10 times news events changed a well-meaning song’s context…(this is not your typical non-PC list)

(July 31, 2021).  Ever notice how a well-meaning, innocent little tune could go from being largely embraced by the public to being the equivalent of a persona non grata in the blink of an eye…through no fault or intent of the song or the artist who recorded it?

Think George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” or Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive” being played after a nuclear accident (although, thankfully, there haven’t been any in the U.S. since either of those two songs were released).

As a first example, readers of a certain age may recall when Neil Diamond’s patriotic hit song “America” was popular 40 years ago and became a radio pariah 20 years later.  

The tune was from his movie “The Jazz Singer” and was a celebration of America’s status as a melting pot with a long proud history of immigration.  “America” placed a positive, patriotic spin on the subject and it was well received by U.S. consumers, who sent the single into the Billboard top ten during the spring and early summer of 1981. 

Twenty years later, in the wake of 9/11 and the horrific terrorist attack on the United States, “America” was heard in a different context.  With lyrics like “every time that flag’s unfurled, they’re comin’ to America” and the country’s anti-immigration sentiment growing, Neil’s once-celebratory tune was viewed negatively, causing some U.S. radio stations to ban it from their playlists.

Even Diamond felt obligated to change the lyrics whenever he performed the song in concert.  Instead of “they’re comin’ to America,” he’d sing “Stand up for America.”

Some 20 years after 9/11, the stigma associated with Neil’s tune has faded somewhat.  But with immigration still a hot-button topic, “America” – the song, that is – isn’t viewed with the same wide-eyed patriotism it once was.

Below, the blog explores some other notable instances where an otherwise innocent pop tune’s context could be changed by world events to the point where, unlike before, it might be viewed as inappropriate to even enjoy them in certain settings.

Keep reading to see what they are (listed in no particular order).  Some may be stretches, but you be the judge.  At the end of the article, feel free to provide any comments, including additional examples in the comment section, or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted.

One.  “America” – Neil Diamond.

Even with its interpolation of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the song’s finish, this patriotic tune was seen by xenophobic people as an affront on the U.S. in the immediate wake of 9/11.  Many retro stations stopped playing it and the tune still likely evokes bad memories with some Americans, especially with the just-ending war in Afghanistan, the pending 20th anniversary of 9/11, and with continued immigration issues, particularly at the country’s southern border.  

Two.  “Crumblin’ Down” – John “Cougar” Mellencamp.

This jangly 1983 smash from Mellencamp’s uh-huhalbum was a big radio and MTV hit and, like Diamond’s “America,” reached the top 10 on Billboard’s pop chart.  It was originally written by Mellencamp and his partner George Green as a commentary on fleeting fame as well as a sociopolitical commentary about Reaganomics.

The song’s metaphorical reference to crumbling walls takes on a different context, however, when played in the wake of tragedies like 9/11 and more recently the collapsed Champlain South Towers condominium building in Surfside, FL.  

As evidence of the song’s immediate association with the latter tragedy, the number of clicks for an article this blogger wrote years ago about “Crumblin’ Down” spiked on the morning of the condo’s collapse in June.  It was a bump in readership that could only be explained by news of the tragedy as the article’s click-rate returned to its normal, more trivial numbers the following day and every day since. 

As media coverage of the unfolding tragedy continued and the indelible images of the condo building’s ruins were etched in our memories, it’s possible that few classic hits radio stations would touch Mellencamp’s “Crumblin’ Down,” at least not consciously.

Three.  “Mask Off” – Future.

Future’s 2017 song “Mask Off” was yet another top-10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 and is one of the biggest-selling hip-hop singles in history, with certifications of nearly 12 million equivalent copies (which factors in downloads and streaming activity) consumed worldwide.  The international smash was an introspective look at the rapper’s past and reflected on his days as a trapper as well as being rich and famous as a musician.  The “mask off” symbolized a revelatory Future going beneath the surface of his image as well as the feeling of freedom he gets from being high (“Percocets, yeah molly, Percocets”).

That was before the Covid-19 pandemic.  

Now, “Mask Off” takes on a whole new meaning, especially in the past 18 months where the issue of mask-wearing (to prevent the spread of the coronavirus) has been highly politicized.  There’s little doubt that some anti-maskers have adopted this tune as their anthem.

Knowing this, Future flipped the script and launched his own “Mask On” initiative to promote mask-wearing.  He started the non-profit FreeWishes Foundation with some family members and made it a priority to provide frontline workers with adequate protective equipment, noting that “healthcare professionals do not have the privilege of (quarantining)” and “they do not even have enough supplies to protect themselves from contracting the coronavirus.”

