One of my favorite things about pop music is that it can be a way to make sense of the world and of circumstances, or at least allow us to see different perspectives. Ultimately, we can believe that humanity will triumph over adversity, or that the forces of the unthinking, the random cruelties of life, or the lack of vision suffered by those in power will doom us to an unbearable future. There are plenty of songs which voice the latter.
But today, I’d like to talk about those tunes which makes you believe that the sun will shine someday, even if today is rife with rain clouds. Here are 10 songs for the optimist, 10 anthems to the power of a positive perspectives that help the listener to go beyond the darkness and seeming hopelessness of the present and catch a glimpse of a future that is not only hoped for, but longed for.
Written in 1926, Irving Berlin penned a tune which would embody the optimism necessary for many who would need it as the Great Depression set out to crush the spirits of a nation in the decade to follow. At one time, the role of music and of film was seen to provide an escape to those faced with the harsh realities of life; I suppose to an extent, that’s still true. I like to think that the models of unforgiving reality and the sweetnes and light in popular song is more like William Blake’s idea of innocence and experience, and that the two can co-exist. Blue Skies is surely an anthem to innocence and young love, an optimist’s song that comes from the point of view of those who see the simple things as being the most meaningful. This song celebrates the perspective that love in one’s life is the way to clarity, and that this perspective has the power to make one notice that the world, despite its troubles, can be a beautiful place after all.
‘Blue Skies’ has been covered by an incredible range of performers from Al Jolson to Bing Crosby, to Willie Nelson (watch the clip above), to Lieutenant Commander Data from the film Star Trek: Nemesis, proving that when something is true, it never gets old (even in the 24th century, presumably). This is one of my favourite songs of all time.
Another song that evokes the image of the blue sky as a metaphor for a hopeful future is the Turtles smash hit, ‘Happy Together’ from the album of the same name. When the song was released in the Spring of 1967, the Summer of Love was just around the corner, as a sort of optimism epicenter. People held onto the idea that the simplicity of love could change the world for the better and this song shimmers with that hope, that love could create a vision for people to follow. Of course it works on the level of a finely crafted pop song about young love too, inspired as it appears to be by a Brian Wilson approach to the arrangement (listen to the “ba-buh-bap-bap-ba” backing vocals – pure Beach Boys brand aural sunshine!) which perfectly captures the feelings of unadorned teenaged love, untroubled by the cynicism which often sets in later.
The end of the decade would also see an end to this age of innocence. Even in the year that followed, the assassinations of both Bobby Kennedy and Doctor Martin Luther King and the escalation of the war in Vietnam would temper the perspectives of many to feel that optimism would be something to work hard at as as the clouds of war and political disillusionment began to gather. Still, the music would endure and continue to be heard in new songs from bands like Apples in Stereo and The Pearlfishers.
Much like the sentiment in Berlin’s ‘Blue Skies’ the way to clarity is not gained by relying on happy circumstances, or by ignoring bad ones, but by noticing one’s own state of being and finding strength in it. And again, the eternally useful image of the clear sky is evoked, with Nash’s gloriously passionate vocal making it an undeniably powerful statement, as well as one of the greatest hit singles of all time. Nash was one of the first American performers to notice, fall in love with, and promote reggae in a pop format for First-World radio. It helps that it is almost impossible to write a depressing song and set it to the sun-washed sound that is at the heart of the music. Nash was a living connection between American R&B and the music of the Carribean, having toured there in the 60s off of the back of the success of his singles in Jamaica in particular where R&B has a significant following. And his 1972 hit in ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ would introduce a whole new range of sounds for First-World performers when Nash brought his take on reggae back to the States. This cutlural exchange had been completed for many years before Jimmy Cliff a hit in 1994 with his cover of the song.
The influence of reggae on R&B would not be limited to Johnny Nash in the early 70s. Stax recording artists and soul and gospel legends the Staple Singers were in their “message music “phase, yet still retained some of their gospel roots. Where their approach was far from Christian escapism which is common in lot of gospel music, this classic track by the Staples was pure joy at the hope for a better world. And in this song, such hope is palpable and present, set as it is to a loping reggae lilt and carried to even higher ground by the soaring alto voice of the incomparable Mavis Staples. The song is both spiritual and sexy at the same time (and what better a definition of ‘Soul’ is there?). It casts a light that seems to banish any doubt that Mavis can take you there!
Like Johnny Nash’s influence illustrated, the sound on ‘I’ll Take You There’ is the fruit of a cultural exchange, with 60s soul music having made an impact in the Carribean, with domestic attempts at recreating soul resulting in ska and reggae being then reflected back into the sound of soul music in ensuing years. But what strikes me here is the hopefulness apparent in both cultures, like rays of light leaping out of what some consider to be cultures who had no cause to be this optimistic about the state of the world or their places in it. Yet perhaps the place where “ain’t nobody cryin’” is a state of mind too, a perspective gained when one is singing about the existence of such a place.
