The Role of Social Commentary Songs in Popular Music; Preaching to the Choir or Effecting Change? By Gavin Lakin – Post 11

Some might say that there is no place in popular music for commentary, politics, and opinions – essentially sounding “preachy.” We’ve all been there in our own lives, when someone may be speaking to you directly or to a larger group about some idea or product, and you can feel the oily, snaky and unwelcome intrusion insidiously attempting to seep into and under your skin.

Art is a subjective experience. How we interpret music is extremely personal – even proprietary. Our lives are soundtracks where we can pinpoint moments that songs entered our lives for emotional support or the backdrop for a significant decision. Additionally, songs entertain us – they are a diversion that carries us away from life’s tedious trappings. Some of us zero in on the music, while others are listening to the lyric. Either way, we want songs to speak to us in some way without telling us how to feel or what to do. If they dare cross that definitive line, we sense it and we tune out.

Wait a minute: Aren’t songs supposed to be about the myriad of ways people fall in and out of love, commentary be damned?

It is, indeed, all subjective.

For me in the 1970s, effecting change was synonymous with a large proportion of the music I listened to. Typically, it was the lyric combined with a plaintiff rendering that spoke to me in earnest (Elton John, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne). For others, lyrics saturated in the rhythm and groove superseded this (Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, War). Over the years, I wrote letters to public officials, dug postholes to build fences at Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant (stood side by side with Jackson Browne as we stuffed envelopes with flyers), ran in distance races to raise funding and awareness for issues pertaining to marine life and putting an end to clear-cutting deforestation, protested at the nuclear submarine station at Bangor, Washington as the morning shift workers walked by us yelling slurs too odious to repeat here . . . and my ultimate act of compliant defiance: becoming a songwriter. What better way to reach the hearts and souls of millions than to write idealistic lyrics replete with traces of anarchy, secular socialism and cluelessness? Hey, I was a teenager entering my early college years; the world was literally at my piano fingertips.

(For those of you who missed the memo, I never did become famous; but not for lack of trying. I had convinced myself that I could be The Police. I was handcuffed by my semi-delusions that I had the requisite talent to reach those meteoric heights. Early on, it would have helped if I wrote FM-ready ear candy instead of insisting on fighting the machine with eight-minute songs about the plight of indigenous people or my incredulity blithely tossed in the direction of men and women earning a living by protecting our freedoms. Did I make a difference? Not even. Perhaps a few drunk or stoned clubbers danced to our band’s misses [see Joni Mitchell]. Perhaps some of those were written by me. As years transformed into decades defined by record companies’ and publishers’ rejections, occasionally, kind people approached me and acknowledged a song that moved them. For most of the era, I felt like Jack Nicholson’s character: Is this as good as it gets? My one song licensed for television? It would have to do.)

However, if my eyes had been wide open, I might have observed that recording artists always had something to say about society (yes, even ABBA and The Bee Gees); it’s that they were strategic about when and how they did it. Rarely did they blast onto the charts with a song, say like, “Anarchy in the U.K.” (See below.) Marvin Gaye was performing the Motown catalog for over a decade before he asked that momentous and timely question. Janis Ian shopped her best-selling song for several years before a television performance drew the attention and critical acclaim it deserved, propelling it to #3 on Billboard’s charts. Out of New York, Sylvia (“Pillow Talk” 1973) Robinson was the catalyst behind early Rap and Hip-Hop, where The Sugarhill Gang (named for Harlem’s Sugar Hill, home to early-mid 1900s affluent African-American music culture) were developing their delightful new sound.

In the prior decade, The Beatles didn’t explode onto the scene with “Taxman” or “Revolution.”

Point, hopefully made.

