13 Songs for Thinking about 2020
Sometimes it is the songs, certain select ones, that best prod us to deal with the truth. And following this most momentous of all 21st-century years, we have quite a few hard truths to think our way through. Here are the songs, some released in 2020, that can help us do so:
1. Kevin Morby: “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun”
Conventional wisdom deals with 2020 by focusing on the impact of Covid-19. There are good reasons for that kind of talk, but it seems too eager to reassure us that things will return to normal once the pandemic has wound down. By contrast, lyrics like the following from indie rocker Kevin Morby keep us honest with ourselves about the seriousness of what’s been happening, not in terms of disease, but in terms of socio-political peace:
God bless and pray for American daughters and sons.
Do as they want, and say what they will,
Nothing will cover the faith that’s been spilled.
Don’t underestimate Midwest American sun.
The central lines there speak to a danger that goes far beyond the private confines of a love song — to a widespread feeling of civic betrayal which became particularly painful this year. It is the feeling that one’s fellow citizens who support the other party have turned away from one, and spat upon any remaining common ground. I believe this meaning of spilled faith, that feels almost like shed blood, is more vividly felt by conservatives, but I suspect it is felt along much of the political spectrum. Morby’s politics probably lean to the left, and in another part of the song his narrator pleads — to a lover, a friend, and perhaps to anyone across the political divide:
Please don’t run from me, please don’t run…
And I won’t run from you.
What about the title line? What does that “sun,” that somehow provides hope after all the spilled faith, stand for? Morby has told interviewers that even though he mentions God and prayer in many of his songs, he is not religious himself, at least in any traditional manner. So this Midwestern sun seems unlikely to symbolize a blessing from God. Could it instead stand for something in nature’s power, or something about America, at least the middling part of it, that should still give us hope?
I’m not sure, the song’s verses and chorus alternate between personal longing and a common plea on behalf of all of us. The ambiguity is something we can only deal with personally, listening to the music and hoping along with Morby that after many disappointments, we will again be together. This much I know: If we want to be among the reconcilers of enough of our fellow citizens, and blaze a civic path that a poetic artist like Morby can only hint at — well, we have much hard intellectual and political work to do; here in America and in all the democracies.
2. Van Morrison: “No More Lockdown”
So this list is shaped by democracy-defending convictions, and my view is that such convictions best fit with conservatism and also populism. To my fellow conservatives, I declaim populist means for civilized ends! And the better friends on the left I ask: why don’t you join us in this fight, at least on some issues?
Whatever the overall political stance of Van Morrison, in 2020 he did join the main policy-cause of the populist surge, the opposition to lockdowns.
Civilized lockdown skeptics bow to those more vulnerable to the virus, or who have lost loved ones to it, but say it is high time for all of democracy’s defenders to vigorously oppose the general character of the Covid-19 response. The way people are submitting now, they will be stuck with their masks on, their lives hobbled, and executive-branch officials dictating away for another nine months, regardless of the vaccinations.
No more lockdown! No more threats!
No more Imperial College scientists makin’ up crooked facts.
No more lockdown,
No more pulling the wool over our eyes…
Who’s running our country? Who’s running our world?
Examine it closely and watch it unfurl.
This is protest delivered via a confident bluesman stance, and there’s no anger in the music of it. He’s asking us to know in our bones that he’s right, that we have to take back our freedom. Morrison released three other anti-lockdown songs, one of which features Eric Clapton. And he’s put his money where his mouth is, setting up a Lockdown Financial Hardship Fund to aid the many musicians now struggling in the absence of live performance. That’s a lot of leadership we should applaud.
3. The Specials: “Ghost Town”
Alas, as Morrison knows, the most-relevant song-list for 2020 would be one that featured the songs and recordings that never came to be, from all the bands, artists, and orchestras that have been or will be put out of business. Out of the airwaves of 1981 we hear a prophecy of a Ghost Town, where bands won’t play no more… and we strain to imagine the even-more ghostly voices of the bands that would have come together this year, but never did. What was it my favorite political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville said again about “soft” despotism? Ah, yes. That it excels in preventing things from being born. We cannot forget that while we still turn to music through recordings, the social aspect of music, and the vital creativity that comes from that, has been taken out of our lives for a year.
