“There something’s happening here,” Stephen Stills sang in “For What It’s Worth,” a 1966 song about a confrontation between students and police in Los Angeles. And for a time, there was. Radio stations filled the air with protest music, most of it about the escalating war in Vietnam as rock musicians railed against Washington and those European allies who supported the conflict. As the war wound down protest music seemed to vanish too. Idealistic student activists had flocked to the anti-war campaigns, but in the 1970s widespread disillusionment set in, and the next generation of musicians tended to focus on love lost and the failed crusades of the late 1960s. “Doctor my eyes,” Jackson Browne lamented in 1972, “Was I unwise to leave them open for so long?” Just five years later, the Eagles mourned the passing of that youthful activism in California, singing that “we haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.”
By 1980, the context for politically aware music had changed. The tail end of the Baby Boom generation had developed a consciousness that encompassed a critique of American imperialism beyond Vietnam, while the younger Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1976, came of age questioning the dichotomy of Cold War politics and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Both anger and anxiety fused in protest music against American policies during the Reagan administration.Show Full EssayHide Full Essay
Just as television had exposed the older generation to world events, so too did it change the ways in which the younger generation received music. Radio continued to play an important role in broadcasting music, but teenagers with cable television (or friends with cable television) demanded, “I want my MTV.” The network, Music Television (MTV), which operated like a visual radio station playing music videos introduced by “video jockeys” (VJs), quickly became ubiquitous and was instrumental in the superstardom of such performers as Madonna and Michael Jackson. Yet in its earliest years the station programmers drew upon any available content, from concert films of bands popular in the 1960s and 1970s to British acts as yet unknown in America. The latter, whose LPs were hard to find and rarely heard on the radio, opened up a world for young American audiences both in terms of musical styles and in perspective. U2, Midnight Oil, the Clash, the Police, Simple Minds, and Nina and her “99 Luftballons” exposed American teens to international issues and influences.
American musicians too expanded their gaze beyond North American shores. Reflecting a growing unhappiness with America’s foreign policies, the music served as a reminder of the ever-present link between politics and popular protest. One issue was the Reagan administration’s covert war against the Marxist government in Nicaragua. In 1984 Jackson Browne, a longtime resident of Los Angeles fluent in Spanish, journeyed throughout Central America. The result, two years later, was the album Lives in the Balance, which included the title track of that name as well as “For America” and “Soldier of Plenty.” The album was released just before the Iran-Contra scandal broke, giving new meaning to Browne’s lyrics, “I want to know who the men in the shadows are.” For a generation of artists who had protested the final years of Vietnam, it appeared that once again “a country [was] drifting to war.” For that reason, Bruce Springsteen began to perform the 1969 anti–Vietnam War song “War” as part of his live show and warning audiences that “blind faith in your leaders will get you killed.”
Another issue was South Africa’s apartheid policies, President Reagan’s endorsement of Pretoria’s National Party, and American corporate investments in South Africa. Despite rising calls across the nation for sanctions and the liberation of jailed African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela, Reagan announced in 1985 that the “reformist administration” of South Africa had “eliminated the segregation that we once had in our own country.” Musicians responded in various ways.
Steven Van Zandt of the E Street Band crafted a protest song entitled “Sun City,” named for a tourist resort and casino located in one of the “homeland” apartheid states created by the South African government. A number of western artists had played the venue, despite a 1968 United Nations cultural ban on performances in the country. What began as a single song quickly turned into an album of the same name and a new organization: Artists United Against Apartheid (AUAA). The album, which was banned in South Africa, featured a number of musicians identified with other protest movements, including Bob Dylan, Browne, U2’s Bono, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis, Pete Townshend, Ruben Blades, Joey Ramone, and Peter Gabriel. In the refrain of title song, “Sun City,” the artists shouted out, “I ain’t gonna play Sun City.”
Two years before, in 1983, singer Linda Ronstadt was offered $500,000 to play at the resort. She accepted, but invited Rolling Stone journalist Aaron Latham to come along. Like other American artists she insisted on an integrated audience, although in the end very few blacks attended. While there, Ronstadt engaged both blacks and whites, hoping, she said, “to get a dialogue going.” By defying the UN resolution, she argued, she brought like-minded blacks and whites together in an integrated venue.
