Music as Social Commnetary

The end of the Reagan Administration is not generally known for political activism and yet during the highly conservative Reagan years, some of the biggest efforts of music to combat the problems of the world began. John Cougar Mellankamp wrote the album, “Rain on the Scarecrow” and began the Farm Aid concerts to draw attention to the disappearing American family far. Michael Jackson and the musical elite of the day wrote and performed, “We Are the World” and Sir Bob Geldof drew attention to the African famines with his multi-star performance and recording of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?

” Into that political climate, singer/songwriter Jackson Browne wrote and released the song, “How Long? ” on his “World in Motion” album released in 1989 (“Ontario Coalition Against Poverty” 1). Speculation runs high that Browne may have been directly addressing the issues of international poverty or may have been discussing the issue of Apartheid in South Africa, avery popular cause of the late 1980s. Browne, the German-born son of an American military photographer, had become well-known for his political activism.

After writing for some of the biggest names in the music industry including The Byrds and The Eagles (Paris 1), Browne recorded his own music beginning in the mid-1970s and culminating with his hits “Running on Empty” and “The Load Out (Stay)”. Then, his formerly easy-going music turned into political statement after political statement. He organized a coalition of musicians against nuclear energy after the Three Mile Island accident and often wrote about politics, saying,” nothing is more personal than your political beliefs.
” (Paris 1) But America of the late 1980s was in feel-good mode. The wall was coming down in Berlin, the Cold War at an end and the Soviet Union was crumbling. The album which featured “How Long” was the worst performance of Browne’s career, other than his debut album when nobody knew his name (Wade 1). The famine in Ethiopia and other parts of the world were big news, though largely ignored except for during feel-good relief efforts and homelessness in America was a huge issue as the Reagan era drove the divide between the haves and have nots even farther apart.
Browne, who was critical of liberals and conservatives alike (Ward 1), wrote the song to call everyone out for their blithe acceptance of the arms race and huge military budgets. Others speculate that the song relates to the Anti-Apartheid efforts. The South African crisis was big news during the Reasgan administration with Congress enacting strict restriction on South African trade, beginning in 1986, and popular culture canonizing Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
And that anti-Apartheid movement was important in popular culture. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989) highlighted the problems involving the race-based discrimination in South Africa the same year the song was released and the colonial system instituted by the Dutch did not end until years later. Sadly, however, the song seems largely misplaced in time, coming out in the first year of the presidency of George H. W. Bush when the world accepted that the arms race was over and social consciousness was beginning to take hold.
It almost appears as though Browne missed the boat with “How Long” as he was critical of the military industrial complex which was already in the process of dismantling after the reunification of Germany and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the song deals specifically with the issue of children and starvation, but did not serve to draw particular attention to the problem worldwide, possible due to the vagaries of the song. The vagaries of the song make it difficult to identify what social injustice in particular Browne hoped to address and that may have been his point.
While asking in general “How Long? ” people were willing to tolerate social injustice around the world, Browne may have helped to draw attention to both the need for nuclear disarmament and the need to end Apartheid. We do know that it asks the listener to consider the children and their future. “How Long” begins with a verse describing the possibilities evident in a child’s face and asks the listener, presumably Americans and other citizens of the world, how long the child would survive if it were up to them (“How Long” Lines 1-8).
The problem is that the children of the 1980s were not the flower-power generation of the 1960s and the subtly was lost. Asking “How long — would the child survive/How long — if it was up to you” was not the call to action needed in the late 1980s. The self-absorbed generation could easily just answer the question and ignore the call to action underneath the words. Indeed, there is no evidence that the song had any impact other than as a subtle reminder of what they saw daily on the news. In the second verse, Browne gets a little more direct with his indictment of the listener but still fails to call them to action.
“When you think about the money spent On defense by a government And the weapons of destruction we’ve built We’re so sure that we need And you think of the millions and millions That money could feed How long — can you hear someone crying How long — can you hear someone dying Before you ask yourself why? ” (Browne, “How Long” Lines 9-16) Ultimately, Browne does a good job of pointing out the political and social issues of the time, but fails to take a stance on what should be done about it.
There is a vague notion that the government should stop spending money on missile defense systems and nuclear weapons in favor of spending on social issues, but he never implores his audience to take action. Instead, the audience can simply agree that yes, it is a problem and then go back to their own lives without interruption or any change in action. Perhaps the one place where Browne’s work might be considered effective is in his final verse, when he discusses the need to think of the globe differently than the blue and white and green image seen from space (Browne, “How Long”).
Finally, he asks how long until we “have something to offer where the planet’s concerned? ” (“Browne, “How Long” Lines 38-39) Though the song is generally accepted as an anti-military, pro-social reform ballad, these last lines may have been influenced by his relationship with environmental activist and actress Darryl Hannah and may allude to the idea that people need to take action with regard to the world’s environmental situation. In that way, it may have had some limited effect on public awareness about environmental issues.
Realistically though, it appears that the only real effect of Browne’s work may have been on his career. Reviewer David Marsh, well-known for his commentary on rock music, put it this way. “This is one time Jackson Browne did his words profound justice as a singer — it’s simply a great piece of singing, stark, angry, pained and yet aching more than anything else with a love that’s proven yet again to be insufficient to hold a life together.
The question while this music and the story unfold is not how the singer will survive — he’s already told us that — but how the listener will keep his composure long enough to hear it through. ” (Ward 1) The song may well have been a sign of the times and completely appropriate for the long view of history, but in the culture of the times, it was too passe, with not enough call for direct action.
Still, just a few years later, Browne got his wish during the Clinton administration when the military industrial complex was largely dismantled, America’s standing army minimized and world concerns brought to the forefront of American consciousness. Apartheid also fell in the intervening years, coming to an end in 1994. By the time the song had its desired impact on spending priorities, the drought had shifted and the starving was in Rwanda and Darfur and Americans had moved on to another music form and again forgot the starving children.
Just as Browne’s cry for justice came very late in the era of Apartheid, it came very early in the call for environmental activism and people missed its call to do the right thing and care for the children of the world. Works Cited Browne, Clyde Jackson. “How Long? ” World in Motion, Elektra Records, 1989. Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, “Activism and protest song lyrics page” < http://www. ocap. ca/songs/howlong. html> December 5, 2007. Paris, Russ. “Jackson Browne: Biography”. <http://www. jrp-graphics. com/jb/jbbio. html>, December 5, 2007. Ward, Michael.
“Jackson Browne: the Artist behind the Words” http://media. www. versusmag. org/media/storage/paper584/news/2003/10/22/Music/Jackson. Browne-547215. shtml>, December 5, 2007. How Long by Jackson Browne When you look into a child’s face And you’re seeing the human race And the endless possibilities there Where so much can come true And you think of the beautiful things A child can do How long — would the child survive How long — if it was up to you When you think about the money spent On defense by a government And the weapons of destruction we’ve built

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