I’ve got 99 problems but a social conscience ain’t one: ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ by Stevie Wonder, 1974Posted: 03/03/2012 | |
Come and sit on my knee, and I’ll tell you about a time, long, long ago, when musicians wrote songs about social and political issues and cared about justice and human rights.
Now, why would they want to do that? Surely, it’s more fun to sing about money, sex, love, losing love, finding love, how cool you and your mates are, dancing, general hedonism… and money and sex?
These are, of course, all legitimate subjects for art, and I expect most of the tracks I cover in this blog will have such high-minded topics as their subject matter. But it does seem to me rather sad that we have left behind an important strand of music making that concerned itself with broader issues – music that wasn’t exclusively egocentric in its focus and addressed the plight of the less fortunate and the fight for justice, peace and understanding.
There were many artists in the 1960s and 70s, mostly Americans such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, who had commercial success with ‘politically aware’ material. There was plenty to protest about: the Vietnam War, corrupt politicians and state institutions, the over-arching threat of nuclear Armageddon, and widespread inequality. Some of the principal exponents of ‘music for justice’ in America were Black. To the issues already mentioned they could add racial discrimination: schools and, in some states, even shops and buses were segregated on racial lines, while Black people were systematically brutalised by the police and even lynched by mobs, simply on account of their race.
A powerful Civil Rights movement grew, led by Revd Martin Luther King, with the aim of abolishing segregation and establishing equal rights, while a vibrant and increasingly confident Black American culture actively promoted equality and social justice through its music. Many artists who had found popular, mainstream success amongst White audiences would sprinkle their albums with politically aware material and release beautiful ballads or funky dance singles with socially conscious lyrics, sneaking them under the White Man’s radar to be huge hits.
Stevie Wonder offers a fine example. His journey is an interesting one. Blind from birth, he early on showed a precocious musical talent and had his first hits as a child star. Under the moniker ‘Little Stevie Wonder’, he released jaunty, happy dance songs, as essentially a ‘puppet’ artist within the Motown stable. But his talent and intellect could not be contained, and as he matured he became his own master, writing music that was increasingly sophisticated and adventurous, both lyrically and musically. He always wore his disability lightly and is living proof, were it required, that talent and determination can overcome any obstacles.
You might expect songs about social injustice, political corruption, war and environmental threat to make for somewhat turgid listening, but a social conscience and fabulous music were not mutually exclusive for Wonder and a raft of other Black artists, from Marvin Gaye to Edwin Starr. ‘Living for the City’, ‘Big Brother’ and ‘Village Ghetto Land’ are all examples from Stevie Wonder’s catalogue that eloquently prove the point. His song ‘Black Man’ from ‘Songs in the Key of Life’ celebrates the unsung achievements of Black historical and contemporary figures in lyrics that entreat his fellow Black Americans to aspire, celebrate their success and take pride in their racial identity. In ‘You haven’t done nothin’’, from his snappily-titled album ‘Fulfillingness’ First Finale’, he expresses his cynicism towards Richard Nixon, the US President of the day, accusing him of lies and empty promises. Wonder was on the money: within a few years, Nixon’s corruption had been laid bare and he had been removed from office. However, this song is no po-faced slab of worthy social conscience: it’s so funky, it grips your hips as much as it bothers your brain.
It all seems rather quaint and old-fashioned now, contrasting markedly with the themes of much of today’s Black music. I might sound like an old man when I bemoan much of contemporary R&B’s lyrical focus on how you are wanted by hoards of pneumatic women, how other people fear or envy you, how flash your cars are and how you will deal with people who diss you. The contrast isn’t just with music by today’s Black artists, of course, but with all popular music of the modern era. The political anger of hit songs such as ‘Ghost Town’ by The Specials or Elvis Costello’s cover of Robert Wyatt’s ‘Ship Building’ seems a lifetime away. The apparent political disengagement of most young people mystifies those of us who lived through the ‘60s and 70s, and it is clearly reflected in contemporary music, always a brilliant mirror of the zeitgeist.
Why has music lost its social conscience? After all, there are more than enough issues to be angry about: growing youth unemployment, corruption in politics and the media and increasing poverty, to name a few. With income inequality now greater than it was in the 1930s, I’m afraid, Jesse, it really is about the money, money, money. How did musicians come to be so numbed to these major issues? Are we all just too comfortable, now that no-one need starve and that buying a flat screen TV is easier than getting a decent education? Perhaps the lethargy and complacency of youth is a product of hopelessness. Or is it that people no longer see themselves as part of broader society, their egocentric perspective blinding them to the struggles of others? As Marvin Gaye put it, ‘What’s Going On’?