Music Exemplars: 1946-present
The basic premise can be found here but essentially, what was the most “emblematic” song relative to what was going on in the U.S., by an American artist, in the following time periods:
Since my students were doing it, I thought I would go through and do it myself, to see what I discovered, knowing that my experience as a 37 year old will be vastly different from theirs as 15 year olds. So with this in mind, your music exemplar list, one man’s take
1946–1950: “Lost Highway” by Hank Williams
It is somewhat easy to forget that what became country music stems from traditional southern and Appalachian folk music. The protagonist of Williams’ son, a 22 year old but clearly a man who has seen some things, is sending out a warning to those who will listen. It is the Greatest Generation’s veterans returned home, trying to find a new normal, but having seen some things.
1951–1954: “Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes
So often, a look back at the early 1950s is seen as one of suburban idyll, as the newly expanded middle class left for suburbia in their track homes and the fears of the Cold War, whatever they might be, seemed out of reach. Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream. (It’s use in Back to the Future also played a role in this choice.)
1955–1959: “All Shook Up” by Elvis Presley
All Hail the King, baby. Elvis changed the face of American music, the first white artist who “sounded black” to use the phrasing of both Sam Phillips and Dick Clark. “All Shook Up” becomes a perfect reflection of the coming of age of this group of people called “teenagers” and the world they were about to change.
1960–1963: “Save the Last Dance for Me” by The Drifters
Probably the hardest choice on the list, because it’s the buffer between the newness of Elvis and the coming British invasion. It’s also the Kennedy years, early Mad Men when America knew what it wanted, and that was mostly a contented suburban life with their family. We may look elsewhere, but in the end, we always come back home.
1964–1966: “Subterranean Homesick Blues” by Bob Dylan
Without British bands, this has to fall on Dylan, who went from folk hero to rock and roll icon by going electric in ’65. While “The Times They Are a Changin’” seems like a logical choice, it is “Subterranean Homesick Blues” which opens the “electric” side of Bringing It All Back Home that speaks to what Dylan sees coming down the pike for the rest of the decade, those who get it and those who are afraid of what’s coming.
“Look out kid, it’s something you did
God knows when, but you’re doing it again”
1967–1970: “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
The official song of going “in country” in Vietnam, at least in the movies, even if the song was not released until 1969, CCR’s notes about the rich/poor divide in the fighting in Vietnam speak to the clearly divided “Two Americas” that existed by the end of the decade.
1971–1975: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” by Marvin Gaye
While all of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album could fit here, it’s Marvin’s anthem to the frustrations of those trapped in the cities, the innumerable problems caused by white flight, and the overall economic give voice to that while the early 1970s may have felt like an age of limits for the first time in a quarter-century for some, other groups, specifically African-Americans and the poor, had been dealing with these issues the whole time.
1976–1980: “Feel Like a Number” by Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band
(Author’s note: Come on, if you didn’t think Seger was making an appearance on this list…)
Seger’s blue collar rock speaks to many Midwestern values, but his specific frustration with the increased anonymity and powerlessness of Rust Belt workers, as factories closed and the American auto industry floundered, speaks also to the efforts Americans made in the next three decades to reclaim a sense of uniquity in their own lives and how they showed this to the world.
1981–1985: “Pink Houses” by John (Cougar) Mellencamp
A song whose sarcasm is so subtle, it was missed by the Reagan administration, who wanted to feature it during their re-election campaign of 1984. Mellencamp speaks to the duality of American life in the 1980s, the chase for material wealth and “thrills” at the cost of victims that would go unseen by a majority of those in the chase.
1986–1990: “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy
The first choice I made, the easiest choice perhaps. Chuck D’s political voice, the Bomb Squad’s use of classic soul riffs and beats in the production, and the frustrations of African-Americans through the Reagan years come through loud and clear. A level of bluntness that white America was not used to at the time, the clapbacks at Elvis, John Wayne, and Bobby McFerrin are as clear as day.
1991–1995: “Lithium” by Nirvana
While “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is the obvious choice, the moment that grunge went mainstream and Gen X stood forth to be heard, to be seen. Cobain’s use of the depression combatting drug lithium speaks to an American looking for pharmacological relief from the perils of everyday life.
1996–2000: “Sell Out” by Reel Big Fish
Ska! There’s something wonderfully ironic about a song decrying the nature of selling out being a band’s biggest hit. The nature of corporate America dictating all things, including your musical taste, is such a perfect critique of one of the last moments of the monoculture.
2001–2005: “The Rising” by Bruce Springsteen
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith
Two sides of the same 9/11 coin. Keith’s song was written in twenty minutes in the week after the September 11 attacks, when the wounds of that Tuesday morning were still fresh, reflecting an American desire for vengeance. Springsteen’s “The Rising” reflects on the sacrifices and bravery of the firefighters who went into the World Trade Center that morning, not knowing what they were facing, and who never came out. Whereas Keith’s core emotion is anger, Springsteen’s is hope, reminding us of our capacity to rise above things and be better for it. Two sides, same coin.
2006–2010: “Party in the U.S.A.” by Miley Cyrus
We’re almost still too close to know, but the arguments in favor of this breezy, airy pop tune are compelling. It’s manufactured, namechecking other artists, and doesn’t really have anything to say. It’s the social media of songs.
2011-present: “Bad Blood” by Taylor Swift
It works on a number of levels. A passive-aggressive diss track about a celebrity feud that also speaks to a deeply divided partisan America that keeps talking past each other and presuming the worst. We used to be mad love.
So, that’s it. I hope you enjoyed it!