Political Pop, Political Fans?
A Content Analysis of Music Fan Blogs
MARK PEDELTY AND LINDA KEEFE
Tori Amos believes “the dangerous thing about listening
[to music] is that you don’t really know the effect it’s going to have”.
That applies to making music as well. Performers can never really be certain
what effect their music has on fans. Few artists believe that their music will
rally audiences to action, but many hope that it will at least serve as a
catalyst for discussion. For example, Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la
Rocha writes lyrics in the belief that music might “spark” a “real dialogue.”
Unfortunately, little research has been done to determine
to what extent, if any, audiences care about the political elements of pop. As
ethnographers our work has mainly involved qualitative research with
individuals who make and consume music, including extensive field-based
ethnography. Specifically, we have been involved in participant observation and
interviews with musicians interested in the political potential of music.
Yet, we often wonder how our intersubjective engagement in the lives, minds,
and actions of individuals and small groups relates to larger scale discourses,
and to larger audiences. Therefore, to achieve the holistic aims of
ethnography, we decided to supplement our qualitative fieldwork with
quantitative analysis of fan discourse.
Does political music “spark” a “real dialogue” among fans,
as Zack de la Rocha had hoped? Based on previous interviews and ethnographic
fieldwork, we hypothesized that it would. No claim for causation is possible
here, however; the best we can do is to determine whether or not fans of
political pop engage in political dialogue, and to what extent they do so when
compared to fans of less politically-charged music.
Based on the quantitative content analysis detailed here,
it is safe to say that political discussion is taking place among fans. Our
research demonstrates that political discussion is more frequent among fans of
musicians with political reputations than it is among fans of top-selling pop
stars. While this conclusion will be qualified and contextualized, the analysis
serves as some of the strongest evidence to date, showing that the politics of
pop is relevant to general audiences.
What fans have to say to researchers depends on many
factors, including time, location, and research instruments and design. Surveys
at performances yield one set of data, while interviews of iPod users in cafes
provide another. We sought a natural setting and exogenous source, discussions
that take place without a research prompt: fan blogs. Granted, bloggers
represent a particular type of audience. Such fans have enough interest in
musicians and music to actively write about them. As such, this is a study of
serious fans in a computer-mediated communication (CMC) context. Fan blogs are
a great place to start, for determining whether or not fans of political pop
musicians engage in more political discourse than pop fans in general.
Although music is clearly central to political movements
and rituals, it is not clear how, or even if, general audiences relate to pop
music on a political level. Even in the case of overtly political pop acts like
U2, the Clash, or Rage Against the Machine, it is not clear to what extent the
political messages in and around the music motivate fans, become a catalyst for
discussion, function aesthetically, or play very little role at all in fan
Political meaning is hard to pin down in song, even when
focusing on lyrics. People react as much or more to the “feel” of a given song
as to the manifest meanings of the words. For example, Prinsky determined that
most teenagers ignore lyrics. That is why censorship tends to backfire. Instead
of keeping a song from audiences, censorship tends to serve as a cue for young
listeners to pay more attention to lyrics.
As Frith explains, lyrics are just part of the musical gestalt, less autonomous
in their meaning than other types of text. Lyrical meaning is intimately linked
to, and conditioned by, semiotic cues in the music and performance, such as
vocal inflection, rhythm, and musical tone.
It is extremely difficult to predict how audiences will
respond to musical words, sounds, or even visual cues. For example, Bleich and
Zillmann found that “counter to expectations, highly rebellious students did
not enjoy defiant rock videos more than did their less rebellious peers, nor
did they consume more defiant rock music than did their peers.”
In that case, there was very little connection between behavior and musical
The difficulty in predicting and understanding an
audience’s musical interpretations and orientations is partly due to the fact
that there is an extremely diverse range of cues, codes, and contexts involved
in musical production, distribution, and consumption. Platoff illustrated the
complex nature of audience interpretation using the example of John Lennon’s
“Revolution” (1968). He argued that reactions to the song “had much to do not
just with the song itself but with public perceptions of the Beatles.”
