A playlist for social progress

Sunday, January 31, 2021 - 2:55pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

I have a playlist for social progress. From John Lennon and Bob Dylan’s iconic anthems articulating the American experience, to newer albums such as Neil Young’s “Living with War” and Greta Van Fleet’s “Anthem of the Peaceful Army” that reckon with our society’s crises and call for change, music has always played a profound role in the constant battle for social progress. 

The past 11 months have felt more like Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” and Nina Simone’s “Backlash Blues” than Pete Seeger’s “We Shall Overcome,” and I hit play while contemplating “What’s Going On” and willing that “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Amid the added layers of chaos and uncertainty in modern life stemming from a pandemic and more political turmoil than usual, I listen to my playlist revering more than 60 years of musical brilliance that is quite sympathetic to my pondering of society’s shortcomings. 

I can't twist the truth, it knows no regulation // Handful of Senators don't pass legislation, // And marches alone can't bring integration // When human respect is disintegratin' // This whole crazy world is just too frustratin' // And you tell me over and over and over again my friend // Ah, you don't believe we're on the eve of destruction- Barry McGuire, “Eve of Destruction”

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the United States was polarized by the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the feminist sexual revolution, the emergence of counterculture and the rebellion of adolescents, the beginning of gay liberation and the modern environmental movement. Further, the ways a person takes a stance on these issues proves to be a statement of one’s ideal world, otherwise known as the theory of cultural cognition, which can exacerbate divides and stunt both social and political progress. 

In the past year, a multitude of injustices have been thrust into the forefront of public consciousness. Yet, thousands, if not millions, still question the legitimacy of today’s greatest issues, as reflected by instances like the Capitol insurrection, in which people defend the social structures and institutions that have permitted injustices.

It seems that both throughout the revolutionary decade of the 60s and today, the issues making headlines have intersected in the ideologies of either aspiring to solve injustices or the alternative of defending the way things are. And all along, throughout this endless struggle for social progress, music has served to empower and unite those on either side, while reflecting the sociopolitical sentiments of our nation and its people.

I wanted to understand the timelessness of the music on my playlist, so I interviewed University of Michigan American Culture professor Stephen Berrey, an expert in 20th century American history, over a Zoom call. During our discussion, Berrey made a point to note the critical fact that during the 60s, the activity for social change originated as grassroots movements.

“Social change was coming from ordinary people that were organizing and mobilizing for change,” Berrey explained. “The music began tapping into the idea that (ordinary citizens) can change things. The 60s represent this moment in which, in the air, there is this sense that we should be challenging authority and norms. And the music of the time was reflecting the spirit of change.”

Perhaps that is why so much music of the 60s and 70s has found its way into my playlist for social progress. No matter the release date or label of genre, albums and singles from decades ago feel like they could have been cultivated amid the crises thrust onto the national stage in 2020 after gaining steam in city centers across the country. The polarization and obvious corruption, complicated by simultaneous movements for racial, economic, social and environmental justice, produced music that remains a poignant reflection of the United States’ shortcomings and struggles.

Oh, you know we've got to find a way // To bring some understanding here today // Picket lines and picket signs // Don't punish me with brutality // Come on talk to me // So you can see // What's going on - Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”

Recognizing my risk of sounding nostalgic for the music of a time period I did not live through, I must acknowledge the inclusion of newer music on my playlist that is just as powerful as that of the past. Andrew Bird artfully acknowledges the existential crisis of climate change in “Manifest Destiny” and America’s political circus in “Bloodless.” Beyonce’s “Freedom” became an anthem for the Black Lives Matter Movement. Hozier’s “Take Me To Church” contemplates all the reasons we should question the Catholic Church. There are countless songs, both new and old, questioning our social structures and addressing the evils that America and, in many cases, the world can’t seem to definitively defeat.

Well, the best lack all conviction // And the worst keep sharpening their claws // They're peddling in their dark fictions // While what's left of us // Well, we just hem and we haw  - Andrew Bird, “Bloodless”

Among the explicitly political music of the 21st century is a wealth of songs rejecting the man that emerged to embody America’s unfinished bigotry and ignorance, former President Donald Trump. Music is inherently political in itself, as are the circumstances and statements of musicians. During the 2016 election, artists joined forces on the project “1,000 Days, 1,000 Songs” to reject, as Franz Ferdinand labels Trump in their contribution to the project, a dangerous “Demagogue.” From “Locker Room Talk” by the Cold War Kids to Death Cab For Cutie’s “Million Dollar Loan,” musicians have responded to Trump’s candidacy and election with more disgusted fervor and illuminating music than previously produced in spite of any other president.

Prior to the 2020 election, Demi Lovato condemned Trump’s inaction in “Commander In Chief,'' and Mt. Joy released a straightforward single titled “New President.” Macklemore’s multitude of songs addressing issues such as same-sex marraige, white privilege and consumerism made his political positions clear long before the summation of America’s greatest evils were elected to the Oval Office. Since then, he has become explicitly critical of the former president, with his poignant reflection of the “Wednesday Morning” on which Trump’s victory was declared and his farewell to his Trump-supporting supporters in the recently released “Trump’s Over Freestyle.”

