There clearly is a holy trinity of popular music themes: falling in love, being in love, and falling out of love. But now and then songwriters and record labels are brave enough to venture out of love-song-territory to hunt for other stories to tell.
In light of recent worrying developments, here are ten particularly powerful songs that deal with conflict, war, and a neverending search for peace. From ABBA to Black Eyed Peas, and from Marvin Gaye to Todrick Hall, this chronological list will torture your heart more than any breakup song can.
1. Sam Cooke ? ?A Change is Gonna Come? (1964)
This song from the early 60s was written and performed by Sam Cooke. The New Yorker reported in 2015 that Cooke was inspired to pen this civil rights anthem after the release of Bob Dylan?s own anthem, ?Blowing in the Wind? which was released in 1963. Accompanied by beautiful strings and powerful horns, Cooke?s anthem is simultaneously melancholy and hopeful ? despite his struggles and the obstacles he faces, he determines to persevere.
?There been time that I thought I couldn?t last for long / But now I think I?m able to carry on, / It?s been a long, a long time coming, / but I know a change gonna come,? Cooke sings.
2. The Plastic Ono Band ? ?Give Peace a Chance?(1969)
John Lennon and Yoko Ono conducted multiple bed-in protests in the late 1960s to express their concern regarding the multiple ongoing international conflicts at the time ? particularly the Vietnam War. During one such ?bed-in? at a Montreal hotel, the anti-war anthem ?Give Peace a Chance? was born.
Before their week-long stay in Montreal concluded, Lennon noodled with chords and lyrics, musicians were invited, and the couple had recorded the official version of the anthem, all without leaving their room. This raucous, vibrant protest anthem doesn?t exactly play it coy ? the refrain ?give peace a chance? is repeated twenty times, and alone comprises the final two minutes of the four-minute-long anthem.
3. Marvin Gaye ? ?What?s Going On? (1971)
Created through the collaboration of The Four Tops? Obie Benson, songwriter Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye to protest police brutality, this beautiful track features hard-hitting lyrics, beautiful melodies, and rich instrumentation.
While written as a direct response to the police brutality that Benson witnessed in San Francisco, the track also discusses the Vietnam War and urges calm discussion over violence. ?We don?t need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate? Picket lines and picket signs / Don?t punish me with brutality / Talk to me so you can see / What?s going on,? Gaye sings.
Interested? Learn more about the origin of ?What?s Going On? here.
4. ABBA ? ?Fernando? (1976)
?Fernando? is one of the most successful ABBA singles of all time and one of the few tracks worldwide to have sold more than 10 million physical copies. Yet, in spite of its commercial success, the ballad strays far from the safe lyrical territory of falling in and out of love.
Interestingly, ?Fernando? was first released by ABBA member Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Her solo version had swedish lyrics about heartbreak, but when Bjrn Ulvaeus penned brand new english lyrics for the ABBA version, the subject matter changed completely.
Written from the point of view of a revolutionary who had fought in the war between Texas and Mexico, the english lyrics feature romanticised memories of a violent past. ?We were young and full of life and none of us prepared to die,? ABBA sing. ?And I?m not ashamed to say the roar of guns and cannons almost made me cry.? In the world of popular music, it doesn?t happen very often that such a unique song about such a specific topic is so incredibly successful in commercial terms.
5. U2 ? ?One? (1991)
This track is said to have been recorded when U2 was going through a period of turmoil, and since has been used at multiple benefit concerts ? the 1997 Tibetan Freedom Concert in New York, for one, as well as the popular version performed and recorded with Mary J. Blige at Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina devastated the US in 2005.
?One love, one blood, / One life, you got to do what you should?One life, but we?re not the same / We get to carry each other,? Bono sings on the final chorus. Reminding us all of our unity and interdependence, this track addresses conflict and promotes peace.
6. Brooke Fraser ? ?Saving the World? (2003)
This lyrically ingenious track from Brooke Fraser?s debut album What To Do With Daylight addresses one of the biggest problems of today?s society: apathy. The singer-songwriter acknowledges that ?if there?s a good and bad we?re somewhere in between.? She then proceeds to call out the indifferent attitude many people have towards serious global issues. ?While we?re waiting we could try saving the world. Or are we storing that up for a rainy day??
In line with the light-hearted choice of words, the music video for the guitar-based popsong uses intriguing imagery, depicting the journey of an earth-coloured ball.
?Saving The World? is immensely powerful because it emulates the lives of its addressees, hiding a serious message behind happy-go-lucky phrases and melodies.
7. Black Eyed Peas ? ?Where is the Love?? (2003)
The Black Eyed Peas call out so many conflicts and evils on this track ? racism, war, gang violence, terrorism, chemical warfare, greed, misleading and salacious media reports, inequality, to name a few.
?What ever happened to the values of humanity? / Whatever happened to the fairness and equality? / Instead of spreading love we?re spreading animosity / Lack of understanding leading us away from unity,? apl.de.ap sings. Like Marvin Gaye, the Black Eyed Peas urge us to attempt to understand one another so that we might find common ground.
8. Pet Shop Boys ? ?Twentieth Century? (2006)
The British synthpop duo is no stranger to political songs. From a fictional gathering of well-knowns despots (?Hell?) to a love story between Tony Blair and George W. Bush (?I?m With Stupid?), there are few controversial topics the Pet Shop Boys haven?t addressed.
?Twentieth Century?, released on the duo?s most political album Fundamental, is a thought-provoking mid-tempo gem that looks back on a tumultous century shaped by war and conflict. ?I bought a ticket to the revolution and I cheered when the statues fell,? Neil Tennant sings, before coming to the conclusion that ?sometimes the solution is worse than the problem.?
9. Guy Sebastian ? ?Get Along? (2012)
Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian may be known for his feelgood up-tempo singles, but at times he strays from his hit formula, as he did with 2012?s ?Get Along?. Released as the fourth single from his Armageddon album, the pop/R?n?B hybrid deals with religious conflicts and the tragic results of intolerance.
According to Sebastian, the song was written after the birth of his son, which made him reflect on the world the boy would grow up in. ?Dear God, dear soul, dear Mary, Muhammad, can we all just get along?? the singer belts out on the sublime chorus, summarising his desire for a more peaceful world in simple yet powerful terms.
10. Todrick Hall? ?Water Guns? feat. Jordin Sparks (2016)
This urban ballad is the standout track of YouTube star Todrick Hall?s brilliant musical film Straight Outta OZ. Performed towards the end of the film, the Jordin Sparks collaboration deals with the wave of violence that has recently hit the US (?too much blood on these yellow brick streets?).
Police brutality targeted at black citizens is criticised, with Hall pointing out that ?the game of cops and robbers ain?t a game now.? Several such allusions to children?s games and toys create a powerful contrast with Jordin Spark?s heartfelt chorus, on which she begs, ?save all our sons and daughters [?] ?cause these ain?t water guns anymore.?
Head over to Spotify to listen to these tracks in a special playlist.