4. Drinks: “Hermits on Holiday”
2020 had its more humdrum side, of course. In parallel to public madness, we had private boredom. Yet the move into greater isolation was noticeable even prior to the lockdowns, which is why this 2014 song by Cate Le Bon and Tim Presley fits the monotony and futility many of us lived this year. Maybe it’s a vulnerability that was already growing and that’s why we’ve been so willing to obey lockdowns. A life lived in one’s apartment or home — digital technology makes it possible, but it’s best understood as part of a longer trend into more and more of what Tocqueville called “individualism.” In his pioneering discussion in Democracy in America, he described it as a “habit of the heart” that causes us to avoid community, and to limit our main interactions to only a few friends and family members.
Being locked-down can have its upsides, and particularly for more consistently intellectually virtuous persons — they get projects done and discover new avenues of reflection. We’ve heard a number of their interesting testimonies this year, and are willing to learn what we can from them. It’s just that for most of us, a certain sameness and sterility emerges when our lives are reduced to individualism, as expressed in the jerky tic-toc feeling of this song:
Quarter-to-five: feed-ing time.
Seven-to-three: check on me.
Hermits on our own!
Hermits on hol-i-day, hermits on hi-a-tus.
Six-past the eight: cop-u-late.
Half-past the day: mak-ing hay.
And so on.
5. Andrew Bird: “Bloodless”
The present cultural-political divide traces back to the ‘culture wars’. The sociologist James Davison Hunter described them in the 1990s, but most recognize that they became particularly severe from about 2014 on, and were heightened by the initial populist gambits with Brexit and Trump. A few rock songs have gingerly touched upon the issue, but it is this late-2018 release that most frontally deals with it.
The song sounds like a spiritual or a hymn, even as it describes our situation as an “uncivil war; bloodless for now” is its main chorus and idea. It quotes the terrible warning of Yeats in The Second Coming, but its most chilling reference is to history, that of 1930s Spain:
And it’s like nine-teen-thirty-six,
That points also to George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, and likely to the way Orwell combined a basic loyalty to the political left with deep critique of its typical leaders. That seems Bird’s own position — in his brief introduction to the song’s video, he says this:
“We find ourselves in a cold civil war. Everyone is playing their part too well. Certain actors are reaping power and wealth from divisiveness. Echoes of the Spanish civil war when fascists and clergy win because they put up a united front against the individualistic and principled (yet scattered) left…”
Bird puts more faith in the left, and nurses more fears about the right, than he ought to, and thus, like many in rock’s bohemia, is apt to miss opportunities for timely alliance with conservatives, such as the one that now exists regarding the lockdowns. Still, his main points in Bloodless are serious and thoughtful, and ultimately suggest a healthy-enough stance of skepticism towards all ideologues:
I’m keeping mine with the altruists
I’m putting my weight behind the dancer
I know it’s hard to be an optimist
When you trust least the ones who claim to have the answers.
6. Thee Sacred Souls: “Give Us Justice”
Anyone who had thought about it, as Frederick Douglass scholar Peter Myers had, knew that it could only issue in disaster if Black Lives Matter held on to the position it had gained by around 2016, that of the preeminent Afro-American protest group. Its national leaders were steeped in Marxisant theory, embraced a newer kind of racialism in the name of fighting racism, and had only the wildest of policy proposals to offer. What is more, anyone who had looked into the numbers knew that statistical evidence for their central grievance, that of systematically racist policing, was lacking.
But George Floyd died on camera, a precinct station was sacked, and the storm broke. BLM took the driver’s seat, and Antifa climbed into the back. By word and deed, these groups demonstrated that they believe in on-offense violence, including the threat thereof, as the most effective means for achieving Progress. Most of the leaders, and likely a majority of the participants, wanted protests that, if initially non-violent, would create opportunities for police-baiting, vandalism, brick-chucking, confrontations with drivers, arson, etc. And not a few reasoned that if the violence pushed things into Revolution, so much the better.
No Democrat leader, nor any leaders of institutions corporate, academic, or charitable, spoke with any clarity against this. This was the greatest of all the betrayals of 2020: The acceptance by around 25-35% of America’s citizenry, and by nearly all in the leadership class, of on-offense violence in democratic politics, a tactic that by its very nature eats democracy alive. The only examples in history where the tactic was utilized longer than a handful of years, and thus briefly became a regularized part of the political scene, are very bad ones: Late-republican Rome, and Weimar Germany.
That is the context in which Thee Sacred Souls released this song, one that in terms of its music and basic sentiments deserves praise, as does everything from this new group of Southern California soul revivalists. But its lyrics made a move most-typical for 2020: They took a violence-threatening slogan — “No Justice, No Peace!” — but prettified it, by phrasing it in the passive voice:
There’ll be no peace, there’ll be no peace, until there’s justice.
