Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP
Kendrick Lamar performs at Coachella Music & Arts Festival on April 16 in Indio, Calif.

To really understand the American psyche, press play

From Helen Reddy to Kendrick Lamar, musicians have long captured the current zeitgeist through songs that become rallying cries for movements and anthems for generations. 

If you set out to make a playlist to express America’s social and political realities, which tracks would you pick? What Beyoncé song would you select? Would there be Kendrick Lamar or Toby Keith? Or both? Of course, you’d have throw in Lady Gaga and at least one song (or maybe the soundtrack) from “Hamilton,” right?

Every generation has a soundtrack, every movement an anthem. So, what’s the musical score for President Trump’s America, the Women’s March, the national political divide, and pressing questions about race, immigration, gender identity? Which hit songs convey our collective consciousness – and is that even still possible in an age of Spotify?

Few songs earn the status of anthem, capturing the essence of a popular sentiment in a few lyrics or the chorus. “There are these collective moments – maybe they are under four minutes – that a very deep well of feeling is tapped for a large number of people,” says Jeff Chang, a music writer and executive director of the Institute for Diversity in the Arts at Stanford University in California. “People can project their own struggles into that chorus.”

Those moments include both turmoil and triumphs: The civil rights movement (cue Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin), the race to the moon (David Bowie and The Byrds), the Vietnam War (Buffalo Springfield and Edwin Starr), the cold war era (Elton John and Gil Scott-Heron), the collapse of the Berlin Wall (yes, David Hasselhoff), 9/11 (Brooks & Dunn and Billy Joel), hurricane Katrina (Lil Wayne and Rebirth Brass Band), the women’s movement (Lesley Gore and Katy Perry), and the gay rights movement (Gloria Gaynor and Lady Gaga).

“One of the great things about music is that it can tell you how people were feeling about a particular event,” says Jeff Dupre, a partner with the TV production company Show of Force, which coproduced the CNN series “Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History” that airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. EST until June 18. Over eight episodes, the show charts the transformative moments in US history since the 1960s through music, which often became a form of protest itself. “You hear a song and it can take you back to a very specific moment in time.”

'Music was the glue'

The series launched with a look at the role music played during civil rights marches in the 1960s, and how song helped propel the movement forward after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  “Music was the glue that held everything together,” said Charles Neblett, a member of the Freedom Singers, a group featured in the series that sang many of the songs that reflected the black struggle at the time (songs like “This Little Light” and “Which Side are You On”). The episode also touches on the urban black struggle after desegregation in the 1970s through Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” and in 1980s with songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” It concludes with the Black Lives Matter movement and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which became an anthem for many protesters in Ferguson, Mo., after the killing of Michael Brown. 

“We wanted to address these themes musically,” says Maro Chermayeff, a partner at Show of Force and coproducer of the series. The power of music is also its ability to transport listeners back to specific moment in time, she says. “You love a song because you love the memories that it brings up for you.”

Thursday’s episode takes viewers to the songs that followed the 9/11 attacks that emphasized patriotism and American resilience. In the episode, music producer Nile Rodgers talks about bringing together many of the emergency responders and police offers who were at the scene of the World Trade Center attack – along with lots of famous singers – to give new meaning to an old classic, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge. The episode ends with “Empire State of Mind” by Jay Z and Alicia Keys, a song from 2009 that for many became the prevailing anthem that celebrate the post 9/11 spirit of New York.

From 'We Shall Overcome' to 'We gon' be all right'

While the CNN “Soundtracks” series deftly explores American history through its songbook, it also tells the story of just how dramatically popular music has changed. For instance, the civil rights episode began with song like “We Shall Overcome” and concludes with Mr. Lamar’s “Alright” from his 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” While Black Lives Matter protesters chanted the chorus to Lamar’s rap – “We gon' be all right” –  in the streets of Ferguson, and elsewhere around the country, it couldn't be more different from the spirituals heard during the 1960s. Lamar's songs are gritty, forceful, and rife with explicit lyrics and violent references. 

Still, says Mr. Chang, author of "We Gon' Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation," Lamar’s hip-hop lyrics stand out because they capture the collective feeling for so many young blacks in America. Lamar’s latest release, “DAMN,” is the No. 1 best selling album in the country, further underscoring the rapper’s influence on pop culture even though no track on the album has yet to break into Top 40 radio songs. Nor did tracks from Beyoncé’s video album “Lemonade,” which Chang called “her most incisive statement on politics that she’s ever made … I can’t imagine a better album for right now than ‘Lemonade.’ ”

Indeed, the way people consume music has changed dramatically. People listen differently – on iPhones, via Spotify and YouTube, through headphones – and there’s just so much music out there, too. Gone are the days when DJs establish the soundtrack for any given moment in time. In that way, “Soundtracks” may be as much about the history of America through music as it is a history of the way Americans collectively experienced music. “I am not sure we’ll ever recapture the fervor and the intensity of those songs [from the civil rights era],” says Larry Watson, a professor of ensembles at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “I don’t think we’ll ever come back to those moments again.”

Songs of the 1960s

The songs of the 1960s contained both the power of cultural expression and offered a vehicle for social change, says Mr. Watson. “This period we are in now is clearly one of social disruption, but there’s no music. With what we’ve been through in the past six months, I think the airwaves would be flooded with songs that remind us of what a democracy is.” The music that dominates popular culture now, he says, “deals only with the waist down,” meaning that sex and violence dominate the lyrics of popular music. “But there’s nothing that deals with the waist up.”

Others say the anthem can live on, even in an era of greater diffusion in the music market.

Even though listening habits have changed and technology has disrupted the mass culture industry – the internet can serve up any kind of music in an instant – there will continue to be those songs that rise above the rest, says Chermayeff from Show of Force. “People really still are very empowered by these joint experiences that they have around music,” she says. “I still think that the communal experience wins out in the end.”

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