This Top 11 Songs for a Better World piece original ran in 2013, but given the protests in the United States regarding the death of George Floyd and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is being re-run in 2020.
While rock ‘n’ roll has always celebrated love, laughter, and living large, its stars have also created music that has sparked social change. To abolish war, racism, hate and poverty, rockers have created anthems that have moved people to contribute money, take to the streets or just live in harmony. Songs that targeted the Vietnam War have been updated to address new conflicts; music that tackled hunger and discrimination are still relevant. Here is our list of the Top 11 Songs for a Better World.
11. Edwin Starr – “War”
With war raging in Vietnam in 1969, Motown’s Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote what would become one of the best-selling protest songs: War. Originally recorded by the Temptations, Motown never intended to release War as a single. “It was buried on one of their albums,” soul shouter Edwin Starr told Super Seventies. “But then a lot of mail came in, mostly from students, asking why they didn’t release it on a 45. Well, that was a touchy time, and that song had some implications. It was a message record, an opinion record, and stepped beyond being sheer entertainment. It could become a smash record, and that was fine, but if it went the other way, it could kill the career of whoever the artist was.”
To avoid alienating the Tempts’ more conservative fans, Motown released War as a single by Starr, which hit number one in 1970; Bruce Springsteen also cracked the Top 10 with a live version in 1986. Starr maintained that people have misunderstood the song’s meaning. “It wasn’t about Vietnam. It never once mentioned the war in Vietnam,” Starr said. “Actually, we were talking about a war of people – the war people wage against each other on a day-to-day basis.”
And the Springsteen cover:
10. The Beatles – “All You Need is Love”
In June 1967 Our World, a TV show watched by 400 million people in 26 countries, hoped to send a message of peace around the world; the Beatles were asked to contribute a new song. “We were big enough to command an audience of that size, and it was for love. It was for love and bloody peace,” said Ringo Starr in Anthology. “It was a fabulous time. I even get excited now when I realize that’s what it was for: peace and love, people putting flowers in guns.”
Largely written by John Lennon, All You Need Is Love was recorded with the band surrounded by friends. “I remember the recording, because we decided to get some people in who looked like the ‘love generation,’” said George Harrison. “If you look closely at the floor, I know that Mick Jagger is there. But there’s also an Eric Clapton, I believe, in full psychedelic regalia and permed hair, sitting right there. We rehearsed for a while, and then it was: ‘You’re on at twelve o’clock, lads.’ The man upstairs pointed his finger and that was that. We did it – one take.” Though it seems uncomplicated, the song deserves a closer listen. “The chorus, ‘All you need is love,’ is simple, but the verse is quite complex; in fact I never really understood it, the message is rather complex,” said Paul McCartney in Many Years From Now. “It was a good song that we had handy that had an anthemic chorus.
9. USA for Africa – “We Are the World”
Africa’s people starved to death in the famine of 1984-1985, including one million in Ethiopia. “I think what’s happening in Africa is a crime of historic proportions,” said musician and activist Bob Geldof. “You walk into one of the corrugated iron huts and you see meningitis and malaria and typhoid buzzing around the air. And you see dead bodies lying side by side with the live ones. In some of the camps you see 15 bags of flour for 27,000 people.”
To help, 45 of music’s biggest stars formed USA for Africa to record We Are the World. Written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, the proceeds of the record’s sales went to humanitarian aid. Two sessions were held in January 1985; superstars like Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross and Billy Joel each sang a solo line in the anthem. “It was really interesting and unique,” John Oates told Songfacts. “Who knows, it may never happen again in history. You have some of the world’s greatest singers in one room. We ran the song down once. The next thing you knew they ran the tape back and it was goosebump time. It was an amazing experience.” We Are the World helped raise more than $60 million for aid to Africa and the U.S.
8. Marvin Gaye – “What’s Going On?”
By 1970, Marvin Gaye had tired of performing his signature love songs. Anti-war demonstrations swept the country; Gaye’s brother Frankie described the death and destruction he’d seen in Vietnam. Gaye wanted to record music with a message, as did Motown colleague Renaldo “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops. Inspired by a clash he’d seen between protesters and police, Benson and lyricist Al Cleveland wrote what would become What’s Going On, a call for the end to the war abroad and brutality at home. When the Tops passed on the song as too controversial, Gaye added the title and his own touches and recorded it despite Motown head Berry Gordy’s claim that the song was not commercial.
“From Jump Street, Motown fought ‘What’s Going On,’” Gaye said in Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. “They didn’t like it, didn’t understand it, and didn’t trust it,” said Gaye. “For months they wouldn’t release it. My attitude had to be firm. Basically I said, ‘Put it out or I’ll never record for you again.’ That was my ace in the hole, and I had to play it.” What’s Going On became a huge hit but for Gaye, it was more than just an anti-war statement. “The biggest result of What’s Going On had to do with my own freedom. I’d earned it, and no one could take it away from me,” said Gaye. “I needed to keep going up – raising my consciousness – or I’d fall back on my behind. When would the war stop? That’s what I wanted to know… the war inside my soul.”
7. War – “Why Can’t We Be Friends?”
War is the funky California band whose name stands for We Are Righteous; drummer Harold Brown said War’s goal was to “bring everybody together through our music.” Their 1975 hit Why Can’t We Be Friends? features band members each singing a verse that asks why differences should prevent people from getting along. Brown told Songfacts that the idea for the tune came while traveling in Japan. “Most racists don’t know why they’re racist. But you pick them up and take them over and drop them in a country, like India or Pakistan, guess what? ‘Why can’t we be friends?’ Because all of a sudden you find out we’re more alike inside than we are on the outside.”
