“There’s something happening here / What it is ain’t exactly clear” are the two lines that begin Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” a song that seems to pop up any time there is any sort of upheaval in the world. And it pops up often. Of course, it also helps that it’s got a great groove and, if you didn’t want to, you wouldn’t have to consider the message at all. I’m certain I had heard the song hundreds of times as a child and never once thought of it in any sort of broad scope. I just liked hearing it. But now, well, now it’s different. I tend to only think of it when the news is circulating. A congressional baseball shooting. “There’s a man with a gun over there / Telling me I got to beware.” I could go through the song line by line and every word would easily sync up to something in the news. There are plenty of songs like that. In fact, as I write this, U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” has shuffled up from the background. “How long, how long must we sing this song?” A desperate refrain.
In my interviews, I’ve spoken to a lot of artists about their more topical songs and the answer is nearly always the same. They write them in the moment to reflect their time, but in the back of their mind, they’re hopeful that the song won’t make sense in time. That, maybe, it’ll sound silly in an enlightened future. But, and I don’t mean this in the sincerely pessimistic way that it’s going to sound: I don’t think that’ll ever happen. I do hope that things get better. For everyone. I want conservatives to feel safe, like the entire world isn’t out to get them. That they can enjoy the money they’ve made. I want people of color to feel safe, that their babies aren’t going to be shot and that they have just as many chances for success as people with white skin. I want liberals to be happy, to feel that their personal freedoms aren’t in jeopardy, that their body is their own. I want everyone to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water. I also hope for self-driving flying cars in my lifetime, but I feel like that’s in possible contradiction with my environmental concerns. We are all contradictory people with many desires.
As a music obsessive, I find my own reflections and solace in the songs. I turn to them to feel better, but I also turn to them to help sort out my feelings. There’s a news agent, a TV station, and it says a lot of things that feel hurtful toward certain people. And it feels like it incites, even when it’s blaming others for inciting. And there are articles, endless articles, on the internet and a lot of them are propaganda under the cover of truth. But there are a lot of people doing good work, telling the story and reporting the news. It can get confusing. I pay attention, but sometimes I shut it off. And when I turn to songs, as I often do, I look toward people who I trust. I look up to them in the way of centuries past, as sages and wise-people. And they are as much as anyone. They string our desires, hopes and fears through their poetry, and they help define humanity’s darker moments through verse. There have been countless shootings throughout the past few decades, and while I wasn’t alive when Kent State happened, I know all about it because of Neil Young’s “Ohio.” That document of that moment helped inform the person I grew up to be, though I had no direct tie to it. It taught me about fear, about power and the way it’s misused and about taking a few moments to breathe before making a judgement. And god I love that riff.
These songs stick around for a reason. They continue to be written, because they have to. Some artists feel it’s their duty, and I appreciate that. I appreciate passion in art, and I live to seek out those moments that connect in the most unforgettable ways. But I wish for you, for me and for so many people of the world that many of these songs would cease to connect. I wish for the tides to turn and for people to find grace and love. And tolerance. And acceptance. I wish that “For What’s It’s Worth” would just be a catchy song.