Even more complicated was Paul Simon’s 1986 album, Graceland. Inspired by African rhythms, Simon wrote and recorded the album in South Africa. It featured African artists and introduced the vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to American audiences. Simon steered clear of politics, and as was the case with Ronstadt (who appeared on the album), nobody believed he was sympathetic to the South African government. Yet both the ANC and AUAA condemned Simon’s violation of the boycott. Twenty-five years later, despite the collapse of apartheid and the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela to the South African presidency, the subject remains sensitive. In 2012, Dali Tambo, son of the late ANC president Oliver Tambo, recalled, “At that moment in time, it was not helpful. We were fighting for our land, for our identity. We had a job to do, and it was a serious job.” As far as Tambo was concerned, Simon brought fame to a handful of black South African musicians while weakening a global boycott on racial segregation.
The legacy of colonialism in other parts of the African continent also captured the attention of musicians. Harry Belafonte, a Caribbean American singer with a long record of civil rights activism, had become concerned with the poverty, starvation, and violence in sub-Saharan Africa and helped form the non-profit USA for Africa in 1985. The lead singer of the English band Boomtown Rats, Bob Geldof, however, was the first to rally pop artists to the cause.
Beginning on October 23, 1984, the BBC aired reports by journalist Michael Buerk from Ethiopia where famine had killed over eight million people in the previous two years. Images of families starved to skin-covered skeletons, children with bellies distended and covered with flies while government officials refused to alleviate their suffering horrified viewers. Moved to action, Geldof contacted Ultravox singer Midge Ure, and the two composed the anthem “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” to raise funds for relief. They prodded leading British artists, including Sting, U2, Phil Collins, Boy George, George Michael, and Duran Duran, to record the song as the supergroup Band-Aid in November 1984. Released in early December, the single spent five weeks in the number one spot of Billboard magazine’s charts and sold one million copies in its first week of sales escalating to a total of 3.5 million in the UK and 2.5 million in the US, and returned to the charts the following Christmas.
Inspired by the British efforts, Belafonte contacted American singer Lionel Ritchie to help in a similar effort among American artists. Ritchie collaborated with Michael Jackson, already a pop icon as a result of Thriller, and producer Quincy Jones in writing the song “We Are the World.” On January 28, 1985, an eclectic group of artists gathered to record the song, including Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Rogers, Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross, and Ray Charles. The single was released on March 11, 1985, followed by an album containing previously unrecorded singles by participating artists. Sales reached $10.8 million by May 1986, with 90 percent of the proceeds going toward famine relief in Ethiopia, Tanzania, and the Sudan, and 10 percent to organizations providing relief for hunger and homelessness in the United States.
Geldof used the momentum of both Band-Aid and USA for Africa to organize Live Aid, a daylong concert spanning two continents, on July 13, 1985. More than 72,000 people crammed into Wembley Stadium in London, with 100,000 more in JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, while an estimated 1.9 million people in 150 nations tuned in to radio or television broadcasts. The roster of bands included Queen, Elton John, Black Sabbath, David Bowie, Sting, the Who, Paul McCartney, U2, Madonna, Tom Petty, Tina Turner, a Led Zeppelin reunion, and Eric Clapton. Phil Collins managed to play both venues by taking the supersonic Concorde from London to Philadelphia. The concert raised approximately $283.6 million through ticket and merchandise sales and donations, and inspired other artists to hold similar mega-concerts for charitable causes, such as Amnesty International, in subsequent years.
These efforts to provide relief to Africa were not universally hailed. While no one would dispute the sincerity of Geldof, Belafonte, or other participants, many questioned the naiveté of their goals. Singer Joan Baez praised the youthful American audience at Live Aid by saying, “this is your Woodstock,” but few of the millions who tuned in understood either the anti-war impulse of the earlier concert or the problems that resulted in the famine in Africa. Geldof himself explicitly avoided any overtly political statement. “I wanted it to be absolutely, simplistically direct,” Geldof said.
Indeed, few African artists or images of Africa appeared in any of these relief efforts, and Africa itself was invoked as a monolithic and exotic place deserving pity. Two Ethiopian activist attended the recording of “We Are the World,” but the video did not include them, showing only full-bodied pans of American artists. The lyrics of both the British and American songs did not cry for change so much as extol the euphoria of giving. Many of the artists who appeared at Live Aid had played at Sun City. Despite President Reagan’s interest in being part of the Live Aid event and the attendance of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, no discussion emerged as to the culpability or responsibility of their governments in addressing crises in Africa. Most cynically, just as advertising had co-opted the counterculture of the 1960s, corporations such as Pepsi—which employed both Ray Charles and Michael Jackson as spokesmen at the time of the “We Are the World” recording—discovered the benefits of cause-related marketing.
