Chuck Klosterman once said that music doesn’t move anyone — it only holds our hands and guides us as we move ourselves. The perfect chords or the perfect lyrics for the perfect point in your life have the power to fundamentally change you because they speak to some inarticulate emotion you’ve been grappling with long before you heard that song. And on occasion, music can tap into the same vein in thousands or even millions of people, and suddenly a three-minute pop song has the power to change the world. Here are a few examples …
#8. Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” Stopped Darryl McDaniels of Run-D.M.C. From Committing Suicide
These days, the heartbreaking lyrics and vocal styling of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” are mainly used by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to make you feel bad for every square foot of your apartment that isn’t currently occupied by a rescue pet. But back in 1997, it was still in heavy radio rotation and helping to save the life of Run-D.M.C. member Darryl McDaniels.
At that point in time, McDaniels was in a really bad place. He was suffering from depression and fighting it with prescription drugs, which might have been OK, except he washed them down with lots and lots of alcohol. The group was falling apart, and he lost his creative drive. So one day, he decided he would end it all, despite having things to stick around for — like lots of money, a huge army of fans, an undoubtedly impressive collection of shell-toe Adidas, and his children. Maybe not in that order.
But then McDaniels turned on the radio, heard “Angel,” and suddenly life seemed amazing. Or as he put it, “That record saved my life. I heard Sarah McLachlan’s record and something that day said, ‘Life is good. It’s good to be alive.'”
“Also, I’m one of the few people who can wear this hat and not look like a tool. It’s the little things.”
He then went out and bought every album McLachlan ever released and listened to only her music for a year. What sound like the habits of an obsessed stalker happened to save McDaniels’ life. And when, three years later, he found out he was adopted, he knew he’d been saved from the brink so he could use his fame and money to help children in similar situations. He set up the Felix Organization to provide “inspiring opportunities and new experiences to enrich the lives of children who are growing up in the foster care system.” Each summer, more than 150 kids on each coast head to Camp Felix for days of swimming, rock climbing, and presumably learning the chords to “I Will Remember You” on the acoustic guitar.
#7. Van Halen’s “Panama” Forced Dictator Manuel Noriega To Surrender
You’d never guess it from the title, but “Panama” is not actually about the country, the canal, or the hat. David Lee Roth was angry that critics had accused him of only ever singing about sex, partying, and cars, when he had clearly never written a song about a car! In order to achieve the trifecta for which he was already famous, he composed a song about one he’d seen race in Las Vegas, called “Panama Express.” The song hit No. 13 on the Billboard Top 100 and became one of Van Halen’s most famous anthems.
That might have been it, but five years later, the U.S. decided to invade the actual country. This was one of those confusing invasions where we used to support the guy we were now trying to take down, General Manuel Noriega. The military called the invasion Operation Just Cause, in case there was any confusion over which side was morally justified. The plan to capture Noriega himself was called Operation Nifty Package, because even though you’re launching an invasion, it doesn’t mean you’re above silly words like “nifty.”
Operation Stridex clearly failed.
But Noriega wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of being taken prisoner, and sought sanctuary in the Vatican embassy. That’s when the military asked their soldiers to submit songs for the ultimate psychological warfare playlist. They set up speakers outside the embassy and started blasting music day and night. And of course the primary song on heavy rotation was the one that shared its name with the country they were invading, because if there is one thing soldiers love, it’s irony.
We’ll never know how long Noriega could have held out listening to 1980s glam rock, because it was the Vatican ambassador who broke first. After 10 days of deafening music, the papal nuncio told the dictator to pack his bags.
#6. David Hasselhoff’s “Looking For Freedom” Helped Bring Down The Berlin Wall
You can rarely say that David Hasselhoff was the reason behind anything’s success. He was decidedly everyone’s least-favorite part of Baywatch and the third-best thing in Knight Rider (after KITT and the evil version of himself). Still, by being in the right place at the right time, Hasselhoff, his ridiculous-even-for-the-1980s light-up leather jacket, and his music will forever be tied to directly helping bring down the Berlin Wall.
