Controversy in American Popular Music
American popular music is sometimes as controversial as it is popular. Research,
discuss and evaluate the cultural significance of the 5 tracks you feel best illustrate the
controversy music can potentially cause
- Fortunate Son - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
- Hurricane - Bob Dylan (1975)
- She-Bop- Cyndi Lauper (1984)
- Cop Killer - Body Count (1992)
- If You Seek Amy- Britney Spears(2009)
American popular music has a long history of controversial content. From it’s very early roots in slave trade freedom music, through sixties and seventies protest music, to modern rap and pop.
Since the beginning it has also been plagued by controversy and censorship. One notable example of this is the “Filthy Fifteen”. This was a list of songs considered offensive and used as an argument that record companies should place warning stickers on albums with offensive content
Artists over the years have released contentious material for a variety of reasons. Artists such as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez protested the Vietnam War for conscientious reasons. Punk Band the Sex Pistols released songs to spite the older generations, using shock tactics such as profanity and vulgarity.
These various facets of music can be interpreted in many ways. The following statement is proposed as a subject for discussion:
“American Popular Music is sometimes as controversial as it is popular.”
In this essay I will discuss the above statement. I will select five tracks which I feel best demonstrate this controversy and discuss them.
An underlying theme in this essay is obviously whether music exists as more than itself. Can music become instrumental in great change? Should music be allowed to push boundaries and question society? Or should music be taken as nothing more than entertainment?
The songs That I have chosen to discuss in this essay are:
“Fortunate Son” Creedence Clearwater Revival (‘60s)
“Hurricane” Bob Dylan (‘70s)
“She Bop” Cyndi Lauper (’80s)
“Cop Killer” Body Count (‘90s)
“If You Seek Amy” Britney Spears (‘00s)
Fortunate Son - Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
The 1960’s were a time of radical change in America. There were 70 million children growing up and becoming young adults. this was the so-called “Baby-Boomer” generation; children born after World War 2. This group were much more liberal than their parents, and would pave the way for many cultural changes which can still be felt today.
The Vietnam War had started and conscription had seen many young men drafted into military service. Two of the band members (John Fogerty and Doug Clifford) had been drafted in 1966.
Fortunate Son was written by John Fogerty. The song is ostensibly against the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s government by association. Fogerty felt that many people had received preferential treatment in avoiding the draft due to connections, these he deemed Fortunate Sons.
The first chorus line refers to “...a senator’s son” This is widely recognized as referring to David Eisenhower. When interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine, John Fogerty explained:
"Julie Nixon was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war...
...I thought, all these guys were running around saying, "It's good for America" — Nixon or whoever was saying this. Yet their kids ain't going."
In my opinion what makes this song controversial is a mixture of several elements. At the time many musical artists were critical of the government and especially of the Vietnam War. Fortunate Son, however, tapped into the common feeling among soldiers and the working classes. It was a deeply personal attack on the ruling classes, unavoidable confrontational. This made the song hugely popular at the time, but no doubt deeply reviled by those described within.
At the time, young people were beginning to discover the sort of influence they could hold through protests and demonstrations. Music was a highly effective way of getting their message across, as the popularity of these songs made them inescapable to those in power.
Despite the controversy this song was very important culturally as it summed up and gave voice to a growing discontent with both the way things were and the noticeable social hierarchy.
Hurricane - Bob Dylan (1975)
In 1966 Rubin Carter was arrested and charged with carrying out the murders at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in New Jersey. Carter, a boxer who’s nickname was “Hurricane” had already served about nine years when Bob Dylan wrote this song. Carter was known to have a bad temper and a previous criminal record (facts omitted by Dylan from his song) and was arrested in close proximity to the scene.
The song describes the events surrounding Rubin Carter’s arrest and sentencing for murder.
Dylan plainly claims that Rubin Carter was wrongly convicted. This furthered the attention and exposure that the song received, as there were many people who shared this sentiment. In making these claims he blames racism and states that the verdict was a sure thing from the start:
“All of Rubin's cards were marked in advance”
Dylan cites prejudice as the main reason for Carters initial arrest and discusses how despite lack of evidence, the predominantly white jury agreed with all that the District Attorney said.
Hurricane received further attention and drew criticism for being a one sided view with many facts left out or events made up. In fact lawyers suggested that he could be sued for references to Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley having supposedly looted the bodies. Dylan rerecorded and changed some of the possibly offensive lyrics.
The basis for this song is shared by another song I will discuss, “Cop Killer” by Body Count. Both songs have the common theme of racial persecution.
She-Bop- Cyndi Lauper (1984)
The topic of masturbation has always been taboo, hardly less so now than in the eighties. A few songs have made allusions to it over the years such as “My Ding-a-ling” by Chuck Berry. In America where there has always been a strong emphasis on “Family Values,” such a topic would be unthinkable conversation. Therefore any contemporary pop song insinuating such a thing would be bound to offend.
She-Bop was hounded from the get-go. It was included on the Parents Music Resource Center's "Filthy Fifteen." This was a list of songs considered offensive due to content including sex, drugs and violence. This list eventually led to the “Parental Advisory” stickers which now go on explicit albums.
