Pop Matters!: The Genre Is A Crucial Forum For Activism & Acceptance

Love Wins
Frederic J. Brown / AFP / Getty Images
– Love Wins
Macklemore (far left), Mary Lambert (second from left) and Ryan Lewis (second from right) perform their anthemic single “Same Love” at the 2014 Grammys with Madonna (center) while Queen Latifah (far right) officiates a mass wedding of 33 same-sex couples.

The Grammys have historically been a mixed bag when it comes to progress – just ask the of-the-moment artists who have lost out to legacy acts for major prizes over the years – but on Jan. 26, 2014, an open-minded presentation during the ceremony made waves.

During the ceremony, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, the hip-hop duo nominated for seven awards that year, performed their single “Same Love,” which was nominated for Song of the Year, with featured artist Mary Lambert and guest Madonna, as Queen Latifah presided over 33 same-sex marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t find bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional, effectively legalizing the practice, for another year and a half.

Since World War II, pop music has frequently dovetailed with activism as bold performers have used sizable platforms – whether on record or on stage – to decry injustice, call for change and create safe spaces for marginalized fans.

Changing Minds
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– Changing Minds
nullaElton John, who raised LGBTQ+ visibility when he came out in 1988, appears at the 2001 Grammys with Eminem, then notorious for his homophobic lyrics.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, folk artists like Pete Seeger used song and performance as political tools, coming under scrutiny from the likes of the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1960, the San Diego school board demanded Seeger sign an oath restricting his political speech as a precondition to performing at a local high school, though the American Civil Liberties Union ultimately obtained an injunction; in 2009, the San Diego school district extended an apology to the then-89-year-old performer. 

Concerts – or the lack thereof – have frequently been harnessed to sway public opinion. In September 1964, The Beatles were poised to perform at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., but threatened to pull out upon learning the sold-out crowd of 32,000 would be segregated; the venue ultimately relented. 

While plenty of smaller artists preached politics in the ‘70s and ‘80s, major ones moved the needle with prominent concerts, often multi-artist bonanzas, fighting against war, nuclear proliferation, the AIDS epidemic and much more. Just last month, Bruce Springsteen released a documentary and live album chronicling his set at one of New York City’s famed No Nukes concerts held at Madison Square Garden in 1979.

With the advent of the internet and social media and the ever-evolving issues confronting the populace, the tenor of musical activism has changed in the 21st century. Today, representation and being seen are critical in a way they weren’t decades ago. Audiences increasingly recognize the value of diversity and inclusion in efforts of justice and equality – and artists increasingly have used a robust touring industry and the power of digital communication to share messages with listeners and give them the tools to engage with noteworthy causes.

X Factor
Bennett Raglin / Getty Images / BET
– X Factor
Lil Nas X performs at the BET Awards in June 2021. The star has centered the experience of queer Black men in his art.

Take JoJo Siwa, this week’s cover star. The 18-year-old performer, who rose to prominence via the reality show “Dance Moms” before launching her burgeoning music career, has become a cultural touchstone for teens and tweens, thanks partly to her positive messaging combating bullying. Siwa, who has more than 60.5 million followers on social media, landed on TIME’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020 list and, after publicly coming out as LGBTQ+ in January 2021, appeared on GLAAD’s second-annual 20 Under 20 list honoring LGBTQ+ youth. This fall, she was part of the first same-sex pairing to appear on “Dancing With The Stars,” placing second in the reality competition.

Siwa is just one of a cadre of young stars using their platforms for good. Lil Nas X, the iconoclastic 22-year-old who rose to prominence with country-rap smash “Old Town Road” in 2019 – and became the first openly gay Black artist to win a Country Music Award – has used his fame to subvert stereotypes in a genre that’s long been dogged by instances of misogyny and homophobia. His Grammy-nominated 2021 album, Montero, addresses his own story of coming out, and singles “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and “Industry Baby,” which both hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, feature audacious lyrics and even more audacious music videos. Through his music and performance, Lil Nas X has foregrounded the queer Black experience – and he’s been rewarded critically and commercially.

Of course, it cuts both ways: Rapper DaBaby was dropped from the lineups of major festivals including Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits after he made homophobic remarks onstage at Miami’s Rolling Loud in July. The comments revived one of hip-hop’s darker undercurrents, where some artists over the years have blurred the lines between genuine bigotry and performative lyrical shock value.

But the tide has turned decisively. Two decades ago, Eminem performed with Elton John at the Grammys, to help battle back accusations of his homophobia – after selling millions of copies of records that were condemned by LGBTQ+ advocates. Today, Lil Nas X dominates those same charts, and artists from Brothers Osborne’s T.J. Osborne to Frank Ocean are met with overwhelming support when they come out. 

Love Story
Bryan Bedder / Getty Images / AEG
– Love Story
Taylor Swift performs at The Stonewall Inn to celebrate the historic New York City’s bar 50th anniversary in June 2019.

Straight allyship also remains an important element. Taylor Swift voiced solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community on her 2019 album, Lover, even performing at New York City’s historic Stonewall Inn during Pride Month for its 50th anniversary as she prepared to release the record. The video for single “You Need To Calm Down,” which proudly confronts homophobes, won Video of the Year at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. When Harry Styles, who just wrapped a wildly successful arena tour, spotted a fan during his Nov. 3 concert at Milwaukee’s Fiserv Forum holding a sign aloft that said “My mom is in section 201. Help me come out?,” the star stopped the show and did just that, declaring, “Lisa! She’s gay!” from the stage. 

It’s not just LGBTQ+ issues. Major stars are taking on a range of social and political topics, from climate change – see Billie Eilish’s partnership with REVERB or Coldplay’s industry-leading sustainability protocols for its 2022 stadium tour – to voter engagement, which artists continue to advocate for, often in partnership with the non-partisan organization HeadCount. As mass gatherings return in the pandemic’s wake, performers are more attuned than ever to the potential concerts present for creating change.

No one can guess what the future holds – but it’s a fair bet that musicians will be there to meet the moment.