A significant number of people claim that today’s music has a negative effect on our young because it promotes hatred and violence. Many reminisce, with a bit of nostalgia, about how the “oldies but goodies” contained lyrics that encouraged peace and harmony. That assertion is really painting a very broad picture of contemporary music. Love, romance, and relationships are the predominant themes in a considerable number of today’s ballads.
The rhythm and blues sound from the doo-wop era certainly fit this generalization of the way music used to be — or, perhaps, in the opinion of many, what it ought to be. Without doubt, some of the lyrics featured in today’s popular music contain controversial verses. Yet, contentious themes or “disturbing” lyrics have been — and remain — a part of modern music.
In the 1950s, Louis Armstrong, Bobby Darin and others sang about a gangster, “Mack the Knife,” and how “scarlet billows start to spread” when “Mac” was back in town. In 1969, the Rolling Stones did not use poetic innuendo to disguise violent topics. Instead, they painted a much darker picture of humanity with unsettling lyrics such as “You knifed me in my dirty filthy basement” (“Let It Bleed”) and “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat” (“Midnight Rambler”).
Music is a form of expression. It serves as a barometer that gauges those ethical, moral, and social issues impacting society. In reality, “Musique du jour” is a lyrical time capsule; it captures the significant topics of a specific period of history in rhyme and verse.
For example, the popular music of the 1960s captured the contrasts and contractions of that era. While the “60s” was a time of peace; we were involved in a long, strange, and sad Asian war. It was a period of equality and civil rights; yet segregation and bigotry remained a part of life for many. It was an era of knowledge and enlightenment; it also was a time marked by ignorance, hysteria, and paranoia.
During their tenure in the 1960’s, The Beatles went from singing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to telling us “All You Need is Love.” Eventually, those four Liverpudlian lads that had captured the hearts of a grieving America in 1964 provocatively asked “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” They raucously told us about “Helter Skelter” and how “Happiness is a Warm Gun.”
In “Midnight Rambler,” The Rolling Stones present a musical tale about the deviant exploits of an ebony-clad, night-stalking, murdering rapist. “Let It Bleed” chronicles society in 1969; it captures the need for society to be dependent on someone to lean, dream, feed, cream, and bleed on. “Gimme Shelter” warns us that war, rape, and murder are “just a shot away.”
Brother Louie” is a song about an interracial relationship. The band, Stories, turned Hot Chocolate’s song into a number 1 hit 1973. Bon Jovi and the hip-hop group, Code Red, covered “Brother Louie.”
Granted, by today’s standards, the songs mentioned in this letter could be considered “G-rated.” Yet, given the content and meaning of those songs, one would agree that they are controversial, contentious, and troubling. However, they captured those issues that troubled society during that time.
Guitar legend Jimi Hendrix pointed out, “Music doesn’t lie. If there is something to be changed in this world, then it can only happen through music.” Indeed, the soldier unsheathes his sword, the poet lifts his pen, and the musician picks up his instrument.
John Di Genio