Future likely couldn’t have imagined in his wildest cosmic state that “Mask Off” – the song with the memorable flute hook that would become a viral sensation – would be the impetus for a campaign to provide protection against a virus that has now killed more than 4 million people worldwide.

Four.  “Breathe Again” – Toni Braxton.

Continuing the mask and breathing theme, in this sensuously sung 1993 ballad by Miss Braxton, the sultry singer wraps her contralto vocals around lyrics that tell of a dying relationship, one where the singer predicts impending doom if her fairytale situation is ending as she suggests.

But even with lines like “if love ends, then I promise you, I promise you, that I shall never breathe again,” you don’t get the impression that the protagonist is going to do anything drastic…just that she may be on the verge of an emotional breakdown.

Yet, in 2021, with the word “breathe” linked to everything from mask wearing during the pandemic to the “I Can’t Breathe” movement following the murder of George Floyd, Braxton’s sad love song (written by L.A. Reid and Babyface) plays in a vastly different context.  

It goes even deeper when considering the national suicide rate is higher over the past 20 years in what has been a steadily growing trend, especially if one takes Braxton’s “then I shall never breathe again” line literally, which a few listeners did in 1993 but many more may interpret that way now.  (Also file in this category: “Breathe” by Faith Hill)

Five. “Ebony and Ivory” – Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder.

Question: How is it possible that a well-meaning song from 1982 about racial harmony by two of the biggest superstars on the planet could have an unintended meaning when played against more recent events?

Answer: there’s one simple line that does it for “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney & Stevie Wonder.  The song’s two verses contain the line, “People are the same wherever you go…there is good and bad in everyone.”  It mirrors a sentiment expressed by former president Donald Trump who, in the wake of the deadly Unite the Right riot in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, famously stated that there were “good people on both sides.”

It’s a statement whose context was debated by people on either side of the aisle for years and used by his opponents to vilify the ex-president in the months (and years) leading up to the 2020 election.  More pertinently, however, it demonstrated that the whole “there’s good and bad in everyone” mentality – however well intended by McCartney and Wonder in 1982 – was probably more idealistic and perhaps a bit more naive than it was realistic in the minds of many today.  

Six. “China Girl” – David Bowie.

Chinese-American relations have hardly been considered ideal in the two countries’ histories, especially in recent times.  And though the late David Bowie wasn’t American by birth, his 1983 top-10 pop smash was a big hit in this country and embraced a hyper-masculine, paternalistic stereotype involving the male in an interracial relationship, in this case one involving a white man and Asian woman.

Still, David Bowie argued that the song was a “very simple, very direct” statement against racism, and some critics even characterized the tune as a “sweet, romantic hit single” when it was a hit in 1983.  The song’s video even won the inaugural MTV Best Male Video award the following year.

Fast forward to today in the coronavirus era where referring to anything as “China (fill in the blank)” is considered racist – not to mention the increasing number of violent attacks on the Asian-American community – and it’s easy to understand why a song fetishizing “my little China girl” would probably be viewed differently in 2021 than it was in 1983, regardless of intent.  (Others in this category: “Turning Japanese” – Vapors)

Seven. “She Blinded Me With Science” – Thomas Dolby.

Science can be a funny thing.  And that was the intent when Thomas Dolby wrote and recorded his frivolous ‘80s synth classic “She Blinded Me With Science” and it became a No. 5 smash in 1983 here in America.

As Dolby recalled years later, the song was actually written with the music video’s concept in mind.  The versatile singer/keyboardist had envisioned a campy mad scientist or professor adulating an Asian woman (yes, this song charted in the same summer as “China Girl”) and even included the scientist character proclaiming “Good heavens, Miss Sakamoto, you’re beautiful!” during the song’s bridge.

Oddly enough, it’s not the Asian references but the science that’s become the more polarizing aspect of “She Blinded Me.”

Who would’ve thought then that, nearly 40 years later, the mere mention of the word “science” would send Americans retreating to their respective political corners?  As people are perhaps more divided than ever on issues like climate change, gender preference and now the coronavirus, they often turn to “science” to settle their arguments, when the science itself is constantly changing.

There’s no better evidence of that than the government’s latest pivot on mask-wearing, where this week it was announced that, due to highly contagious new variants of the virus, people should wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

“Follow the science” may be today’s mantra, but the science you’re blinded with might be different tomorrow.

Eight.  “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number” – Aaliyah.