Simplicity seemed an inherent problem with the conception of the entire enterprise. The charitable desire to “feed the world” stood in sharp contrast to criticism of structural problems. Government corruption and civil war caused 56,000 tons of food to rot in the ports of Ethiopia while the government continued the policies that caused the famine in the first place, and both government and opposition forces used financial aid to purchase arms. Similar problems abounded in other nations that received aid from USA for Africa.
For the artists and fans of politicized music, the world had become both larger and more complicated in the 1980s. Teens and young adults no longer suffered the consequences of US foreign policy themselves, as they had in the 1960s. Expressing outrage through song in order to spur people into action became ever more frustrating. Jackson Browne and Steve Van Zandt explicitly identified their music as protest music. Yet the songs and events that raised the most money specifically avoided political commentary. Rather than provoke anger at injustice, they made emotional appeals for benevolence. The deepest fury, perhaps, emerged from domestic iniquity as hip-hop gained increasing popularity with its infectious beat and rage against endemic poverty and racism persisting in America’s own cities.
 Stephen Stills, “For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, Atco (SD) 33-200, 1966; Cecilia Rasmussen, “Closing of Club Ignited the ‘Sunset Strip Riots,” Los Angeles Times, August 5, 2007; Dorian Lynskey, 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day (New York, 2011), 90–92, 192–209, 126–131, 174; Jeff Tamarkin, Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (New York, 2003), 192–209.
 When told by an interviewer that wine is not a “spirit” but a fermented beverage, lyricist Don Henley snapped that the “line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a sociopolitical statement.” John Soeder, “Don Henley Gets into the Spirit Talking about ‘Hotel California,” Plain Dealer (Cleveland OH), March 20, 2009.
 Steve Greenberg, “Where Is Graceland? 1980s Pop Culture through Music,” in Living in the Eighties, ed. Gil Troy and Vincent J. Cannato (New York: Oxford, 2009), 152–166.
 Interestingly, Jimmy Guterman’s April 10, 1986, review in Rolling Stone observed that “Jackson Browne no longer believes he can change the world—the closing ‘Black and White’ is drenched in defeatism—but he doesn’t use his fatalism as a crutch or a reason to quit.”
 William E. Smith, “South Africa Reagan’s Abrupt Reversal,” Time, September 16, 1985; Steven V. Roberts, “Senate, 78 to 21, Overrides Reagan’s Veto and Imposes Sanctions on South Africa,” New York Times, October 3, 1986.
 Aaron Latham, “Linda Ronstadt: Snow White in South Africa,” Rolling Stone, August 18, 1983.
 Lucy Jones, “Should Paul Simon Have Defied a U.N. Boycott,” London Telegraph, May 31, 2012.
 Ironically, country singer Waylon Jennings pulled out of the USA for Africa recording session when Stevie Wonder suggested that one of the lines be sung in Swahili. “Extent of Ethiopia Famine Revealed,” BBC News online, October 22, 2009 (first aired October 23, 1984), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8315248.stm. (Viewed June 8, 2012); Stephen Holden, “The Pop Life; Artists Join in Effort for Famine Relief,” New York Times, February 27, 1985; “Record’s First Profits Will Go to the Hungry,” New York Times, May 19, 1985; Paul Grien, “Music Acts Come to the Aid of Ethiopia,” Billboard 96, no. 50 (December 15, 1984): 1, 73.
 Interview with Midge Ure and Bob Geldof, “Do They Know It’s Christmas – Original Demo,” 1984, YouTube, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V2gp0K0Sxok&feature=youtu.be. (Viewed June 8, 2012).
 Neal Ullestad, “Rock and Rebellion: The Subversive Effects of Live Aid and ‘Sun City,’” Popular Music 6, no. 1 (January 1987): 6–76; Joel Dreyfuss and H. John Steinbreder, “Altruistic Marketing,” CNN Money, November 25, 1985.
 David Rieff, “Cruel to Be Kind,” The Guardian, June 23, 2005.
Douglas R. Egerton, a professor of history at Le Moyne College, is author of Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War (2010) and Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (2009). Leigh Fought, a professor of history at Le Moyne College, is author of Southern Womanhood and Slavery: A Biography of Louisa S. McCord (2003) and the forthcoming Frederick Douglass’s Women.
