Because I am old, “Who’ll Stop the Rain” or “Fortunate Son” or “Ohio” or “For What It’s Worth” will pop up on shuffle or in the car now and then, and I am always tempted to compare the social consciousness of pop stars in the 1960s to more recent times. The stars who speak out today are generally those who spoke out back in the day. With few exceptions, the younger generation of stars is doggedly apolitical, and if they do take a stand on anything, it’s expressed in terms foggy enough not to offend anybody. Overt pop-star engagement with the world in which we live is so unusual that when a Lady Gaga comes out with a “Born This Way,” its impact is disproportionately large.
But it’s worth remembering that even at the height of the 1960s, when the personal became political and many people read revolution into every act, many stars avoided saying anything. Even the Beatles, avatars of the counterculture, didn’t sing against the war in Vietnam—their message was, well, foggy enough not to offend anybody: “all you need is love.” (John Lennon would eventually take a clear stand, but it was more generally anti-war than it was specifically anti-Vietnam.) Neither did the Beatles sing about injustice, poverty, racism, sexism, or any other -ism.
At Motown, the Temptations began engaging with the real world once Norman Whitfield moved into the producer’s chair on records including “Runaway Child” and “Ball of Confusion.” Stevie Wonder’s 1970 hit “Heaven Help Us All” is one of the most powerful and wide-ranging political statements ever to hit the Top 40. Each of the three big singles from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On forced listeners to confront a different critical issue: the legitimacy of young voices (“What’s Going On”), the environment (“Mercy Mercy Me”), and economic inequality (“Inner City Blues”). It’s interesting to note that the Temps and Stevie kept singing about political issues well into the 1970s, long after most white artists had given it up.
And I should probably find some room in here for Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman,” a record that grows ever more striking as the years go by.
By the middle of the 1970s, however, there was precious little political content in radio pop. I remember reading one commentator who suggested that the lightweight goofiness of the Top 40 circa 1975 was a reaction to the politics of the previous decade, Vietnam to Watergate—that people wanted to escape when they turned on the radio, and there’s definitely something to that idea. It would be another decade before the real world intruded on the radio in any significant way, with Band Aid and Live Aid and USA for Africa, and they were qualitatively different from the political pop of the late 60s and early 70s. The issues involved were held at arm’s length—practically nobody listening to those songs knew a starving person in Africa, but in years before, millions knew people affected by the war in Vietnam, people suffering in urban poverty, people oppressed by racism.
But back to the 1970s for a minute. As the Me Decade turned ever more inward, it would occasionally produce music that inadvertently commented on the wider world. In 1978, Dan Fogelberg and Tim Weisberg recorded “The Power of Gold.” Its lyric was intended as a personal zinger—but it can also be read as an indictment of a whole society and our individual responses to it. And that indictment is even more potent now than it was 33 years ago.
You’re a creature of habit
You run like a rabbit
Scared of a fear you can’t name
The women are lovely
The wine is superb
But there’s something about the song that disturbs you
We’re busted: we know that the way we live and perhaps even the way we think are unsupportable, but to acknowledge it directly would be admitting that we’re interested in changing it. And although we give lip service to change, we are in no wise ready to make the necessary sacrifices that would result in change.
If I were a better writer, I’d have a better ending for this post. Since I’m not, this fine live performance of “The Power of Gold” will have to do. It’s from the PBS series Soundstage, recorded in 2004.