I don’t know about you, but every once in a while I get riled up about something going on in the world and I’m compelled to write a song in response. I’ve done this twice. Both songs are political in nature and are very much of their time. One was a response to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 (Sky Over Baghdad). The second song was driven by my anger at the excruciating murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in broad daylight (Running Out of Time).
Songs in response to current events can be cathartic and can contribute to the cultural dialogue on a pressing subject, but it’s important for you to know that the more a song is tied by specifics to an event or time, the less likely it is that you will perform it a year or two or ten years later. So, they may powerfully serve the moment, but rarely does a song grounded in a factual event stand the test of time.
Here’s how you can avoid that pitfall of a political song’s typically very short shelf life: keep it universal. Write about the broader idea or ideal, not about a specific instance or incident.
Woody Guthrie wants to speak to wealth inequality, particularly as it manifests in land ownership. He writes This Land Is Your Land — a universal clarion call for a more equitable distribution of wealth and shared ownership. The song is as powerful and relevant today as it was when first performed in the early 1940s. Guthrie actually reworked the lyrics several times between 1940 and 1944 finally arriving at the version we know and treasure today. Each of his revisions made the song’s appeal more universal and less tied to any detailed specifics of Guthrie’s times. Learn more about the evolution of This Land Your Land
Neil Young’s song, Ohio, was written, recorded and released in the immediate aftermath of the Ohio National Guard’s killing of four anti-war protesters at Kent State University in May 1970. Coming so immediately on the heels of the tragic event, the song quickly became a rallying cry for protests around the nation. Today, despite its being one of the great classics of early 1970s rock, it is rarely played, mostly because of its lack of universality. It is just too closely tied to a specific event now in the long past.
For a real deep dive into this topic, check out my video on it on YouTube: The Universal In Political Songwriting