Songs that Didn’t Age Well?

“Land of Confusion” by Genesis came over the radio/music system at the regional Barnes and Noble the other day. I shook my head a little. I’ve tried to use the video for that song as part of teaching the Cold War, and it goes thud for the students. Unless you have a lot of background, or you were alive then and remember all the cultural stuff around Ronald Reagan and US foreign policy and British politics then, the video makes no sense. The song is OK, but again, leaves a listener wondering what the problem was that the song is talking about.

That started me thinking about “modern folk” songs and what still works, as compared to songs that require the listener to already know the story before hearing them. Why does “Which Hat Shall I Wear?” make sense, and “The John Birch Society” go splat? Sting’s “The Russians Love Their Children Too” still gets the point across in a way “Land of Confusion” no longer does. Some are soooo trite, or so tied into their time period that a lot of us tune them out – or flee, in the case of “Imagine” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.”

People have used songs to comment on policy and events going back to . . .forever. Psalm 136/137 [depends on translation of the Old Testament/Tanakh] is one. “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” [NIV] The Children of Israel are lamenting their exile and cursing the people who dragged them away from Jerusalem. It’s not one of the Psalms we memorized as kids, and you can see why. But it fit the time, and place, and voices a feeling that many people have shared over the centuries. In England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and all over, people set political texts to folk tunes, or turned current events into doggerel that became childrens’ songs. “Jack and Jill went up the Hill,” “Hector Protector,” “The Skye Boat Song,” which is a lullaby and a political statement.

WWI and WWII saw a lot of music about current events created, some of which . . . stinks. “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor,” isn’t so great. “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” doesn’t have the same effect today, but “White Cliffs of Dover” still packs a punch. “You’re a Sap, Mister Jap?” Catchy but meh, and not universal. The ones that still work, from any conflict or political scandal, are the ones that seem to become universal.

The 1950s, 60s, and later have the same problem, if confusion and forgetability are problems. “John Birch Society” is funny if you understand what the JBS was, and Red Skelton, Pinkie Lee, and others. So, the popular culture of the 1950s and the so-called Red Scare, and the politics of the time. Or perhaps it’s not funny, now that we have the Verona decrypts and know just what the Soviets really were doing with US politics. “Which Hat,” about a hypocritical woman who claims to be all for equality and civil rights, but opposes actually doing anything, still makes sense, because her hypocrisy is so obvious. It’s not as effective as it was then, perhaps, but a lot of us still know people who are all for Great Causes of every kind, as long as the Great Cause doesn’t require any effort on the part of the person espousing it (see Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens for a classic example.) Of the two, I enjoy “John Birch” more, because the guys are having fun. “Which Hat” is more heavy handed.

Sting’s song “The Black Seam” about the coal miners’ strike against Margaret Thatcher’s policies is another one that goes thud, not the least because he gets the science of nuclear energy wrong (no surprise. “Uranium 236” doesn’t rhyme the way he needed to rhyme, so he used “Carbon 14” instead.) It’s not a bad song, but doesn’t make a lot of sense today. “Children’s Crusade,” alas, makes sense, because the heroin trade is still alive and well. “Russians” pokes at all sides in the Cold War, instead of just the US and Great Britain, and Sting used a very, very good Russian melody as the basis for the larger song. I don’t really care for any of those three, but I don’t care for the politics of the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement, either. I find myself talking back to the CD. It’s even worse for all the Vietnam War stuff.

What political songs from the 2000s will still make sense in the future? I have no idea. I don’t know what pop tunes will survive. There’s a lot of winnowing out over twenty, thirty years and more. How many folk tunes only survive because they became hymns? How many political songs from the Gilded Age are recorded today, or performed? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?


27 thoughts on “Songs that Didn’t Age Well?

  1. My personal favorites.
    ACW: John Brown’s Body // When Johnny Comes Marching Home // Battle Hymn of the Republic // Battle Cry of Freedom
    WWI: Over There // Pack up Your Troubles // It’s a Long Way to Tipperary
    WWII: I’ll Be Seeing You // White Christmas // Lili Marlene
    Vietnam: Ballad of the Green Berets // Paint It Black
    GWOT: March of Cambreadth // Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue

  2. “Eve of Destruction” is uncannily relevant.

    “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” will have punch as far into the future as I can see.

    I loathe “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero” with much more intensity than “Imagine”.

  3. What I find interesting are the number of Ton Lehrer’s songs that are still funny and understandable. Pollution, Who’s Next, and National Brotherhood Week being delightful examples.

  4. I don’t think “Where have all the Flowers Gone” should be lumped in with “Imagine”. I rather like “Flowers”, especially the cyclical nature of the verses, ending where it started. While . . . I’ve expressed my opinion of the nihilistic “Imagine” elsewhere (and often).

    Then there are songs like “Blowen in the wind”, which aren’t exactly bad, but in spite of mentioning God, probably shouldn’t be sung in church. Especially if you change “with God as our Father, brothers all are we,” to “with God our Creator, children all are we.” That entirely changes the meaning of the line, and the song.