Interpretations of the song were also influenced by contemporary events and
social trends, such as deepening anger concerning the war in Vietnam. Although both liberal and
conservative critics tended to give strong readings to the lyrics of both
versions of “Revolution,” most audiences based their interpretations on the
musical tone and mood of the song rather than referencing the more nuanced
meanings expressed in Lennon’s lyrics.
Likewise, Robinson and Hirsch found that teenagers
generally did not recognize the basic topics of pop songs.
As further evidence of this, Denisoff and Levine determined that half of the
college students involved in their study could not correctly identify the topic
of Barry McQuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (1965), even after reading the lyrics.
While these and most quantitative studies of popular music are significantly
dated, they lead us to wonder what message politicized pop songs actually
convey, if any.
As opposed to the research cited above, most studies of
musical politics have involved interpretive readings of lyrics and/or
performances with a strong emphasis on historical contexts,
links to social groups,
and various combinations of contexts.
If there is consensus in the qualitative literature it is this: given the right
historical circumstances, cultural conditions, and aesthetic qualities, popular
music can help bring people together to form effective political communities.
The above studies and others have provided a useful
overview of how political pop functions, at least in specific cases. Although
it is evident that activists are interested in political pop, it is still not
clear how, or even if, popular political artists like U2, the Clash, Rage
Against the Machine, and others connect with their larger fan base. For all we
know, most of their fans have no interest in their favorite pop stars’
political messages. One could certainly imagine a Rage Against the Machine fan
enjoying Tom Morello’s inventive guitar riffs while banging about in the mosh
pit at a RATM concert, mostly indifferent or perhaps even antagonistic to the
socialist politics of the band. Such people would consider themselves RATM fans
and most RATM fans might even share an apolitical orientation to music. In
other words, in terms of political interest, identification, and communication,
fans of political pop might be much more like the general pop audience than is
often assumed. That is the primary question we are exploring here.
The only empirical evidence of political concordance
between pop stars and their fans comes from studies involving college students.
Although the general pop audience might not listen closely enough to lyrics to
understand its manifest meanings, political or otherwise, there is evidence
that politics plays some role in fan identification among some groups of
college students. For example, Fox and Williams found that among college
students “musical styles are associated with ideological orientations,” even
though few overtly political traits are evident in the music itself.
More recently, Jackson and Darrow found that young adults’ level of agreement
with political statements tended to increase when those statements were
endorsed by music and sports stars.
Weglarz further advanced our understanding of the
relationship between musical taste and politics, making the analysis more
fine-grained by studying fan attraction to individual artists as opposed to the
broader genre categories studied by Fox and Williams. Weglarz found a positive
relationship between students’ political views and those of the musicians they
enjoy. Weglarz’s research among college students is the best evidence yet of political
concordance between fans and musicians.
We studied the question via quantitative analysis of fan
blogs in order to examine fan communication in a more natural setting. As
opposed to communication impelled by surveys or experiments, blogs have a heuristic
advantage: they are not produced via experiment or artificial prompt. They
already exist in the world, having been created for and by fans. Therefore, the
blogosphere is an excellent place to measure the relative level of political
discourse in fan communication.
Two samples were compared: (1) blogs written by fans of
top-selling pop artists and (2) blogs written by fans of political pop
We selected the top-selling musician for each fifth year
between 1960 and 2005, using Billboard Magazine charts, resulting in the
following list: the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, 50 Cent, Hootie and
the Blowfish, Janet Jackson, Kingston Trio, Pink Floyd, Paul Simon, and ’N
Sync. A problem was encountered in defining the sample: a few of the
top-selling artists could also be defined as “political,” potentially creating
overlap between samples. Certainly Bruce Springsteen is in that category, and
others might be moved there as well depending on one’s definition of
However, we decided not to change the selection method for
two reasons. First, the top-selling pop category is more inclusive. It
represents, quite literally, the most popular music. As the more inclusive
category, it is possible that top-selling artists might also have some
political content in their music or performances. For us to gerrymander the
list of top-selling artists by removing those we might define as political
would be to insert our own bias into the results.
