There are some songs whose up-tempo rhythms and infectious melodies are just so pleasurable that you are compelled to sing along with a smile and tap your feet. In the case of some songs, like ‘Hooked on a Feeling’, ‘What’s Up’, and ‘Sherry’, the content matches the lyrics. Even when these songs are about a broken heart, they have a light side. There are, however, songs that manage to get your toes tapping and give you a warm fuzzy feeling as you sing along, but whose content is not quite so blissful. The artists manage to deliver a radio-friendly tune that makes it onto the airways, but secretly delivers a socially conscious message. So in honour of those recordings, I’ve decided to put together a list of my five favorite radio-friendly and socially responsible songs. Songs that simply sound upbeat but are actually about a personal depression will not be included because rather than simple self-indulgent catharsis, I’m looking to reward socially responsible art.
One of my favorite scenes from Michael Moore’s Canadian Bacon features John Candy, Bill Nunn, and Kevin J. O’Connor playing the part of overly patriotic Americans as they drive around in a gas-guzzling truck and demonstrate their blind and excitable patriotism by singing the chorus to Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born In the USA’. The problem is, they don’t know anything but the chorus. Apparently Ronald Reagan and his staff also didn’t know anything but the chorus, as they made overtures to Springsteen’s camp during the 1984 re-election campaign in the hopes of obtaining Springsteen’s endorsement and the rights to use ‘Born In the USA’ as a campaign song. Despite its catchy and seemingly patriotic chorus, the song is actually a criticism of American involvement in Vietnam and America’s inability to take care of the veterans returning from Vietnam. The song’s rhetoric suggests a degree of racism present in American foreign policy, as the song’s narrator is given a rifle and told to kill the ‘yellow’ man. The song also features the narrator’s brother being killed, and the narrator himself getting no support from the Department of Veteran Affairs when he can’t find work. The final verse sees the narrator juxtapose the shadow of a penitentiary with the gas fires of the refinery. The reference to the penitentiary brings to mind the insanely high incarceration rates for Vietnam veterans during the 1980’s, who, according to some studies, made up as much as 20% of the prison population during that time. That seemingly patriotic chorus is just drenched with sarcasm.
‘Pass the Dutchie’ by Musical Youth introduced a generation of white kids to reggae music, giving suburbanite teens something to jump around to at high school dances and to sing along with on the radio. But the song isn’t all smiles and dancing, as the joyous reggae back beat might suggest. This one has a little bit of history to it. The song was not originally written by Musical Youth, but rather was the 80’s version of a mash up that covered two songs simultaneously: ‘Gimmie the Music’, by U Brown; and ‘Pass the Kouchie’, by The Mighty Diamonds. Now, ‘Pass the Kouchie’ was originally about smokin’ the reefer, which many people assume is what ‘Pass the Dutchie’ is about, but given that the song was being performed by a group of children, and given that the record label was hoping to get some radio play with the aim of selling records, the lyrics had to be changed. Instead of “How does it feel when you’ve got no herb?”, the band sang “How does it feel when you’ve got no food?”. And ‘kouchie’, a slang term for marijuana, was replaced with ‘dutchie’, a patois term for a cooking pot. The record label, in an effort to combine Bob Marley with Kids Incorporated had to tune down the drugs references, and so the song, instead of being about smokin’ wacky tabacky, is about a group of poor Caribbean kids passing an empty bowl around and bemoaning that they have no food, but trying to get by on song and dance instead. No less than eight times they ask: “How does it feel when you’ve got no food?” Anybody who doesn’t leave the dance floor to call up World Vision simply does not have a heart.