    • Especially if you change “with God as our Father, brothers all are we,” to “with God our Creator, children all are we.” That entirely changes the meaning of the line, and the song.


      Not familiar with that song, but holy crud how could someone be so blinkered as to not see the massive shift in meaning– and worse, it even chose a phrasing that is clunkier, AND has a less suited implication.
      You’d at least be Christian if they’d stuck with “God as our Father/Children all are we,” since that keeps the sibling relationship in the fore, Himself used that metaphor several times, and it even points at the spiritual adoption of being a Christian that is so important. Not just being created, even if we ARE created in His image,

    • Ok, I totally blew that song. It isn’t “Blowing in the Wind,” it’s “Let there be Peace on Earth”. Apparently they occupy the same slot in my mind.

  5. I’m not sure 99 Red Balloons made sense when it WAS new, but by the time I heard it, the impression I got was “Oh, they’re trying to be deep but mostly manage confusing. But it sounds alright.”

    I honestly can’t think of modern political songs– political songs are usually more honest about being political, and most of what is coming to mind is dishonest about its politics. It takes radical things and acts like they’re expected. I respond badly to that kind of manipulation, have since I was little and read those scifi stories that can be summarized with “and then everyone is just utterly moronic for no apparent reason which is why grass is extinct.” Meanwhile, in reality, people will grow little cups of grass when they can’t get out to be around plants often enough for their desires. (Speaking of arguing with the CD, “Paved Paradise and Put Up a Parking Lot” does the same kind of stupid, just in song form– and it goes REALLY BADLY when you’ve seen what apple maggots do to a productive tree, never-mind an orchard, sung by someone who wouldn’t touch ugly fruit. ‘Spots,’ my rump, you spoiled …. sorry.)
    Might be an effect of the “yeah, name one” thing where your brain blanks.

    • I would suggest that Eric Clapton’s recent “This Has Gotta Stop” and some of Van Morrison’s recent works are modern political songs. Non-partisan anti-Covidiocy, but political nonetheless.

      • I think the most relevant song came out about 8-10 years too early.
        In Guns N’ Roses had put out “Chinese Democracy” after Obama left office, instead of as he was entering, it would have been a phenomenon. At the time, I said it was the most subversive album I’d heard in decades. It’s only become more so since then.

        I tried to get the local (but not locally owned) radio station to play it “for the poor bleepards in Hong Kong” last year. (They declined.)
        Now, I want them to play it for us all.

    • The German is just as odd as the English, but it flows better, and I can roll my eyes at the anti-Kohl stuff. IT’s too Euro-pop to work as other than a curiosity.

      • Oooh, some old political songs came up on my random song list today!

        ….Gilbert and Sullivan. 😀 They did manage “find the timeless root at the heart of this current thing” quite well. And “If you’re anxious for to shine” is just utterly timeless.

  6. For the feel of the Cold War, Barry McGuire’ version of “Eve of Destruction” does fairly well. I’m glad it wasn’t prophetic.

    • My comment from this morning is still hung up in moderation, but I specifically brought up that song as entirely too relevant to this moment in time.

      • I can no longer access the blog while at Day Job. Any comment that comes in while I’m at work will languish – if caught in moderation – until I get home.

  7. I had the Simon and Garfunkel box set playing on the way into town yesterday. The early songs (most quite obscure) were dripping with sincerity. “Last night I had the strangest dream” about everybody forswearing war–had to gimly chuckle at that, and “The sun is burning” where the last “sun” is an H-bomb is just a bit heavy handed…

    For current events, I’ll reach back to the 1970s for Peter Townshend’s “Won’t get fooled again”.

  8. There’s a classical composition by Peter Maxwell Davis “Farewell to Stromness” which is a very pleasant composition to listen to … but apparently it was written to protest a potential uranium mine on the Orkney island of Stromness. This always annoys me, as I consider the composer to be one of those well-intentioned middle-class fools who would prefer picturesque poverty and unemployment for the proles in the scenic back-country, rather than well-paying jobs.

    • That’s like the people who move in around here who think that high brush and trees with limbs just above ground level are picturesque. No, they’re fire hazards, as can be attested to by the people who used to live in towns like Paradise, CA and various other places afflicted by wildland fires.

  9. Everybody’s ‘memories’ bring up different songs and different meanings… We are products of our upbringing and experiences, for better or worse.

  10. “Land of Confusion” video was mostly a failure when released. You had to know the English puppeteers, too.

    “Waltzing Matilda” or ” And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda” – both hit like a sledgehammer, and make me look for the nearest chapel.

  11. IMHO, at least some of the songs that stay relevant do so because they’re subtle. “Which Hat Shall I Wear” is subtle, while “John Birch Society” is … not.

    Regarding wartime songs, (again IMHO) the ones written specifically as propaganda tend to age poorly, just as propaganda itself does. The ones that last tend to be written by, or for, or about the fighting man, such as “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree”. I’m also thinking of some of the wartime songs recorded by Oscar Brand, like “Ain’t Going to Sea No More” and “I Wanted Wings.”

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