"[Music] breaks down, instantly disintegrates, all the artificial barriers that we've created between each other—government, nationality, black, brown, yellow, white, whatever color you are—and shows each other our hearts, our fears, our hopes, and our dreams. … Through understanding each other's popular cultures, we gain insight into each other's arts and true selves."

—Wang Leehom, 2013

WITH THESE WORDS, American-born Chinese pop star Wang Leehom acknowledges the existence of barriers between the peoples of the world and embraces cross-culturalism and international exchange as a means of transcending them. Both of these forces—the building of walls and the building of bridges—have stimulated popular song production in the first decades of the new millennium.

The world has become progressively smaller as a result of advances in science and technology as well as high levels of migration due to poverty, war, human rights violations, and the interconnectedness of the global economy. The resulting interaction between diverse cultures and traditions has created a musical soundscape characterized by a multitude of ever-changing trends and a complexity of popular genres in a variety of different languages.

Since the late 1990s, a growing number of artists have relied on technology to independently create studio-quality music on their personal computers, eschewing the resources of a major label. This has enabled independent artists, many of whom would have struggled to develop a presence in the music industry in previous eras, to rise to stardom. Soulja Boy, for example, launched his career with the hit "Crank That," which he recorded using stock sounds from a digital audio workstation called FL Studio.

With the development of social media, the reach of independent artists was greatly expanded. The band O.A.R., for example, became tremendously popular in the late 1990s on college campuses, where platforms such as MySpace were an important means of communication. More recently, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have allowed artists such as Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to earn fame without ever signing with a label.

The structure of the music industry has shifted, influencing both the artists and their music. Sales of whole albums declined after the launch of iTunes, which allows users to purchase individual songs, leading many artists to focus on singles. Then, with the rise of free streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube, profits from sales of recordings—even singles—plummeted. Record companies began to look for other ways to earn money, and today most artists sign "360 degree" contracts with their labels, which give the record companies full control over every aspect of a musician's public life, from concert appearances to marketing and product sales. Popular music today thus reflects, perhaps more overtly than ever, the nexus of products, ideas, and agendas within which it resides.

In the new millennium, the United States has experienced extreme ideological, social, and economic divisions. Citizens came together after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, but the aggressive and largely unilateral response adopted during the administration of George W. Bush sparked sharp disagreements.

The end of the Bush and the beginning of the Obama eras were defined by the "Great Recession," in which the nation's GDP declined 4.3%, home values fell 30%, the net worth of households and nonprofits declined $14 trillion, and the S&P 500 index declined 57% (Rich). The unemployment rate reached 10% overall, and minority communities were especially hard hit. For African Americans the unemployment rate climbed to 16.7%, and for Hispanics 13.1% (Bureau of Labor Statistics). All told, it was the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and although recovery officially began in mid-2009, the overall effects linger to this day.

Amid the height of the financial crisis, Republicans and Democrats briefly united in celebration of the election of Barack Obama as the country's first African American president. However, the hope of unity dimmed when officials turned to policy-making. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle continually curtailed or blocked Obama's economic, social, and environmental initiatives, which many saw as radical, leading to intense partisanship and disenchantment with elected leaders.

In contrast with the Bush administration's unilateralism, the Obama administration emphasized diplomacy and international cooperation on the environment, nuclear proliferation, immigration, and refugee resettlement. Since taking office in 2017, the administration of Donald Trump has had different priorities, pulling out of climate and arms agreements, reducing the number of refugees entering the country, ending immigrant-friendly programs, and instating tariffs to reduce imports and, in theory, boost domestic production.

The music of the new millennium reflects both the coming together and drawing apart of the American people, as well as the vastly different views of the role of the United States in the international community.

The course of American history changed on September 11, 2001, when the terrorist network al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, attacked New York City and Washington D.C. and caused a plane that was traveling to the nation's capital to crash in Pennsylvania. Within a month of the attacks, the United States and its ally the United Kingdom were at war with the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the Bush administration believed bin Laden was hiding. In 2002, the administration launched a controversial publicity campaign to demonstrate that Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq, had not only violated international agreements by stockpiling weapons of mass destruction but was also linked to al-Qaeda. In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq.

