Where the 1960s sparked a change in America, the 1970s carried on the protesting torch. A new president had been in power with the promise of removing troops from Vietnam with no such luck, mass racial violence was still happening at home and the feminism movement had really begun to make a name for itself.
Music was used to bridge what was happening in the United States during this significant time in history with people’s emotions. From folk heroes to feminist icons, all had their hands on a decade filled with even more unrest.
These are some of the most powerful and political songs of the 1970s.
"Big Yellow Taxi" by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell was one of the first musicians to focus on the rapid change of the environment. After visiting Hawaii for the first time, she noticed several beautiful mountains of green when in the corner of her eye something caught her attention: a parking lot.
This was a shock to her and fuelled her to compose “Big Yellow Taxi.” Not only does she inform her audience about her personal experiences with climate change as well as other destruction that everyone should be aware of.
“Put away that D.D.T now, give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees,” was referring to the insecticide, DDT. DDT was a common chemical used on crops but had extremely harmful effects on several species of birds, insects and fish. At the time of the song’s release, DDT was not a banned substance, although the pesticide would ultimately see its demise in 1972.
By drawing attention to the drastic changes to the environment caused by human involvement, she crafted a timeless song that still resonates with environmental issues today.
"I Am Woman" by Helen Reddy
This song came to fruition after Australian singer Helen Reddy didn’t have enough hits to finish her first album. Despite not liking the original version Reddy and her producer recorded, it was put on the album anyway. Movie producer Mike Frankovitch heard “I Am Woman” and loved it enough to want to include a re-recorded version in his "feminist comedy,” Stand Up And Be Counted.
“I Am Woman” became tied closely with the second wave of the feminist movement that was gaining new ground in America. It was one of the first hit songs that didn’t speak lowly of women. Instead of being seen as fragile and weak; only around to cater to men, women were finally called “strong,” “wise,” and “invincible.”
Although this anthem was simple and catchy, it captured the feminist movement effortlessly. It was the tune men loved to hate and most women adored. Thanks to not only this song but to all of the women that led the charge to change in the 1970s, TIME magazine awarded its “Man of the Year” in 1975 to “American Women” for their endless contributions to society.
An excerpt of their 1976 article, “Great Changes, New Chances, Tough Choices reads, “…1975 was not so much the Year of the Woman as the Year of the Women—an immense variety of women altering their lives, entering new fields, functioning with a new sense of identity, integrity and confidence.”
"Ohio" by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
Just days after the Kent State University massacre of 1970, Neil Young called bandmates David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash to the studio to record the song he had written about this horrible tragedy. Before the week’s end, “Ohio” would be playing across airwaves everywhere.
It all started when Young saw a photo in Life magazine of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio crying out in agony over the dead body of college student Jeffrey Miller. Protests had been continuing to increase against the Vietnam War near the end of the 1960s as they headed into the 1970s. On May 4, a demonstration took place at Kent State University where the Ohio National Guard was eventually called in and ended up killing four students.
As if there wasn’t enough public outrage towards President Richard Nixon about the Vietnam War already, the direct naming of Nixon himself in the song only fuelled protesters fires even more.
The song is everything you need in a protest anthem. “Ohio” is an outraged Young creating an extremely moving, gutsy and perfectly timed protest song that set up the decade for what more was to come.
"What’s Going On" by Marvin Gaye
Originally written by Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye went on to turn “What’s Going On” into one of the most memorable protest songs of all time. The song was written about “Bloody Thursday,” a police riot that occurred at People’s Park in Berkeley, California that was witnessed by Renaldo Benson. It was then presented to Gaye after Benson couldn't convince his bandmates to record the song. This led Gaye to adding a new melody and adding lyrics to make the song his own.
Gaye had lived his entire life inspired by the social ills in the United States. His brother Frankie had just returned from the Vietnam War after three years of service and the 1965 Watts riots continued to be an important turning point in his life.
“With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”
Despite his producer’s qualms about wanting to record a protest record, Gaye would throw caution to the wind and come out with a masterpiece that easily transcends time.
"War" by Edwin Starr
Motown was often known as focusing on creating hit songs. When Motown artists like Marvin Gaye and The Temptations started releasing songs about their opinions on social issues, the floodgates opened for other artists to do so.
“War” is an all out, in your face, protest anthem that’s about the Vietnam War. Originally recorded by The Temptations and written by hitmakers Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, the song was never released as a single until the lesser-known Edwin Starr released his version.
Whitfield helped re-create the song in order for it to match Starr’s James Brown-esque shout. “War” depicts the anger the anti-war community felt at the time towards the war in Vietnam. This became one of the first Motown songs to have a political message attached to it and a very clear one at that.