By Jack Sharkey, August 18, 2016
Politics, culture and history are all intertwined and held together with a glue called music. From Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey to Macklemore’s Same Love, music has told the tale of the human journey better than any textbook could ever hope to do. Songs are written in the moment, with passion and energy, so even though some of the details may be fuzzy, the humanity of the work can make the right song at the right time a cultural force to be reckoned with. Certain songs stand out from all the rest as disruptive forces that change things in such a way that the reverberations from the disruption are felt years afterward. Here are 19 of those songs.
Rather than list the songs in some subjective order of importance, we’re going to take a look at them chronologically. Some of the songs on this list are important politically and some are important simply because they changed the course of the current culture. Newer songs have not been included because it really takes a decade or more to fully understand the impact a song can have, so new music fans take heart – your time will come. In the meantime, here’s the 19 songs that disrupted the world.
1913: Rite of Spring – Igor Stravinsky
The finest in Parisian culture turned out for the 1913 debut of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and before long actual riots occurred. Men were beat with canes. Men had their top hats pulled down over their eyes. Men banged out the rhythms of this peculiar work on the heads of men sitting in front of them. One critic wrote “the music always goes to the note next to the note you would expect.” Decorum was at a standstill. There is a lot of conjecture why the audience reacted the way they did, but a great deal of the blame (credit?) probably goes to the dissonance of the work, which was something Western audiences in early 20th Century had not experienced before. It would be just a few short decades before this type of dissonance and departure from the classical music of the previous two hundred years would become common-place and accepted, especially in the United States and Western Europe, but in Paris in 1913 it really made people angry.
1939: Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
Originally a poem written by Lewis Allen in 1937, Holiday came upon the song a few years later. Accounts of how she learned of the song differ but by 1939 it became her standard closing song. This song was the first broad cultural reference to the lynching that was rampant at the time and fearing reprisal, club owners had specific rules for how and when the song could be performed: The set closer with no encores and waiters were to stop serving before the its introduction. Holiday’s record label and producer both refused to record the song but Columbia did give her a one day release from her contract to record it with the Café Society Band in New York. It became Holiday’s biggest selling record and a cornerstone of the Civil Rights movement to come.
1942: Symphony Number 7 – Dmitry Shostakovich
"Rehearsal did not take place. Srabian is dead. Petrov is sick. Borishev is dead. Orchestra not working," reads the entry in the Leningrad Radio Orchestra’s log book in the summer of 1942 before rehearsals for Shostakovich’s latest symphony began. The city was under siege and being starved into submission when Shostakovich debuted his Seventh Symphony with an orchestra patched together amidst the ruins of World War Two. When the piece was finally performed for the public, loudspeakers were set up throughout the city so the citizens (and the Nazi soldiers laying siege to the city) could hear this stirring ode to the human spirit. It would be another eighteen months before the Nazi siege would be over but Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony is surely an underlying component to the will of Leningrad;s citizens in withstanding the withering assault. Click to read more about the Seventh Symphony and the siege of Leningrad.
1953: Crazy Man, Crazy – Bill Haley & His Comets
Rock and roll had been fermenting underneath the culture for twenty years, and even some of the mainstream big bands of the Forties dipped their toes into the music but rock and roll was still considered outrageous and dangerous to mainstream America in the early 1950s. You have probably been convinced that Rock Around the Clock was the first ‘official’ rock and roll song but Crazy Man, Crazy predated that song by almost two years. Rock Around the Clock was the first rock and roll song to be featured in a movie (1955’s Blackboard Jungle), but this is the one that started it all.
1962: Blowin’ In the Wind – Bob Dylan
Was it a protest song? A philosophical exercise in rhetoric? An anti-Vietnam War song? The anthem of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement? Here’s Dylan’s own words on the song: There ain’t too much I can say about this song except that the answer is blowing in the wind. It ain’t in no book or movie or TV show or discussion group. Man, it’s in the wind – and it’s blowing in the wind. Too many of these hip people are telling me where the answer is but oh I won’t believe that. I still say it’s in the wind and just like a restless piece of paper it’s got to come down some. But the only trouble is that no one picks up the answer when it comes down so not too many people get to see and know . . . and then it flies away. I still say that some of the biggest criminals are those that turn their heads away when they see wrong and know it’s wrong. I’m only 21 years old and I know that there’s been too many. You people over 21, you’re older and smarter. [The Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Gray, 2006]. This song has been copied in its theme so many times that without we would have had to find another song to inspire anthems of protest and disillusionment.