The infectious track, which repeats the phrase “Why can’t we be friends?” more than 40 times, became an anthem for harmony among different races, religions, classes and ethnicities. In 1975, NASA beamed the song to American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts as they linked in space.
6. John Mayer – “Waiting on the World to Change”
Unlike most protest songs that inspire action, John Mayer’s 2006 hit Waiting on the World to Change explains his generation’s apathy on social issues. “It’s saying, ‘Well, I’ll just watch American Idol because I know that if I were engaged in changing anything for the better, or the better as I see it, it would go unnoticed or be completely ineffective,’” Mayer told The Advocate. “A lot of people have that feeling.” Anthems promoting peace and love, Mayer told NPR, won’t cut it anymore. “Look, demanding somebody do anything in this day and age is not going to fly. Kids don’t even like being talked to like kids anymore, you know, ‘Just give me the option and I’ll think about it.’” Despite its cynical tone, Mayer ends the song on an optimistic note: One day our generation / Is gonna rule the population / So we keep on waiting / Waiting on the world to change.
5. Cat Stevens – “Peace Train”
By 1971, the U.S. was enmeshed in the Vietnam War with no end in sight. British-born folk-rocker Cat Stevens wrote Peace Train, a song he hoped would motivate people to live in harmony: Why must we go on hating / Why can’t we live in bliss? “Musically, I was revisiting a very Greek-sounding riff – the kind of thing you’d hear on a Greek island,” Stevens said on The Chris Isaak Show. “The words were attached to that time, my peace anthem. It ended every show that I did and was quite a showstopper. It was a very important song for me because it stated one of the big goals of my life, which was heading straight for that peace.”
Stevens, who later became a Muslim and changed his name to Yusuf Islam, re-recorded the song in 2003; America was again at war, this time in Iraq. “Peace Train is a song I wrote, the message of which continues to breeze thunderously through the hearts of millions,” said Stevens. “There is a powerful need for people to feel that gust of hope rise up again. As a member of humanity and as a Muslim, this is my contribution to the call for a peaceful solution.”
4. Paul Revere & the Raiders – “Indian Reservation”
The forced removal of the Cherokee Nation to reservations in what is now Oklahoma is one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. history. Known as the Trail of Tears, 4,000 Cherokee died on the journey over land and water in the 1830’s. Singer-songwriter John Loudermilk learned of the tragedy growing up in Durham, North Carolina, where his family belonged to the Salvation Army church. Loudermilk’s mother performed missionary work with the Cherokee; their stories would inspire Loudermilk to write The Pale Faced Indian in 1959.
The prolific Loudermilk, who also wrote “Tobacco Road” (the Nashville Teens) and “Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye” (the Casinos), described the white man’s attempt to destroy Indian culture: Took away our native tongue / And taught their English to our young. Retitled Indian Reservation (The Lament of the Cherokee Reservation Indian), the song would become Paul Revere and the Raiders’ biggest success. “Indian Reservation“ had a special meaning for Mark Lindsay, who performed the lead vocal and produced the track; some of Lindsay’s ancestors were of Cherokee blood.
3. John Lennon – “Imagine”
John Lennon’s signature song, Imagine, is his vision of a world at peace, free of the conflicts caused by nationalism, religion and greed. Lennon was initially inspired by Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit, a book that encouraged readers to Imagine the clouds dripping / Dig a hole in your garden to put them in. Later activist Dick Gregory gave the couple a gift that would help Lennon complete the song. “Dick gave Yoko and me a little kind of prayer book,” Lennon said in All We Are Saying. “It is the concept of positive prayer. If you want to get a car, get the car keys. Get it? Imagine is saying that. If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my-God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true.”
Ono told Rolling Stone that “Imagine” reflects “just what John believed: that we are all one country, one world, one people.” Lennon acknowledged that “Imagine” was intentionally commercial; the song is “anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted,” John said. “Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.”
2. Sly & the Family Stone – “Everyday People”
Sly and the Family Stone, headed by psychedelic funk pioneer Sly Stone, exemplified its message of anti-racism and equality. The band members – men and women, multi-racial – were all featured prominently on stage. “We didn’t have three girl background singers. Everybody was on the front line,” saxophonist Jerry Martini told AltSounds. “We were all up front. A straight line right across. There were no background people.” When “Everyday People” was released in 1968 during the Civil Rights movement, it became an anthem for racial harmony. It was a plea for people of different races, ages and social status to accept that “we are the same whatever we do.” By February 1969, “Everyday People” reached number one; the line “Different strokes for different folks” became a catch phrase for tolerance of others’ beliefs.
1. Bruce Springsteen & the E. Street Band – “Born in the U.S.A.”
The Battle of Khe Sanh was one of the longest and bloodiest of the Vietnam War. That battle – and the plight of veterans when they came home – was the inspiration for Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Springsteen told American Quarterly that the song was about a working-class man in a “spiritual crisis, in which man is left lost … It’s like he has nothing left to tie him into society anymore. He’s isolated from the government. Isolated from his family … to the point where nothing makes sense.” The 1985 anthem is one of the most misunderstood message songs in rock; many mistake the ringing “Born in the U.S.A.” chorus as a nationalistic cheer, ignoring Springsteen’s biting verse about a brother killed in a senseless war.
“In my songs, the spiritual part, the hope part is in the choruses,” Springsteen told NPR. “The blues, and your daily realities are in the details of the verses. The spiritual comes out in the choruses, which I got from Gospel music and the church … I make American music, and I write about the place I live and who I am in my lifetime. Those are the things I’m going to struggle for and fight for.”