Uvalde. Buffalo. George Floyd. Jan. 6. Can political protest music make a difference? A lesson from 50 years ago gives musical artists a blueprint for meeting the challenges of 2022.
Be the first to know about the latest in entertainment, arts and culture news. Sign up to get story alerts from Wallace delivered straight to your phone. And catch up on Wallace’s recent work here.
In the spring of 1970, four unarmed college students were shot and killed at Kent State University in Ohio when National Guardsmen opened fire on Vietnam War protesters. It was an enormous news story and another deep wound in the culture war that was consuming America at the time.
Exactly one month after the shooting, radio stations across the country began playing a new song called “Ohio,” written by Neil Young and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. As any rock fan knows, “Ohio” is a brooding, guitar-drenched cry of anguish and outrage now firmly planted in the classic-rock canon.
There are two things remarkable about “Ohio.” The first is, of course, the unheard-of quickness of its release so soon after the incident that inspired it. Young wrote the song in about 15 minutes after reading about the Kent State shootings in Life magazine. Fueled largely by David Crosby’s enthusiasm for the new song, the supergroup quickly convened and within a few days, the song had been recorded and the tapes flown to New York, where Atlantic Records made the decision to release it for radio even before making it available to record stores. This was at a time, remember, when feelings about the shooting were still raw and a large portion of the electorate supported the National Guard’s actions.
The second remarkable thing about “Ohio” is its lasting power over the decades. Political protest music had been around long before “Ohio,” of course, but songwriters’ strategy in such songs was to focus on galvanizing values and universal themes. Topical songs — songs that referenced a specific historical figure or moment — risked quick irrelevance. “Ohio” was as immediate and topical as it could get — Richard Nixon is name-dropped in the song’s first line — and it’s easy to see how powerful it must have been in the summer of 1970. But since then, the CSNY recording has become an American staple and the song has been covered countless times, including a moving 2017 version by three young stars of today, Gary Clark Jr., Leon Bridges and Jon Batiste, the latter the most recent Grammy winner for Album of the Year. “Ohio” is now 52 years old, and somehow it’s still capable of raising the hairs on the back of your neck.
There is a lesson here for 2022. From the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, to the impending Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, to the congressional investigation of the Jan. 6 insurrection that is quickly coming to a head, we are beset on all sides with flash-point moments that will demand some kind of mass political response. The news media’s infamously short attention span threatens to quickly push aside such moments in favor of the next trauma (or the next Johnny Depp trial, whichever comes first).
Here’s where pop culture can come in, particularly in the realm of protest music. Just as “Ohio” sustained the outrage and determination of the antiwar movement in the Vietnam era, another as-yet-written song could do the same to keep the flame alive for political efforts today. Considering all the avenues of “virality” that a new song could take today that didn’t exist 50 years ago, it’s clear the next “Ohio” could pack a punch even stronger than the original.
Certainly there is no lack of political protest music these days. The 2020 police murder of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter movement even before George Floyd, inspired a number of compelling protest songs such as “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby, “American Silence” by Chris Pierce, and “Sweeter” by Leon Bridges (yep, the same guy who covered “Ohio”). A half-hour on YouTube or any streaming service can yield any number of inspiring anthems on a wide range of issues. Perhaps, even this very moment, songwriters across the country are deep into their creative process to articulate something meaningful about gun violence or abortion rights in the harsh light of today’s headlines.
But the time has never been more opportune for an “Ohio” moment, that is, an artist with the cultural throw-weight of Neil Young in 1970, building up a head of steam for a song that might change history. (Ironically, Young, at 76, is still as rebellious as ever, but his defiance has taken the form of denying people his music; earlier this year, he loudly took his catalogue of songs off of Spotify in protest of that service’s continuing sponsorship of podcaster Joe Rogan because of Rogan’s history of misinformation.)
There are already some pretty amazing songs about gun violence, for instance, such as the powerhouse anthem “Thoughts and Prayers” by the Drive-By Truckers. You can find a few similarly potent songs on the subject of women’s rights, like “Miracle of Life” by Bright Eyes. But such songs, unjustly, remain beyond the attention of mainstream audiences.
Maybe “Ohio” can never happen again. Maybe the sheer volume of songs released every day prevents one particular song from ever emerging out of the pack. Maybe the commercial radio/record company apparatus that allowed “Ohio” to become a hit doesn’t exist anymore. On the other hand, some dude riding a skateboard lip-synching to Fleetwood Mac gets 12 million views on TikTok. So, going viral is still a thing. There’s a cultural tipping point somewhere, but it’s unclear anyone knows where it is.
But let’s fantasize for a moment that, moved and heartbroken by the murder of schoolchildren in Texas, a brand-name music superstar — Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Adele, Billie Eilish, your choice here — is holed away at this very moment, crafting a song of grief and fury, with a retinue of support staff, songwriters, producers, distributors and publicists behind them. Imagine the fire that might spark. Imagine the pressure it might bring to break through a political issue that has remained intractable for generations.
Fifty years ago, “Ohio” was not alone in packing a political punch on the pop charts. Many of the biggest stars of the day — Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder and others — were putting their popularity on the line to move the ball forward politically. Sure, there are risk-averse business types running the show now who view political music as toxic to a star’s brand. But that was largely the case in the 1970s, too. And “Ohio” happened anyway.
Cynics will say (and they’re right) that in the real world, the only meaningful avenue to change on something like the gun issue is a filibuster-proof 60 votes in the U.S. Senate. And in that realm, pop culture certainly has a limited ability to move the needle. But over and over again, political conventional wisdom has underestimated the power of celebrity. You can now hear “Ohio” in grocery stores. It’s so embedded into popular consciousness that we can’t really measure how effective it’s been in shaping political opinions. If I’m a musical superstar who’s already reached every other career peak, that’s something worth aspiring to.
So, Taylor Swift, if you need a pep talk, give me a call. Otherwise, you know what you have to do.