Music moves us—literally. It makes us sway and tap our feet. We whistle to music, throw our hands up in the air for it, and dance along to its pulsating beats. But music also moves us emotionally, sometimes in ways so profound that their messages permeate across the globe.
Whether they’re soul or space rock, feature catchy choruses or infamous music videos, these six songs—and their messages—revolutionized music and the way we think about love, acceptance, and each other.
Starting with the 1960s, we’ll mine each decade for a tune that changed the world.
“Respect,” by Aretha Franklin (1967)
After Otis Redding wrote the song in 1965, Aretha Franklin added her own flavour to it two years later. Franklin’s visceral improvisations and powerful vocals crowned her as the “Queen of Soul.”
Only 24 years old at the time of release, Franklin transcended colour lines, rocking black and white neighbourhoods alike. Her stylized sound combined a heavenly range with a healing message. As the Civil Rights Movement led to the Black Power era of the 1960s and 1970s, “Respect” became synonymous with black pride and inclusivity.
Franklin’s groovy song became the track of the 1960s, with its infused declaration of independence. Classy yet unapologetic, “Respect” was an anthem for Black empowerment. With the interplay between Franklin and her sisters’ backup vocals, the song is also about feminine solidarity. A powerful assertion that women—particularly women of colour—demand our respect.
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen (1975)
After forming in 1970, Queen instantly transformed the course of music, championing the pop and rock genres. Freddie Mercury, the British band’s eccentric frontrunner, dispelled musical conventions and any preconceived notions of hyper-masculinity. Queen challenged their successors to be different and creative, demonstrating that the purpose of music isn’t the money—it’s the art.
Among Queen’s decorated discography, “Bohemian Rhapsody” best showcases the band’s high-spirited moxie, lyrical flair, and musical genius. This operatic rock song was a theatrical anomaly—one that Mercury (the sole writer) likened to a poet’s work. “I’ll say no more than what any decent poet would tell you if you dared ask him to analyze his work: ‘If you see it, dear, then it’s there.’”
The song is infamous for its random rhyming schemes and conflicting messages. Listeners were captivated by its fantasy in 1975 and continue to be more than 40 years later.
“Thriller,” by Michael Jackson (1982)
Michael Jackson—coined the “King of Pop”—wasted no time moonwalking his way to centre stage. His record-breaking album, “Thriller,” and its title track, were immeasurable to improving racial diversity in the industry.
When the decade started, radio stations shunned black music thanks to the virulent anti-disco backlash that collapsed the genre in 1979. As a result, radio programmers boycotted rhythmic black music for fear of being branded “disco,” causing the genre’s 80 per cent decline on the Billboard Hot 100.
But the anti-disco wave changed course when Jackson released the cultural phenomenon, “Thriller,” alongside its iconic music video. After the smash hit graced MTV, Jackson single-handedly forced pop radio to re-embrace black music since audiences couldn’t get enough.
Jackson also paved the way for other African American artists—such as Prince and Whitney Houston—to MTV stardom. Black artists soon reintegrated into mainstream culture, and it all started with “Thriller.”
“Wannabe,” by the Spice Girls (1996)
This exuberant Spice Girls single was monumental in the surging popularity of girl groups before and after the turn of the millennium. When “Wannabe” released, the Britpop-themed Girl Power anthem permeated American consumer culture, influencing pop in ways still felt today.
Talent managers have tried to recreate the magic brought on by Posh, Scary, Ginger, Sporty, and Baby Spice, but none have matched the group’s initial stardom. Their debut album, Spice, remains the best-selling album by any girl group to date.
“Wannabe” celebrated real, non-competitive female friendship, which audiences identified and fell in love with. The song symbolizes how far women have come in pop music, allowing other self-identified feminists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift to flourish in the industry. And, according to a 2014 study, the song’s memorable lyrics and recognizable beat make it the catchiest song of all time.
“Where is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas (2003)
Penned in response to the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks, “Where is the Love?” addresses everything from racism and gang culture to climate change and violence against LBGTQ+ people.
The band focused on human rights, analyzing how tragedies often result from marginalizing individuals in society. The verse, “if you only have love for your own race/Then you only leave space to discriminate/And to discriminate only generates hate,” implies love should be the primary goal of people.
In 2016, the Black Eyed Peas released an updated version of their iconic track, titled “#WHERESTHELOVE ft. The World.” In it, the band collaborated with other big-name artists, including Mary J. Blige, Jessie J, and Justin Timberlake. The new music video contains graphic, black-and-white photography of the year’s European terror attacks, the Syrian crisis, the shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and many other human tragedies.
Over the years, “Where is the Love?” has endured as a rallying cry for unity during humanity’s darkest moments.
“Same Love,” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis ft. Mary Lambert (2012)
A year after Lady Gaga’s gloriously defiant LGBTQ+ anthem “Born this Way” (2011), hip-hop artist Macklemore released his own song that embraces all types of love.
Being the first song to explicitly support gay marriage in the Billboard Top 40, “Same Love” is dedicated toward marriage equality. As a sober white rapper supporting gay marriage, Macklemore refuses to conform to hip-hop genre conventions.
The song was controversial and a risky project for the rapper, who wrote and recorded it during Referendum 74—the decision on making same-sex marriage legal in Washington, Macklemore’s hometown state. The song’s message is perhaps best emphasized with the lyrics: “I might not be the same but that’s not important/No freedom till we’re equal/Damn right I support it.” Macklemore stresses that, whether or not you’re interested, marriage equality and LGBTQ+ rights will always be important.