Top 10 Pop Songs That Tackled Serious Issues

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Top 10 Pop Songs That Tackled Serious Issues

VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu WRITTEN BY: Don Ekama
They usually sound peppy, but these pop songs tackled serious issues. For this list, we'll be looking at pop tracks that inspired change by shedding a light on important social topics. Our countdown includes "Beautiful," "XS," "Paper Planes," and more!
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Top 10 Pop Songs That Tackled Serious Issues


Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Pop Songs That Tackled Serious Issues.

For this list, we’ll be looking at pop tracks that inspired change by shedding a light on important social topics.

Let us know in the comments which of these songs spoke directly to you.

#10: “Beautiful” (2002)
Christina Aguilera


In a bid to establish herself as a more mature pop artist, Christina Aguilera sought the help of a diverse group of songwriters and producers in creating her fourth album. While the lead single “Dirrty” received mixed reviews, its follow-up “Beautiful,” written by Linda Perry, proved to be an international hit for the young singer. The song explored themes of self-acceptance and inner beauty, which perfectly encapsulated the message behind the album “Stripped.” Its music video, which included scenes of LGBTQ+ people coming to terms with their identity, received rave reviews and made the song an empowering queer anthem. Aguilera received the Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance and a GLAAD Media Award for her positive representation of the queer community.

#9: “XS” (2020)
Rina Sawayama


It’s not exactly new for a pop artist to highlight political and economic issues in their music, but Rina Sawayama does it in a way that sounds totally refreshing. On the third single off her debut album, Sawayama outlines the obsession of this 21st century world with materialism, over electro-heavy pop beats. The song talks about the chaos that arises as a result of our insatiable human desires, and the dangers of a capitalist system that exists just to fulfill them. This theme is reflected in the music video, in which Sawayama portrays a QVC-esque salesperson hawking a wonder beverage that’s harnessed from an enslaved creature.

#8: “Same Love” (2012)
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert


Referendum 74 was a 2012 public vote to legalize gay marriage in Washington State. Although the referendum eventually passed, it faced stiff opposition during the campaign, which inspired hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis to create this Grammy-nominated rap track. On “Same Love,” Macklemore makes a case for marriage equality, detailing stories from his childhood and the frustrations of his adult self with society’s stance on the issue. Featuring a riveting chorus from singer Mary Lambert, the song became an unofficial anthem for supporters of the referendum, and was a critical and commercial success. At the 2014 Grammy Awards, the trio gave a powerful performance of the track, accompanied by a mass wedding of gay and heterosexual couples.

#7: “Pumped Up Kicks” (2010)
Foster the People


Foster the People’s debut single “Pumped Up Kicks” became a viral hit in the summer of 2011 for its upbeat and peppy tone. Its lyrics, however, were much darker than many listeners realized. Written from the perspective of an isolated high school student named Robert, the song details his troubled family life and homicidal thoughts. The gloomy lyrics heavily contrast with the track’s jubilant sound, which masks the actual message and creates a haunting juxtaposition. While many have criticized the song for glorifying violence, frontman Mark Foster has maintained that he instead sought to bring awareness to the issue and the psychology behind it.

#6: “Another Day in Paradise” (1989)
Phil Collins


This soft rock tune was released as the lead single off Phil Collins’ fourth solo album “...But Seriously”. It became a worldwide success for its ethereal sound and timeless subject matter. Collins uses his voice to highlight the problem of homelessness, and questions humanity for turning a blind eye to the issue. On the track, the singer draws from his own experiences to tell the story of a random man on the street ignoring a woman who calls out to him for help. The song became an instant hit, reaching the top spot in several countries including the U.S., and winning the Grammy for Record of the Year.

#5: “Family Portrait” (2002)
P!nk


At age nine, pop-rock goddess P!nk experienced her parents’ divorce and wrote a poem that detailed the effects the incident had on her young self. More than a decade later, that poem would evolve into “Family Portrait,” the fourth single from her sophomore album. The critically acclaimed song describes the dissolution of a marriage and the conflict that ensues, all from the perspective of their young daughter. With her haunting vocals and evocative lyricism, P!nk paints the picture of a broken family whose innocent child is wrecked by the dysfunction and desperately yearns for a seemingly perfect life. P!nk would go on to create more thought-provoking pop songs, like her 2010 hit single “Perfect”.

#4: “Formation” (2016)
Beyoncé


A day before her performance at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show, Beyoncé surprise-released “Formation,” the lead single off her sixth studio album “Lemonade.” A trap and bounce song, “Formation” was released as a celebration of Beyoncé’s Southern Black heritage and subsequently became a protest anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement. The track, alongside its Grammy-winning music video, explored themes of feminism, Black empowerment, and even invoked imagery of Hurricane Katrina. Beyoncé belts out a rallying cry, imploring Black women to get in “formation” in defense of their communities. The song and her Super Bowl performance sparked debate in the media and became the basis for several courses in academic institutions.

#3: “Paper Planes” (2008)
M.I.A.


When she sought to enter the US to work on her second studio album, M.I.A. was refused a visa, which she attributed to her Tamil ancestry and criticism of the Sri Lankan government. She revealed in an interview that border agents were “always giving [her] a hard time”. Inspired by this experience, the rapper wrote “Paper Planes”, satirizing the negative stereotypes associated with immigrants from developing countries. In the song, M.I.A. sings from the point of view of someone who counterfeits fake visas. She also takes shots, literally, at the idea that immigrants move to other countries to propagate violence and steal jobs. The track provided biting social commentary that manages to still ring true, now more than ever.

#2: “1-800-273-8255” (2017)
Logic feat. Alessia Cara & Khalid


This powerful collaboration sought to shed light on mental health issues among young people and the potentially fatal consequences. Rapper Logic got inspiration for the song, whose title is actually the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, after speaking to young fans who claimed that his music had saved their lives. The track plays on like a phone conversation between two people - one who wants to take their own life, and another, dissuading them from going through with it. The intentions behind the song were fully realized, as the prevention hotline received over 4,570 calls on the day it was released - the second-highest daily total in the organization’s history.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Brave” (2013), Sara Bareilles
This Power Pop Song Describes a Friend Encouraging Another to Face Their Fear of Coming Out

“Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves” (1971), Cher
Cher Explores Themes of Racism & Teenage Pregnancy in This Story of a Young Showgirl

“Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983), U2
Inspired by the Real-Life ”Bloody Sunday” Incident, U2 Created This Political Masterpiece

“Unpretty” (1999), TLC
The Grammy-Nominated Song Tackled the Unrealistic Beauty Expectations Women Face

“We Are Here” (2014), Alicia Keys
The Up-Tempo Ballad Is a Unifying Anthem That Addressed Several International Challenges

#1: “Born This Way” (2011)
Lady Gaga


Right from the very moment she debuted in the music scene, Lady Gaga has proven to be an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. She took an even greater step in her advocacy with the release of her 2011 smash hit “Born This Way.” The synth-heavy electro-pop tune emphasizes self-liberation among communities that have long been marginalized, and touches on themes of love and equality. The song’s message reaches far beyond the queer community, with Gaga making specific references to racial minorities and people living with disabilities. No matter who you are, who you love, where you come from or what you look like, Lady Gaga wants you to know that you’re perfect just the way you are!
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