How did the idea for this podcast come about?
While I was editor of Guardian Cities, some colleagues and I were discussing NWA’s Fuck tha Police, a song about police brutality that became a kind of protest anthem during the 1992 LA riots. Of course, it wasn’t the song that lit the fire; it was the failure to convict four LAPD officers for their filmed assault on Rodney King. But I began to wonder about the times when a song did light the match on world events, when music was the key that unlocked change in a city’s history. Before long I had dozens of stories I wanted to tell.
What will it focus on? Which genres/periods of music?
We knew we didn’t want to look at music about famous events – U2’s Sunday Bloody Sunday, for example, describes the Northern Irish massacre of demonstrators by British soldiers, but after the fact, looking back. There are also plenty of podcasts about music itself (the terrific Song Exploder is one of my favourites), or exploring music scenes in cities, such as dance in 1980s Manchester or trap in 2010s Atlanta. None, however, explored what we wanted to know: the times that music actually created a moment, when the song itself was the story. Sometimes those moments were absurd – such as the US army blasting Never Gonna Give You Up at the Vatican embassy where the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was holed up. Other times they were troubling, such as Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, performed to rally the citizens by musicians who had been left starving in the Nazi siege. Any story goes, if it shows the power of music – from pop hits to TV theme tunes – to galvanise action.
Why are we launching this now?
Our world feels as though it’s at a crossroads. Our health, politics and environment all hang by a thread. Nobody is suggesting a song will solve any of these problems, but I hope these stories can remind us of music’s surprising power to unite us around a common purpose. Many of the stories we’re telling set off chain reactions that still affect us today – reverberating (sorry) long after the last note ends. To paraphrase Gandalf (sorry again), my heart tells me that music has some part to play yet, for good or evil, before this is over.
What do you think it is about music that has the power to move the dial on public opinion?
Good question! I have no idea how to answer without pontificating about how music is in each of our hearts and crosses boundaries and yadda yadda. But what I do know is that the stories we’ve found really illustrate that music is communication, not just light background entertainment, whatever ads or Simon Cowell would have us think.
How will you decide what to include and what to omit?
I wanted a really global series, so we’ve gone to all continents and tried to look past the dominance of American music. In fact, none of the first episodes are about the US at all (although Rick Astley pops up in Panama). And the second thing we wanted to do was take listeners into a particular place and time when history was made, and to do so by interviewing people who were really there – the guy who was actually inside the Vatican embassy with Noriega; or the lead singer of the Czech psych-rockers whose trial helped kick off the Velvet Revolution; or the angry young man who led the call and response with the Tahrir Square crowd in Cairo to bring down Hosni Mubarak. Above all, however, the bar is the same for all journalism – a great story.
Which songs came close to being included but didn’t quite make the cut?
Oh, dozens. There’s a great 19th-century song from Alabama that contains hidden or coded “directions” – landmarks, stars to follow, etc – to help escaping slaves navigate north to Canada. I’m also dying to tell one of the many amazing Fela Kuti stories, perhaps how Beasts of No Nation helped focus the anti-apartheid movement. We’ve even put in a request for David Hasselhoff to come clean about whether Looking for Freedom really did bring down the Berlin Wall. (Hint: it didn’t.) We’ve got plenty of material for future seasons, if *cough* our boss is reading this.
Which songs have influenced your own thinking on politics/world affairs?
Well, my favourite story is the bizarre Panamanian tale of US army psy-ops teams blasting Van Halen, the Doors and Rick Astley in a de facto act of war against the pope. You can’t make it up. But I’m haunted most by Cairo’s song of revolution, Erhal, in part because of the brutal crackdown on Egyptian protesters – including the song’s wonderful singer, Ramy Essam, who shared his bittersweet story with us – that has followed since. To me, it’s a song that shows how inherently good people are, even when corrupt leaders turn us against each other.
Have you been surprised by the popularity of podcasts during Covid?
Not at all. It was already a new golden age for radio and television 2.0 (ie, podcasts and streaming services) before global lockdowns gave people a lot more time to listen. I also think the rise of populist liars who’ve dismissed Covid-19, the climate crisis and democracy has motivated many previously less engaged people to better understand the world events that led us to this.
Is there any scope for listener engagement?
Yes! Share, subscribe – and please, please suggest ideas for future episodes to me at @chrismichaelgdn
How can we listen?
Spotify, Apple, the Guardian website, Twitter, or wherever you get your podcasts.