Oftentimes, music sits in the background. It plays, and we listen — but not really.
Sometimes, that’s where it belongs. While it may not seem in the background (frat grooves tend toward the rambunctious side), 2 a.m. party tunes certainly don’t take the forefront of our minds. Take Ke$ha, for instance. The only discernible impact of her 2012 release “Timber” is a mysteriously intense desire to jump up and down repeatedly. Jason Derulo contemplates how women “fit all that in them jeans,” and the Spice Girls announce that they “really really wanna zig a zig aaah.” What is zig-a-zigging, anyway? No clue, but the beat is fun and the melody is catchy, so we dance.
Don’t get me wrong — I love the latest pop. And it’s no secret that college life is stressful. With packed schedules, tough academics and social lives, sometimes the only thing we want is to “Wiggle, Wiggle, Wiggle.” The Top 40 has flashy percussion and singable lines, and it’s just what we need. That’s what it’s there for: entertainment.
And then, out of nowhere, some songs hit you square on.
The first time I heard Macklemore’s 2012 single “Same Love,” I was pulling into an H.E.B. parking lot.
“America the brave still fears what we don’t know.”
I’m stuck — transfixed. I sit in my car, pulled between the painted yellow lines, listening. Macklemore has caught me off guard. It’s a simple sentence, yet the potency is overwhelming. There is a beautiful juxtaposition to the work — gentle piano, soft drum, mellow vocals against scathing words. “Have you read the YouTube comments lately?” Macklemore asks. “The holy water that you soak in has been poisoned,” he warns. “Press play, don’t press pause,” he commands. His words sting with truth.
“Same Love” criticizes public social norms and questions the righteousness of our morals. The lyrics impress on us to act. Macklemore doesn’t zig-a-zig with the Spice Girls or question female curvature with Mr. Derulo. He sends us a message.
Two years later, Hozier shocks pop culture with his 2014 release “Take Me to Church.” The sound is as enticing as any chart-climbing hit; the lyrics, however, define it as more. “Every Sunday’s getting more bleak / a fresh poison each week,” Hozier sings. We hardly recognize the bitterness beneath the rhyming parallelism. “I’ll worship like a dog at the shrine of your lies” — and we hear it again: a sharp religious criticism masked by a groovy beat and strong vocals. Low piano backs accusations of “poisonous” corruption. Denunciation of religious deceit spills over tapping percussion.
It is this meaningful quality that makes “Same Love” and “Take Me to Church” more than background music. They are not meant for late night dances or for the bar on the corner. These songs stop small talk. They make you hush your friends and turn up the volume. They make you sit extra long in the grocery store parking lot because Macklemore is speaking, and you certainly aren’t about to leave.
Macklemore and Hozier are not alone. Artists across the world challenge us with their works. Nina Simone requested freedom in 1967, wishing to “break all the chains holding me.” John Lennon called for a new world in 1971, directing us to “Imagine all the people, living life in peace.” It’s the difference between Carly Rae Jepson’s “Call Me Maybe” and a call to action. Some songs sing — not to make you jump up and squeal, but to make you stand up and speak.