The pretense is that it’s not Thee Sacred Souls themselves advocating the use of on-offense violence, oh no, they’re just letting you know about the violence that will happen, committed by an unspecified somebody, if the policy demands are not met. Part of the trick is that when the slogan is reworked in this way, it can be heard as simply conveying the perennial truth that any society that allows rank injustice against many of its citizens is destined to undergo turmoil. But the song also conveys a 2020 pledge of loyalty to BLM-type groups, and to the on-offense violence they perpetrate and stand for. The cynical might say that if the Revolution happens, Thee Sacred Souls have positioned themselves to still play gigs. I rather say that caught up in a wave of progressivist group-think, they made a mistake. Not a small one, but logically, one in opposition to democracy itself. May they, like the many millions of others who similarly erred this year, turn away from revolutionary madness, and toward the light and discipline of democracy-fostering reason.
7. Sam Cooke: “A Change Is Gonna Come”
Great emotion and deepest political import delivered within the restraints imposed by classic form. It was released in 1963, the same pivotal year in which the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led by Martin Luther King, achieved its key public opinion breakthrough through the Birmingham protests; the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which doomed the segregationist regime, soon followed.
V.S. Naipaul noted that oppression’s offense is often most strongly felt just after the moment of liberation. And this explains much about what America and other societies went through in the late Sixties and early Seventies: after the great change did come, there was greater anger than ever. The change had exposed the compromises with evil many had long lived by, and enabled blacks to more readily investigate and reflect upon the injustices done to them, going back centuries. Similar reckonings soon commenced among women and gays, and all this happened alongside the New Left attempt to re-do socialism, the bloody error of Vietnam, and a radical shift in sexual and related mores. There are aspects of the late-sixties that can still be celebrated, but there is a reason Jimi Hendrix sang of too much confusion, and why another phrase used to describe the era was days of rage.
An older relative tried to comfort me this summer by telling me that things had been much worse in the late sixties. Similar reasoning could be found in Ross Douthat’s early-2020 book The Age of Decadence, where he pooh-poohed the significance of Antifa and such by reporting that in 1969, over 3,000 bombings had taken place. But while the social earthquake of the late-sixties was of much greater magnitude, the truly worrying aspect of 2020 is that what should have been felt as a mere tremor shook our society hard. What my elder’s argument ignored is that in 2020, nothing as momentous as the civil-rights revolution had just happened. America in the Sixties was far sturdier and survived far greater shocks, but in 2020, like an edifice whose frame had since been corroded, it was shaken almost as much by what a crew like BLM could leverage out of a few police actions gone bad.
Cooke sang his song when the basic success of the civil rights cause remained an open question. His was the world described by Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a history which provides one of the most insightful portraits of the segregationist regime and its supporting apparatus outside the South. You read that stunner of a book, and see what America’s real white supremacy, and not the caricature presented today, consisted of.
But the change came, and that world is gone. And America eventually recovered from the sixties turmoil. In a year like 2001, Gallup could find that 70% of black Americans regarded race relations as “very good” or “somewhat good,” and in our own time, a promising young black intellectual Coleman Hughes could make a solid 2019 “Case for Black Optimism” using various statistical rubrics.
The 2020 riots nonetheless resulted in economic damages that exceeded those of the late Sixties; they directly took around forty lives; and worse, their longer-term impact could well be the descent of Portland, Seattle, and Minneapolis into Detroit-type ruin. Those who have read the relevant history see that the black citizens of Detroit were wrong in the 1970s to vote for the vindictive (and easily corrupted) black power politics that destroyed their city (“Motown,” you know). But who will seriously claim that the rioting protestors of 2020, black or white, had any excuse comparable to that which one might partially grant to the black Detroiters of old, given what they had lived through?
Karl Marx, speaking about French history from the Revolution to Napoleon III, famously said that “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.” But the American story from Cooke’s time forward is one of triumph first, and only then followed by the related tragedy and farce. The triumph was the peacefully brought-about downfall of the segregationist regime and of the overt racism across America that supported it. The tragedy was the chaos of the later Sixties, in which sincere men and women, such as Stokely Carmichael, who had walked the non-violent walk as heroically as anyone, wasted their lives in the dismal fevers of revolutionary radicalism. The farce was summer 2020, in which ignorant Millennials and Z-sters attempted to imitate the late Sixties failure, stylistically reinterpreting those days of rage as cool. Not that it would have comforted any one of the people dying in the rioting to have been told, “Well, it is only a farce that is taking your life.”