Having determined which musicians would represent the
top-selling pop category, we used a systematic sampling method and the Google
Blogs search tool to collect 10 fan blogs for each of the 10 top-selling
artists, resulting in a total of 100 fan blogs.
Choosing a representative sample of “political pop”
musicians was more complicated. Given the diversity of political perspectives
and definitions, no single sample could possibly represent “political pop
musicians” as an entire class. The boundaries of such a population would be too
indefinite and the rules for inclusion too subjective. A specific category of
political musicians had to be selected, using an exogenous source. However,
first we needed to define the political field in question.
Much of the literature concerning American political pop
has emphasized movement and protest traditions.
Therefore, we chose to look at music and musicians associated with the
following political movements: environment, human rights, peace, and labor.
Those movements and issues have garnered much of the attention in popular music
and associated popular music research.
While disagreeing vociferously over the nature of mainstream popular culture,
critics from both the Left and Right agree that overtly politicized pop tends
to evidence a leftward bent in the USA.
To develop an exogenous sample of “political musicians,”
we administered a simple survey to labor, peace, environmental, and human
rights activists. They were asked for examples of musicians who had influenced
them in open-ended questions. General calls for participation in the survey
were posted on political discussion sites on the Web as well as via emails to
organizational staff representatives. 139 activists responded. The 10 artists most often cited: Bob Dylan
(listed by 29 respondents), Rage Against the Machine (14), Pete Seeger (14),
John Lennon (13), Phil Ochs (12), Woodie Guthrie (11), Bob Marley (9), Neil
Young (9), Joan Baez (8), and U2 (7). Ten fan blogs were collected for each of
the 10 artists for a total of 100 blogs, using the same search engine and
sampling process used to derive the first sample.
The blog samples were then compared via computer-assisted
content analysis. Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software was used to
test two basic hypotheses. Each blog was independently analyzed using LIWC to
determine the percentage of text in each that matches words in a dictionary of
political terms. A mean percentage for each sample was then derived and the
blog percentages were compared via an independent samples t test, using SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences)
An Explanation of Computer Assisted Content Analysis
Before presenting the hypotheses it is important to
explain LIWC and dictionary-based computer content analysis methodology, in
general. LIWC testing is predicated on two basic assumptions. The first is that
the words in a given dictionary correspond in some meaningful way to the topic
and dictionary label. The reader can judge whether or not that is the case with
the dictionary of political terms we created to indicate political content.
These terms served as indicators of political discourse in the blogs. While not
perfect as absolute indicators (the terms are sometimes mentioned in relatively
apolitical contexts), they are useful comparative indices, especially in the
aggregate. In other words, if there is a higher incidence of these terms in one
large sample of texts (fan blogs of political pop stars) when compared to
another large sample of texts (fan blogs of top-selling pop stars), then it is
reasonable to conclude that there is a higher frequency of political content in
the first sample.
However, comparison is key. A dictionary-based content
analysis does not provide an absolute measurement of content, but rather
comparatively measures relative differences
between texts. The absolute proportions of a given dictionary’s terms appearing
in a text sample tell us practically nothing about that text. For example, if
two percent of a large sample of documents was comprised of terms appearing in
an LIWC dictionary entitled “Anger,” this does not mean that two percent of the
sample is “angry.” One would have to compare that sample to another in order to
determine if its content is relatively angrily toned in comparison. Once again,
these terms are simply indicators. No software program can accurately assess
what percentage of a document is “angrily toned,” “political,” or “emotionally
positive” in absolute terms (even human coders have trouble doing so
consistently and can never cover all of the polysemic possibilities).
Therefore, computer assisted content analysis is largely a comparative research
tool, useful for objectively comparing two or more samples containing large
amounts of text.
