It's been an amazing couple of weeks here in America – and now the rest of the world.
The protests that started in Minneapolis have worked their way through virtually every big city in the U.S. But it's the smaller towns throughout this country that have been especially noteworthy – places where marches against racism have historically not happened.
And if you were concerned that America had lost its influence around the world, sympathetic – and sizable – protests flashed last week, reminding us just how widespread this grassroots movement has become. As I noted last week in a blog post about this moment in time, I've seen my share of demonstrations and the spontaneous energy for changing “the system.” And I don't remember another time in this country where the protests have been so ubiquitous, so strong, so moving, and so continuous.
You might argue one of the things that separates this particular movement is the power and ubiquity of social media. Like the “Arab Spring” protests a few years ago, a connected world can help fan the flames of discontent. Hashtags have proven to be an effective way of mobilizing and organizing thousands or even millions of people.
But ultimately, even the strongest historical moments ebb and flow, and eventually fade.
Reverend Al Sharpton spoke at George Floyd's funeral yesterday in Houston, with this same reminder of how these protests tend to cycle out, only to be replaced by another news story. He pledged this to Floyd's family:
“When the last TV truck is gone, we’ll still be here.”
And while this moment in time appears to have “legs,” especially with the backdrop of a Presidential election now hitting its stride, the issue of police brutality and race could still get lost amidst the torrent of “breaking news” stories yet to come.
One pop cultural touchstone missing since George Floyd's life was taken is the protest song. In fact, when you think back over recent years – and even decades – songs commemorating times of division are rarely recorded – or certainly don't break through. For those of you inclined to point the familiar finger at radio for a lack of airplay and courage, we now have streaming audio stats that are tracked, allowing for any song (think “Gangnam Style” and others that broke on YouTube and other platforms) to emerge in spite of being invisible on FM radio airwaves.
There was a time in this country when there was almost always a soundtrack for movements, protests, and social issues. Woody Guthrie's “This Land Is Your Land” was one of those early anthems, followed by the likes of Phil Ochs, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Buffalo Springfield, and eventually, the Beatles. From “Revolution” to “Imagine,” there were often social underpinnings to the music of the Fab Four.
Later, U2 would come around with “Pride (In The Name of Love)” and their personal ode to the unrest in Northern Ireland, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” While many mistook Bruce Springsteen's “Born In The U.S.A.” as a patriotic anthem, it was anything but.
As it applies to racism, Stevie Wonder's “Living For The City” comes to mind for telling the American story of Black lives. But that was a half century ago.
Then there's Neil Young, whose career has been dotted with cause-driven music, from “Southern Man” in the early days (which Lynyrd Skynyrd pushed back on with a politically-laced diddy of their own), and later with “Keep On Rockin' In The Free World.”
Young was also at the center of perhaps one of the most famous protest songs of all time – “Ohio” – commemorating the four students killed during a protest march at Kent State University in early May of 1970. That was a tragic turning point, and Young – part of Crosby, Stills, and Nash at that time – was not about to let it go by.
By record industry standards, the timing was awkward. At the time, CSN's “Teach Your Children” was charting – not exactly an opportune moment to write, record, and rush-release another song not connected to an album.
After seeing photos like the unforgettable one pictured above right in the headline, Young wrote the lyrics of what was to become “Ohio.” And less than three weeks after the Kent State shootings, the band spent the evening at the the Record Plant in L.A. and recorded it. Atlantic Records got it to radio soon after that.
The Guardian declared it “the greatest protest record” of all time, while Young himself pointed to Kent State as “probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”
It is noteworthy “Ohio's” lyrics name names – in this case, President Nixon – a tricky thing to do 50 years ago – much less today. David Crosby once said that Young inscribing Nixon's name into the lyrics was “the bravest thing I ever heard.”
One obvious takeaway of this story behind the song is how music can cement a movement into the history books. Many of the songs mentioned in this post – including “Ohio” – still earn airplay today on Classic Rock stations across America – and the world.
While the specific events they commemorate may have become blurred by the passage of time, they are still thought of as musical touchstones that defined an era.
As Neil Young once said, “The '60s was one of the first times the power of music was used by a generation to bind them together.” And it has happened again and again.
Which is why it seems so odd this tradition of protest music – specifically in the world of Rock or even Pop – has been all but been forgotten or ignored altogether by today's stars.
I'm sure there are exceptions (and some of you will gladly point them out), but it is hard to think of a seminal protest song in the last couple of decades that has become an anthem of turbulent times. And there has been no shortage of things to sing about.
Instead, we see some of the musical icons of today – Taylor Swift comes to mind – bravely speaking their minds. But they tend to do so on their Facebook or Instagram pages, rather than using their true strengths – biting lyrics and memorable riffs, recorded for posterity.
Oddly enough, it wasn't just some of the biggest artists “back in the day” writing and producing protest songs. “Eve of Destruction” was recorded in 1965 by an unknown – Barry McGuire – and became a #1 Billboard hit in the U.S. and around the world. It has been covered many times, and used in many other pop cultural moments.
If you grew up during the Vietnam War era, the refrain “4 dead in O-hio” cannot be forgotten. It harkens back to a time in America when young people took to the streets, often against heavily armed law enforcement officers (including the National Guard) to rail against injustice and an often tone deaf Washington, D.C.
If that sounds familiar, then it's increasingly odd that a beloved wing of our popular culture remains virtually silent today about George Floyd, racism, economic strife, and a global pandemic – all issues that swirl around every day in the news. Some might say that music is an escape, but history suggests it can provide a commentary of a moment in time.
And while it might be appropriate and even expected for a classic artist like Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Eminem, or even Neil Young to go into the studio this weekend to record their musical account of what's happening in 2020, it would be far more impactful if a modern message came from the likes of Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran, Justin Timberlake, Drake, or even Taylor Swift. Or perhaps maybe one of thousands of artists we've never heard of who could become the Barry McGuire of today, rising out of obscurity to bind America – and the world – together in song.
Some would say this could never happen again – and even lay the blame on radio, “top-down corporate playlists,” and other realities of today's music business. And maybe there's truth in all that, but innovation and timing always find a way to cut through the noise.
Pop music kingpin, Clive Davis, once said, “You've got to seize the opportunity if it is presented to you.”
Those are words to live by in any of our lives, but especially when there's one of those indelible moments in time that defines a generation or even an era.
The next chapter of the music revolution should not happen on Classic Rock radio or from one of its Mt. Rushmore artists. That ship has indeed sailed.
But in this time of shared content via social media, YouTube, and audio streaming where anything can “go viral,” why is it so difficult for talented music makers to step into this moment and memorialize it today – and perhaps for all time? This is not the time for today's musical gods to hit the “mute” button.
Strange days indeed.
Latest posts by Fred Jacobs (see all)
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