CounterPropaganda · Information operations · Information Warfare

Strategic Communications in Music

I was considering how music played such a vital part of my life while growing up.  Many of my friends come from the same coin as I do, albeit from the other side of the coin.  Perhaps music accounts for how we see the same world differently.

I grew up in an era of protests which make the current protests pale in comparison. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.  Peace and love, civil rights, beatniks, long hair, burn the bra, no more war.  Woodstock. These iconic phrases and events defined a generation, especially me.  I had a radio, my family had a television and the Reading Eagle newspaper, that was how I got my news.  I went to school and talked with my friends. On television, we had Walter Cronkite who ended with “and that’s the way it is”.

Then there was music.  Everyone in my family was a musician. My father on accordion and singing. My mother sang opera and church and played the piano. My sister was truly blessed as a harpist, pianist, and percussionist.  Today she is the principal harpist in one of the best orchestras around.  Me?  I struggled with trombone, singing and piano, somehow made it to all-state chorus and band, but I don’t think I was that good.  Anytime I hung around professional musicians, like my sister, I realized I had so much more to learn and would never cut it as a professional.  Not as a classical musician, anyway.

I harbored a passion for music that was not classical, however.  I loved Rock ‘n Roll, Blues, Jazz, Folk, and Protest songs.  More counterculture music.  I fell in love with protest songs for what they represented, that an idea could be communicated to an entire generation through music.

Others tried to run with that same idea and the US Department of State arranged for various Western artists to tour behind the Iron Curtain. I’ve heard stories of their success, both pro and con, but I never thought that the people making the arrangements quite got it.

I joined the Army in the mid-1970s when it was not the popular thing to do. The Vietnam War had just ended, the term baby-killer was still associated with soldiers, and the US was trying to get past that painful memory.  An American President drew protests that make today’s protests look like rank amateurs – because they are.

One song, combined with one movie, rocked my world, although they are not why I joined.  The song, “The Ballad of the Green Berets“, combined with the movie “The Green Berets“, starring John Wayne, on face value, are very negative.  They did not glorify the Green Berets, the song was about being killed.  The movie was about the horrifying events witnessed by the Green Berets.  When I was in college, at Muhlenberg College, we had a security guard who was ex-Special Forces, and we talked quite often, late at night instead of studying.  Miraculously, I never made the connection between Special Forces and the Green Berets, not until later.  Perhaps that is why I said yes when they asked me to join Special Forces and become a Green Beret.  I joined the Army, however, because I needed money and experience. Oh, boy, did I get experience!

But my generation, and the generation before mine, were deeply affected by anti-war songs.  Without further ado, here are some subtle, and some not so subtle, protest songs, railing against the Vietnam War.  Please don’t forget that the entrenched older generation felt the need to suppress many of the more blatant anti-war songs, therefore many songs had to be subtle.  Today’s generation knows nothing about subtlety, about nuances, about the deep satisfaction of telling someone to their face, this is how I feel and by the time you realize what this song is really about, you’ll be singing beside us.  This is about another form of Strategic Communication.

  1. Imagine (1971) John Lennon
  2. Blowing in the Wind (1963) Bob Dylan
  3. Born in the USA (1984) Bruce Springsteen – I actually sang along with this song while driving through Checkpoint Charlie, past the Soviet and East German guards, coming out of East Berlin.  It’s anti-war, just not Vietnam.
  4. Give Peace a Chance (1969) John Lennon
  5. For What It’s Worth (1967) Buffalo Springfield
  6. War (What is It Good For?) (1969) Edwin Starr
  7. Eve of Destruction (1965) Barry McGuire
  8. I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-to-Die-Rag (1967) Joe MacDonald (…and it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam.)
  9. The Unknown Soldier (1968) Jim Morrison and the Doors
  10. Alice’s Restaurant Massacree (1967) Arlo Guthrie
  11.  Vietnam (1970) Jimmy Cliff
  12.  Ohio (1970) Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young
  13. What’s Going On (1971) Marvin Gaye
  14. Give Me Love George Harrison
  15. Monster Steppenwolf
  16. The Unknown Soldier The Doors
  17. Billy Don’t Be a Hero Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods

You cannot set out to make a viral video, you have to do the best you can and hope the message resonates with the audience.  Better yet, do a little planning, know your audience.



5 thoughts on “Strategic Communications in Music

  1. Thanks for your service, Joel. Interesting post. I’m a few years younger than you but also am part of a generation deeply impacted by the Vietnam war, including related protests songs. I might have a slightly unique perspective in that I grew up in a Navy town (almost no protesting going on there) and probably 75 percent or so of my friend’s dads were in the Navy or Vietnam veterans. A few of the dads of my childhood friends suffered severe PTSD, the details of which I won’t describe (television movie material) because it’s painful and embarrassing, and I don’t wish to violate anyone’s privacy. My point is I have seen what getting into morally challenging/ambiguous situations plus protests, war songs, and “baby killer” talk can do to people’s loved ones.

    One of several of my concerns in the age of social media (videos, pictures, etc.) is morale issues and other negative impacts of propaganda (particularly Russian style reflexive control) for today’s veterans and active duty, especially considering, as you note, “Today’s generation knows nothing about subtlety, about nuances, about the deep satisfaction of telling someone to their face…” There’s also the issue of people being desensitized to violence and not thinking through impacts. I remember recently an acquaintance of mine posted on Facebook a video showing dead babies killed in U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and/or Syria. I am not in the military but, because of my background, it made me very, very angry and upset. I don’t think active duty or veterans should be looking at videos like that or their family members for that matter. I don’t know how you stop the spreading of such videos in a free society, though. Much to think about. Again, interesting post and thanks for your service, Joel.

    1. Excellent comment, Monica! In my generation, we were just making the transition from not showing dead bodies to hiding the horrors of war. Life magazine showed the horrors of war during World War II and, to a much lesser extent, some of the horrors of Vietnam.

      Yes, many of my friends were traumatized by the Vietnam War. I recall visiting my mother’s friends in the State of Washington and meeting their son, recently returned from Vietnam. I was quite naive and asked about the war. I recall the look on his face and I saw his inner battle, the struggle to deal with the horrors he had witnessed and to relate that to someone completely unexposed – an innocent. More than anything else, his unspoken, unstated horror spoke more powerfully than anything I’ve ever read or seen.

      You don’t stop the spread of videos, you can’t. You offer something better.

  2. Yes, you nailed it RE: the “unspoken, unstated horror.” But it is more than a look on somebody’s face. It’s deep anger, hurt, fear, panic, shame, etc. that you can actually feel and absorb (or at least I did) when you look in their eye — definitely impacting you more powerfully than anything you can ever read or see. Anyway, the topic of Vietnam veterans is unpleasant and still upsets me decades later (others too measuring anecdotally by the number of Facebook posts I see comparing benefits for Vietnam veterans to those for refugees). Yes, offering something better is the answer to questionable videos. But, as you correctly state, setting out to make a viral video is easier said than done, but planning and knowing your audience helps considerably.

    1. “knowing your audience”. I just received a call from the ultimate “knowing your audience” person. I’m going to take the blog on this very slowly and deliberately.

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