Music as a Reflection of History Since the 1960s

Music is inextricably connected to the context within which it is produced, with the inter-relationships between music, culture, and society being studied extensively throughout the decades. In cultural customs, music is among the core features of social celebrations, such as weddings. In social life, music serves as a tool for unifying groups with common groups and interests. As society develops, music represents a ‘soundtrack’ for the dramatic and disruptive changes and the events that shape the history of modern humankind. This paper aims to study the relationship between music and history by analyzing songs written between the 1960s and today, pointing out their influences, message, and subsequent impact. The five songs to be discussed in the paper are A Change is Gonna Come (1964) by Sam Cooke, Lady Marmalade (1975) by LaBelle, 99 Red Balloons (1894) by Nena, American Idiot (2004) by Green Day, and Same Love (2012) by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert.

A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke is a song that was not inspired by the personal events occurring in the life of the artist but also reflected the struggles of people of color within the Civil Rights Movement of 1954-1968. The fight of African Americans to terminate institutionalized discrimination and segregation was among the most significant historical events shaping US society (Pager & Shepherd, 2008). By saying ‘It’s been a long a long time comin’, but I know a change gon’ come oh, yes it will,” Cooke points out that the history of injustice toward African Americans was too long, but the move for establishing equal civil rights would be the change (“A Change is Gonna Come,” no date). Cooke reflects on the violence that he experienced as a Black man: “And I say, “Brother, help me please,” but he winds up knockin’ me back down on my knees” (“A Change is Gonna Come,” no date). The song is not a call for action but rather a message of inspiration for the people that took part in peaceful Civil Rights marches, showing that citizen action is necessary for bending history toward justice and equality.

The 1970s marked the convergence of social phenomena associated with sex, sexuality, and gender. The women’s liberation movement encouraged women and girls to open the discussion about equality associated with both reproductive, as related to the rising popularity of the birth control pill, and social rights (Kohn, 2015). In addition to the increasing standards for gender equality, the 70s reflected the loosening of norms associated with sex. Lady Marmalade (1975) by LaBelle is a song that pushed the boundaries of sexual norms and openly discussed the subject of sex work, which, before the sexual revolution, would be met with significant moral judgment and disapproval. “Creole Lady Marmalade,” a prostitute from New Orleans and the protagonist of the song, is a projection of the fantasies that men have about women: “Seeing her skin feeling silky smooth color of café au lait” (“Lady Marmalade,” no date). The famous phrase “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” which is translated as would you like to sleep with me tonight is an invitation to open one’s mindset to freedom of sexual expression, which is among the essential components of gender equality. Besides, while the song was written about a sex worker, which is often seen as an attribute or patriarchy, LaBelle gave Lady Marmalade the position of authority and control over her sexuality and power over men.

99 Luftballons (99 Red Balloons) by Nena is a song discussing the 1890s hysteria and paranoia associated with the issue of war. The singer talks about buying 99 balloons in a toy shop and letting them into the sky for fun. The flying balloons show up in the US and Soviet radars, as the countries are in the state of Cold War, causing a panic and a full alert in preparation to counteract a perceived nuclear attack from the rival party. “99 red balloons floating in the summer sky Panic bells, it’s red alert […] The war machine, it springs to life opens up one eager eye focusing it on the sky as 99 red balloons go by” – the lyrics show that the countries in the Cold War were continuously on edge, preparing themselves to attack (“99 Red Balloons,” no date). Nena mocks the hysteria and points out that the dreams that people once had “99 dreams I have had In every one a red balloon” was crushed by the war, and there would be devastating and stupid to start a new war (“99 Red Balloons,” no date). The song is important for understanding the pressure existing in global society during the Cold War and the stupidity of governments in the environment of war hysteria.

The US presidential campaign of 2004, during which George W. Bush was re-elected, was characterized as an abuse of media to create a narrative that would favor the people in power, reducing the influence of the general population (Pew Research Center, 2015). After the events of 9/11, America experienced a “new kind of tension all across the allied nation,” which allowed the government to take advantage of citizens’ fears and concerns (“American Idiot,” no date). Green Day’s American Idiot is a reflection of how America, in the wake of the 21st century, became consumed by the propaganda pushed in the news. “American idiots” who are “part of the redneck agenda” believed everything they see in media, even though the information may be forged, filtered, and heavily policed: “now everybody do the propaganda and sing along the age of paranoia […] the subliminal mindfuck America” (“American Idiot,” no date). Green Day’s song is an open message of criticism and rebellion of what is becoming the status quo in the US. In the eyes of the songwriters, the Bush re-election would establish new grounds for the mainstream media to exploit the fears of the population and sway their opinions into a government-favored narrative.

The 2012 song Same Love by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert is dedicated to arguing the case for marriage equality for all sexes. As same-sex marriage became legal in 2008 in California, the US started opening up to the idea of capturing the entire country. The significance of Same Love within the described context is that the author states that hate for homosexual couples is “the same hate that’s caused wars from religion, gender to skin color […] The same fight that led people to walk-outs and sit-ins It’s human rights for everybody, there is no difference” (“Same Love,” no date). The openness toward being oneself that the artists preached was essential for liberating the same-sex marriage movement. Moreover, the song was a statement because the hip-hop genre in which it was performed had always frowned upon homosexuality (Binder, 2013). On June 26, 2015, same-sex marriage was legalized in all fifty states.

Every decade has its specific concerns, political and social developments that shape the world as it is known today. Music has shown to be an essential tool for communicating those concerns and marking important historical events through art and freedom of expression. The analysis of songs from different decades showed that music goes hand-in-hand with historical events, reflecting either the criticism of singers, such as in the cases of Green Day’s American Idiot or Nena’s 99 Red Balloons, or supportive messages, such as in Same Love by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis or Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come.


A Change is Gonna Come. Sam Cooke. Web.

American Idiot. Green Day. (no date). Web.

Binder, K. (2013). Homophobic hip-hop music and its effects on attitudes toward homosexuality. Web.

Kohn, S. (2015). The sex freak-out of the 1970s. CNN. Web.

Lady Marmalade. LaBelle. Web.

99 Red Balloons. Nena. Web.

Pager, D., & Shepherd, H. (2008). The sociology of discrimination: Racial discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and consumer markets. Annual Review of Sociology, 34, 181-209.

Pew Research Center. (2008). Bush and public opinion. Web.

Same Love. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.Web.