• Euan H

Artist Transparency Throughout History: What Does it Mean in the 21st Century?

Talking about real issues progresses music - but at what cost?

In the 21st century, the outwardness and transparency of an artist is as much a part of fame as the music an artist creates. Artists may choose to lay their deepest and largest struggles into their lyrics and their albums but continually, the question comes up, "how much do we know about them?" Personal lives have never been as important and artist transparency makes up a large part of the newer generations of rap, such as mumble rap and sad rap. A lot of these songs and artists hold an ongoing dialogue about real issues in their lives; whether it’s drug abuse, alcoholism, or the death of a family member or friend, these artists portray a melancholy sadness in their music. This is not a new phenomenon - punk, rock ’n’ roll, and the blues all showed similar transparency throughout their music, and were sometimes looked down upon for it.

Tragically, it's all too common for a musician to die young, and many of drug-related incidents. On the 15th of November 2017, Gustav Elijah Åhr (better known as ‘Lil Peep’) died of an accidental drug overdose aged 21, just moments before he was due on stage for a concert. Lil Peep was a pacesetter in sad rap, singing about love, loss, and coping mechanisms. He often showed remorse for his drug-fuelled lifestyle through his music, in one song singing "I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna OD." This type of transparency is one of guilt and reluctance - Kurt Cobain shared similar moments in his career. In one of Cobain's final interviews, he is seen with a cigarette, talking to the interviewer, when he says, "I’m running out of ideas, more and more." He goes on, speaking openly about being in the wrong profession and complains about being a rock star. This is an honesty unexpected from one of the most famous rock stars of the '90s, yet somehow, he was more free than he had ever been. In April 1994, just under a year after the interview, Cobain committed suicide at the age of 27, from a fatal gun wound. The tragedy of these deaths is both used as an argument against the honesty of their lifestyles, and on the other end of the spectrum, sometimes even romanticized.

But this transparency is more vital than ever. When artists open up about their personal problems, whether it's mental health, loss or drug abuse, they open up a conversation between their fans, and in the music industry as a whole. Those who voice their feelings are the brave, the honest. They rise above those who try to censor them and their music.

While personal transparency is so pertinent, there has always been a great need and admiration for those who had political transparency, often spawned from oppression, war or a lack of freedom. Politically transparent music can represent beauty and freedom where there often is none elsewhere. Blues originated in the cotton plantations and shifted from a way to pass time to a symbol of freedom - a genre that was born from the ashes of one of the most shameful periods in American history. The UK also saw this during the 20th century, when they learnt that authority often doesn't like self-empowerment. The 1977 Sex Pistols single ‘God Save The Queen’ was so divisive to the nation that it was banned from the BBC due to its "gross bad taste". Restricting musical expression like this only makes the beauty of political expression from an artist even more appealing to the audience. Rebellion is brave - many seek it, but only few possess the guts to voice their opinions. Perhaps their bravery is so admired because the minority finally feel they have a speaker, a musical Robin Hood?

The '60s were a decade of war and conflict. Vietnam was riling up America and from the conflict rose new music, music that still continues to hold an important place in the 21st century. The generation of teenagers experimenting with drugs and protesting the government created a soundtrack of like-minded musicians: The Beatles, Pink Floyd, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, all part of the anti-war agenda. The youth and the artists worked together in harmony; the artists inspiring the youth and the youth inspiring the artists. However, to some, this seemed like an unorganised hell. An older generation of people thought that the youth had no place within politics and should be raised to respect them and stay quiet. One of the big issues people take with transparency, still today, is how it affects the impressionable. If you have every icon of music singing about their drinking, smoking, and drug abuse, the young may 'see and copy'.

Transparency is, was and has always been a controversial point. People want honesty, but honesty can be damaging. Music that has no real point can be enjoyed and seen as escapism, although transparency - the thought-provoking and the curiosity-evoking - can be inspiring and admirable for many.

Talking about real problems progresses music as a whole, and the lack of this transparency would drive music, and media as a whole, back to a primitive age. Without musical transparency - whether political or mental - major players in music would be missing some of their best back catalog, losing the defining moments that make them stand out.

Listen to our Spotify playlist to accompany this feature:


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