(Pictured: the Temptations on stage.)
I griped last spring about how when you turn on the radio in this era of political turmoil and rampant disease, the music you hear is totally escapist. It’s not true that no artist has anything to say about current reality, only that the records you hear most often on pop and country radio do not. In our heads, we compare today’s hits to those of 50 years ago, “War” and “Ohio” and “Fortunate Son,” and we think that all pop music was politically aware and had something to say. But back in 2012, I wrote this:
[I]t’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.…
I’d correct that paragraph to say that the Supremes’ “Love Child,” produced by a team of Motown staffers called the Clan, beat “Runaway Child” to the radio by a couple of months at the end of 1968. Also, I might have better described “Heaven Help Us All” as a “social statement.” Moving on:
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.
It’s true that in the late 70s, the first wave of punk rock addressed Britain’s reality after several years of economic and social crisis, but it had a relatively small number of rabid American fans. Moving further on:
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  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.
We’re more used to sacrifice than we used to be, but is it enough? Millions of us masking up, staying home, and washing our hands hasn’t been enough to stop the virus. Is voting for new leadership to stop the political rot enough? What is still required of us? What else must we do?