By BIll Walsh
Wed Feb 13, 2008
Bedford, Mass. - When music touches us, it changes not the world, but
us. And then we go on to change the world. Songs like "We Shall
Overcome" and "Give Peace a Chance" were more than just the themes of
decades and international movements. Hearing them changed us.
The dream is over.
Such was the declaration last week by none other than rock 'n' roll
icon Neil Young, who announced in no uncertain terms, "I think that
the time when music could change the world is past. I think it would
be very naïve to think that in this day and age." At the Berlin Film
Festival last Friday to present a documentary of his latest concert
tour, he added, " I really doubt that a single song can make a
difference. It is a reality."
That's a pretty depressing statement from a pretty significant
person in the world of contemporary music. Among his other credits,
Neil Young has had a notable solo career, long years with Crosby,
Stills, Nash and Young, and dozens of awards. A co-founder of Farm
Aid (and still a member of its board of directors), Neil Young has
been nominated for an Oscar, twice received honorary doctorate
degrees, is listed as #9 in Mojo magazine's "Greatest Guitarists of
All Time" and #34 in Rolling Stone's "100 Greatest Artists of All
Time." He's been hailed as the second greatest living songwriter
today (behind Bob Dylan) and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Neil Young wrote the classic song "Ohio" after the Kent State
Massacre in 1970 ("Tin soldiers and Nixon comin'/ We're finally on
our own / This summer I hear the drummin'/ Four dead in Ohio"), a
song as powerful, angry and influential today as it was 38 years ago.
And he just said that music cannot change the world.
We used to think that it could, didn't we?
Whether it was Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," Phil Ochs' "I Ain't
Marchin' Anymore," John Lennon's "Imagine," or Don Henley's "The End
of the Innocence," we thought music mattered, didn't we? By the way,
you can insert your own personal favorite anthem or protest song into
the above list, from "I Am Woman" to "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing."
Heck! Those of us living in America's "Yankee Doodle Town" ought to
be able to attest to the power of music! Music can inspire. It always
could. It always will.
But can it change the world?
(This is a thought question. Come up with your own answer before
you read on.)
I think he's only partially right. Maybe he should have said that
music ALONE cannot change the world.
But we can.
When music touches us, it changes not the world, but us. And then
we go on to change the world. Songs like "We Shall Overcome" and
"Give Peace a Chance" were more than just the themes of decades and
international movements. Hearing them changed us. Listening to them
just once or twice was enough to change (or challenge) the way we
thought and reacted and dreamed; hearing them sung by thousands of
people could be a life-changing event. Songs can both support and
reflect the changes we're working for in the world.
It's an axiom of media literacy that audiences create meaning. A
song, film, or work of art doesn't possess by itself any message or
power. The meaning of any medium is supplied by us, by the human
beings who see and hear it - sometimes adopting it as our own or
marveling at how closely it resembles what we think or sense but were
never able to put into words ourselves.
That's the power of music, I think - it's ability to touch us and
how we look at ourselves and the world around us.
I'm not an expert on the popular music of today. I think pop music
is the province of the young, and part of its appeal has always been
that older folks either didn't like it or didn't "get it." So I can't
discuss whether today's music is changing the world - or is even trying to.
But I will wager that music now (as it always has) changes the
listener. And whether it's desperation or hope or anger or love, it
speaks to those who hear it and make it their own. And they are affected by it.
Mahatma Gandhi once exhorted, "We must become the change we want to
see in the world."
Music can't do it alone; Neil Young is right about that.
But the right song sung at the right time and place by the right
people can (and has repeatedly) helped to change us (singer and
listener alike), the way we see the world, and what we're willing to
do about it.
Maybe there is no one song that can do all that, at all times, with
But there are thousands which have and will continue do part of it.
Neil Young ought to know. He wrote (and continues to sing) some of them.
It's up to us to listen and then to act.
Bill Walsh is a Billerica resident and regular contributor to the
Billerica Minute Minuteman. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.