For the generation of young white English musicians who popularized the blues in the 60s, that grown-up quality had a great appeal. “They’re singing about having woman problems when you didn’t even have a woman to have problems with,” Mick Jagger once jokingly told me. “It was socially aware music, as opposed to the other popular music at the time, which was pretty much candy-floss stuff. The blues was a much more directly spoken real experience – even if it wasn’t a real experience for us. It was a learned experience for us.”
These days, hip-hop is the musical form that draws most immediately from public events, and that’s certainly proven true in the case of Covid-19. A flood of songs like Gmac Cash’s “Coronavirus,” DJ iMarkkeyz’s “Coronavirus (Feat. Cardi B) and Psychs’ “Spreadin’ (Coronavirus)” combine dark humor (“I’ma chill at the crib, because I’m safe here / I ain’t even ‘bout to drink me a Corona beer”) and dread. But socially conscious stalwarts like Bob Dylan, Bono and Jackson Browne (who became infected with the virus) have recently weighed in with songs that speak to the Covid-19 crisis.
So can these songs help us in these perilous times? No one who has watched the videos of Italians singing from their balconies as the coronavirus ravages their country can doubt the ability of songs to both comfort us and strengthen our resolve. But we are sending messages not only to ourselves but to our descendants. These songs say: This is what we went through, how it affected us, what we thought it meant, and how we tried to survive.
ANTHONY DeCURTIS is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and a senior lecturer in creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author, most recently, of “Lou Reed: A Life,” and the coauthor of Clive Davis’s autobiography, “The Soundtrack of My Life,” a New York Times best-seller. He won a Grammy for his essay accompanying the Eric Clapton retrospective “Crossroads.” He holds a PhD in American literature, and he lives in New York City.