Power of music

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readOct 9, 2022

Source : Google photo of Madonna

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Synopsis : The changing times have a strong influence on the music that are produced reflecting the changes. We have come from the whining and tiring country music to boring love songs sung by old people of yesteryears to the current era of the great performing artists/singers like Madonna but that too is changing. The blog looks at the evolution of the singer/activists over the years who send strong messages through their songs they wrote and sang.

When Madonna appeared on a cross wearing a crown of thorns ,the audience was transfixed not knowing what was she going to do next but she gave a clue. There was a digital counter over her head where the digits were changing at a furious rate.

Then she started singing in her melodious voice while slowly coming down from the cross and sang about millions of children in Africa and elsewhere orphaned by the war and communal violence. She sang about famine and devastation that left the land littered with bodies. She sang about the misery brought upon the humanity by others who wanted to kill democracy and freedom of people. In the background flashed the scenes of starving children and burning villages on giant screens.

When she stopped singing, a message flashed on the screen. It said that God looked at the humanity with pity and said “ What you have done to each other, you have done it to me”. At this time the digital counter stopped and showed that a million men women and even children died in the violence done to them by others in the name of religion, tribal hatred, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Madonna is not only a singer. She is an activist who spreads her message like this through her songs and a graphic display to tell the whole world that she takes a stand on such issues. She has also adopted several children from Malawi to raise them with her love and care. She is adored worldwide for her great talent and her activism.

In this hour long video, she sings about domestic violence where a dancer behind her wriggles in moves to show the torture he suffers while a girl in a cage tries to get free of her cage and flies away as a dove in the end while Madonna sings and mesmerizes her audience. She lies down on the stage in exhaustion and drinks some water but soon gets up again to continue her show.

Next she has two men wearing Jewish and Arabic signs on their bodies who seem to be tormented by their differences while Madonna sings about love and understanding, about forgiving and embracing each other in order to forget their religious animosities while a third man in Middle Eastern dress sings in Arabic in a captivating voice about love and peace. Her message is clear. There is no room for hate and animosity among people in the modern world due to religion, faith and terrorism.

After watching the video of Madonna, I started to think what tremendous power she has in her songs and how her message is seen or heard worldwide. She acknowledges and thanks her team, her dancers, her band, her people who work behind the scene controlling the lights, the electronic displays, the sound and all the rest and her fans for the success of her shows. They in return give her a standing ovation while the lights focus on their ecstatic faces.

Madonna represents a new breed of performing artists who not only sing and dance but encourage the vast audience to sing with them and captivating them with their live performance on a massive stage where the huge display boards flash computer generated imagery and sound to create a dreamlike environment that literally engulfs the entire audience. Numerous cameras capture her every move and every sound byte in digital details to make a video CD later that brings them a lot of money.

When I was young, the singers were called playback singers who sang for the movies but were not seen. The actors and actresses lip synced the songs but no one cared. The singers who sang in public just sat in front of a microphone while a band played in the background. They did not sing and dance or interact with their audience. There were no digital displays and flashing images to highlight their songs. The singers took no stand on the social issues but sang about love and broken hearts so most of their songs had the same theme. They also sang religious songs written by some people long ago that the older audience liked.

Then came the era of performing artists/singers like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Shakira, Jenifer Lopez among many others who took over the world of music in a storm because they like Madonna took over the stage with their songs and dazzling displays of flashing lights and imagery. They are popular with the younger generation because their songs carry deep messages that makes them think or act.

But it was not Madonna or others who set this trend of activism through music. The credit should go to earlier singers like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, John Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and country singers like Johnny Cash among many others who sang about social issues, gun violence, racial hatred, alcoholism etc. but they rarely performed in front of vast audience like Madonna or Shakira.

Some famous singers like the Beatles did not like to perform in front of audience so they recorded their songs in a studio where they could make mistakes and rerecord their songs many times before they got it right. In a live performance there is no room for mistakes because the audience watches and hears everything. John Lennon would be remembered forever just for his song “Imagine”.

Sometimes some singers are known to cheat by lip-syncing their songs because they may have sore throat or are not in top shape but that is very risky. People can tell if an artist is lip syncing so they may not like it. Good singers know that lip syncing is immoral and akin to cheating.

So the singers like Madonna have a lot rehearsals before they appear in public to sing. All their songs and dances are meticulously choreographed under the scrutiny of a professional director who oversees all aspects of the show be it lights, make up, clothes, band, electronic display etc. so it takes weeks of preparation and rehearsal before an artist like Madonna or Shakira appears on the stage.

