In many ways, music encapsulates the beauty of free speech. Through the creation of music — from songwriting and production to performance and reception — both artists and audiences partake in a creative process of expression and interpretation. Songs are meaningful celebrations, timely declarations, acts of empowerment and so much more. From the civil rights movement to the continuing fight for gender equality, music has also proven to be a crucial form of public protest. To commemorate music’s transformative ability to preserve and promote free speech, here are five songs curated by the arts editors.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke
Released December 22, 1964, “A Change Is Gonna Come” became the transcendent farewell address from Samuel Cooke, who was tragically shot to death in L.A. only two weeks earlier. Drawing from personal experiences — such as his arrest at a white-only motel in Louisiana, referenced in the third verse — Cooke crafts a protest song of resounding prejudice and pain. Yet, he sees hope and healing on the horizon: “It’s been a long/ A long time comin’, but I know,” the soul musician predicts over a lush symphonic arrangement of horns and strings. An anthem of the civil rights movement, “A Change is Gonna Come” has since been reinterpreted by artists from Aretha Franklin to T-Pain, ensuring its profound promise continues to be passed down from generation to generation.
“Man’s World” by MARINA
On MARINA’s 2021 album Ancient Dreams in a Modern Land, the “Bubblegum Bitch” turns ecofeminist. Resisting the synergistic oppression of women and the environment, MARINA imagines a world healed and purged of its poison. Her frustration funnels through lead single “Man’s World” as she addresses everything from the cultural perception of Marilyn Monroe to the subtle homophobia tucked into Los Angeles’ “campest” locations. “I don’t wanna live in a man’s world anymore,” MARINA sings in a ringing head voice — and for many of her listeners, the response is “same.”
“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Neil Young has long been a champion of free speech; notably, he pulled his discography from Spotify last year to protest Joe Rogan’s podcast. From “Southern Man” to “A Rock Star Bucks a Coffee Shop,” Young isn’t afraid to bring politics into his art, but perhaps his most famous critique is “Ohio” with supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Written after the Kent State shootings in 1970, the counterculture anthem rips into Richard Nixon and The National Guard while memorializing the four who died in Ohio, ultimately encouraging action: “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground? How can you run when you know?”
“Age of Consent” by New Order
New Order, which crafted one of the defining sounds of the ’80s, never found more popularity than with “Age of Consent.” The English band’s disco-rock hit took aim at its home country, which, from 1967 to 1994, enforced a law that raised the age of consent for gay men to 21, arbitrarily higher than the 16 set for the country’s straight citizens. The song, spare and outwardly simple, hinges on a two-line bridge, which recasts the song’s narrative about a dysfunctional couple in a national light. The couple’s tiffs about condescension stand in for a national debate, and “Age of Consent” opens up as a bouncy, timelessly elegant middle finger.
“Get Free” by Lana Del Rey
Freedom takes root under complex conditions — for Lana Del Rey, it begins with personal liberation. The closing track of her fifth studio album, Lust For Life, “Get Free” sees Del Rey fighting complex inner demons on her pursuit to something greater, something more fulfilling. “I wanna move/ Out of the black/ Into the blue,” she sings with uplifting intention, creating a powerful pact with herself. As the track layers delicate synths with crashing waves and seagull cries during its final minute, Del Rey leaves listeners with this revelation: Though it takes many nuanced forms, freedom often starts with yourself.