Most of us have some kind of relationship with popular music. Whether you’re a buff or a casual listener, the opening bars of a specific song can trigger your emotional memory and hurl you back to a specific moment in time. Significant events such as the end of high school, the forming or dissolution of a relationship, or even the death of a loved one are often accompanied by their own soundtrack.
The same phenomenon applies to our collective past. Modern popular music has run alongside recent history and certain compositions from certain bands have ended up inseparable from unforgettable events. New documentary series Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History explores the symbiotic relationship between significant moments in time and those songs that played underneath them.
A most unlikely executive producer
Originally commissioned by CNN, this eight-part documentary series puts the spotlight on one world event per episode, whether tragic, joyous or politically potent, then explores the popular music that either reflected, reviewed or came to represent it.
The face of the series is none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who served as one of its executive producers. Johnson’s childhood was marked by poverty and petty crime, and he credits certain hip-hop tracks as motivating him to imagine a life beyond his unfortunate lot. Johnson isn’t just one of the main players behind the scenes, he’s also featured in the series, and speaks of his personal relationship to music throughout.
The moments and the music
The episodes cover a wide range of events, taking place both in the US and abroad, and each instalment comes with the release of a full album. We visit Memphis, Tennessee circa 1968 to explore the music informed by Martin Luther King’s assassination (songs include Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam”). We travel to the Berlin Wall and hear the tunes that scored the fall of communism (songs include “Honesty” by Billy Joel and Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall”).
We’re taken back to the Vietnam War (songs include Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walkin'”), and then forward to the relatively recent catastrophe in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina (songs include “Louisiana 1927” by Aaron Neville and “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West).
On the more inspiring side of history, we remember the grand human achievements of the Space Race (songs include “Life On Mars” by David Bowie and “Rocket Man” by Elton John), the landmark "battle of the sexes" tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (songs include “Respect” by Aretha Franklin and “You Don’t Own Me” by Lesley Gore), and the decades-long evolution of the LGBT movement (songs include Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” and “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed).
Those notable musical folk weighing in on the accompanying songs include Billy Joel, Melissa Etheridge, Pat Benatar and Smokey Robinson, and non-musical commentary comes from, among others, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Anderson Cooper.
But first up, we time travel back to September 11, 2001
Sixteen years ago, the Western world changed forever. Since those unforgettable (and previously unimaginable) coordinated acts of terrorism that caused the death of almost 3000 people, and filled the New York skyline with smoke and debris, the world has remained on alert.
While the tail end of 2001 was drenched in tragedy and pain, it was also a time when much of the world rallied together in the name of camaraderie and tenacity. Giants of US popular culture dropped everything they were doing and used their influence for good. In the musical arena, benefit concerts became a way to rally the people, and underline the need for love and strength.
Older songs such as “New York State Of Mind” by Billy Joel and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” reentered the public consciousness and took on new meaning. Country music giants such as Dixie Chicks and Toby Keith inspired audiences with politically charged odes to human resistance. Music, in this case, became a means of articulating the collective anguish and strove to help the nation — and the wider world — move through the process of healing.
Watch Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History double episodes (covering 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina) at SBS on Demand:
Watch new episodes of Soundtracks: Songs that Defined History, Sunday 17 September at 8.30pm on SBS Australia.