Musicians representing the entire spectrum of musical styles mirrored the shock and grief caused by the attacks and expressed diverse opinions about the wars that followed. In the realm of country music, popular performers such as Toby Keith, Charlie Daniels, Darryl Worley, and Randy Travis recorded songs that promoted American patriotism and supported a strong military response, while others, such as the Dixie Chicks and Steve Earle, were critical of President Bush and voiced strong opposition to the wars.

Some performers avoided expressing an opinion about America's response to 9/11. For example, Alan Jackson's question—"where were you when the world stopped turning?"—prompted his audience to thoughtfully consider the moment of the attacks and appreciate "what really matters." "War Song," by rock band O.A.R., is also neither pro- nor anti-war, but rather supportive of American soldiers by placing a spotlight on their sacrifices and challenges.

Many artists chose to critique the priorities of the government in the aftermath of 9/11. In his song "America First" (the title of which later became one of Donald Trump's campaign slogans in the 2016 election), Merle Haggard expresses his desire for the United States to end the wars and focus on domestic issues. Similarly, "Where Is the Love?" by Black Eyed Peas questions the wars in the Middle East while communities in such places as East Los Angeles are largely ignored.

In his song "Waiting On the World to Change," John Mayer gave voice to a widespread feeling of hopelessness among American youth who disagreed with the wars but felt that there was nothing that could be done to change American foreign policy. Other artists, such as Lupe Fiasco, opposed such apathy and sought to inspire people to speak out against government actions with which they disagreed.

Globalization and migration have raised questions about ethnic, racial, and cultural identity, and the development of social media has amplified historically underrepresented voices. Many musicians have been at the forefront of spotlighting underrepresented and oppressed peoples.

Hip-hop began as a predominantly African American artform. However, in the twenty-first century musicians of other ethnicities and backgrounds began to influence the style. Much of Dumbfoundead's music, for example, concerns the challenges facing the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles where he grew up, and Jin the Emcee rose to fame in rap battles in which he asserted the validity of Asian hip-hop artists. Filipino rappers Apl.de.ap, Ruby Ibarra, and Bambu de Pistola have also addressed their racial identity in their music.

In the twenty-first century, the struggle for social justice in the African American community has largely focused on criminal justice reform, particularly in response to disproportionate rates of incarceration and police violence against African Americans. Many hip-hop artists have shone a light on such injustices. Beyonce's "Formation" criticizes police killings, as does the video for Childish Gambino's "This Is America" and the Black Eyed Peas' video for their 2016 remake of "Where Is the Love?"

Much recent political discourse has concerned disagreements over sexual orientation and gender. In the twenty-first century, discussions have revolved around the struggle for marriage equality, equal pay, equal employment opportunities, stronger protections against sexual harassment and assault, and efforts to combat discrimination.

In the Bush era, controversy arose over whether privileges afforded to husbands and wives should be granted to same-sex couples. Although President Bush supported legally defining marriage as between a man and a woman, individual states gradually legalized same-sex marriage. Musicians supported the cause in various ways. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, for example, released "Same Love" amidst the effort to legalize gay marriage in the state of Washington in 2012.

Although the struggle for marriage equality appears settled after its nationwide legalization by the Supreme Court in 2015, the fight against other forms of discrimination and mistreatment continue. Many pop songs of the era encourage strength in the face of adversity, regardless of one's gender or sexual identity. In 2002 Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful" reminded listeners that they are all beautiful in their own way, a sentiment echoed by Lady Gaga in "Born This Way" in 2011. Other songs that inspire strength include Sara Bareilles's "Brave" (2013) and Katy Perry's "Roar" (2013).