I’ve compiled my Top Twenty Social Commentary Songs of the `70s. Counting down from Number Twenty, I present to you a list for contemplation and discussion. Much of what happened from “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” to “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” – the first and last #1 singles of the 1970s – was literally off the charts. The decade was laden with source material for every possible joint getting out of whack. For example, in 1972, Helen Reddy roared. Apparently, Paul Anka missed that memo. Research what happened when he released “(You’re) Having My Baby” (1974). Women’s groups found it seriously sexist. (In 2006, a CNN poll named it as #1 Worst Song of all Time). Poor Paul, he tried to explain that the word “my” just “sounded better than ‘our’.” On that note, there is no doubt there are omissions from my list – Reddy’s song included – not from disrespect, but from the knowledge that the decade provided a wealth of evocative material (in this case, regarding women’s issues I chose Janis Ian and Carole King as more to the point – with less screaming). I submit an array of topics, poetic approaches, music genres – many were subtle and earnest, or they made you want to boogie, while others rattled the eardrums and shook the walls. In the end, no matter the sonic and handwritten approach, is that not what the decade demanded of us – to stir things up and move our species to a higher ground?

Number 20: “Redman” (Rare Bird, 1974)

There are many songs about indigenous people and their unjust and in most cases devastating plight. Our country’s history is filled with harsh injustices and broken treaties from Florida to Ft. Laramie. Though other recording artists have taken on this issue (Elton John’s “Indian Sunset” gets Honorable Mention here, sorry, not Cher’s “Half Breed”), this short-lived but talented English band eloquently captured the sorrow without a hint of pretension or Hey you, feel guilty about what you did to Native Americans! Lyrically, “the end of the race for the Redman” is a clever and moving double entendre. I encourage you to listen to more of their music.

Number 19: “Big Yellow Taxi” (Joni Mitchell, 1970)

This uplifting storytelling laced with Ms. Mitchell’s signature irony is certainly about romantic disappointment through the lens of social commentary. Youth shines through as this bubbly romp through DDT and tree museums may lack a certain serious quality to the melody and tempo – but, hey, who cares? – when you pave paradise with a parking lot, you make this list.

Number 18: “Anarchy in the U.K.” (The Sex Pistols, 1976)

Simply put, The Sex Pistols were fed up with mainstream, boring music – whether in England or across the pond. They answered back with this bust-out smash. It spoke directly to the youth, many of whom related to the rising economic disparity, sung, I mean yelled in most of the Pistols’ tunes. The frenetic energy alone would make any human spring like pogo sticks or dive into mosh pits. We all know the story of Punk’s role in music history: It opened a Pandora’s box of fighting the machine that lasted for – depending how you define it – well into the eighties. Many will argue the scene lives on. Sure, “it” won’t ever die. However, MTV was more inclined toward Spandau Ballet and Flock of Seagulls than Johnny Rotten going off. Sid Vicious would soon join and the Queen would be trashed to mush vitriol from her countrymen and women.

God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being/There is no future/In England’s dreaming.”

Not a good idea, guys. Art Rock settled in and became the soundtrack for the decade, and a whole lot of weddings (see “True”). So, yes, The Sex Pistols are remembered for their prominent role in defining a new music genre; me, I’ll take opera.

Number 17: “Nature’s Way” (Spirit, 1971)

Here was Randy California’s poignant commentary, in effect indirectly letting “nature” be the song’s narrator. It’s nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong/It’s nature’s way of telling you in a song was a simple truth, with gentle guitar underscoring it, but a trance-like quality that stays with you forever. On Molokai in 1997, Randy drowned rescuing his son, Quinn, from the riptide, the paradox being this wonderful musician hero died at the hands of nature.

Number 16: “Rapper’s Delight” (The Sugarhill Gang, 1979)

Full disclosure, I am a purist from the Jurassic Era. Music is universal communication defined by humility and generosity of spirit. It can move you, make you move on the dance floor, get you to make a difference, and it can hold your hand as you fall desperately in love. And most certainly, yes, it is free expression. However, degrading women, raving about one’s narcissism, finding obsession with large amounts of money, and undermining the sanctity of the written word turns my stomach. Okay, got that out he of the way.