Furthermore, it should be remembered that only a small
portion of any text is comprised of specifically targeted terms, no matter how
important they are to forming that text’s overall meaning. For example,
although “God” is the most important term in the Christian Bible, the word
itself comprises only a small percentage of total text. There are 774,746 words
in the Bible. The word “God” is used 4,370 times, making it less than one
percent of the total text. Only through statistical comparison with another
text, such as a biology textbook, could the researcher determine the relative
importance of “God” in the Bible. Although both would yield small percentages
in absolute terms, direct statistical comparison would lead us to the
conclusion that “God” is more thematically relevant to the Bible than to a
Because it counts actual words, which serve as indicators
of larger content themes, those more accustomed to human coding procedures
might find that the numbers resulting from computer coding appear to be very
low. However, the difference is a natural outcome of what is being counted.
Dictionary-based computer content analysis counts specific words, whereas human
coders make wholesale assessments of large textual elements. Our interest in
assessing large blog samples and a desire for objective assessment of these
texts led us to a computer-assisted methodology.
H1. Fans of political pop musicians will more frequently discuss politics
in their blogs than fans of top-selling pop musicians.
Test. Blogs written by fans of political pop musicians will contain a
significantly greater frequency of the terms in the “Political” dictionary
compared to blogs written by fans of top-selling pop musicians.
But how political is political? In order to create a
standard for what would constitute a highly politicized fan discourse, a third
sample of blogs was tested in order to derive an upper standard. That sample
consisted of blogs containing the terms “music” and “politics” in their titles.
The following hypothesis was tested using the third blog sample:
H2. In terms of mean percentage of political terms employed, blogs written
by fans of political musicians will be more similar to blogs written by fans of
top-selling pop musicians than either is to blogs explicitly dedicated to the
political aspects of music.
Test. Fans of political pop musicians will write significantly less about
politics in their blogs than bloggers whose explicit, titular interest is to
write about “music” and “politics.” The mean percentage of political terms
appearing in blogs written by fans of political pop stars will be closer to the
mean percentage of political terms appearing in blogs written by fans of
top-selling pop musicians than either sample mean is to the mean percentage of
political terms appearing in blogs containing the terms “music” and “politics”
in their titles.
Rationale: The goal of this hypothesis and test is to begin answering a basic
question: how political is political? Are fans of political pop music more like
pop music fans, in general, or more like bloggers whose explicit interest is
Note: Because the attempt was to determine a gross
standard for what constitutes a “highly politicized” discourse concerning
music, only 10 blogs were used to produce the “music” and “politics” mean.
Finding 100 blogs with the terms “music” and “politics” in the title was
neither possible nor necessary in order to create this comparative standard.
H1 was supported. A
cumulative mean of 1.1 percent of the blog text written by fans of political
pop musicians is comprised of terms from the Political dictionary, roughly
double the percentage found in blogs written by fans of top-selling pop stars,
which is 0.5. That difference proves to be significant according to an
independent samples t test. When
equal variances are not assumed, the t test
for equality of means results in a significance value of .000.
Once again, keep in mind that
the method uses indicator terms for
relative assessment. This does not mean that only 1.1 and 0.5 percent of the
samples, respectively, are “political” in tone or orientation. However, it is
very strong evidence that fans of political musicians are engaging in more
political discourse than fans of the top-selling pop stars.
significance value based on 2-tailed independent samples t-test for equality of
Table 1 Mean frequency of “Politics” dictionary terms
found in blogs written by fans of political musicians vs. blogs written by fans
of top selling pop artists
H2 was also supported. A cumulative mean of 2.7
percent of the words from “music” and “politics” blogs appear in the
“Political” dictionary, a percentage over 2.5 times greater than the mean for blogs
written by fans of political pop musicians (1.1), and over five times greater
than the mean for blogs written by fans of top-selling musicians (0.5). This
result indicates that blogs written by fans of political pop musicians, while
significantly more political than blogs written by top-selling pop fans, are
not necessarily “highly political.”
Content analysis indicates that
fans of political musicians engage in more political communication than fans of
top-selling pop musicians. In that regard, the political content of the music
is mirrored in fan discourse. At a certain level, politics could be said to
matter to these fans. While by no means can we say that the music or musicians
cause fans to engage in political discussion, there is clearly a political
relationship between the musicians, music, and fan blogging.
However, the results for the
second test require us to heavily qualify this conclusion. While fans of
political pop musicians engage in more political discourse than fans in general,
their discussions cannot be described as highly political.
