I made a half-hearted attempt at clearing some cluttered shelves over the blissfully long weekend (hands up who thinks all weekends ought to consist of four days) and noticed an excellent book called 50 Facts That Should Change the World, by Jessica Williams.
It stopped me from wondering if, had Luis Suarez gone down in the penalty area like Ashley Young did against QPR on Sunday, a penalty would have been awarded (like hell it would have, he’d have been booked for diving) and made me question instead whether songs have, or indeed should, change the world.
Can a song change the world? Pretentious idea, that.
I thought, naturally, of the most obvious protest songs and charity songs; of the overtly political and often offensive messages purveyed through a well-written and -timed lyric; even visualised an array of impetuous rappers cursing various abuses of power and calling on the listener to get off their backsides (OK, their ‘asses’) and do something to elicit change.
Then I realised that Rolling Stone had already compiled a list of what they consider to be ‘world-changing’ tracks – to mark their 40th anniversary issue, in May 2007. Never mind. Their list just gives me more time to think of my own and, with your help, maybe create a better one.
This is their list, songs numbered chronologically (dates of release, not any order of preference) and showing typical bias for the baby boomer generation at whom so much disappointment continues to be directed for not changing the world nearly enough when they had the greatest opportunity to, but that’s another thing:
01. Elvis Presley, ‘That’s All Right’
02. Ray Charles, ‘I Got a Woman’
03. Chuck Berry, ‘Maybelline’
04. Bob Dylan, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’
05. The Kingsmen, ‘Louie Louie’
06. The Ronettes, ‘Be My Baby’
07. The Beatles, ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’
08. Martha and the Vandellas, ‘Dancing In the Street’
09. The Rolling Stones, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’
10. Bob Dylan, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’
11. The Beatles, ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’
12. The Velvet Underground, ‘Heroin’
13. Aretha Franklin, ‘Respect’
14. Jimi Hendrix, ‘Purple Haze’
15. Led Zeppelin, ‘Whole Lotta Love’
16. James Brown, ‘Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine’
17. Marvin Gaye, ‘What’s Going On’
18. John Lennon, ‘Imagine’
19. David Bowie, ‘Ziggy Stardust’
20. Bob Marley, ‘I Shot the Sheriff’
21. Joni Mitchell, ‘Help Me’
22. Bruce Springsteen, ‘Born To Run’
23. Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
24. The Ramones, ‘Blitzkrieg Bop’
25. The Sex Pistols, ‘Anarchy in the UK’
26. Donna Summer, ‘I Feel Love’
27. The Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight’
28. Black Flag, ‘TV Party’
29. Michael Jackson, ‘Billie Jean’
30. Prince, ‘When Doves Cry’
31. U2, ‘Pride (In the Name Of Love)’
32. Madonna, ‘Like a Virgin’
33. Run DMC and Aerosmith, ‘Walk This Way’
34. The Cure, ‘Just Like Heaven’
35. Guns N Roses, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’
36. Public Enemy, ‘Bring the Noise’
37. Dr. Dre, ‘Nuthin’ But a G Thang’
38. Nirvana, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’
39. Britney Spears, ‘Baby One More Time’
40. The White Stripes, ‘Fell In Love With a Girl’
Now, I’m not averse to such lists; I actually quite like them (well, just look at the previous entries) and I positively revel in how contentious they can sometimes be, knowing that your reactive comments will be all the more enjoyable for the fusion of disagreement and disbelief, damn it. I don’t know about you, but I don’t see what two thirds of the above listed songs changed, or could ever hope to have changed in the wildest dreams of their creators, to tell you the truth. I don’t think many of those chosen by Rolling Stone can claim to have changed music, let alone the world.
Beyond the convenient, too often self-indulgent visualisation of music by way of the requisite promo video (that’s down to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’), the mainstream acceptability, nay, popularisation/near-saturation of hip hop (‘Rapper’s Delight’ started it) and further undeniable proof of increasing studio production perfectionism (that’ll be ‘Billie Jean’) – I didn’t say the change necessarily had to be for the better – I’m stuck for things that these songs can claim to have changed. It is true that the Martha and the Vandellas number was David’s pick of his Desert Island Discs, and there was nothing quite like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ or ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ before them. Jimi Hendrix frequently blows my mind now, so I dread to think what he’d have done to it in 1966/7. The world would likely end if ‘Imagine’ were ever omitted from any list of good things, we all know this. Madonna and James Brown might well have made an awful lot of people blush with their abandon, and Brian Wilson’s fondness for the sublime harmonies of The Ronettes is well documented, but did any of these change the world? Did they really?
‘Ohio’ by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young certainly changed something, I think you’ll agree, although I can’t say precisely what (well, not without resorting to an inexcusably dull ‘they raised awareness’, which of course they did) nor can I say for how long it lasted; the American counter-culture movement collapsed before Nixon’s presidency did, though. The song remains a brave and biting indictment on the National Guard for opening fire on students of Kent State University as they protested peacefully against President Nixon’s announced ground invasion of Cambodia. Four were killed.