Still, the triumph of civil rights has lived on, and America remains the world’s most fundamentally multi-racial democracy. The change that Cooke was praying for came and it was not undone by the late Sixties’ tragic succumbing of many to the coils of merited yet still-deadly anger, and we should certainly not let that triumph be taken for granted amid, nor called into question by, 2020’s unjustifiable meltdown.
8. The Clash: “White Riot”
One ugly little ditty. There are serious things to say about the many young whites attracted in our day to Marxism, but for all their blathering about radical theory, this song from 1977 captures the thought-level of most of them, and the extent to which they care about the well-being of blacks:
White riot – I wanna riot – White riot – a riot of my own.
Black man gotta lot a problems, but they don’t mind throwing a brick.
White people go to school where they teach you how to be thick.
Violence, you see, gives your life meaning, and proves that you haven’t become too civilized. And the injustices serious enough to justify violence? The political theory? Well, don’t worry, something will turn up.
9. George Harrison: “Beware of Darkness”
But there is something deeper here also. Summer of 2020 saw me writing a letter to the best Millennial student I had ever taught, arguing against his general support for BLM. Worse, it saw another educator I know having to explain to a promising Gen-Z student that the slogan ACAB, which was regularly used in the protests and means All Cops Are Bastards, was morally near-equivalent to the kinds of slogans that the Stalinists and National Socialists had used to demonize their victims.
Hard as it is, we have to face it: lots of our younger fellow citizens, many of them quite smart, went mad this summer. They quickly followed the logic of the sloganeering to very dark places. Had events gotten hotter, and had they been in the wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps even the better ones in this group could have been led to draw blood, set fire, or worse. We need a song as laced with the fear of evil as this 1970 one is, if we are really to take stock:
Watch out now, take care,
beware of greedy leaders.
They take you where you should not go.
10. Eddie Speed: “Then I Gunned ‘Em Down”
A wrenching alt-country gone-grunge account of a man obsessed with images of rioters, who then gets involved in a massacre of them. Impossible to say who was to blame for the first shot in the situation described, but once he takes the second shot, he can’t stop shooting. But strangely, when his mayhem ceases, and the dead and wounded lay sprawled in the street, he begins to tend to several of them. While trying to staunch the bleeding of one woman, he looks into her eyes and realizes she is the girl he loved in high school, the one he wanted to ask out but never had the courage to. The music shifts gears, and he is given to see all he would have lived with her had they come together and married, their children, their happiness, and his slightly different political stance. And then, we return to the maelstrom of anguish, as she passes away in his arms.
This summary can’t capture how while listening to it we feel compelled to go on, and yet wish we had never entered this song, even wish it didn’t exist.
Well, it doesn’t. There is no singer named “Eddie Speed” (I’ve made him up). But having read the immediate reactions of so many of my fellow conservatives to various videos of rioting protestors this summer, the comments where they fantasized about gunning ‘em down, and longed for the civil war to begin, I say somebody needs to write a song like this. Keep a close watch, patriot, on that heart of yours. A bridle on that tongue. Even in the rush of immediate judgment, these short phrases whereby one condemns leftists as utterly other, and wishes harm to them, these corrode one’s soul. They could push some extra-disturbed person to commit a massacre, and surely, they pave the way for a future breed of right-wing leaders, call them wolves in sheepdog clothing, who will seek to draw us also to where we should not go.
11. Bob Dylan: “Crossing the Rubicon”
Rubicon. A river that once you cross it, there’s no going back. You’d be like Julius Caesar and his legions to violate this final line: You’d declare civil war, and that you feel the republican government has become so dysfunctional that you’d exchange it for despotism. You’d go all in, and risk your whole life.
“Everybody’s dreamin’ them dreams,” Dylan sang in 1963 about the fear of nuclear war, and as 2021 dawns, we might say quite a few people are thinkin’ them Rubicon thoughts. Here’s one sample from a conservative site’s comment thread, made regarding the presidential election dispute:
“Platitudes… are not what is needed today. The Rubicon has been crossed. We either rise up and remain a republic or timidly acquiesce to the coming empire.”
I read scores upon scores of similar comments in 2020. Few mentioned the Rubicon itself, but you get the basic idea: the leftists declared war against our democracy, and as they are well across the river, we are obliged to face the new reality, and deploy armies of our own. Something of this spirit made itself felt in the disgraceful Capitol storming of January 6th.
