Author’s note: Neither the author nor John Tyler Community College owns any of the songs mentioned in the following blog post. No money is being made from this post, nor is any copyright infringement intended.
At the risk of possibly making the understatement of the century, 2020 has been a year. It started off with hope and optimism for the coming months, descended into conflict and confusion, and is now approaching a cautiously optimistic end. If one didn’t know any better, 2020 would almost look like the plot of a book, only instead of reading it, we were living it. Though, for a blog run by a library, saying the year has been like a book could be construed as a bit cliché. Therefore, I propose that it’s been like the plot of a movie instead.
Unfortunately, by virtue of us living the movie that has been 2020, we the people have automatically been put in the credits as the cast. It feels safe to say that we’ve been the crew as well, with so much of 2020 being documented on YouTube, Facebook, Tik Tok, and other social media platforms. After all, it’s not hard when your phone is basically a mini computer complete with camera and video editing software that also has 24/7 access to the internet. But what about the soundtrack? Every movie has one, and it could be argued that the soundtrack can make or break a movie. How does one go about selecting songs for the soundtrack of 2020? In the humble opinion of this blog author, the easiest way is to pick them based on theme.
The first and easiest theme that comes to mind is that of COVID-19. It had the largest impact on our lives and made its entrance in our 2020 movie relatively early on. Since COVID-19 has been a relatively depressing topic, I’ve made the executive decision that these songs are going to be ones that will make us laugh, mainly through their titles. I’m not trying to trivialize COVID-19 at all, but if we don’t laugh, we’ll cry, and at this point, I’d much prefer the laughing.
For obvious reasons, one of the first COVID-19 songs I would use on our 2020 soundtrack is “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer. Given social distancing, the title makes the song too good to pass up. Though they are generic, “Unwell” by Matchbox 20 and “Toxic” by Britney easily earn spots on our soundtrack as well. Finally, in defiance to the illness that so quickly dominated our lives, I would add “Down With Disease” by Phish and “Down With The Sickness” by Disturbed. We are, of course, once again keeping in mind that these songs have been selected purely for their titles and not the content within.
The next portion of this particular blog post is preceded with a disclaimer: the author fully recognizes the fact that the civil unrest that took place in 2020 is an extraordinarily sensitive topic. Before you continue, I want to assure you that this portion of the blog post was treated with the utmost respect. I carefully researched each song that is featured and strove to present this material in an unbiased manner. This portion is merely an examination of one of the key themes that affected the previous year.
Dealing with a pandemic is serious and difficult enough. Starting in March, though, 2020 also became year of intense civil unrest. The deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor brought about a revival of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, resulting in protests across the globe, but especially in the United States. Music has always been a reflection of societal trends, as seen with the protest songs during the Vietnam War. 2020 and the BLM movement proved no different. Songs, old and new, became representative of the civic unrest and subsequent social movement across the nation. For example, with lyrics such as, “It’s been a long time coming / but I know / a change gonna come,” Sam Cooke’s song “A Change Is Gonna Come,” – originally written after he had been turned away at a whites-only motel in Louisiana – became a reminder that though we may have made progress, there was still much that needed to be fixed. With his song “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye reflects on the police brutality in the 1970s. With current police actions being major source of protest and discussion in 2020, the song easily fits in with this portion of our 2020 soundtrack. And in her song “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Mavis Staples celebrates and declares the determination of protesters fighting for equal rights during the Civil Rights Era. Indeed, the BLM movement in 2020 found itself reflecting some of the music from the past.
Current music was a window into the events of 2020 as well. Written and performed with Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé’s 2016 song “Freedom” was sung by Glee star Amber Riley during a protest in June 2020 at Mayor Eric Garcetti’s house in Los Angeles. Though the song “Dear Mr. President” was originally recorded by P!nk in response to the George W. Bush administration, Kiana Ledé recorded a cover of the song in 2020 in response to the Trump administration. “Through all the crying and pleading, all the protesting and donating, I wanted to do something that is therapeutic for me – singing. I came across the song ‘Dear Mr. President’ by P!nk and realized so many of the lyrics are still relevant today,” Ledé said in a press release.
Another song that found itself receiving renewed attention was Childish Gambino’s “This is America.” Originally released in 2018, “This is America” found itself climbing to the top of Spotify’s U.S. Top 50 chart in the beginning of June 2020. As of June 2, “This is America” was sitting in the number 2 spot and found itself being frequently used as the background music in Tik Tok videos of protests across the United States. The comments section of the music video on YouTube became a forum for discussion, with one comment receiving over 4,000 upvotes. In a similar manner, Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright,” originally released in 2015, found itself becoming a rallying cry at the BLM demonstrations later that summer. In 2020, it also shot up the Spotify U.S. Top 50 chart, reaching the number 11 spot in early June. What made “Alright” such a popular song during the demonstrations is the hopeful tone of the song. While “This is America” arguably presents a very blunt, stark view of the United States, “Alright” has been compared by some to the song “We Shall Overcome” from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. In an interview with Rick Rubin, Lamar has said that he intentionally went for that hopeful tone, saying, “I wanted to approach it as more uplifting, but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that, ‘yeah, we strong.’”
Ultimately, the strength and hope that “Alright” professes has arguably become the key theme of 2020, not just in the BLM movement, but across the globe. As such, our soundtrack for 2020 must reflect that. With the lyrics “Some day / We’ll walk in the rays of a beautiful sun / Some day / When the world is much brighter,” the song “O-o-h Child” by The Five Stairsteps immediately earns a spot on our soundtrack. It’s been an anthem of hope for fifty years, guiding generations through difficult times. Another song that easily earns its spot on our 2020 soundtrack is “Rise Up” by Andra Day. Released in 2015, it quickly became an anthem for over-coming adversity and serves as such on our soundtrack. And what soundtrack would be complete without a song by The Beatles on it? With its upbeat tempo and catchy lyrics, “Here Comes the Sun” offers a classic sort of hope that’s hard to go wrong with.
The year that has been 2020 proved to be one of the most dramatic and potentially life-altering years of our lives. Unfortunately, much as we may wish that it was in fact a movie, it was indeed real life. If you feel the need to shut your eyes, lose yourself in song, and pretend it was a movie, though, I’ll link the playlist I created on Spotify below. And remember: 2020 was tough, but 2021 is just around the corner. To quote the aforementioned song by Andra Day, “All we need is hope / And for that we have each other…” and music.