3: Eddie Grant: ‘Electric Avenue’
I remember as a teen listening to the lyrics of Eddie Grant’s ‘Electric Avenue’, and thinking: This guy’s answer to violence in the street and starving children is to rock on to Electric Avenue? It sounded like the ultimate in capitalizing on social problems. But this was when there was no Google. Years later, I looked up the song, and it turns out that Grant was actually a pretty socially aware guy. Think of him as a cross between Frantz Fanon and Bob Marley with synthesizers. The song, far from being about dancing whilst starving, is about the Brixton Riot, which took place in Lambeth, South London. The Caribbean community in that area was apparently going through tough economic times and crime was high. When an arson killed several people of colour and the police investigation didn’t satisfy the masses, a peaceful protest was held, but the organizers were charged with inciting a riot (they were later acquitted). Police were then given permission to stop, search, and arrest anybody they thought was ‘acting suspicious’ (aka: anybody who was being Black). Sound familiar New York? A short time later, a Black youth was the victim of a stab wound, and while running away from police and/or his assailants, he was eventually stopped. The crowd that had gathered felt the police were holding up medical care. When rumours spread the next day that the youth had died, riots ensued, not dissimilar to the unrest that was documented recently in Ferguson and New York. Electric Avenue was apparently a market street in the Brixton region of London. The poverty and violence Grant sang about was simply an artistic retelling of the socio-economic problems in the region. Kind of like a cross between Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Friedrich Engels‘s The Condition of the Working Class in England put to a disco beat.
2: Nena: 99 ‘Luft Balloons’
I’m going to give myself a pass on this one since it was in German and my German is limited to about five phrases. When Nena released this classic in 1983/84, it didn’t take long to conquer the charts and go platinum. What was the deal with the 99 balloons? Who knew? Who cared? All anybody wanted to do was jump around to this dance-floor-friendly tune. I wondered what it was about, but never thought to ask. Was it a birthday party? An anniversary? Nope. It turns out it was the start of a 99-year war. The anti-war song tells the fictional story of a set of 99 balloons that are released in West Germany during the Russian occupation of East Germany, and get mistaken by the Soviets for a UFO. The fighter pilot sent to investigate realizes they are balloons and shoots them down for shits and/or giggles. The other side assumes this is a show of force, and a 99-year war ensues with heavy losses and no winner. Then, as translated into English, it ends in a nuclear war. It’s pretty much what would happen if you mashed up Dr. Strangelove with Disney’s Up (not to be confused with Russ Meyer’s Up!).
1: Traditional: ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’
In what is perhaps the worst case of cultural appropriation since Aphra Behn tried passing off her fictional slave narrative as the real thing, any number of folk and pop bands picked up the Zulu folk song ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’ (alternately known as ‘Wimba Way’ and several variants of that phonetic combination), and made a boat load of cash off of it, most famously the one-hit-wonders known as The Tokens. It sounds like a classic doo-wop appropriate for any white people to sing and well-suited for a children’s movie, like… oh… I don’t know: The Lion King. On the surface it sounds like an ambiguous song about nothing other than a lion sleeping outside of a peaceful village. The last stanza actually makes the lion sound like a threatening force of some sort. The author tells his ‘darling’ to ‘hush’ and ‘not fear’ as the lion sleeps tonight and there is nothing to worry about. What is the original song about? There are a couple of different stories. One Redditor suggests the song was about how Caribbean peoples would be taken away from their villages and shipped via train to a sugar-cane plantation where they would be forced to work. The phrase ‘the lion sleeps tonight’, in this interpretation, means that the train was not running and the people could soundly sleep. Wikipedia has a slightly different story. The song, as Pete Seeger interpreted it, is a Zulu marching song used when the peoples of Africa were defending themselves against colonization. The lion is said to be Shaka, a king who died fighting off colonizers. The song optimistically suggests that the lion/Shaka is sleeping and will return, but in actuality he died defending the sovereignty of his people. In this context, knowing that some shitty pop band who couldn’t even write the only hit they had, used this song as a top-40 lullaby to rake in money hand over first, and the Disney used it to push a movie on young children, makes this cultural appropriation all the worse. Talk about sanitizing history! The least these cultural leeches could do is give credit to the source and promote the rich oral history of the culture they are appropriating. Not sure I will ever be able to enjoy this one the same way. We might as well have Barney and Friends do a cover of ‘Following the Drinking Gourd‘ after this!
If you enjoyed this post and would like updates on my latest Ramblings, be sure to follow me on Twitter @JasonJohnHorn. And if there are any songs missing from this list, be sure to list them in the comments below.