In a song penned by music svengali R. Kelly and recorded by a 14-year-old Aaliyah, the late Princess of R&B seductively sings of her yearning for an older man.  

It may have been innocent enough when heard from her perspective (she even sang the song live on Nickelodeon’s sketch comedy show “All That” back in 1995), but it now has a creepy, somewhat uncomfortable feel knowing that the late Aaliyah would illegally marry Kelly a few months later (when she was just 15 and he was 27).  All of the allegations of Kelly’s criminal sexual misconduct with minors since then have only exacerbated the song’s feel of inappropriateness.  (Also in this category: “Into the Night”  by the late Benny Mardones)

Nine. “Dreamer” – Supertramp.

At 19 years old in the late 1960s, British lad Roger Hodgson wrote a quirky little tune on his brand new Wurlitzer piano; it would be recorded five years later by his band Supertramp and become a minor hit in 1974.  That little song “Dreamer,” about one’s disillusionment with having big dreams but not being able to act on them (“well, can you put your hands in your head, oh no!”), would become a hit all over again in a re-released live version six years later.

Fast forward to 2021 and the term “Dreamer” has taken on an entirely new meaning.  

In the past two decades the term is more likely to be associated with migrants who unwittingly come into America as children and are the subjects of intense political debate around whether they should be protected from deportation and provided a legal path to U.S. citizenship.  “Dreamer” is derived from the DREAM – Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors – Act, which was first introduced in 2001 by members of Congress.  The term has been associated with young, undocumented immigrants ever since.

As the country’s court system continues to flip-flop on the legality of the related DACA – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – provisions, retro radio is still likely to play Supertramp’s “Dreamer,” but you’ll probably hear it in a broader context from what singer/songwriter Hodgson intended.  (More directly in this category: “Illegal Alien” by Genesis)

Ten.  “I Shot the Sheriff” – Bob Marley.

This reggae classic may have been seen as a relatively innocent tune when the original was released by Bob Marley in 1973 (and remade by Eric Clapton a year later), despite its very direct lyrics about gunning down “Sheriff John Brown,” albeit in “self defense.”

Still, the song could be seen as promoting violence against cops, which plays especially badly in the current “Blue Lives Matter” environment, itself an outgrowth of the “Black Lives Matter” movement of the past decade.  The fact that the late Marley himself was a Black man only adds to the song’s more controversial context today with the strained relationship between Black communities and law enforcement being heightened.  

It’s notable that neither Marley’s original nor Clapton’s remake received much flack during their original releases, in fact Clapton’s version topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974.  This is in stark contrast to other, more in-your-face anti-cop tunes like “Ice T’s “Cop Killer” or N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police,” which weren’t so well received upon their releases.

Extra examples:

“Fire” – Ohio Players.  Okay, maybe this one is a stretch.  This Ohio Players’ playful ode to a smokin’ hot female became a No. 1 pop and soul hit in 1975.  Complete with sound effects that included the wale of fire engines and many metaphorical references to all things hot, the funk anthem was inescapable in the mid 1970s.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the song’s original hot girl-admiring context is still intact, thanks to many of its ogling verses.  But that titular “fiii-yah!” hook makes it less likely you’ll be hearing it played in certain areas of the country, particularly those ravaged by wildfires over the last several years.  

This year is no exception.  According to data from the National Fire Center, there were dozens of wildfires raging across the western U.S. and burning hundreds of thousands of acres.  This is considered one of the most expensive and destructive wildfire seasons of the past decade – and that’s saying an awful lot.  A song that seems to revel in “fire” just wouldn’t seem appropriate in light of current events. (Also file in this category: “Fire” by Pointer Sisters, “Fire” by The Crazy World of Arthur Brown.)

“Half Breed” – Cher.  However well-meaning the writers of Cher’s massive No. 1 hit might have been in 1973, I doubt anyone will be using the term “Indian Squaw” in a pop song ever again.  The use of Native-American slurs has been a social issue for decades, but it’s only been recently that the advocacy movement has picked up momentum, with professional sports teams being the main target and many of them now discarding their offensive names – notably the Washington Redskins (“Washington Football Team” for now) and the Cleveland Indians (now the “Cleveland Guardians”).  (Others in this category: “Indian Outlaw” by Tim McGraw)

“Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” – Aerosmith.  Whether it’s dude looks like a lady or vice-versa, transgenderism has changed the discussion and the politics of gender in America since Aerosmith’s playful rocker was issued in 1989.

Can you think of any others?  Feel free to provide comments below or in any of the social media feeds where the article is posted. 

DJRob

DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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