“Rapper’s Delight” is credited with being the first produced Hip-Hop song. It was a smash single. Culturally, this was critically important for those of color to find and share a unique voice. Lyrics engaged the listener much the same way Jazz had eventually become an entirely American art form. This new genre found its definition as it went along with Grandmaster Flash and those who followed in the early eighties. It was fun. Infectious. Cool. Going on forty years now and Rap and Hip-Hop still captivate us. Can we just tone down or do away with altogether the abusive lyrics? Thank you.

Number 15: “To the Last Whale” (A: Critical Mass / B: Wind on the Water) (David Crosby/Graham Nash, 1975)

The organization, Greenpeace, was and continues to be a major player with protecting the environment and endangered species, including the controversial practice of whaling. To this day, some countries still butcher these magnificent, intelligent creatures. Crosby and Nash strike the right chord between a poetic homage and a call to action. Haunting, its opening a cappella “Critical Mass” is sheer music brilliance. As the song segues with Craig Doerge’s majestic piano motif, I am transported to the ocean where the actual singing takes place. Wind on the water, carry me home. About that time, I became very interested in becoming a marine biologist.

Number 14: “A Junkie’s Lament” (James Taylor, 1976)

Originally, I had chosen Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done.” Without question, both songs go to the heart of addiction like an arrow piercing its target dead-center. Neil was seriously affected by his Crazy Horse bandmate Danny Whitten’s heroin overdose, as well as that of roadie and friend Bruce Berry’s. Where drugs and death are concerned, each one is tragic. Choosing James Taylor’s song had everything to do with his struggles with addiction throughout the decade, and entirely through his marriage with Carly Simon. If you listen to the song, you might find its somewhat cheerful and upbeat music disconcerting. Knowing James, this was a conscious choice. By the coda, where the half-time “la-la’s” take on an almost orchestral feel, I finally sense the heaviness and helplessness of being trapped within the burning opiate. I used to ask: Airplane or addiction? So many musicians lost their lives to one or the other. Thankfully, James Taylor was not someone we lamented over.

Number 13: “Power” (MUSE/John Hall, 1979)

John Hall’s “Power” needs no introduction, or any other commentary from me; just complete admiration. Please take all of your atomic poison power away. There was one positive result of Three Mile Island’s near meltdown: this amazing song, the set of revolutionary concerts and the awesome musicians involved and its subsequent film (not to mention the film The China Syndrome). Whether you believe the cumulative impact of these well-organized events or not, no new nuclear power plants have built in this country after 1979.

Talk about power.

Number 12: “Us and Them” (Pink Floyd, 1974)

In this set piece from the entire musical enigma known as Dark Side of the Moon, I gravitate (in my spacesuit) to this particular lyric: “And after all we’re only ordinary men.” Sexist, yes. Still, sifting through the sand hidden by the Moon’s shadow – at least that’s what it feels like – the song’s sultry saxophone and mesmerizing tempo suggest a tiny ray of light for the human race; even if “the old man died.”

Number 11: “Beautiful” (Carole King, 1971)

The first line alone is not a request, it’s a demand! “You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart,” and later, “. . . you’re gonna find, yes you will, that you’re beautiful as you feel.” By the time Tapestry was released, Carole had written so many hits without ever proclaiming that she was an (inadvertent) symbol for the emerging women’s movement. From the same album we can juxtapose “Wil You Love Me Tomorrow,” its lyric written by Gerry Goffin, her former husband. Hey, she’s curious if when we wake up in the morning, will you still love me, or was I simply a “moment’s pleasure?” Conversely, “Beautiful” is asserting itself, as women were around the world, that beauty is on the inside. It wasn’t men per se that were the ones who kept women down (though obviously, it’s only been going on since the dawn of Human Kind – just saying), it was insecurity. Why don’t we show all the love in our hearts? Every day? As one of Khaled Hosseini’s main themes in The Kite Runner (2003), with so many demons rattling around in our heads, it’s difficult to find perspective. Carole offered it and I sincerely hope that millions of women got it.

