Time for a New “Ohio”: Where’s the Protest Song We Need in 2022?
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In the spring of 1970, four unarmed students were shot and killed at Kent State University in Ohio when National Guardsmen opened fire on Vietnam War protesters. It was huge news and another deep wound in the culture war that was consuming America at the time.
Exactly a month after the shooting, radio stations across the country began playing a new song called “Ohio”, written by Neil Young and recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. As any rock fan knows, “Ohio” is a brooding, guitar-infused cry of anguish and outrage now firmly entrenched in the classic rock canon.
There are two remarkable things about “Ohio”. The first is, of course, the incredible speed of its release so soon after the incident that inspired it. Young wrote the song in about 15 minutes after reading about the Kent State shooting in Life magazine. Fueled in large part by David Crosby’s enthusiasm for the new song, the supergroup quickly came together and within days the song had been recorded and the tapes flown to New York, where Atlantic Records made the decision. to broadcast it on the radio even before making it available. at record stores. This was at a time, remember, when feelings about the shooting were still raw and much of the electorate supported the actions of the National Guard.
The second remarkable thing about “Ohio” is its enduring power over the decades. Political protest music existed long before “Ohio,” of course, but the songwriters’ strategy in these songs was to focus on uplifting values and universal themes. Theme songs — songs that referenced a specific character or historical moment — were in danger of quickly losing their relevance. “Ohio” was as immediate and topical as it gets – Richard Nixon is named in the song’s opening line – and it’s easy to see how powerful he must have been in the summer of 1970. But since then, the CSNY recording became an American staple and the song has been covered countless times, including a moving 2017 edition by three young stars of today, Gary Clark Jr., Leon Bridges and Jon Batiste, the latter being the most recent Grammy winner for album of the year. “Ohio” is now 52, and somehow he’s still able to ruffle the hairs on the back of your neck.
There’s a lesson here for 2022. From the mass shootings in Buffalo and Uvalde, to the impending Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade, at the Congressional investigation into the January 6 insurgency that is rapidly coming to a head, we are beset on all sides with flash moments that will demand some sort of mass political response. The notoriously short attention span of the news media threatens to quickly push those moments away in favor of the next trauma (or Johnny Depp’s next trial, whichever comes first).
This is where pop culture can come in, especially in the realm of protest music. Just as “Ohio” fueled the outrage and determination of the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era, another song yet to be written could do the same to keep political efforts burning today. Considering all the avenues of “virality” a new song could take today that didn’t exist 50 years ago, it’s clear the next “Ohio” could pack an even bigger punch than the original. .
Certainly there is no shortage of political protest music these days. The 2020 police killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement even before George Floyd inspired a number of compelling protest songs such as “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby, “American Silence” by Chris Pierce, and “Softer” by Leon Bridges (yes, the same guy who covered “Ohio”). Half an hour on YouTube or any streaming service can produce a number of inspirational hymns on a wide range of issues. Perhaps, even right now, songwriters across the country are deep in their creative process to articulate something meaningful about gun violence or abortion rights in the harsh light of headlines. ‘today.
But there’s never been a better time for an “Ohio” moment, that is, an artist with the cultural clout of Neil Young in 1970, creating a head of steam for a song that could change history. . (Ironically Young, at 76, is still as rebellious as ever, but his defiance has taken the form of denying people his music; earlier this year he loudly pulled his catalog of songs from Spotify to protest the continued sponsorship of this service from podcaster Joe Rogan due to Rogan’s history of misinformation.)
There are already some pretty amazing songs about gun violence, for example, like the central anthem “Thoughts and Prayers” by Drive-By Truckers. You can find some equally powerful songs on the topic of women’s rights, like “Miracle of Life” by Bright Eyes. But such songs, unfairly, remain beyond mainstream attention.
Maybe “Ohio” can never happen again. Perhaps the sheer volume of songs released each day prevents one particular song from standing out. Maybe the commercial radio/record device that made “Ohio” a hit no longer exists. On the other hand, a guy who skateboards lip sync with Fleetwood Mac gets 12 million views on TikTok. So going viral is always a thing. There is a cultural tipping point somewhere, but no one knows where it is.
But let’s imagine for a moment that, moved and heartbroken by the murder of school children in Texas, a trademark music superstar – Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Adele, Billie Eilish, your pick here – is hiding at this very moment, creating a song of heartbreak and fury, with a following of supporting staff, songwriters, producers, distributors and publicists behind them. Imagine the fire that could break out. Imagine the pressure that could exert to unravel a political problem that has remained unsolvable for generations.
Fifty years ago, “Ohio” wasn’t the only political punch up the pop charts. Many of the biggest stars of the era – Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, Stevie Wonder and others – were putting their popularity on the line to advance the ball politically. Of course, there are risk-averse corporate types running the show now who view political music as toxic to a star’s brand. But that was also largely the case in the 1970s. And “Ohio” happened anyway.
Cynics will say (and they are right) that in the real world, the only meaningful way to change something like the gun issue is a 60-vote filibuster in the US Senate. And in this area, pop culture certainly has a limited ability to move the needle. But time and time again, conventional political wisdom has underestimated the power of celebrity. Now you can hear “Ohio” in grocery stores. It’s so entrenched in popular consciousness that we can’t really gauge its effectiveness in forming political opinions. If I’m a music superstar who’s already reached all the heights of my career, that’s something worth striving for.
So, Taylor Swift, if you need a hand, give me a call. If not, you know what you have to do.