the video, Eilish invokes asylum imagery as she is seen being manhandled by anonymous, black gloves that control her against her will. These gloves stab her with syringes and move her body in distorted ways. The bridge of the song that is complementary to this portion of the video proves to be just as unsettling as Eilish sings, “Step on the glass” and “staple your tongue.” These actions are undeniably disturbing to imagine, but the most interesting aspect of this lyric is that it is written in the imperative form. The lyrics serve as a command from the monster directed at Eilish. Her darker side is instructing her to self harm. Throughout this song and music video, Eilish compares her mental illness to traditional institutional abuse imagery to convey to listeners/watchers that she feels psychologically and emotionally tortured by her thoughts.

Although Eilish has received backlash for the dark topics of her songs, especially by older generations, her public vulnerability arguably helps teenagers feel less alone. Eilish has spoken openly about her personal suicidal thoughts in an interview with CBS saying she “genuinely didn’t think [she] would have made it to seventeen” when asked about the ‘bury a friend’ lyric, “I want to end me.” While this phrase is not necessarily a line you want teenagers playing in their heads, it is this raw vulnerability that Eilish expresses in her music and in the media that has been fundamental to destroying the stigma around mental health. Her songs allow teenagers grappling with mental health concerns to feel as though someone understands them and what they are going through. It is these lines that make the lonely feel less alone, as if Eilish is an empathetic contemporary. The singer/songwriter has also appeared in a “Seize the Awkward” PSA where she encourages fans to seek help from both professionals as well as friends and family as she has done before. 

Eilish’s platform is normalizing conversations about mental health. In recent studies, it has been reported that Generation Z members are significantly more likely to report their mental health as poor or fair than older generations. This could be due to the mental health crisis or it could also be a positive sign that our generation is better at identifying our mental health issues and feel it is more acceptable to ask for support than previous generations. Music like Eilish’s has only made asking for help and providing help more comfortable and effective. 

‘DNA’ by Kendrick Lamar

Similar to Beyoncé and her film Lemonade, artists like Childish Gambino, Cardi B, and Tyler the Creator have used their platforms to promote conversations around racial inequality. Kendrick Lamar, in my opinion, stands at the forefront of this musical movement as he explicitly combats the oppression of the Black body in America. Having grown up in Compton, California, Kendrick Lamar has been transparent when it comes to his experience with jail time, drugs, and gang violence in his music and in interviews. The rapper’s 2017 album, Damn., builds off of his previous commercial albums, To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) and good kid, m.A.A.d. city (2012), as a collection of racially driven songs. Damn. became incredibly recognized. The album swept the five major Grammy categories and it received the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018 (Flanagan). While the musical content of the album is undeniably impressive, the rapper’s music videos accompanying the songs prove to be a necessary extension considering the rapper says in a MTV music video that he “see[s] things as scenes in movies when [he] write[s].” These videos enhance Kendrick Lamar’s music. The video for the album’s lead single, “DNA.,” is no exception. 

The video opens up to Kendrick Lamar handcuffed to a table and hooked up to a polygraph test. Hotel Rwanda actor, Don Cheadle, enters the room as a law enforcement figure and with a spitting tone, says “you know what DNA stands for? Dead N— Association.” This clear reference to the song’s title creates an initial stark contrast between the message of the rapper’s platform and the perspective of American law. Kendrick Lamar takes pride in his heritage while the judicial system sees Black people as a target – a clear allusion to police brutality. After this remark, Cheadle chuckles and sits down to start the lie detector test. When he presses the start button, a force violently overcomes the officer who then seems to be controlled by Kendrick Lamar. 

DNA vs The Day...

In an Insider video, Alana Yzola draws a parallel between this scene and a scene from the movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the movie, an alien figure has come to earth and has the potential to destroy the existence of mankind. By alluding to this film, Kendrick Lamar makes the argument that this is how his critics view him in a hyperbolized manner. His critics fear that his music is feeding the public deviant information that could disrupt – or even destroy – white society.  

The video continues with Cheadle’s presumably possessed character lip-syncing to Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics. The track is sung with frustrated conviction. Kendrick Lamar doesn’t miss a beat, barely leaving himself time to breathe. He clearly has a lot to say and is not holding anything back with this intense and angry rant. Although the law enforcement figure sings, it is clear that the lyrics come from within Kendrick Lamar as he is the one controlling Cheadle as he sings:

"I got, I got, I got, I got 
Loyalty, got royalty 
Inside my DNA 
Cocaine quarter piece, got war and peace 
Inside my DNA 
I got power, poison, pain and joy 
Inside my DNA 
I got hustle, though, ambition, flow 
Inside my DNA"

This first verse presents both the difficulties and the pleasures that come with being Black in the U.S.. I interpret this verse as Kendrick Lamar’s explanation of the notion of a community’s collective memory – a theme that is common among Black writers like Toni Morrison and Claudia Rankine. Although not all African Americans have had Kendrick Lamar’s same experience, the rapper argues that the memories that come with generational oppression against the Black body have become metaphorically genetic. Centuries of violence against African Americans and their fight for freedom has caused the deep rooting of this collective memory. In this verse Kendrick Lamar sees that his Black inheritance has provided him with the strength of characteristics like “loyalty” and “ambition,” but he also recognizes the “pain” and “poison” that he is challenged with because of his race. 