Humanity is a privilege, we can't give in // When they build walls, we'll build bridges // This is resistance, we're resilient // When they spread hate, we shine brilliant” - Macklemore, “Wednesday Morning”

Aside from the release of explicitly anti-Trump art, many musicians have made their political positions very clear since he announced his candidacy in 2016. The Rolling Stones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tom Petty’s family and many more took legal action against the campaign, demanding the Trump campaign stop playing their music. In addition to issuing a cease and desist order, CCR’s vocalist John Fogerty publicly expressed his bewilderment that the campaign played the band’s iconic hit “Fortunate Son” that condemns silver-spoon, draft-dodging hypocrites at rallies that celebrate and try to keep one in the Oval Office. There is an incredibly long list of artists — including Axl Rose from Guns N’Roses, Rihanna, Brendon Urie and Adele, just to name a few — who have communicated their scorn for the former president in various types of public statements.

Aside from the campaign, many musicians, including Elton John and Céline Dion, declined to become involved with the 45th president during his presidency. Trump’s Inauguration Committee struggled to find A-listers for his inaugural events, a stark contrast to the star power of this month’s musical offerings supporting the new administration. Obama’s inaugurations featured Aretha Franklin, Pete Seeger, U2 and Beyonce. Biden’s inaugural events boasted Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Lady Gaga and a New Radicals reunion. These observations made headlines because people acknowledge the power of music and, for reasons good or bad, see these performances as political endorsements. 

Inaugural performances and Instagram posts are some of the ways musicians have made political statements this past year, and considering the chaos, division and crises, the age-old question of what an artist’s social responsibility is seems more important than ever. But this question is convoluted by the ways the music industry often determines which artists, and thus what music, reach the masses, not to mention the complication of art by the desire for profit. After all, the music industry parallels mankind with a dark history of exploitation, exclusivity, suppression and greed.

At the end of the day, I do not know what artists ought to do with their platforms. Over a Zoom call, Kira Thurman, a Germanic Languages and Literatures and History University Professor and a musician, considered this question as we mulled over whether musicians have an obligation to limit their nonmusical business pursuits or pick red or blue: “It may be unanswerable, but we ask it because we recognize the potential of music to transform the world,” Thurman said. 

Cutting through the complications of this question, Thurman offered an idea that, to me, seems to serve as an answer: “Maybe this is the scary, damning indictment: There is no ‘art for art’s sake.’ Art is socially constructed.” 

You cannot separate the art from the artist nor from the society it was born out of, and the question of the artist’s social responsibility is inseparable from the actuality that the music speaks for the artist and itself. The greatest responsibility lies in the power of the music. We can argue over the question until another fascist runs for president, but at the end of the day, given the inherently political nature and profound power of music, we ought to critically question, consciously consume and vigorously scrutinize the music we choose to listen to. 

That is not to say we must solely submerge ourselves in music that directly addresses the heavy dilemmas of mankind, considering their exacerbation during the past year. To quote The Byrds, “to everything, there is a season, and a time to every purpose.” There is great importance in music being fun, playful and filled with enthusiasm for life, even when the value of life and the love of living it are influenced by the realities of willful ignorance, institutional inequality and oppression. 

Music that does not instantly register as being political is political and socially meaningful nonetheless. Teenage angst, battling inner demons and drug addictions, breakups and body image all find their way into music, and are, of course, crucially important to the individual. Songs like Lizzo’s “Fitness,” Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way,” and Macklemore’s “Starting Over” inextricably involve the concepts of love, belonging, compassion and courage, and how we value these ideals inform our desires for social change and the politics that shape our world.

For obvious reasons that are eloquently expressed and best understood by the songs themselves, music is incredibly powerful and influential. It reflects and challenges us, teaches, empowers, explains, inspires and aids us. In all of its profound power, it affects how and who we choose to be in the world, and thus, how we change it. 

"Read the news, there's something every day // So many people thinking different ways, you say // Where is the music?  // A tune to free the soul // A simple lyric to unite us all, you know" - Greta Van Fleet, “Anthem”

Looking at the current state of affairs, it is quite easy to claim we are at the “Eve of Destruction.” The consequences of humankind’s vices, taking form in corruption and injustice and resulting in unnecessary suffering and death, are depressing and daunting. But hope and working for change today is the only path leading to a better tomorrow, and music will always play a profound part in inspiring, empowering and affirming these endeavors. 

So, tuning out all the noise and turning the volume up, I hit shuffle on my paramount playlist, and from Neil Young’s “Love and War,” to Harry Chapin’s “What Made America Famous?”, from John Lennon’s “Imagine” to The Youngblood’s “Get Together,” from Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to Greta Van Fleet’s “Black Smoke Rising” and the many, many masterpieces in between, I let the music open my mind and soothe my soul with unwavering hope and trust in that “A Change is Gonna Come.”