And I’m not talking about anti-itch cream. In the late sixties and early seventies, when our country was experiencing a period of civil unrest that many Gen X’rs like me relate to the times we’re going through now, there were topical songs at the top of the charts, and if you owned a radio you couldn’t get away from them. The Box Tops had a hit with “The Letter.” Jimmy Cliff scored with “Vietnam.” Bob Dylan did so many protest songs (I like “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”) that he eventually decided not to write any more of them and turned from folk to rock and the blues. Barry McGuire “Eve of Destruction”, the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”, Creedence Clearwater Revival “Fortunate Son”, and the list goes on. After a while it got to be so much that most artists did like Bob and started to write about other things. Then in the eighties and nineties those sorts of songs moved into the inner cities with rap music. Groups like NWA pissed off the establishment. Grandmaster Flash wrote maybe the best song about the plight of urban youth with “The Message.”
My point is, where there was social trouble there was also a voice turning it into poetry that everyone, white, black, rich or poor could listen and relate to. Now that has changed, partly because of the death of radio and the birth of streaming. The artists that are popular enough in the new formats are not going to write protest songs. They just don’t have anything to be upset about. Can you imagine a Justin Beiber protest song? (I mean, about anything other than his “crew” getting hassled a club.) Can you imagine a Taylor Swift protest song? (“My plastic surgeon got my left breast wrong” or maybe “My probiotic isn’t compatible with my stool softener.”)
Regardless, there is plenty to be uneasy about in the world. I think we need to find some new artists who are willing to give us their take and their social commentary. It may not be in the form of music. It may have to be in a wholly new popular format. Maybe an app. But by whatever means it finds, using art to capture popular attention can help heal and help find solutions. I think the time for topical songs has come again.