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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

While the financial crisis hangs over us like a dull ache, music is one of the last things Americans want to think about. But the truth is we should be thinking about it. Popular culture reflects our emotional sensibilities and chaos and uncertainty now abound.

Interestingly enough, for the first 50 years of the 20th century, the American music experience was often in contrast to our emotional experience. Just after the crash of 1929, songs like "Happy Days Are Here Again" and "On the Sunny Side of the Street" were hit records. And during World War II, tender romantic songs like "You'll Never Know" and "I'll Be Missing You" owned the charts. After we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "Sentimental Journey" and "Till the End of Time" became popular songs to forget the pain of war.

In fact, musicians spent much of the first half of the 20th century creating music that spoon-fed our idealism, often sponsored by large corporations. Most of these songs lacked an inherent recognition of the turmoil that many Americans faced. That was fine, for then.

All this changed in the 50's, when rhythm and blues played a stronger role in popular culture. Suddenly, music expressed emotions felt, not hoped for. Songs like "Great Balls of Fire," and "Johnny B. Good" gained massive popularity and a teenage rebellion was created. The music was built on the honesty of the blues, and the rare emotion of youthful expression. It forged a deep sense of appreciation and identification.

And so, the creativity of the 60's was really the result of the pain and disconnect in music felt in the 30's, 40's, and 50's, coupled with the social, political and economic movements of the day. Suddenly, we had a deep social imperative to express what was really going on, in Vietnam, at Kent State and in the bedroom. That movement continued throughout the 70's. Our greatest period of creativity in music was forged on reflecting the honesty in our lives.

When the 70's ended, so did much of the great music. By the mid 80's, we returned to economic opulence and our music reflected it. Songs like Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" and Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days" gave us a great feel-good sensibility, but behind closed doors, politics was playing its hand. In August that year, John Denver and Frank Zappa testified in Congress against the PMRC, otherwise known as the Parents Music Resource Center. The PMRC was convinced rock music was destroying the fabric of the American family and by August that year, held hearings to pressure record labels to censor artists. In the end, the PMRC convinced labels to add "explicit lyric" warning stickers to "dangerous" albums.

As we rolled through the 90's, much of America's young people wanted more of a voice again. Rap and grunge ruled the day -- two genres of music that spoke to the disenfranchised and the discontent.

But there was little voice for solution, only reflection.

Now, that we've moved into a new century, it's impossible to say where we're going. We've struggled a lot during these last few years but little in popular song would tell us so. If history is our guide, out of deep struggle, great work is created. America is now is a state of deep struggle. Our values need to be expressed. It's time for the writers to write and musicians to play.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

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