To be clear, Germans aren’t nearly as fanatic about the Hoff as pop culture has led you to believe. They know of the stereotype, and they hate it. But they can’t deny that for eight weeks in the summer of 1989, they made Hasselhoff’s anthem “Looking For Freedom” the No. 1 song in what was then West Germany.
People in Communist East Germany heard the song as well, and even though the lyrics are actually about a son getting out from under the shadow of his rich father, they took it as a rallying cry — or in the Hoff’s words, as their “song of hope.” A few months later, people started tearing down the wall with their bare hands. To thank him for his inspiring song, they invited Hasselhoff to sing there on New Year’s Eve. One piano-key scarf later, and the rest is history.
Or Hoffstory, if you will.
These days, Hoff is still involved in German culture, but now he’s trying to keep the wall standing as a memorial to the people who died attempting to cross the border. Only a few sections are left, and he lends his celebrity and association with it to save them from developers when necessary. He even still belts out “Looking For Freedom” if people ask him to.
#5. Public Enemy’s “Fight The Power” Encouraged People To Do Just That In Serbia
“Fight The Power” is pretty clearly meant to be an African American anthem. It was written specifically for Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, and its lyrics make overt references to being black, specifically in America. Needless to say, it was a huge surprise when Eastern Europeans listened to the message at the heart of the song and said, “Yeah, us too.”
In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia was a mess. (Spoiler Alert: Things didn’t work, and even the name was split in the divorce.) The public was fed up with the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, president of the Serbian part, and his control over the state-run media. Since Milosevic came from the Soviet school of “Screw you, I’ll do what I want,” he wasn’t really concerned about how the public felt.
“Shut up or I’m changing the name to Miloslavia.”
A huge protest was planned for March 9, 1991 in Belgrade. The president figured his police could just kick some protester butt, everyone would go home, and that would be it. But far more people turned up than expected. Estimates of the numbers vary, because it’s hard to count into the tens of thousands while being tear-gassed, but they range from 70,000 to 150,000. Police efforts to disperse the crowd escalated until tanks were rolling onto the streets, and in the end, two people died, 203 were injured, and 636 were arrested.
Independent radio stations like B92 were ordered to stop broadcasting any news so that the public heard only the official, state-sanctioned version of events. So B92 did the only thing a radio station could in that situation: They looked through their catalog for every “damn the man” song they could find and started playing them. None was more perfect or repeated more often than “Fight The Power.” They got away with it because the regime thought that music was just music, while “the listeners understood the code,” according to the founder of B92. As codes go, it’s not exactly a subtle one.
The protests continued for five days, and while Milosevic stayed in power, the protesters got many of their other demands, all thanks to some motivation from Public Enemy.
#4. The Howdy Doody Show Theme Song Kick-Started The Gay Rights Movement
While you might never have seen it, for our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, Howdy Doody was THE children’s show. It ran on NBC from 1947 to 1960, and it was revolutionary. It was not only one of the first shows to use color, but it pioneered children’s programming as a genre. Also, it had a lot of really freaking scary puppets.
For the people raised on the show, the theme song would have been as ubiquitous as, say, the Barney theme is today. And you know how much the Barney theme annoys you? Keep that in mind, because it is going to be important in a minute.
In the late 1960s, it was still basically illegal to be gay in this country. Police could raid a bar if they thought LGBT people hung out there, or a club if people of the same sex were dancing together.
“Those stripes are too tasteful-looking. Call SWAT.”
But the 1960s also brought with it that famous revolutionary mindset, and on June 28, 1969, something snapped. When cops raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York, the crowds didn’t cooperate, and they didn’t disperse. In fact, more and more LGBT people started showing up. When they started throwing things at the police who were already there, riot cops were called in as backup.
So the crowds decided to get the police angry. They got in chorus lines and started singing a dirtier variation of the Howdy Doody theme:
We are the Stonewall girls
We wear our hair in curls
We don’t wear underwear
We show our pubic hairs
We wear our dungarees
Above our Nelly knees!
You wouldn’t make it very long with a bunch of people you didn’t like taunting you with a filthy version of the Barney theme. Finally, the cops couldn’t take it anymore and attacked the singers. This was important, because it made the night more than just another bust. The Stonewall Riots inspired the formation of many LGBT groups, and the next year, the first Pride parades were held to remember the raid.
