Music With A Message: When Pop Songs And Politics Collide

How one song is bringing domestic violence to light

When a pop star hits headlines around the world, it is more often than not, on less-than-flattering grounds. Tan Weiwei, however, is drawing global attention for all the right reasons. Over the past six months, the Chinese singer (who also goes by Sitar Tan) has been steadily releasing singles off of her new album 3811, with each song chronicling the story of a different woman, from a Tang Dynasty poet to a taxi-driving single mother to a girl on the cusp of adolescence, in a daring display of activism.

The final single from 3811, in particular, has struck a resounding chord with hundreds of thousands of listeners in Tan’s homeland and beyond. Titled Xiao Juan (a term loosely analogous to “Jane Doe”), the track boldly broaches the still-taboo topic of domestic abuse and victim blaming in China, featuring lyrics that seem to reference real-life incidents of violence against women.

For example, “You use your fists, petrol and sulfuric acid” points to the tragic case of Tibetan influencer Lamu, who died in September after her ex-husband doused her in petrol and set her on fire, while “Flush us down the drain, from wedding bed to riverbed, stuff my body into a suitcase” alludes to the brutal murder and mutilation of a woman in Hangzhou by her husband earlier this year. Through the song’s forceful lyrics, Tan also confronts the misogyny ingrained in the Mandarin language, highlighting a litany of pejorative words that contain the radical “女” or “female”, such as bitch, demon, man-eater and hooker.

Since its release just over a week ago, Xiao Juan has spread like wildfire across the internet – the hashtag “Tan Weiwei’s lyrics are so bold” now boasts more than 350 million views on Weibo – with netizens praising the singer’s courage in speaking up about and taking a stand on this verboten issue. One user wrote that “[Tan] is a voice the world needs”, while another said that “Every single word hits you in the heart”. Responding to the positive comments on the micro-blogging site, Tan explained, “It’s not courage, but just a sense of responsibility”.

The rampancy of domestic violence has been described by some as China’s “hidden epidemic”. A 2010 study by the state-linked All-China Women’s Federation revealed that nearly 25 per cent of married women surveyed had experienced domestic violence, while the women’s rights group Equality has found that at least three women die every five days in China due to domestic violence. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, as many are forced into isolation in close quarters at home.

It is perhaps too early to determine what the true social impact of Xiao Juan will be, but even just opening a door to discussion on the issue of violence against women, as the song has already achieved, is a solid step forward given that awareness can be a catalyst for change.

Of course, Tan Weiwei isn’t alone in harnessing the power of music as a tool for discourse on social, political and cultural issues. Music with a message has existed for as long as people have gotten fed up with the status quo – and it’s not going away anytime soon. Read on to discover five other songs that have made waves around the world in recent memory.

Imagine (1971) by John Lennon

It didn’t take John Lennon very long to compose and cut his 1971 masterpiece Imagine (just a short writing session and all of three takes on the piano), but the song has endured as a cultural touchstone for nearly 50 years, widely considered as one of the greatest hits of the century, if not of all time.

Born out of radical politics – Lennon himself described it as “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic” – in the years since its inception, Imagine has become a clarion call for peace and an anthem of hope, thanks to its idealistic, utopic lyrics. Covered by everyone from Diana Ross to David Bowie to Lady Gaga (let’s gloss over that Gal Gadot-led version), the song often crops up in significant events like the Olympic Games as well as during times of crisis such as the aftermath of 9/11 and the coronavirus pandemic, a testament to its perpetual relevance and its ability to transcend generations.

Formation (2016) by Beyoncé

When you’re one of the biggest pop stars of our time, people tend to pay attention to what you say. Or rather, what you sing. So when Beyoncé dropped her smash single Formation back in 2016, the world sat up and took notice, not only because of her catchy beats and fierce moves, but also for the powerful celebration of Blackness in her lyrics and accompanying music video.

Tackling both the political and the personal, Beyoncé packs in references to the Black Lives Matter movement, Hurricane Katrina, Black feminism, and Black history and culture, along with subtle clapbacks at her naysayers through verses such as “I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros” and “I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils”. She isn’t called Queen Bey for nothing, after all. Even the date that Formation was released is noteworthy: during Black History Month in February, in the middle of the Mardi Gras festivities and on what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 21st birthday, had he not been murdered in a racist attack.

Where Is The Love? (2003) by the Black Eyed Peas

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Black Eyed Peas posed an unsettling question that still hits close to home some 20 years later: “Where Is The Love?” A fervent prayer, an impassioned plea and a prophetic message all rolled into one, the song addresses issues of terrorism, racism, violence, intolerance, gang grime, pollution, and more – persistent problems that continue to trouble society today, as evinced by the 2016 remake that followed the terror attacks in France, Belgium and Turkey, and the fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling at the hands of the police in the USA.

Paper Planes (2007) by M.I.A

If you’re anything like us, you’ve probably danced along to M.I.A’s Paper Planes without knowing what the three-minute head-bopper actually means. Couched in an earworm-worthy beat, complete with that unforgettable gun-shot/cash-register-kaching hook, the song is a sharp satire of the long-held stereotypes about immigrants and how, according to M.I.A, people think that “they’re just leeches that suck from whatever”. The British-born rapper, whose father was a Sri Lankan Tamil activist, was driven to write “Paper Planes” after a string of visa woes (she was denied re-entry to her adopted country of America because she supposedly matched the profile of a terrorist), and the result is nothing short of iconic.

Bang Bang Bang (2016) by Big Bang

Only a handful of songs can lay claim to the honour of contributing to South Korea’s retaliatory efforts against its northern neighbour, among which numbers the award-winning Bang Bang Bang by K-pop quintet Big Bang. Part of a propaganda playlist that the South Korean government blasted over the demilitarised zone in response to nuclear tests by the North in 2016, Bang Bang Bang was chosen to pique the interest of listeners across the border, because according to a senior research fellow from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, “Broadcasts from South Korea can reach deep and far into North Korea’s society, imbuing the minds of its people with the images of a free nation and hurting the oppressive personality cult [of Kim Jong Un]”. Talk about a sonic strategy!

What songs do you feel have made an impact on the world?


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