Popular songs are often about something going on in an artist's life, but every so often, a musician or band will lay down a track that references a historical person, place, or event from the past. The artist might want to make a statement of some sort, honor (or diss) a famous person, remind us of where we've come from, or let us interpret the song however we want, with our without historical context.
This list features '80s songs that reference history, and some of them might surprise you.
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Billy Joel's “We Didn't Start the Fire,” released in 1989, is one of the singer-songwriter's best-known songs, even if it's tough to sing along to. “We Didn't Start the Fire” is primarily a list of historical events and people from 1949 to 1989, which was challenging, considering the song is only four and a half minutes long.
“We Didn't Start the Fire” includes 100 world events and people from 40 years that impacted the Boomer generation. Joel kicked the song off in ‘49 because that’s the year he was born, and he laid out all of the references that began to rhyme. He recorded the vocals at Bryan Adams's studio in Vancouver, Canada.
As he wrote the song, more history of course continued happening, but he had to finish it, so he included the pro-democracy events at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, but not other events that occurred in 1989. The song inspired students who wanted to learn more about history, so it had a positive educational effect while also calling out society for some of the 20th century's most significant events.
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‘Born in the U.S.A.’ References The Vietnam War
“Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen's rock anthem, is hardly a salute to the US, which many mistake it for. Instead, it's about the Vietnam War, which concluded over a decade before the track's release in 1984. If you listen to the lyrics, it's pretty clear what he's singing about, even if the lyrics and melody can sometimes detract from the song's meaning.
The song describes the experience of the conflict from the point of view of a veteran coming home, trying to return to the life he once knew, only he isn't able to. In the song's opening, Springsteen sings about how the subject went from his hometown to a war zone:
Got in a little hometown jam
So they put a rifle in my hand
Sent me off to a foreign land
To go and kill the yellow man
The lyrics explain that he got into legal trouble and took the “go to the Army or go to jail” route, ending up in Vietnam, where he was forced to fight people he didn't understand. When he tries to get his old job back, he says:
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says, ”Son, if it was up to me"
Went down to see my VA man
He said, “Son, don't you understand”
He continues singing about all the brothers he had in the conflict who perished and remain on the other side of the world, forgotten by the country that sent them there. In the fifth verse, Springsteen sings about the veteran being in the shadow of jail and unable to get his old job:
I'm 10 years burning down the road
Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go
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‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’ Is About Martin Luther King
"Pride (In the Name of Love")," one of U2's greatest hits, is about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The band's inspiration for the 1984 song isn't fully known, though it's believed a civil rights exhibit at the Chicago Peace Museum in 1983 or a biography of Malcolm X may have been behind the song.
Regardless, "Pride (In the Name of Love")" pays tribute to King by exploring many figures, like the civil rights leader, who advocated peace without violence in the pursuit of equality. The final verse of the song is a direct reference to King's assassination:
Early morning, April 4
Shot rings out in the Memphis sky
Free at last, they took your life
They could not take your pride
(The band got the timing wrong; the shooting actually took place just after 6 pm.)
Lead singer Bono said in a 2022 tribute:
Dr. King kept us tolerant in a time of terror. Kept us faithful to peace and community. Made us believe in joy and justice. Showed us the way to a shared humanity. Dr. King’s voice is louder today than it has ever been. One of the true fathers of our American dream.
- Photo: Portrait
Eddy Grant's 1982 album Killer on the Rampage gave the world his immortal track “Electric Avenue.” The song's title refers to an area in the southern London district of Brixton, which was the first market street lighted by electricity. The area is densely populated and home to numerous Caribbean immigrants.
At the beginning of the '80s, issues in the area grew to problematic heights due to large numbers of unemployed residents, overtly racist policing practices, and more. This resulted in the 1981 Brixton Riot, which inspired Grant to write “Electric Avenue.” The song was written as a direct response to the riots, as Grant told The Guardian:
Just before leaving England, I’d watched the Brixton riots unfold on television. I’d seen the Notting Hill riots starting a few years previously. I wrote down: “Now in the street there is violence,” and the song just flowed from there. I had been talking to politicians and people at a high level about the lack of opportunity for Black people, and I knew what was brewing. The general attitude was: “Oh come on, Eddy, you mean rivers of blood?” I myself might have been successful, but I could have easily been one of those guys with no hope, and I knew that when people felt they were being left behind, there was potential for violence. The song was intended as a wake-up call.
- Photo: RCA
Bruce Hornsby and the Range’s “The Way It Is," released in 1986, is a soft-rock jam that addresses prejudice and class struggles in society. The song begins with a “man in the silk suit” sneering at an old woman in a welfare line, establishing the differences between the classes, which Hornsby's lyrics lay out like a pyramid.
Hornsby was from the top of the pyramid but could see how differences between the classes hurt society by putting people down when they were the base of everything that was going on. The song was an incredible success and continues to be played on radio stations worldwide.
The song's lyrics tell the stories of people struggling while others thrive. It's about a kid who doesn't understand the rules of segregation and how humanity is stuck in an inhuman rut. The chorus (and title) explain his feelings:
That's just the way it is
Some things will never change
Although the song might appear to carry a message of hopelessness, Hornsby switches it around with the final line: “Ha, but don't you believe them.” It's almost an aside, but offers a hopeful message, asking for change.
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‘Rock Me Amadeus’ Is A Tribute From One Austrian Musician To Another
Falco's “Rock Me Amadeus,” an instant hit when it was released in 1985, is ubiquitous on classic rock stations worldwide, and likely the song Falco is best known for.
The tune is an homage to a man who perished nearly 230 years before Falco penned it. Falco was fascinated with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's life and legacy in musical history. He saw Mozart as a kindred spirit and wanted to pay tribute to him.
The lyrics of “Rock Me Amadeus” tell the story of a man infatuated with a rock star from the past named Amadeus. He sings about how Amadeus was ahead of his time and would have been an even bigger sensation had he lived and worked in modern times.
The most well-known line comes in the chorus, which features the repeated refrain, “Rock me, Amadeus,” an invitation to celebrate the subject with the singer.