Class exercises and discussion questions
- Does protest music reflect society’s already existing views, or change old views? To what extent does it challenge dominant views, and if it fails to do so, has it failed in its purpose? Jackson Browne’s Lives in the Balance failed to sell as well as his 1970s records, which tended to focus on personal relationships. For Browne, that was irrelevant. “I like this album as much as any I’ve ever done,” Browne insisted. “And there’s a certain comfort, a security that I have, talking about something that I feel this strongly about. And whether or not an album succeeds wildly or not, that’s intact.” Yet according to the 1986 review in Rolling Stone, Browne did not believe it possible to “change the world.” What then, is the purpose of protest music?
- The 2012 film Under African Skies (by award-winning director Joe Berlinger) revisits the now-twenty-five-year-old debate over the making of Graceland. Berlinger documents Paul Simon’s return to South Africa in 2011 and includes a debate between Simon and Dali Tambo over Simon’s violation of the UN boycott. Were Simon and Ronstadt correct in thinking that by introducing South African music to Americans or by integrating Sun City venues they served a larger purpose? Or was Van Zandt right in believing that musicians who accepted large sums to play in South Africa were implicitly supporting an unjust system?
- Compile a list of protest songs from the 1960s, the 1980s, and today. What issues does each song address and what argument do artists make in their songs? If the song has a video, does the video enhance the message of the song? If it does not, in what ways could images add to the message?
- Compile a list of the artists who participated in Live Aid, Band-Aid, and USA for Africa, those who played in Sun City, and those who participated in song “Sun City.” Compare the lists. What might account for similarities in those lists?
- South African apartheid and the famine in Ethiopia led to different types of activism on the part of musicians: charitable fundraising, artistic collaboration, attempts to challenge the system from within, and overt protest. What were the strengths and weaknesses of each of these approaches? Given particular circumstances, how might another approach have been more or less successful?
- The Aid events, while raising millions of dollars for African famine relief, did not incorporate any African artists or voices in their efforts. Paul Simon, on the other hand, drew upon African rhythms, musical styles, and musicians for Graceland, in which he avoided explicit political references and did not contribute to activism concerning South African apartheid. When addressing the problems facing regions of the world, do artists have a responsibility to incorporate fellow musicians from those regions into their musical activism? When American musicians collaborate with those from areas affected by political or economic strife, do they have a responsibility to highlight the difficulties faced by their collaborators—such as the discrimination that Ladysmith Black Mambazo faced as black men under apartheid? Graceland revitalized Simon’s career, while Live Aid brought some artists greater fame as pop stars. At what point does musical collaboration or participation in such events as Live Aid become exploitation of artists and the conflicts that they face at home in order to further the American artists’ own careers?
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Already have an account?
Please click here to login and access this page.
How to subscribe
Otherwise, click here for information on a paid subscription for those who are not K-12 educators or students.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Become an Affiliate School to have free access to the Gilder Lehrman site and all its features.
Click here to start your Affiliate School application today! You will have free access while your application is being processed.
Individual K-12 educators and students can also get a free subscription to the site by making a site account with a school-affiliated email address. Click here to do so now!
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Why Gilder Lehrman?
Your subscription grants you access to archives of rare historical documents, lectures by top historians, and a wealth of original historical material, while also helping to support history education in schools nationwide. Click here to see the kinds of historical resources to which you'll have access and here to read more about the Institute's educational programs.
Individual subscription: $25
Click here to sign up for an individual subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Make Gilder Lehrman your Home for History
Upgrade your Account
We're sorry, but it looks as though you do not have access to the full Gilder Lehrman site.
All K-12 educators receive free subscriptions to the Gilder Lehrman site, and our Affiliate School members gain even more benefits!
How to Subscribe
K-12 educator or student? Click here to edit your profile and indicate this, giving you free access, and here for more information on the Affiliate School Program.
Not a educator or student? Click here for more information on purchasing a subscription to the Gilder Lehrman site.
Related Site Content
- Essay: 9/11 and Springsteen
- Teaching Resource: Essential Questions in Teaching American History
- Essay: The Sixties and Protest Music
- Essay: The World War II Home Front
- Essay: The WPA: Antidote to the Great Depression?
- Multimedia: A Life in the Twentieth Century: Innocent Beginnings, 1917–1950
- Essay: Every Citizen a Soldier: World War II Posters on the American Home Front
- Video Series: Lifetimes
- Essay: The Transnational Nature of the Progressive Era
- Interactive: WWII Posters from the National Museum of American History