For more evidence of what I’m talking about, consider the unofficial 11th song on this list, the Five Stairsteps’ ‘Ooh Child’, which is an unabashed anthem to this same kind of optimism.
Diana Ross won a whole new audience in the disco era, partially thanks to her album Diana which was released with great adulation in 1980. The track ‘I’m Coming Out’, one of the lead tracks off of the record, is an exuberant statement which was soon to become a gay anthem upon release, being as it is an empowering expression of pride in one’s identity. The fact that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic produced the album makes it pretty easy to understand how it became such a second wind to Ross, who to be fair had gained a lot of traction with her appearance in the movie The Wiz with Michael Jackson. But the song itself has the same qualities of innocence as many talked about already, along with a celebratory lyric that makes the realization of self-discovery more than just a personal milestone, but as an event to be shared . In other words, it is not unlike what the Christian Right describe a ‘born again’ experience to be; spiritual, life-changing, and worldview-defining.
Canadian collective the Parachute Club’s 1983 hit is a theme song to a hoped-for political golden age, with a gay-pride-meets-spirituality message worked in for good measure. The countercultural force of the 1960s is present here, although updated for the 80s – quite a feet in the middle of the Reagan era. This song was recorded when a political swing to the right was largely due to a fear that humanity would do the wrong thing when it counted as opposed to preserving the peace. It was a time when optimism was a tough business – like it is now. In this song, there is a sentiment of protest with a wish for “madness to end”. But for the most part, the song seems to be a celebration of the possibilities of a bright future, when “the spirit’s time has come”.
I think that spirit to which they refer is less about a divine presence coming to bail us out, and more about the kind of spirit that is present when people adjust their ways of thinking on a mass scale, and take action to initiate change as a result. Once again, a change in perspective means everything.
You can vote this the most unlikely song of optimism on the list, with quite a bit of dark shades to the song from a band who is known for more sombre tones. But what I get from this is an overall sense that even in a week of black moods there lies the hope for love which makes everything worth getting through. I think this is ultimately optimistic, even if (maybe especially if) the weight of depression and despair is all too present. I think this song shows the difference between happiness and optimism, the latter acknowledging the presence of negative forces in life a bit more than the former. It also demonstrates a certain amount of faith that ultimately there is value in life, love to be found regardless of the burden of what also comes along that may make one think otherwise. Of course the joyful jangly guitars help to convey the idea on this one. Despite the darkness in some of the lyrics (hey, it’s the Cure after all…), I think this song is life affirming, with the added bonus of also being an acknowledgement of emotional and spiritual contrast with darker periods in one’s life brings.
How is it that a song which is so geared for morning people, so unrelentingly upbeat, can also avoid being really annoying? Easy; it’s convincing, and infectious whether you’re ready to leap out of bed every day or not. The Boo Radleys pull from the best in pop and soul, pulling out all the stops in this ode to love and to a renewed sense of well-being. In an age of irony, this is just pure exuberance and joie de vive. What else can be said?
The weight of adulthood is a popular theme in pop music if for no other reason that the traditional audiences for pop have been the young, going through the clichéd “changes” that come part and parcel with adolesence. The power of music that can be a binding force is also a pretty compelling theme, and falls in line with the idea that the value of life can be found in the best art, and the simple pleasures which put any trials we go through into the right perspective. This tune by The New Radicals embodies this idea, that a love of music and letting oneself be immersed in the joys to be found in it is a liberating experience, and one which can allow us to hold onto that which is most important, even in trying times. Heady stuff.
And optimistic? Oh yes. But one again, this is a state of mind, and a choice to make when standing at the crossroads of important decisions in life. You only get what you give indeed.
XTC – Stupidly Happy
It’s great when a writer who is associated with weightier themes – the existance of god, racial hatred, divorce being some of the many – can also be associated by feelings of giddiness which seem to put all of those other areas of life into perspective. Andy Partridge is such a writer, as I’ve memtioned in other posts. And here on the track ‘Stupidly Happy’ from XTC’s Wasp Star, Apple Venus Vol. 2 album, the song beams out joy for all to hear.
And again, the theme is all about how the presence of love can be transformative, and can change one’s perspective immesurably. With this song, what is most striking to me is the surprise in the singer’s voice, as if he didn’t expect to feel the way he feels, but that his own sense of well-being and purpose has been changed for the better. “All the lights of the cars in the town form the strings of a big guitar/I’m the giant who’ll play you a tune from whereever you are.” I love that line.
Optimism, then. It has a solid tradition in pop music through out the decades, through wars, fear of wars, poverty, and any other blight that has plagued humanity from the beginning. The best of this tradition of optimism in pop is that which acknowledges that the world is not the best that it could be, but that it is conceivable that we’ll get there one day. In the meantime, sometimes it’s enough just to sing along.