Number 10: “Wake Up Everybody” (Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes, 1975)

Written by the masterful team of Whitehead and McFadden, Teddy Pendergrass sang this embattled plea for every day folks to rise from their apathetic slumber. After the general public came teachers, doctors and builders. Frankly, I can imagine why teachers were included; “Wake up all the teachers, time to teach a new way, maybe then they’ll listen to whatcha have to say.” I was shaped by an experimental education that allowed me to be the person I am today. Unfortunately, the 1970s were riddled with racial bias, misappropriation of school funding, cities filing for bankruptcy, bussing, and inner city schools as the bastions of hopelessness. How much effect did songs like this have? Though it can’t be measured, its melody and lyric were accessible to the ear, especially the uplifting chorus. To this day, every time I listen to it, I want to change something.

Number 9: “For Everyman” (Jackson Browne, 1973)

Jackson Browne has made a career of commentary songs, though I’m fairly sure he would not describe them as such. The man is a poet don’t you know it and as far as I’m concerned, he can comment away. The title trackwith its hook just another dreamer dreaming about everyman – brought optimism to a country reeling from the Flower Power 1960s far back in the rearview mirror, being on the losing end of the Vietnam War, Watergate and the mistrust of our government, and a country with rising unemployment and other societal ills. His soothing voice and vision of better days may have been and continue to be anachronistic, or even folly; yet think of how many lives Jackson has changed.

Number 8: “The World is a Ghetto” (War, 1972)

Once the band War broke away from Eric Burdon in 1971, they “exploded” on the charts with several hits including “All Day Music,” “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and later “The Cisco Kid” and “Low Rider.” But squeezed in between those, is their socially-conscious masterpiece. This was 1972: Lush, mildly funky, with legato harmonies, and simple but introspective lyrics: “Wonder when I’ll find Paradise/Somewhere there’s a home sweet and nice/Wonder if I’ll find happiness/Better give it up now I guess.” Here was a definitively honest look at the inner city, juxtaposing a beautiful day with the harsh economic realities of that same day.

Number 7: “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” (Elton John, 1972)

Spanish Harlem. New York City. Bernie Taupin. According to Mr. Taupin, he was inspired to write this lyric (a 1972 version) as an homage to Ben E. King’s “Spanish Harlem.” However, for this masterpiece, the ultimate catalyst for completing it was a gunshot outside the hotel. Add the fact that it was the first time he had stayed in The Big Apple. So that beautiful Spanish rose had grown some deadly thorns. Hand the imagery over to Sir Elton and you can feel the uncertainty and the narrator’s shift to a more lonely life via the verses’ staccato chord progressions and the chorus’s more legato feel.

While Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters, sons of bankers, sons of lawyers, turn around and say good morning to the night, for unless they see the sky, but they can’t and that is why, they know not if it’s dark outside or light.” Like so much of their work, this song can be interpreted in so many different ways. Subjectivity; art’s through line. For me, it’s about disillusionment with the cold city streets and those who walk them. Artists paint the picture; we look within the light and shadows.

Number 6: “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (Gil Scott-Heron, 1971)

With respect to Sylvia Robinson and Sugar Hill (see above), Gil Scott-Heron, pride of Chicago, Illinois, is the founder of Rap and Hip-Hop. Period. One addendum: Research Gil’s discography. The majority of his work is about injustice not only in America but around the world. He described himself as a “bluesologist.” Fair enough. Tell that to the thousands of Rap and Hip-Hop artists who cite him as their singular inspiration. From his debut studio LP Pieces of a Man, this song’s conversational style delivers a cornucopia of hilarious reference points like Bullwinkle, the nubs, giving your mouth sex appeal, a tiger in your tank, a giant in your toilet bowl, and the revolution will not go better with Coke, juxtaposed with serious social challenges like pictures of pigs shooting down brothers, black people will be in the street lohe Roxy oking for a brighter day, and its button ending, “the revolution will be live.” The music is there – it’s ambient – yet it is as “in your face” as the song’s profound message. Gil was a master at choosing when to groove, when to be more balladic, and when to hit you on the head with something. I was fortunate to see him at The Roxy back in his heyday around the time of the release of 1980. Not only was the evening memorable for being a part of something that motivated me to take more action, Kareem Abdul Jabbar entered (late) and took in the show from a table nearby. To this day, I feel for the folks seated directly behind him.