Cyndi Lauper wanted the songs double meaning to become apparent only with age. She wanted children to think it was merely about dancing and then to discover the real meaning when older.
It is plausible to consider that the song may have been conceived purely to shock. Further evidence of this is in Lauper’s announcement on the howard Stern Show that she recorded the vocals whilst naked.
Lauper references a particular myth which is unmistakable; In the second verse she sings “They say I’d better stop, or I’ll go blind” referring to the purported risk of blindness due to persistent masturbation.
The Video shows Lauper amid a group of zombie-like junk food eating teenagers. Firstly we see her silhouette through a steamy car window and later we see her reading a magazine entitled “Beefcake.”
Cop Killer - Body Count (1992)
Despite the civil rights movements from the sixties and seventies doing a great deal for race relations, there was still a lot of tension. Racially motivated attacks were not uncommon, and the police force in particular were often accused of prejudice. The high profile Rodney King incident in 1991 added further fuel to the fire. Eventually, such similar incidents would lead to the 1992 Los Angeles Riots.
The song begins by detailing a specific outfit which the narrator is wearing. The way it is described is as though it were a uniform, possibly intended to be in contrast to the Police Uniform. The song then goes on to describe a vigilante going out onto the street to murder police officers.
It is little wonder the song caused such controversy. Released in the same year as the notorious L.A Riots the song was an unwanted response to aggressive policing. The song drew attention to many famous incidents, with the lines: ...For Darryl Gates / ...For Rodney King. In the same section of the song the lyrics insinuate that your very freedom is endangered if there is no action; ...for your freedom.
One of the underlying messages of the song is that you should stand up to the police in the face of unjust treatment. The voice is one of an oppressed people not strictly limited to african-americans, but encompassing anyone who has been unfairly dealt with by the police.
This sort of message was a knock to the government and the authority of police world-wide.
In fact, The New Zealand Police commissioner was against allowing Ice-T to perform in the country saying :
"Anyone who comes to this country preaching in obscene terms the killing of police, should not be welcome here”
There are other notable examples of songs which discuss violence directed at police, one of the biggest is Bob Marley’s song “I Shot The Sheriff”
If You Seek Amy- Britney Spears(2009)
From 2006 to 2008 Britney Spears suffered from a breakdown amid other personal issues which resulted in her losing custody of her children and being but under involuntary psychiatric hold twice. All of this fueled the media and led to her being followed by journalists and having her every move reported on.
If You Seek Amy outraged parents when it was released due to the thinly veiled double meaning of the title. In itself this is nothing new, it has drawn comparison to “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge,” a Van Halen album.
Britney Spears is a contemporary female pop singer with a strong young fan-base. Despite her bad publicity she remains a role model to young children. As such some mothers were shocked upon hearing their children walking around the house singing “F-U-C-K” A radio-friendly version of the song was released titled If You See Amy.
In the lyrics Spears states: “Love me, Hate me, Say what you want about me.” This is in reference to the media. Specifically to the way that they have fed off of her recent misfortune. However she has responded by singing that she effectively doesn’t care what people think about her.
In the video Britney Spears is at a party where everyone is putting their clothes back on, insinuating some sort of sex party or orgy. There are themes common to many R&B and Rap videos, such as semi-naked dancers, skimpy outfits and tightly coordinated group dancing.
Having looked at these five songs and discussed the perceptions people held towards them it seems as though there are several interesting conclusions which can be drawn.
As in the case of Fortunate Son the band were well justified in stating their opposition to the government. They were exercising their freedom of speech and demonstrating their disquiet with the way the country was being run. They confronted those in the wrong and all but named-and-shamed them.
Likewise, Hurricane attempted to educate people; to inform them about a man wrongfully imprisoned. It sought to illustrate the way that racism and prejudice still permeated the system. Dylan raised the issue of unfair trials and how preconceptions can lend bias to matters of life and death.
She-bop had no pretense of being other than it was, a jaunty pop song. It dealt with a taboo subject without apology and for no more real reason than because it could. In its seeming innocence it contributed the creation of “Parental Advisory” stickers which in themselves have become a modern pop culture symbol.
Cop Killer made a bold statement about standing up for your rights and turning the tables on aggression. It was a sentiment that resonated strongly among the people of Los angeles in particular, feeding off of the outcry surrounding high profile instances of police brutality.
Finally in If You Seek Amy we see Britney Spears standing up for herself against the media and people judging her. She seems to have finally given up the “innocent girl” image for good. This could be construed as saying that no matter what people think, she is just going to be herself.
Each of these songs have qualities which are worth noting together: Confrontation, Educating/informing, Unapologetic, Standing, and self, confidence.
All of these are qualities which I think music should have anyway. Music is a medium that can cross most barriers, if it can inform, or challenge than it cannot be a bad thing. It can send a powerful message and also be a uniting force.
It is important that music does all of these things. But it is equally important that it should be allowed to be just entertainment if it wants. Music should be whatever it needs to be to reach someone.
“American Cultural History 1960-1969” Goodwin, Bradley, Kingwood College Library
“Flashback: Rodney King and the LA livepage.apple.comriots”
“Up Around the Bend: The Oral History of Creedence Clearwater Revival.” Werner
(1998 ISBN: 978-0-380-80153-4) pages. 49-50, 123-124