#3. Soul Asylum’s “Runaway Train” Helped Find 26 Missing Kids
Despite sounding depressing as all get-out, Soul Asylum’s mega hit “Runaway Train” charted in 15 countries, including hitting No. 2 in the U.S. Knowing that the video would get heavy airplay, the band could have gone any direction with it. Instead, they decided to use it to do good. While the lyrics of the song are actually about the lead singer’s battle with depression, the director of the video took the “runaway” part of the title more literally and highlighted children who were missing.
The video was tailored for each country in which it ran. For example, the U.K. version opened by saying there were “100,000 youths lost on the streets of Britain,” while in the U.S., that number was one million. In order to have maximum impact, the children included were also from the areas in which each video was being played, so only missing Australian kids were shown in Australia, etc. While MTV cut it short because they worried that the appeal at the end made the video look like a public service announcement, the director figured it might make some kids return home because they had seen themselves in a cool music video.
“Music video?” — MTV today
It’s weird logic, but it worked, although it did take some time. When no one returned immediately, the label, having the stereotypical dark soul of all corporations, wanted to know where all these lost kids that they had been promised were. The people in charge wanted to change all the videos, take out the kids, and add more shots of the band so they could get better exposure. But the band refused, and within the next few years, 26 of the kids in the videos either returned home or were located because of them. People started coming up to the band at gigs and talking about how that video had changed their lives.
#2. A Hamilton Song Helps a 210-Year-Old Orphanage
The smash hit musical Hamilton has done a lot of things. It has shown people that the founding fathers weren’t as boring as their high school history class made them out to be. It has convinced whole new groups of people that Broadway musicals can actually be cool. And it inadvertently revived interest in a centuries-old orphanage in New York City.
The final song in the musical, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”, mentions that Alexander Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Schuyler-Hamilton, founded the first private orphanage in New York after her husband went and got himself shot by Aaron Burr. It was a fitting tribute for her husband, who lost his own parents at a young age. This was also an exceptionally badass thing for her to do, not just because it was so rare for a woman to be the deputy directory of anything in those days, but also because she didn’t owe her husband anything. Despite being very good at making a new country, he’d been less good at marriage, and very publicly cheated on Elizabeth while he was alive and left her with so much debt she lost their house after he died.
“Sorry, I Suck At Vows” somehow didn’t make the final soundtrack cut.
But despite raising eight kids of her own and taking in homeless children every now and then, she somehow found the time to run an efficient orphanage. Amazingly, it still exists today. And thanks to its association with the blockbuster musical, donations are pouring in. It’s even the first thing you see when you go to their website:
According to its current president, now that it has a bit of fame, more people are interested in working with the charity. So thanks to one line in a song, 4,500 children and their families benefit from better services every year.
#1. “Thunderstruck” By AC/DC Improves Chemotherapy
We all know that people fighting cancer are totally metal. They get up ready to kick that disease’s ass every day, so if they want to walk around with a boom box blasting AC/DC, they should absolutely be allowed to. As it turns out, that might not be as crazy as it sounds, because rock music might actually make it easier to treat cancer.
OK, so it’s more about some technical science stuff than intimidating tumors with the power of hard rock, but it’s still really cool. Basically, chemotherapy uses particles that need to be coated in plasma before being used to attack whatever stupid cancer has taken hold. The standard ways of doing this usually make one side less coated than the other, and the treatment is therefore not as effective.
The results of coating the plasma in microscopic school boy outfits was deemed inconclusive.
But scientists at the University of South Australia took time out from finding antidotes to the venom of all the animals that want to kill them to blast some metal and call it conducting research. Amazingly, it worked. They discovered that if they set up a speaker and played rock music — specifically, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC — while preparing the chemotherapy drug, the particles would bounce around and ensure a more even coating, leading to better outcomes. In fact, it resulted in a “markedly slower release” of the drug “ranging from 2-fold up to more than 100-fold,” which means it can fight the cancer for longer.
And if AC/DC isn’t your thing, other rock music probably works equally well. The scientists are hoping that they can get similar results using this method on other drugs, but who are they kidding, they will probably use their success as an excuse to try it on every experiment from here on out.