1964: A Change Is Gonna Come – Sam Cooke
A Change Is Gonna Come has been covered countless times since its original release after Cooke’s death in 1964. A beautiful song about personal and cultural struggle, the song became the de facto anthem of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1960s and is still a call to hope and decency today. A stark departure from Cooke’s previous pop-music musings, it was written after a series of events in Cooke’s life culminating in his entourage being turned away from a motel in Louisiana because of their race. Cooke also stated that he was inspired to write A Change Is Gonna Come after hearing Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind.
1964: I Wanna Hold Your Hand – The Beatles
In 1964 America, stuck in the doldrums of corporate bubble-gum rock and roll, recovering from Kennedy’s assassination, reeling from the dystopian future the Cold War was raining down on the baby Boom generation, and something had to give. A harbinger of the most disruptive musical force in history, this performance on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 changed everything – the culture, the music, the politics of the 1960s and every single decade that followed – literally overnight. Other songs may have had a greater impact but no one would have likely heard them without I Wanna Hold Your Hand.
1966: For What It’s Worth – Buffalo Springfield
Before the counter-culture took hold of the actual culture in 1967, Stephen Stills wrote this song about the Sunset Strip riots in 1966 that pitted the burgeoning teenaged counter-culturists against the police over what was basically the city cracking down on late night traffic and noise from the local music clubs. Stills could not have imagined when he wrote it that it would become an anti-war, anti-‘Man’ anthem from the Summer of Love onward.
1969: Star Spangled Banner – Jimi Hendrix
You want to make the parents who fought World War Two question the sanity of everything they thought they knew? Play this song, this way. The sea-change brought on by the counter-culture washed up over every imaginable cultural shore after the Woodstock movie was released with Hendrix’s treatment of the US National Anthem. Every bit the same artistic statement as those made by Whitney Houston and every other vocal-gymnast singer since, Hendrix’s version truly signaled the end of all that America thought was decent and true. But in the end, it was just a guitar player playing a song.
1969: War – Edwin Starr
Originally released by the Temptations, Edwin Starr’s version of War was re-released after Motown executives were afraid of alienating the Temptations’ mainstream audience. The height of the Vietnam War was raging nightly on America’s television news broadcasts and the contribution this song made to the culture was to give voice to the millions of people, regardless of age, who were becoming weary of the war. Covered dozens of times since – most famously by Bruce Springsteen – War is still relevant today.
1971: What’s Going On? – Marvin Gaye
Pop music was becoming the social voice of the culture and What’s Going On? was Marvin Gaye’s subtle and beautiful way to give voice to the multitude of trouble in the world. What was disruptive was the way he accomplished it – by creating a song that was accessible to every audience regardless of age, race or station, but that spoke to the essence of life at the dawn of the 1970s. It was after this song that pop musicians realized – for better or worse – that they now had a platform for their views beyond puppy love and broken hearts.
1971: I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing
You know your efforts to change the world have begun to work when they make a television commercial out of your counter-culture. This song makes the list because it was incredibly disruptive to how advertisers viewed youth and music. Once the advertising genie was released the churn of the culture was actually accelerated: As soon television started playing your music to sell you stuff, you knew it was time to find something new. Youth culture was now a vehicle for generating sales more than at any other time in history.
1972: I Am Woman – Helen Reddy
While the tune and its sentiment might sound trite and quaint through today’s cultural lens, the Women’s Lib movement was in its infancy and the culture in general was still completely androcentric. Watch television programs created prior to 1972 or ’73 and you will see a stark difference in how men and women were portrayed and the roles they were expected to play compared with today. It may be hard to comprehend now but this song was absolutely disruptive to the norm of the day. Whether an accurate reflection of the actual culture or not, it song broke a barrier for young girls who were now seeing that it was okay to be an individual first. I Am Woman may not be very relevant today, but its impact can't be understated.
