HOW MUSIC REPRESENTS CULTURE
The culture of a nation changes with the music people listen to. We explore what cultural identification is embedded in the music of artists across several decades and how this influences diverse cultural movements for the younger generations
Words: Emily Georgieva
Photography: Agnieszka Kowalczyk, Haley Powers, Made by Morro, Brian Kostiuk, Kelly Sikkema, Alasdair Elmes, Joseph Pearson, Namroud Gorguis
05 March 2020
“One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
A form of art, music is a time capsule – it catches the essence of the time it was created for, whilst representing the cultural identity of the past that it was influenced by. Listening to old albums, songs produced and released before one was even born, is a fascination – a privilege. You get to understand a time you haven’t and never will belong to. It is a way to trace back the evolution of classes and cultural movements on a much more complex level than you would through political statements and history books. With music you get to learn about life through the voice of your idols and connect directly with the culture of your ancestors.
Our generation is interested in learning how to appreciate things that are not ours to own. Even though people’s taste in music constantly evolves, we are still bound to the old-fashioned ways of creating music. A lot of my friends, people born in the 90’s, treasure vinyl because this is an authentic way to experience music and partly because it was how our parents connected to the music legends of their time before introducing them to us. In 2019, vinyl outsold CD’s – an occurrence that hasn’t happened since 1986. An article by NME outlines the information shared by the Record Industry Association of America that shares the statistics behind it. In the 1970’s vinyl was in the epicentre of music for the first time in history because it influenced the cultural awareness of the young generation at the time. Today, the demand to listen to old-school-style music urged a wave of different consumer behaviour. Contemporary artists release their music on vinyl as people want to connect their modern-day culture to the legacy of previous generations.
The best thing about listening to albums that were created throughout different decades is that you get to relive a cultural mishmash of identification. Political speeches and movements, economical situations and fights for equality are among the things that influence artists. Musicians create their craft mainly for the people to represent them and express their role in society. It is how you can tell the time that a song was written for. The use of instruments and production style are not the only things that change over time. Society’s evolution presses a need for musical growth beyond artistic creativity. Music is an interpretation of society and the culture of a country often changes based on the music people listen to.
Music and culture are always going to influence one another and evolve simultaneously over time. People in China were asked to define through a survey what culture means to them and the majority summarised it by saying that it is “The spirit of people”. There is a recent shift in Chinese society as nowadays education is valued on a much different and more sophisticated level while freedom is praised. According to Chinese students, this movement is influenced by westernisation as more people in the country listen to music from overseas than ever before.
Culture is strongly represented in music and embedded in the legacy of artists who express their cultural identity when performing. Entire music eras were defined by artists who started revolutions and defined the complexity of musical evolution. In the 70’s the Beatles broke up whilst big names such as Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd moved from night clubs to performing on massive stadiums in front of thousands of people. Artists such as David Bowie founded a change in the way audience had to be entertained by establishing the glam rock genre. Bob Marley put all eyes on the reggae whilst in New Your City Kool Herc gave birth to hip-hop by experimenting with playing the instrumental breaks on stage for much longer than ever before. Entire cultural groups were inspired by those genres of music and embedded them as part of their cultural identity.
In late 70’s the punk rock emerged both from New York and Great Britain when artists like The Clash, the Sex Pistols and the Ramones put nonconformity in the centre of their art. Later in the decade pop culture was entirely redefined by the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Alternative music acts emerged to set a new movement of expression. Indie labels became more widely trusted after The Smiths decided to sign with an indie label rather than a major record company. This launched a new wave of cultural extravaganza as indie labels gave artists more freedom to experiment and express themselves.
Music became easily transportable especially in the 80’s when tapes gained more popularity and were popped into boom boxes and car stereos. In the 80’s MTV made its big launch and dominated the release of visual acts, making music more accessible on a wider scope. Even though the idea of festivals became ‘a thing’ in 1969, it wasn’t until the late 90’s that it took audience by storm. Today there are thousands of festivals organised yearly all around the globe. Techno emerged like a saving grace around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Partying at nightclubs under the rhythms of the industrial futuristic dance music started the rave movement and spread it from Europe to the States. The urban dance parties were on one side of musical expression, whilst hip-hop became more realistic as some of the biggest names in the industry were people with criminal pasts.
Grunge formed in the 90’s and graced music to be a bit more down-to-earth and alternative. Nirvana and Pearl Jam defined the era and became pioneers of 90’s rock. R&B and hip-hop started a wave of cultural movements when names such as Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean became solo acts. The 2000’s changed the industry as music was perceived almost entirely digitally. This put things to a different scope and later presented the younger generations with the opportunity to listen to different genres on demand.
Music is culture. Artists express their own ideas, identity and beliefs when creating, but their art starts to shape when they combine sound and lyrics with the cultural aspect of the movements and people they are inspired by. A couple of centuries ago music would not have changed for decades in places across Europe, for example. These days are long gone by now and in modern times music evolves constantly. Without culture, music would not have been such a ginormous kaleidoscope of diversity, ideologies and freedom of expression. Without music, culture would not have reached such an impressive level of maturity and individualism. Culture is represented in music, much like music is needed to define culture. This is the amazing part of living in such times – we build upon the future of culture while respecting the legacy of the musical legends of the past.
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