As Kendrick Lamar tells his generational story through Cheadle, the polygraph aggressively spikes. Despite the rapper presenting the truth surrounding Black oppression in America, the polygraph deems him a liar. This is Kendrick Lamar’s way of exposing the judicial system for having racial biases and misunderstanding the Black community as a whole. 

In the fifth verse, the rap transitions from Cheadle’s monologue to a dialogue as Kendrick Lamar finally breaks his silence. The law enforcement officer and the rapper go back and forth in an argument until Kendrick Lamar’s words, the words of the persecuted, eventually dominate:

"I know murder, conviction 
Burners, boosters, burglars, ballers, dead, redemption 
Scholars, fathers dead with kids 
And I wish I was fed forgiveness 
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, soldier's DNA 
Born inside the beast"

At this time, Cheadle’s character visibly recedes. He comes to the realization that he too was “born inside the beast” as a Black man. The Black experience unites these two men regardless of their upbringings and status, connecting back to the African American collective memory. At the end of the rapper’s rant, Cheadle regains his own consciousness and unlocks Kendrick Lamar’s handcuffs. It was not until Cheadle was literally possessed by Kendrick Lamar that he could empathize with the rapper’s perspective. This of course argues that hypothetically, if all of the law system could know what it feels like to be an African American, racial biases in the judicial system would be eliminated. Ultimately, it was the law enforcement’s understanding of the truth surrounding the Black experience that set the rapper free.

DNA argument scene

Kendrick Lamar’s freedom from the grasp of the law marks a shift in the video from a protest against the prejudiced judicial system to a clap-back against his critics. The rapper starts this refute with a sample of Geraldo Rivera’s Fox News review of his 2015 BET performance. In this set Kendrick Lamar sang his song “Alright” with a police brutality protest behind him. In the sample, Rivera claims this protest “is why [he] say[s] that Hip-Hop has done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” 

Rivera is threatened by Kendrick Lamar’s message to combat the oppression of African Americans and manifests this in an alarmingly ignorant statement. While critics like Rivera see racially political hip-hop artists as dangerous to white society, Kendrick Lamar sees himself as a voice for the voiceless. In a 2015 New York Times interview he says, “I am the closest thing to a preacher that they have. I know that from being on tour –kids are living by my music. My word will never be as strong as God’s word. All I am is just a vessel, doing his work.” The rapper sees his platform as more than a responsibility but rather a godsend. This martyr complex is apparent in his music as he sings “I was born like this, since one like this, immaculate conception/ transform like this, perform like this, was Yeshua’s new weapon” earlier on in the song. Although this is a large claim, Kendrick Lamar views himself as a modern Jesus figure – a savior for the Black body. 

Kendrick Lamar finishes the song by countering statements like Rivera’s that perpetuate the oppression of African Americans. Directly after leaving the polygraph test he meets up with friends who are decked out in Top Dawg Entertainment (TDE) merchandise – clothing made by the record label that signed Kendrick Lamar when he was only fifteen (Stop the Breaks). This subtle branding in the music video speaks volumes: Hip-Hop saved Kendrick Lamar as an adolescent. With his platform, the rapper seeks to provide young African Americans with the same guidance that TDE gave to him. So when it comes to criticism of his platform, the rapper refuses to take suggestions that would filter his music. While lying in a coffin, the rapper sings, “I’d rather die than to listen to you / My DNA not for imitation / Your DNA an abomination.” 

coffin

He recognizes his unique and positive impact on his following. Those who try to hold him back are, in his words, an “abomination” to the country. Kendrick Lamar is fighting for civil justice for African Americans in the most honest, raw way he can. There is no sugar coating or romanticization in his music: he has “soldiers DNA” and he is here to fight for his community. 

Conclusion

In 2003, Natalie Maines, the Dixie Chicks’ lead singer, made an anti-governmental remark against then President, George W. Bush, for invading Iraq. The singer spoke for the group saying “We’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas” – the same state the band originated. This small, on-stage political statement sent the band’s career into a downward spiral. The Dixie Chicks’ CDs were burned and their following diminished all because they stepped out of the boundaries of their roles as entertainers (Kopple and Peck). But fast forward to 2020, musicians are some of the most politically influential figures in the world to Generation Z. While the United States stands divided, artists like Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, and Kendrick Lamar choose to use their platforms for the greater good. These musicians are all subject to oppression whether it be by a stigma, or by generational, systematic inequality. However, contrary to the cancellation of the Dixie Chicks, these artists are rewarded for their politically and socially driven statements. So what has changed in the past twenty years? Is Generation Z a more progressive cohort than previous generations? Or have Americans lost faith in our government and now are searching for different outlets of leadership? Either way, what these artists are doing for our country is important. Musical platforms are a new form of social education that is being explored everyday when it is played over speakers, through our earbuds, and with complementary music videos. This is a musical movement, and I am here for it. 

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