Number 5: “At Seventeen” (Janis Ian, 1975)

When Norah Jones came onto the scene, I thought I was listening to Janis Ian. You may recall that Ms. Jones took home eight Grammys between her debut in 2003 and 2005. Yes, she came away with them. New Yorker, Ms. Ian, took this remarkable song to #1 in 1975 and it won her a Grammy as well. Helen Reddy gathered the forces and inspired millions when she released “I Am Woman” in 1972. As noted above, I prefer the subtler approach to lyric and vocal. Of note, Janis beat out Helen, Linda Ronstadt and Olivia Newton-John for her Grammy. It took nearly eight years for the powers (men)-that-be to recognize her talent. Other obstacles included at least one major record company not backing her because of a perceived sexuality preference. The individual involved eventually apologized. Ms. Ian has spent her entire life creating positive energy, has a healthy following of fans, and even does some writing and acting. From where I type, she deserved much more.

Number 4: “Living for the City” (Stevie Wonder, 1973)

Stevie Wonder has many songs that would qualify for my list, but since I can only choose one, for the sixth song on the list we go with the ultimate #1 R & B commentary hit on inner city life circa late 1973. By the time the LP Innervisions took the country by storm, Stevie was becoming less “Little Stevie” and more like a spokes MAN of his generation. This could have been only a three-minute song, but the generous decade allowed artists to take risks. The song goes into what sounds like a fadeout (the single version edit was 3:41) with Stevie and the backing vocalists giving the hook all they could – but then we got the story of the young man arriving in NYC with its “skyscrapers and everything” – from bus to the drug deal to the courtroom to the prison cell. What we really got was a smack-in-your-face look at the injustices that were going on set to a funky keyboard-driven boogie. As I say above, once established, an artist could take such license with the art form and navigate it into terra incognito. Stevie has been doing that forever.

Number 3: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (The Who, 1971)

Chalk one up for a title that misleads, yet still applies to the list. Pete Townshend originally wrote it for his musical, Lifehouse. Instead, it became the closing track on the rock-tastic LP Who’s Next. The song is a staple at performances, usually the closing number. Sadly, it was the last tune played live by drummer extraordinaire, Keith Moon.  When the Lifehouse project was abandoned, Townshend was in a phase of his life not uncommon for rockers who’d followed George Harrison – spirituality. “Fooled” is less about getting the wool pulled over by The Man – about being angry – but more about a diffidence toward revolution and power. Additionally, the actual synthesizer work involved human speech tones. Like Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations,” the new technologies invited the abstract mind to let her rip. Eventually, Townshend, with help from several engineers and producers got the sound right; however, the catch: Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle no longer had a click to play to – they had to play to a slowed-down version in real time. Sounds pretty rockin’ to me! One last note: One author, Dave Marsh called Daltrey’s scream near the song’s conclusion “the greatest scream of a career filled with screams.”

Number 2: “Ohio” (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1974, originally written 1970)

Neil Young wrote it in nanoseconds, really. His outrage, along with the nation’s, dictated an immediate response to what Young and his bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash assumed was the work of President Nixon. It was recorded live at L.A.’s Record Plant in only a few takes. This was outright totalitarianism. Kent State University. Four dead in Ohio. How many more? Crosby really was crying at the song’s fadeout. And so were millions of us. The mobilization of the National Guard had actually been ordered by Governor Jim Rhodes. As a result, as time passed, radio stations banned the song as it was an affront to Tricky Dick. However, the Man in Charge would get his comeuppance when there was an incidence at some hotel.

A note of irony: “Teach Your Children” was on the airwaves as the group released “Ohio” just a few weeks later (before being banned on most stations). Weren’t National Guardsmen taught to use non-lethal force? These are the names to always remember:

Allison B. Krause (age 19)

Jeffrey Glenn Miller (age 20)

Sandra Lee Scheuer (age 20)

William Knox Schroeder (age 19)

Tie for Number 1: “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye, 1971) and “Imagine” (John Lennon, 1971)

Father, father, we don’t need to escalate, you see, war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate, you know we’ve got to find a way, to bring some lovin’ here today.”