Similarly, although more than a decade after the events in Derry, Northern Ireland (fourteen unarmed protesters, thirteen of them teenagers, shot dead by British soldiers) and 63 years after the original Bloody Sunday in Dublin, Ireland (which claimed 31 lives): U2’s ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ (1983), on which Bono despaired, ‘How long, how long must we sing this song?’ It would be sung throughout the decade and well into the next, sadly.
‘Mississippi Goddam’, Nina Simone’s contemporary account of Klan killings and specifically the racist murder of four young children at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama – as mentioned recently – stirred deep feelings within the black community and, importantly, beyond it. Yet Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing in the Name’ spoke once more of white supremacy and bigotry, as well as police brutality – in 1992. (As a separate point of note, the song was also propelled to the top of the UK charts on downloads alone, in 2009, to spite whichever talent show flash-in-the-pan it was from claiming the prestigious Christmas No. 1 spot – a protest started on Facebook against Simon Cowell’s stranglehold over the charts. A small, short-lived change, but a nice one nonetheless.)
No one stressed the need for black empowerment more clearly and successfully than James Brown did in 1968 with ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud (Part 1)’, most powerfully in the striking line, ‘We’d rather die on our feet than keep livin’ on our knees’. Yet some twenty-odd years and countless records later, Public Enemy were observing – in 1989, on ‘Fight the Power’ – that their heroes still don’t appear on postage stamps 400 years down the line (which is not strictly true, as there has been a ‘Black Heritage USA Series’ of stamps since 1978, starting with the abolitionist Harriet Tubman). The world’s only remaining superpower now has a black president, at least for the time being, yet how disappointing his reluctance to make changes has been for many.
Music has championed human rights, too. Peter Gabriel’s haunting 1980 tribute to Stephen Bantu Biko, the anti-apartheid activist imprisoned without charge in 1977, during which time he was beaten by police in his cell resulting in his death from a brain haemorrhage (not, as police claimed, self-inflicted injuries), helped bring awareness – sorry, but it did – of apartheid. ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Special A.K.A. was a hit single in the UK in 1984 and its success helped paved the way towards a Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute Concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in 1988. Mandela was released in 1990, buoyed by tremendous public support around the world which its leaders could not ignore.
The release of Nelson Mandela was in the interests of the wider world, as was the USA joining the fight against fascism in Europe in 1941. Who is to say how influential Woody Guthrie was, through ‘The Sinking of the Reuben James’, in galvanising the natural pacifists within the American public into supporting military intervention in the Second World War? It would surely be as difficult a task as successfully prosecuting Marilyn Manson for indirectly causing the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999 via his angry songs.
Few songs contain the anger of those by Eminem, who certainly, to his credit, played his part in trying to oust George W. Bush in 2004 with ‘Mosh’, urging the disaffected and apathetic to sign up to vote. Green Day’s ‘American Idiot’ also sent an important message to a mainstream and youthful audience with the power to influence at a crucial time. Alas…
Elvis Costello’s ‘Tramp the Dirt Down’, released in 1989, was one of several fierce songs about Margaret Thatcher (and contains one of my favourite rhymes: ‘When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam, and the future looked as bright and as clear as the black tarmacadam’). She resigned the following year, a consequence of rioting, mass unemployment and factions within her party, but this is not to ignore the fact that many creative individuals used whichever platforms were available to them to stir up animosity, which appears always to be worthwhile if not always ‘world-changing’.
Music is a useful and extremely effective tool for arousing emotion. Bruce Springsteen and ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ helped the 1993 film Philadelphia pose important questions about society’s attitudes to homosexuality, HIV and AIDS. Not dissimilarly, I wonder how influential Michael Jackson’s ‘Heal the World’ has been on those whom for so long preferred to dismiss environmental concerns as not being of relevance to their distinct way of life, rather somebody else’s problem, and how many activists Joni Mitchell has potentially inspired to defend paradise from parking lots through ‘Big Yellow Taxi’.
There are so many more, but did any of them change the world?
I’m more inclined to believe, albeit still with a curl of the lip, that if any songs have changed the world, then it could only be those released with great fanfare for a charitable cause. That’s because only money appears to change things and even then not always permanently. The biggest-selling charity singles, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ and ‘We Are the World’, changed attitudes too, yet more importantly they made ordinary people donate to a cause that many had been able to turn a blind eye to previously; those who did not watch the news or read the newspapers were, through a catchy song played lots on TV, forced to witness the harrowing images of Ethiopia’s merciless famine by way of accompanying video footage, the involvement of their favourite music celebrities enough to spark interest in current events – as fickle as that may be.
So do these songs need to be commercially successful, well-known globally, bolstered by an impressive register of current talent, loosely ‘popular’ and ideally sing-along material in order to change the world, even if only for the shortest time? Yes, probably. How sad that is.
I’m still sure we can do better than Rolling Stone in finding songs that have had a greater cultural and social impact, even on tiny parts of the world and even if only fleetingly, than Britney Spears’ ‘Baby One More Time’, though.