I’ve got 99 problems but a social conscience ain’t one: ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ by Stevie Wonder, 1974

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’?

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5 Comments on “I’ve got 99 problems but a social conscience ain’t one: ‘You Haven’t Done Nothin’’ by Stevie Wonder, 1974”

  1. Mick Darby says:

    A great note to finish on – but then as you know Bash, “What’s Going On?” is probably my all time favourite album, so I could hardly claim any objectivity!

    But I don’t think it stopped there. Curiously those Godfathers of modern rap, scratching and hip-hop – Grandmasterflash and the Furious Five – continued the social conscience legacy with “The Message” and “Don’t do it (White Lines)”.

    But my how that entire genre has changed, as you quite rightly suggest.

    And just look how dear old Stevie migrated to 20th century über commercial pap music with “Happy Birthday” and ” I just called to say I loved you”. These crass outpourings might just as well have been sponsored by Clinton Cards and Schindler Lifts… (And ironically probably his two most commercially successful tracks, but hardly elevated.)

    Sorry to have to mention those when he has indeed produced some amazing stuff (my personal favourite was “Living for the City”) but for me his legacy has been tainted by them.

    Why has music lost its social conscience? I’d agree that by and large it has (although in fairness there are a few exceptions) and I blame the MTV generation. My feeling is that the once truly unique music medium has lost its way entirely and pumping out “MTV Cribs” to celebrate and deify every kind of kitsch materialistic excess and has much to answer for.

    It doesn’t so much as hold up a rhinestone encrusted gilt-edged mirror to reflect society as to encourage the kids of today that conspicuous consumption is the only thing to aim for – and bugger the cost…

    • gthebash says:

      Mick, thanks for your (as ever) enjoyable response. I agree about Mr Wonder’s sad decline into Vegas-style sentimentality and obsolescence. And I had forgotten about Grandmaster’s socially aware tunes. I will be coming onto the origins of rap and sampling in soon-to-come blogs so watch this space.

      BTW, how do I find a way of publishing your lovely email on ‘Music to play at your funeral’? I think there’s huge potential for a fascinating debate there: if choosing music for this occasion does’t focus your mind on what are your top tunes, what will; and what about the different rationales people would apply to make their choices.

      • Tony Booth says:

        A survey of 5000 Britons carried out in 2006 on behalf of The Bereavements Register revealed the top 10 songs requested at funerals. And a strange list it is
        1. Goodbye My Lover – James Blunt
        2. Angels – Robbie Williams
        3. I’ve Had the Time of My Life – Jennifer Warnes and Bill Medley
        4. Wind Beneath My Wings – Bette Midler
        5. Pie Jesu – Requiem
        6. Candle in the Wind – Elton John
        7. With or Without You – U2
        8. Tears in Heaven – Eric Clapton
        9. Every Breath You Take – The Police
        10. Unchained Melody – Righteous Brothers

        Another list is the most quirky and surprising songs at funerals. This includes Wham’s “Wake me up before you go-go”, Prodigy’s “Firestarter” and Queen’s “Another One Bites The Dust”.

        By the way, I can’t make your Dropbox link to the track work for me, even tho I have a Dropbox account. Does it work for other people? Anyway, does anyone else agree that this track is, lyrics aside, very reminscent of his earlier hit “Superstition”?

  2. gthebash says:

    Tony, thanks for the list. Given the quality of the choices in the Top 10 Requested Songs, I’m amazed that ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (Titanic theme tune) wasn’t included. I can tell you that Mick’s list of ‘Songs to play as I burn’ is rather better.

  3. michaelpod says:

    Sorry Bash – only just seen this (haven’t got my WordPress settings sorted properly, presumably). Quite happy to post a mildly edited version of my funeral email if you like!


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