1972: Imagine – John Lennon
Questions such as that found in John Lennon’s biggest selling solo record were a complete and total shock to a culture that thought it had seen and heard everything to that point. Often misconstrued and misinterpreted, Imagine is still an anthem of peace and cultural introspection to this day. In a 1980 interview in Playboy magazine that came out shortly before his assassination, Lennon had this to say about the song: “The concept of positive prayer ... If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion—not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing—then it can be true ... the World Church called me once and asked, "Can we use the lyrics to 'Imagine' and just change it to 'Imagine one religion'?" That showed [me] they didn't understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.”
1979: Rapper’s Delight – Sugarhill Gang
Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers originally threatened legal action when they heard their hit Good Times playing under the free-style raps of Harlem’s Sugarhill Gang but they relented and years later admitted Rapper’s Delight was collectively one of their favorite songs of all time. Jamaican DJs had been rapping since the 1960s and even Ian Drury and the Blockheads had a hit with the stylized Cockney-rap of Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick earlier in 1979, but this is the song that gave birth to the hip-hop and rap genres that are still culturally titanic almost forty years later.
1983: Billie Jean – Michael Jackson
Prior to his performance of Billie Jean on Motown’s 25th Anniversary Special in January 1983, Michael Jackson was a superstar, but after that performance he was in a stratosphere no other artist (including the Beatles) had ever reached. This song also broke MTV’s color-barrier and ushered in the look, sound and feel of the 1980s, from soul and hip-hop to hair metal. Even though Jackson had become a sad footnote of his former self toward the end of his life, the impact this song had on the culture was enormous.
1984: Free Nelson Mandela – Special AKA
In 1984, Nelson Mandela was an obscure political prisoner in a country steadfastly holding onto the illness of apartheid. But in a singular performance on England’s Top of the Pops, that began to change. Ska has always told the story of suffering and injustice via the dichotomy of happy, upbeat rhythms and nowhere is that more apparent than in Free Nelson Mandela, which is possibly the most effective and potent protest song ever written. In 1988 the song’s writer Jerry Dammers and the band Simple Minds organized the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday concert which included artists like Peter Gabriel and Little Steven Van Zandt who had also penned anti-apartheid songs after the release of Free Nelson Mandela. By this time, talks between South Africa’s government and Mandela had begun and pressure on the British government (among others) to take an anti-apartheid stand was in full force. By early 1990 Mandela was out of prison and in 1994 he became the country’s first black president.
1989: Fight the Power – Public Enemy
Despite the obvious reasons for this song being included in any list of disruptive and history changing songs, Public Enemy’s Fight the Power is included here for a reason you might not be aware of. Like For What it’s Worth in 1966, Fight the Power was written to address a specific circumstance important to the artists at the time but the militant (and disruptively frightening) stance of the song was co-opted by people the artists couldn’t have imagined. In 1991, as the Soviet Union began to disintegrate, Slobodan Milosevic’s iron hand in Serbia forced an armed crackdown on critics of the government and media outlets were banned from reporting the news. Radio station B92 took to playing Fight the Power continuously at the height of the unrest, broadcasting to its listeners that the revolution was indeed in process, without actually saying so. To Americans, the song might just be an angry response to social injustices as told by Public Enemy, but to the people of Serbia (and other countries behind the former Iron Curtain) the song is symbol of resistance to, and overthrow of, a brutal political system.
1991: Smells Like Teen Spirit – Nirvana
Once again the culture grew bloated and complacent and once again a single song came along and disrupted everything. On September 9, 1991 you had to have tremendous hair, gated snare drums, lots of leather and make-up to get anywhere in the pop music business. On September 10, 1991 Nirvana released Nevermind and everything changed – literally overnight. Arguably, the social revolution started in 1953 by Bill Haley & His Comets and perfected in 1964 by the Beatles ended when Smells Like Teen Spirit hit the airwaves. In spite of mainstream attempts to latch on to grunge, music went back underground to reset itself and in many ways it is still working on that reset.
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In the twenty-five years since the release of Nevermind there have been countless songs that have had meaningful impact on people around the world, but because of the dilution of the common cultural experience brought on by technology, music has not had the disruptive impact it had in years prior. That’s not a permanent thing and for all we know songs that we kind of take for granted right now are the disruptive history changers we’ll look back on in the years to come. In the meantime, we just need to keep our ears focused on the next historical musical statement.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and not necessarily those of KEF or its employees.