In 2006, Bruce Springsteen recorded a new song called "American Land." It is based on "He Lies in the American Land" (see VAT, Unit 6), which was written by a Slovakian immigrant named Andrew Kovaly in 1900 and transcribed, performed, and recorded by folk-revival musician Pete Seeger later in the century. Kovaly's song—about the sacrifices made by an immigrant man in the hope that they would benefit his children—spoke to Seeger, and Seeger's performances and recordings of the song participated in the debate surrounding immigration reform, which eventually passed in 1965 and lifted nationality quotas (see VAT, Unit 9).

The influence of the song on Springsteen is indicative of the resurgence of questions surrounding immigration in American society in the new millennium, a discussion in which musicians have played an active role.

Artists have addressed immigration from a variety of viewpoints. Mexican American Alejandro Escovedo and Korean American Dumbfoundead, for example, highlight the economic challenges facing immigrants and immigrant communities. Filipino American rapper Ruby Ibarra's "Who I Am" confronts the forces in America that silence the history of her people and erase aspects of her identity. In "Monsters Calling Home," Run River North, a band consisting of children of Korean immigrants, sings about generational divisions that arise between immigrants and their children as a result of their different cultural upbringings.

Political discourse surrounding immigration has largely centered on the security of the border between the United States and Mexico. Such discussions have been triggered by concerns about the large number of Mexican migrant workers entering the country and the increasing number of asylum seekers fleeing from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

The issues surrounding the US-Mexico border have inspired numerous musicians and bands to speak out. Colombian-born Shakira vocally opposed an Arizona law that allowed law-enforcement officers to inquire about immigration status and arrest people who failed to produce the proper papers. Shakira, as well as many others, opposed this law as racial profiling, and in 2012 the Supreme Court ruled that much of it was unconstitutional.

Among the most vocal musicians on border issues are the members of the Mexican American norteña band Los Tigres del Norte. They sing about the economic dependency of the United States on migrant workers, voice opposition to border walls, and refute claims that Mexicans "invade" the United States.

Tensions about immigration and reform have been exacerbated by humanitarian crises that have displaced hundreds of thousands of refugees. In the video for the Black Eyed Peas' "#WHERESTHELOVE," images are shown of dead and wounded Syrian children fleeing civil war as the band members and guest artists pray for a more loving world.

In the United States, climate change remains a divisive issue. Over the course of the first two decades of the new millennium, the majority of Americans have gradually accepted that the climate is changing, but many continue to question the appropriate course of action. After all, America's fossil fuel industry is a source of great strength: with regard to national security, it reduces the nation's dependency on imported fuels, and in terms of domestic issues, it employs millions of Americans. The desire to protect the industry and its employees has caused many politicians to oppose proposals to reduce America's dependency of fossil fuels, leading to an intense national discussion.

Musicians have participated in these discussions in a variety of ways. Songs encouraging good stewardship of the earth and denouncing abuse were written and performed by numerous musicians and bands, such as Natalie Merchant, Neil Young, and R.E.M. In 2007, Melissa Etheridge's "I Need to Wake Up," which she wrote for former Vice President Al Gore's documentary film An Inconvenient Truth (2006), won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Also in 2007, over 150 artists and bands participated in Live Earth, an event aimed at raising awareness and mobilizing activists. Live Earth concerts in eleven cities were broadcast on television and streamed on the internet, reaching an estimated 2 billion viewers.

In 2016, plans were made to construct an oil pipeline near Standing Rock Reservation, which is in both North and South Dakota. Because the pipeline threatened the reservation's only water supply, protests erupted in spring 2016. The protests brought together environmental and Native American activists, and stars such as Neil Young, Dave Matthews, Graham Nash, and others gave concerts to raise awareness and funds for the protesters. Though the project was abandoned during the Obama administration, it was completed under President Trump.

Musicians have also supported the fossil fuel industry. Country bands hailing from Appalachia—the nation's coal-mining center—have recorded songs taking pride in the industry. Taylor Made's song "West Virginia Underground" (2009), for example, celebrates coal miners as hard workers and supports coal as safer than nuclear energy.


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