Music has the uncanny ability to freeze a moment in time, to boil an era down to its essence. To celebrate the upcoming premiere of CNN’s Soundtracks: Songs That Defined History, we took a moment to look back on some of history’s defining events – both the triumphant and the tragic – and the mirroring songs that became anthems for a movement, or embodied a sentiment. Read on and remember, and don’t forget to catch the series on Thursday, April 20 at 10 p.m.
The Civil Rights Movement: “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
In late December 1964, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” was released as a single posthumously – just weeks before, the singer had been shot and killed under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Cooke was moved to pen the song the year before when he was turned away from a Shreveport, Louisiana Holiday Inn because of his race. After standing up for himself, he was jailed for public disturbance, and the story ran in papers across the nation. “A Change Is Gonna Come” was personal and hard-hitting but hopeful, a marked departure from Cooke’s largely apolitical sound up to that point. The civil rights movement, which was going full steam at the time (the March on Washington took place in August of 1963), adopted the song as an anthem of sorts.
Feminist Movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s: “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
Fifty years ago on Valentine’s Day of 1967, a 24-year-old Aretha Franklin recorded “Respect” in Atlantic Records’ New York studio. Four months later, the song topped charts.
“Respect” was actually originally written and recorded by Otis Redding two years earlier, although Franklin’s rearrangement was defiant, a reclamation. The song, initially written to drive home the old school husband-wife dynamic (namely, that a wife should show her breadwinning husband respect when he returns home), instead became an anthem for human rights – particularly women’s rights and the civil rights movement.
“The song took on monumental significance. It became the ‘Respect’ women expected from men and men expected from women, the inherent right of all human beings,” explained Franklin in her autobiography. Fittingly, in 1987, Franklin would become the first female artist inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Gay Rights Movement, From Stonewall On: “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga
We all know Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” as a triumphant anthem for the LGBTQ community, but what many don’t know is that the 2011-released song is also thoroughly rooted in the history of the gay rights movement.
Two years after the Stonewall Riots, Harlem beauty salon owner Bunny Jones, enraged by the discrimination she’d seen her gay employees and patrons face, wrote lyrics to a song called “I Was Born This Way.” The empowering chorus went, “I’m happy, I’m carefree and I’m gay/I was born this way.” In the following years, Jones founded her own label, which she called Gaiee (“I particularly named the label Gaiee because i wanted to give gay people a label they can call home,” recalled Jones in an 1976 interview with The Advocate). She worked with producer/musician Chris Spierer to put the lyrics to music, and soul crooner Charles “Valentino” Harris to bring it to life.
In 1975 Motown-label founder Berry Gordy acquired the distribution rights and the song moved to the top of the disco charts in London. Two years later, Gordy’s label re-recorded it with disco’s Carl Bean (who would eventually found the Unity Fellowship Church to specifically serve LGBTQ minority groups), and the version would become a club hit.
Moon Landing: “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)” by Elton John
In 1972, three years after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s Apollo 11 mission, Elton John’s “Rocket Man” dropped. The lyrics, penned by John’s longtime collaborator Bernie Taupin, were inspired by Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man,” a short story from the sci-fi author’s 1951 anthology The Illustrated Man. “It was about how astronauts in the future would become a sort of everyday job, so I kind of took that idea and ran with it,” said Taupin in an interview. “She packed my bags last night pre-flight/Zero hour nine a.m./And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then,” go the lyrics. The song would be used as “wake up” music – literally, a song to start the day – for astronauts on several missions throughout the years.
Kent State: “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
On May 4, 1970, four unarmed Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War perished at the hands of the National Guard. Nine others were wounded, one of which was paralyzed. In just 13 seconds, guardsmen fired 67 shots into the crowd and the entire nation would feel the reverberation.
After seeing the photos of the shootings in Life magazine, Neil Young was moved to get to work, presenting his bandmates with the song, “Ohio.” Young, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Stephen Stills recorded “Ohio” only a few weeks after Kent State, and released it in June along with b-side “Find the Cost of Freedom.” Although “Ohio” was banned on some AM stations (“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming” … “Soldiers cutting us down” are the some of the lyrics), the song gained traction on college campuses and FM underground stations. It embodied the state of unrest surrounding the war, and the collective outrage at the Kent State events.
The Berlin Wall: “Heroes” by David Bowie
Bowie lived in West Berlin in the late ‘70s and would often bike alongside the wall. It was during his time there that he wrote “Heroes,” inspired a couple (one-half of which was later revealed to be legendary producer Tony Visconti) that met by the imposing structure. It became the anthem for a city divided.
In June of 1987, Bowie returned to perform at a festival. Although East Berliners couldn’t enter, they could hear. He introduced “Heroes” with a quick, but meaning-packed comment: “We send our best wishes to all our friends who are on the other side of the wall.” That same evening, 200-plus East Berliners would be arrested for getting close.
The wall was torn down two years later, and in a 2003 interview, Bowie recalled the experience of performing by it: “We kind of heard that a few of the East Berliners might actually get the chance to hear the thing, but we didn’t realize in what numbers they would. And there were thousands on the other side that had come close to the wall. So it was like a double concert where the wall was the division. And we would hear them cheering and singing along from the other side. God, even now I get choked up. It was breaking my heart.” Upon Bowie’s death in 2016, the German Foreign Office recognized his role in reuniting the city with a tweet.
9/11: “New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel
Billy Joel first released “New York State of Mind” in 1976. At the time, the song from his Turnstiles album flew under the radar. Nearly 30 years later, following the events of September 11, “New York State of Mind” took on a new meaning and helped the city – and the nation as a whole – heal and band together.
Joel performed the song just 10 days after the attacks as a part of the America: A Tribute to Heroes telethon to benefit victims and their families. Over the course of the two-hour commercial-free broadcast, nearly 60 million people tuned in and $150 million was pledged. A month later, Joel played “New York State of Mind” again at The Concert for New York City, set at Madison Square Garden. The benefit show, organized by Paul McCartney, honored FDNY and NYPD first responders and raised over $35 million.
New Orleans Heals from Katrina: “The Saints Are Coming” U2 feat. Green Day
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. After the levees failed, 80% of the city was underwater – up to 20 feet deep in spots. 116,000 residents that were unable to evacuate sought refuge in the Superdome, but conditions quickly became squalid. While the city rebuilt itself, so did the Superdome, which shuttered for renovation after the last victims were evacuated.
On September 25, 2006, U2 and Green Day took the stage to celebrate the New Orleans Saints’ first game back in the space since Katrina. The highlight of their uplifting performance was a reimagined version of punk outfit The Skids’ “The Saints Are Coming,” flanked by Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” and U2’s “Beautiful Day.” The triumphant U2 and Green Day remake, complete with brass band accoutrements, made it onto the Billboard Hot 100. And, the Saints were the well-deserved victors of the game, beating the Atlanta Falcons by 23-2.
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