It is clear that
the frequency of political content in fan discussions is related to the
political reputations of the artists under discussion. However, we are unable
to say anything more specific about the nature of the two fan discourses. That
is left to qualitative inquiry.
Yet, a third, post-hoc test leads us to believe that
quantitative content analysis could yield more specific information about fan
cultures and discourses. LIWC contains 64 dictionaries of potential relevance
to blog text. Pennebaker et. al. (2007) have designed and painstakingly tested
each of these dictionaries. They represent a robust and rigorous means to
comparatively test texts for differences in rhetorical tone and literal
Only 10 of the 64 dictionaries evidenced statistically
significant differences between the blog samples, further reinforcing the
position that, overall, the two fan blog samples are more alike than unlike
(even in a statistical “fishing expedition” one would expect at least four
dictionaries to evidence differences in the tested texts under conditions of
However, there is some evidence of a pattern when looking
at those ten differences. Specifically, blogs written by fans of political
musicians contain a significantly higher frequency of terms from the following
dictionaries: Negative Emotion, Anger, Death, Religion, and She/He (which
literally contains just two terms: “she” and “he”). Blogs written by fans of
the top-selling musicians demonstrated a significantly higher frequency of
terms from the following dictionaries: Future, Biology, Body, Ingest, and
In other words, there might be more nuanced differences
between these two fan populations. The heightened discussion of negative
emotions, anger, death, and religion indicates fans of political pop musicians
may delve into more serious topics than top-selling pop fans, issues that are
somewhat taboo in sex-obsessed mainstream pop. Conversely, the emphasis on
biological and somatic terminology, money, and ingestion (consumption?) might
outline a profile of fans of top-selling pop stars that differentiates them
from fans of political musicians. In other words, it might not just be a matter
of political vs. apolitical music, musicians, and fans, so much as the
mainstream audience’s emphasis on the central political ideology of the
Only the difference in political discourse was
hypothesized and fully tested here. However, further research into each of the
above themes is warranted.
The rigorous methodology used here led to a fairly basic
conclusion: fans of political music engage in significantly more political
discourse than fans of mainstream pop musicians. Therefore, the answer to the
title question is “yes.” Political pop appears to attract more political fans.
However, it is important to remember that political
expression is just one of many variables drawing fans to political pop
musicians. Based on these results we have little evidence that political
concordance is a primary factor in fan interest. Nevertheless, for artists who
produce political pop, this study presents heartening evidence that their
political messages matter. Their fan bloggers discuss politics more often than
fans of top-selling pop musicians. This is among the first and firmest evidence
that politics in pop actually matters to fans.
Regarding the significance of political pop research,
Holbrook and Hill argue that “current theories of media and politics do not
sufficiently account for the impact that non-news sources of political
information have on public opinion” and that “an overly strict definition of
politically relevant media” dominates the field.
Similarly, Richards encourages scholars of political communication to study
popular culture as part of the political process. The “boundaries between
different spheres of life” have been weakened, Richard argues, and “politics is
now interwoven with popular culture”.
The political role of television entertainment is better
understood than that of popular music, where the study of political discourse
has remained largely focused on production and performance, especially in the
form of genre and movement history, biography, and analyses of live performance.
Ethnographic and audience research with an eye toward political implications is
less common, and content analysis is even more rare.
Hopefully, attention to the relationship between music and politics will help
us to better understand the actual and potential roles popular musics play, or
could play, in a democratic society.
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Political messages in popular
music clearly matter to the musicians who produce them, but do they matter to
fans? The answer, based on quantitative content analysis, is a heavily
qualified “yes.” Computer-assisted content analysis was used to compare 100
blogs written by fans of political pop musicians with an equal number of blogs
published by fans of top-selling pop stars. Fans of political musicians discuss
politics more often than followers of apolitical pop stars, indicating that
politics matters to them. This is the firmest evidence to date of a
relationship between the level of political content in music and the level of
political interest among audiences. Implications of the findings for the field
of popular music research are discussed.
