Alicia Keys, Ben Gibbard, Neil Young and The Rolling Stones turn pandemic anxiety into art

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Neil Young, in his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young days — still telling the truth. - JOEL BERNSTEIN
  • Joel Bernstein
  • Neil Young, in his Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young days — still telling the truth.

Fifty years ago this week, Neil Young and his bandmates recorded “Ohio,” a haunting response to the Kent State shootings where Ohio National Guardsmen fired 67 rounds of ammunition into a crowd of anti-war demonstrators, taking four lives in the process.

A haunting anthem that captured the despair of the moment, “Ohio” was made all the more poignant by Young’s plaintive delivery, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s uncharacteristically mournful harmonies, and heart-rending lyrics like “What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground / How can you run when you know?” Listen to it today and you’ll still be hard-pressed to detect a single note of opportunism or exploitation.

Not all torn-from-the-headlines singles are quite so convincing. Tom Petty’s “Peace in L.A.,” which was rush-released to radio during the 1992 Rodney King uprising, didn’t quite hit the mark with its repeated “Stay cool, don’t be a fool” refrain, although he does deserve credit for donating the single’s proceeds to local charities.

All of which brings us, inevitably, to the rapidly increasing number of songs inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as Kent State brought the Vietnam War home to America, the virus that most Americans assumed would be confined to China is prompting many of us to reconsider basic assumptions about our government, our economy and ourselves.



This time around, the first wave of rapid responders went heavy on novelty tunes, taking to YouTube with amateur versions of pop hits like The Knack’s “My Sharona,” which became “My Corona,” a parody that’s fast-approaching 7 million views.

It wasn’t long before high-profile musicians followed suit. On “Corona Virus (COVID-19),” reggae’s controversial, i.e., homophobic, performer Sizzla took the opportunity to reprise the sentiments of his 2014 “Ebola” single, once again placing the blame on Babylon while encouraging proper hand-washing habits. American singer-songwriter Neil Diamond, meanwhile, reworked his “Sweet Caroline” hit to include lyrics like “Hands, washing hands, reaching out / Don’t touch me, I won’t touch you.”

But comic relief and novelty songs only go so far in a pandemic, which is why recent offerings from Alicia Keys, Ben Gibbard, The Rolling Stones, OK Go and, yes, Neil Young, deserve no less attention.

In the case of OK Go’s “All Together Now,” released last week as a single benefiting Partners in Health, the motivations are especially personal. Lead vocalist Damian Kulash and his family all contracted the virus, his wife severely enough to require a hospital stay. After she was released, Damian took care of their 2-year-old twins as his wife’s symptoms gradually subsided. “There were times when her breathing was so labored,” Kulash told Rolling Stone, “that I worried she just wouldn’t wake up.”



In contrast to OK Go’s clever indie-pop singles and stunt-driven videos, “All Together Now” is musically stripped down and undeniably heartfelt. “All those harmonies we sang yesterday, they all sound so different now,” sings Kulash. “Though they’re all still the same, everything’s untouched but forever changed.”

Alicia Keys’ new “Good Job” single pays direct tribute to health care workers and others who are battling on the front lines. Taken from her forthcoming album Alicia, the song is also part of a campaign encouraging people to send thank-you messages to the essential workers in their own lives.

Meanwhile, The Rolling Stones have released their first single in eight years. “Living in a Ghost Town” is a welcome return to form, though its topicality is a bit contrived. The song was written before the virus hit, with Mick Jagger subsequently tweaking the lyrics to suit the moment: “Life was so beautiful, then we all got locked down,” he sings. “Feel like a ghost, living in a ghost town.”

Unlike the Stones, Ben Gibbard’s “Life in Quarantine” was actually written under quarantine. Musically sparse and lyrically poetic, the Death Cab for Cutie frontman’s moving ballad describes everyday life in the new normal, from its opening lines — “The sidewalks are empty, the bars and cafés too / The streetlights only changing, ‘cause they ain’t got nothing better to do” — to its closing evocation of the National Guard being on their way to protect us from our neighbors.

Which brings us back, appropriately enough, to Neil Young. His in-your-face rock anthem “Shut It Down” is as emotionally powerful as “Ohio,” with an accompanying video that artfully edits footage of empty streets and bridges, the pope alone in Saint Peter’s Square, and health care workers wearing trash bags as improvised hospital gowns. “Have to shut the whole system down,” Young chants between lyrics about people working in meat factories and our need to save the planet from an ugly death.

Ironically, the song itself appeared on Young’s album Colorado, which was released last October. Its prescience is altogether eerie, a stark reminder that our current condition calls for systemic changes that, as Young put it back in 1970, should have been done long ago.

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