But all the preparation for a show counts for nothing if the singer does not have the magnetic charm, voice and personality so some artists like Madonna and Shakira have become very successful and popular while others fail to hold candle to them and fade away into oblivion. Some have died in their bathtubs overdosed with drugs and alcohol while others have ended their career by becoming anorexic although initially they were successful in selling their records.

The activist singers like Joan Baez, Don McLean and Bob Dylan gained popularity among the college students who were protesting the endless war in Vietnam so they liked what message Joan Baez and Bob Dylan spread through their songs. They were the original singers/ activists who did not fear the hard core warmongers who hated them and their songs the educated population liked so much and took to the streets in very large numbers nationwide to protest.

Judy Collins and Linda Ronstadt, Jean Ferrat ( in France ) and Khanh Ly ( Vietnam ) were great activists who sang freely against oppression, war, religious hatred and injustice that made them liked and famous. Jean Ferrat’s song called Air de Liberte and the song on Pablo Neruda should be heard again and again. I have published blogs on Jean Ferrat and Khanh Ly called Legend of Jean Ferrat and songbird Khanh Ly that you may read here Jean Ferrat is a legend .) (The world of music ).

I have an LP record of Joan Baez where she sings “When the Sun sets in the West, die a million people in Bangladesh “ highlighting the atrocities committed in Bangladesh during the war of 1971. I believe she was the first such singer who recorded the song on Bangladesh at that time.

Source : Google photo of Michael Jackson

Among the performing artists/singers, no one came near Michael Jackson in terms of popularity who attracted vast crowd no matter where he put up his shows. People went crazy when he appeared on stage and started to sing, Women cried and fainted because they were so excited just to see Michael .There is a video of Michael performing in Bucharest, Romania that is worth watching and worth listening to his songs. His Moonwalk and his dancing drove his audience crazy. They got so excited that the security people got very anxious. Several woman who fainted had to be taken away in stretchers.

Just like a war produces heroes who come forward to save the country, the antiwar heroes are also born who lend their strong voice in support of peace that influences a lot of people. No one can undervalue the effect Joan Baez and Dylan had on young people everywhere who were deeply troubled by the war in Vietnam and sought ways to escape the draft.

I stood with a lot of people one night in Santa Barbara, California in 1969 who sang “We shall overcome “ that was I think sung by Joan Baez and inspired a lot of people to sing along including myself.

Many of these famous performing artists like Taylor Swift, Michael Jackson or Madonna came from poverty and struggled very hard to reach superstardom. Taylor Swift sang at first in small clubs just to earn a few dollars. Her mother gave her support and encouragement. What I know is that one has to struggle for a long time before people start paying attention so what makes people notice them?

Is it just their melodious voice or something else? I think when they sing about the pressing social issues to send a strong message, it touches the hearts of millions of people worldwide. Now a days such message spreads faster than the speed of light due to the era of technology so a song can be heard anywhere in the world through the social media, Spotify and many such platforms.

A little girl in Holland named Amira Willighagen who learned to sing watching U. Tube Video became an International star when she appeared in a talent show in Europe. She was only a child of 8 years but people could not believe she had such commanding voice. ( Read my blog here called Two extraordinary child prodigies here ).

I feel tired of old singers of 1940 and 1950 who were famous during that period but their audience was very different from today. They were less educated and more diehard nationalists. They grew up during the great depression of the dust bowl years of Steinbeck and suffered poverty and deprivation of all sorts. They actively supported the World War II and the atom bomb.

The song writers of that period wrote songs reflecting the conditions in which most people lived then. Such people who only a generation ago had known poverty and hard struggle of life became the ardent supporters of the war mongers in Washington and even applauded when My Lai massacre happened in Vietnam. But their children who were dying in the war in Vietnam had a very different perspective. They listened to Joan Baez and Bob Dylan.

The Vietnamese today who were young in 1967 but old now remember the songs of Khanh Ly who was then a teenager singing in some night clubs about war and peace. I still get shivers listening to her songs in my stereo because her message in her songs are still valid after so many years.

The music industry is constantly changing reflecting the mood of the nation and the likes and dislikes of the present generation. Some records and CDs that they produce cannot be seriously called music that should inspire people but the record companies produce them because they sell. People will sell garbage if there is a market for it.

What I miss now is the beautiful lyrics written by great song writers like Lennon , Dylan and others like Elton John who wrote and sang “The candle in the wind” when Diana died. Who can write songs like that today?

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Originally published at http://aumolc.wordpress.com on October 9, 2022.