Let us praise Marvin Gaye’s “sociological” hit (peaked at #4 on the Hot 100). Heady stuff, indeed, from the Motown master who spent most of the 1960s cutting records that made people dance. However, the visionary he was, in 1965, he was dealing with the idea of what was the point of doing love songs while the world was being torched around him (the Watts Riots). Even more troublesome was that Motown mogul Berry Gordy was adamant about Gaye not releasing the song (“taking things too far”), even after its in-depth recording sessions (Detroit Lions football players adding spoken word to create the ghetto party vibe, choosing to double the lead vocal instead of choosing between two, to its conclusion where Smokey Robinson essentially convinced Gordy that changing Gaye’s mind about being socially conscious – making a very decisive decision about his music – well, he made a remark about a bear in the woods if you follow my drift). The song’s critical success merged smoothly with the cultural introspection from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, to Stevie Wonder, and to War. Though there would always be the grinding guitars and smashing of drum sets, to those like me, Mr. Gaye reached out and pulled me in with what I consider to be the finest novella of social commentary. However, in my list, he must share it with the ultimate dreamer.

John Lennon was murdered by a psychopath whose name I will never mention or speak out loud. December 8, 1980, those of us very much alive were emotionally stunned, distraught, forlorn, some even suicidal. My friends and I gathered in downtown Olympia, Washington, under a park’s gazebo, chilled to the bone as we all sang Beatles songs well into the early hours of the morning. What had become of the dreamer? To follow up with Marvin Gaye’s indignation: what was going on?

Selected lyrics from the song:

“No hell below us”

“Nothing to kill or die for”

“Living life in peace”

“A brotherhood of man”

“I hope someday you’ll join us”

 Apparently not happening in this world of ours.

Rolling Stone described its lyrics as “22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.”

Change agent? Governments, organized religions, and theocracies around the world were not about to instantly disavow doctrines and customs from thousands of years of societal DNA.

Lennon was quoted as saying: “Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.”

I’m afraid there just aren’t enough bees on the planet to provide us with the sweetness that most of us are born with, when over time it sours for one reason or another.

Which brings us full circle. Mr. Lennon was perhaps the most respected and famous musician on the planet at that time. Controversial, sure. But beloved, no doubt. His producer Phil Spector insisted “Imagine” be a commercial success, which it was. It would not just be an add on, B-sider. It achieved an almost National Anthem status.

In my earlier writing, I ask about context versus content. Would “Imagine,” as written (soft ballad) had been so universally beloved during the latter part of the decade after The Sex Pistols were cranking up their amps and voices, decrying the mundane music scene? Hard to say. Lennon’s plea was a missing puzzle piece desperately needed by those of us inhabiting the world in 1971. Others, including those in this list were adding to it as well.

In the end, human beings are puzzling. What Lennon dreamed of, what Gaye asked, had no effect. Just read today’s headlines. Sadly, I am reminded once again that art can move us, create inspiration within the most inner reaches of our souls, even change how we approach those in our lives and the career path we choose; yet, songs are not bullets, WOMDs, power-hungry leaders of unstable countries, or terrorists that value the word of invisible, unproven figureheads to justify brutal slaughtering of innocents, including children. The poor things can only do so much.

Back to the notion of perspective. If one’s thoughts are haunted by regrets, avarice, betrayals, and the need for redemption, how do we see what is right in front of us? We better, and soon.

Joni Mitchell, the painter and poet who never really wanted to be a Pop star, supplies us with the final commentary. From Hejira (1976), its closing track, “Refuge of the Roads”:

“In a highway service station, over the month of June, was a photograph of the Earth, taken coming back from the Moon, and you couldn’t see a city, on that marbled bowling ball, or a forest or a highway, or me here least of all.”

This marbled bowling ball is the only one we have.

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