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popular culture, ed. R. S. Denisoff and R. A. Peterson (Chicago: Rand
McNally, 1972), 222–231.
R. S. Denisoff
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fruit: Billie Holiday, café society, and an early cry for civil rights (Philadelphia: Running
M. Mattern, Acting in concert: Music, community, and
political action (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press,
R.Garofalo, B. Bragg,
T.Cheng, S. Fast, S. Frith, H. George-Warren, et al., “Who is the world?:
Reflections on music and politics twenty years after live aid,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 17,
vol 3 (2005).
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Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).
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D.Williams, “Political orientation and music preference among college students,” Public Opinion Quarterly 38,
vol. 3 (1974): 371.
D. J. Jackson and T. I.
A. Darrow, “The influence of celebrity endorsements on young adults’ political
opinions,” Harvard International
Journal of Press/Politics 10, vol. 3 (2005): 80–98.
K. Weglarz, “From music
to voting blocs: An analysis of popular musicians and political persuasion,”
paper presented at the Annual Conference of the International Association for
the Study of Popular Music, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada, May 2008.
See D.Fischlin, Rebel
Musics: Human rights, resistant sounds, and the politics of music making (Montréal:
Black Rose Books, 2003) and J. Rodnitsky, “The decline and rebirth of
folk-protest music,” in The resisting
muse: Popular music and social protest, ed. I. Peddie (London: Ashgate. 2006), 17-29.
See M. Drewett, “The
eyes of the world are watching now: The political effectiveness of “Biko” by
Peter Gabriel,” Popular Music &
Society 30 (2007); R. Garofalo, Rockin’ the boat: Mass music and mass
movements (Boston: South End Press, 1992); and D. Margolick, Strange
fruit: Billie Holiday.
See L. Ingraham, Shut up
& sing: How elites from Hollywood, politics,
and the UN are subverting América (Washington,
D.C.: Regnery Publishing, 2003).
The * at the end of a
term or root signifies that all extensions of that term or root will be
counted: corporat*, monopoly, nation*, country*, school*, institution*,
organization*, establishment*, association*, united states*, politic*, Left*,
Right*, Elect*, liber*, conservative*, vot*, president*, congress*, legislat*,
senat*, bill, law*, polic*, lobby*, impeach*, movement*, activis*, rall*, demonstrat*,
amendment, arrest*, boycott*, debate*, reform*, fundrais*, communi*, socialis*,
grassroot*, primar*, peace, war*, inva*, empire*, candidate*,cabinet,
coalition*, commission*, committee, delegate*, republic*, democra*,
department*, military*, court*, justice, leader*, assembl*, mandate*,
referndum*, public interest, author*, justice*, petition*, platform*, rul*,
order*, oath*, oppose*, hearing*, nominat*, council*, protest*, parliament*,
constitution*, chairman, chairperson, imperialis*, represent*, labor*, human
right*, gov*, system*, elect*, citiz*, public*, municipal, nation.*
Pennebaker, J.W., Chung,
C. K., Ireland,
M., Gonzales, A., and Booth, R. J.The
Psychometric Properties of LIWC2007. This article is published by LIWC.net, Austin, Texas,
in conjunction with the LIWC2007 software program. Correspondence should be
sent to Pennebaker@mail.utexas.edu.
R. A. Holbrook and T. G.
Hill, “Agenda-setting and priming in prime time television: Crime dramas as
political cues,” Political
Communication 22, vol. 3 (2005): 278.
B. Richards, “The
emotional deficit in political communication,” Political Communication 21, vol. 3 (2004): 340.
See S. Livingstone, “The
challenge of changing audiences - or, what is the audience researcher to do in
the age of the Internet?” European
Journal of Communication 19, vol. 1 (2004): 75–86; and L. van Zoonen,
“Audience reactions to Hollywood politics,” Media, Culture & Society 29,
vol. 4 (2007): 531–547.
M. Stahl, “To hell with heteronomy: Liberalism, rule-making,
and the pursuit of ‘community’ in an urban rock scene,” Journal of Popular Music Studies 15, vol. 2 (2003): 140-165.