Dylan, as usual, keeps his own views opaque. Fears of civil war are hardly the only thing on his mind — he shows that we also have other problems, which are personal and at the same time transcendent. Love and eternal destiny are on either side of the political trouble. The song’s gut-bucket blues narrator seems hardened enough that when he says, “Tell me how many men I need, and who can I count upon,” the action afoot seems as likely to be a low criminal plot as a revolutionary act. And by alluding to the thresholds of both the Inferno and Purgatorio, Dylan links his song’s Rubicon with the rivers the soul must pass over at death, in both classical myth and Dante’s Comedy. Additional support for a spiritual interpretation is found in this couplet:
I feel the Holy Spirit inside and see the light that freedom gives,
I believe it’s within the reach of everyman who lives.
Some want to interpret that as a hint about Dylan’s true religious views, and yet, the very next line contains a warning about the narrator’s character:
Keep as far away as possible — it’s darkest ‘fore the dawn.
And worse about the narrator emerges in other lines — ice-cold stuff about his killing men, defiling women, and how he’ll cut you up with a crooked knife and yet miss you when you’re gone.
I’m one of those who hold a certain (oft-tested!) faith in the serious intention of Dylan’s lyrical artistry, such that I do think this song’s tying together of final things political, criminal, and spiritual in a Caesar-figure would reward further study, but here I attempt no definitive interpretation. I simply suggest that as has so often happened when the winds of changes shift, Dylan’s muse is particularly receptive to the signals in the air.
12. Leon Bridges: “River”
But there is another river, oh man. If you have blood on your hands, or anger’s hot wound bleeding inside your heart, you can go into this one, and be made clean. Nor is there, I believe, any other way back to the sun of American hope.
13. Sly and the Family Stone: “Stand!”
Perhaps it is unlucky to follow a religious appeal with an apparently merely political one, but it is necessary to end with this song. I found myself remembering it back in the dark days of June, when every white Progressive and putative moderate I knew wanted to signal their good intentions by parroting BLM ‘anti-racist’ slogans, by remaining silent about the extent of the violence, and by accepting ‘canceling’ campaigns against anyone who dared criticize the madness. Daniel Mahoney speaks truth when he says BLM and its allies in the racial-sensitivity training industry deny a “common humanity and morality applicable to all human beings,” but this summer, these were the people whose books and insights were being recommended everywhere! Down was up, two plus two equaled five, and hatred was love. So it did me good to recall these words from 1969, written at the time from a liberal hippie-ish perspective:
in the end you’ll still be you…
As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, we lose hold of our very selves when we weakly go along with the repetition of, or seeming agreement with, politically-convenient lies.
For the things you know are right.
It’s the truth that makes them so uptight.
Yes, the song was and can still be used to stand for basic agreement with radical doctrines. And yes, Sly himself, in an inner struggle with America’s racist legacy and his own personal demons, came to abandon the hopeful stance of this song, resulting in the darkly seminal album There’s A Riot Going On. Greil Marcus’s fine book Mystery Train has the full story on that transformation.
Nonetheless, the simple truth here, that we must stand for the things we know are right, is undeniable, and most needed today. It highlights the fact that yesterday’s liberals really did stand for free speech and free thought, even if those who became today’s Progressives stood aside in 2020. Some would even recommend kneeling before ideologues. And all of them sat and mumbled as the tech companies turned to brazen thought policing, and as George Washington’s statue was pulled to the ground.
We should all be for the future work of reconciliation. As Morby put it, let us not run from one another. But it is necessary to add that it is a contradiction in terms to be ‘for reconciliation’ no matter what the other side does. Progressives who correctly sense that something went majorly amiss in 2020 need to hear it: We lockdown-skeptics, populists, conservatives, and believers in the Bible are going to be as hard-as-nails about certain things moving forward, and we are not going to remain polite when ‘nice’ narratives are offered that paper over the fundamental betrayals of 2020.
Full Songs List1. Kevin Morby: “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun” 2. Van Morrison: “No More Lockdowns” 3. The Specials: “Ghost Town” 4. Drinks: “Hermits on Holiday” 5. Andrew Bird: “Bloodless” 6. Thee Sacred Souls: “Give Us Justice” 7. Sam Cooke: “A Change is Gonna Come” 8. The Clash: “White Riot” 9. George Harrison: “Beware of Darkness” 10. Eddie Speed: “Then I Gunned ‘Em Down” (made up by the author) 11. Bob Dylan: “Crossing the Rubicon” 12. Leon Bridges: “River” 13. Sly and the Family Stone: “Stand!” (YouTube Playlist)