“Nineteen eighty-nine! / The number another summer”, Chuck D declared on “Fight the Power”, the pinnacle song from that summer’s most incendiary movie, Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing.
But that summer was far from just another summer. The summer began with the protests in Tiananmen Square, which at first looked peaceful, but then turned shockingly violent as thousands of demonstrators were killed during China’s brutal crackdown. Also during that summer, the Eastern Bloc countries were falling at an astounding rate, culminating with the fall of the Berlin Wall in November.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall was a defining closer to the 1980s. For many, the ‘80s felt like a big party. This was reflected in popular music, fashion and movies. Sure, East and West had the threat of “mutually assured destruction” looming over, but heyah, at least the economy was booming. But as the ‘80s and the Cold War drew to a close, there seemed to be a collective bit of hangover’s regret going on. For too long, it seemed like pop culture was a non-stop party. The charts were filled with either boy bands or hair-teased pop metal (with a few bright exceptions, thanks to U2 and the unlikely top ten self-titled smash from Tracy Chapman). Now, as peace has broken out, it was time to get serious. If only there was a cause to galvanize this newfound sense of responsibility.
Enter the Exxon Valdez oil disaster. Just as folks were riveted to the Web and TV looking at the constantly gushing pipe from BP this summer, images of wildlife coated in oil and reports that the captain, Joseph Hazelwood, was drunk when the Valdez struck Prince William Sound’s reef were all over television that spring. There couldn’t have been a clearer portrait of environmental devastation at the hands of humans as well as corporate indifference thanks to Exxon’s notoriously slow handling of the disaster.
That same year, Midnight Oil released Blue Sky Mining. The band enjoyed some success in the U.S. two years before with Diesel and Dust and its eye-popping video “Beds Are Burning” which introduced the United States to the towering, chrome-domed charismatic lead singer Peter Garrett. Blue Sky Mining was a more subdued album from the band. But in the wake of the Valdez disaster, the album took on a new level of urgency. And unfortunately, the album takes on a greater level of urgency today.
Politically-leaning albums routinely age poorly. And in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, Blue Sky Mining sounded a bit dated. But 2010 has proven that just because an album sounds dated five years ago, doesn’t mean it won’t resonate today. The lead-off title recalls the hardships of working in the mining industry, taking the side of the worker over the mine owners. Of course, before the BP oil leak of this year, one of the top stories was the mining disaster in West Virginia that claimed 29 miners.
Issue-wise, few bands can top Midnight Oil in terms of environmental credibility. Long before it was the adopted cause for many musicians, the Oils were deeply involved in environmental and Aborigine rights. The environmental-themed songs on Blue Sky Mining—namely “River Runs Red” and “Antarctica”—pack just as much of a wallop now as they did 20 years ago. “There must be one place left in the world / Where the water’s real and clean”, Garrett laments on the closing track “Antarctica”. The album’s sales were modest, but it came out at the beginning of the strongest grassroots environmental movement since the foundation of Earth Day.
The other major topic that’s been dominating news coverage in the U.S. is race. Namely the media’s reaction to the 2008 voter intimidation case involving the New Black Panthers and especially the recent debacle involving comments taken out of context from a speech by Shirley Sherrod to the NAACP. If there was an album that perfectly captures this racial climate, it’s Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet, which was also released 20 years ago this year.
Fear of a Black Planet was Public Enemy’s amazing follow-up to its 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Upon its release, talk quickly went from “this is the best album of the year” to “this is the best album of the decade”. And like all great albums, it scared the shit out of the mainstream. But the outrage from pundits toward the album grew so loud that it inevitably landed onto the band’s follow-up. The most notorious example was the song “Welcome to the Terrordome”, which partly addressed the firing or dismissal of Professor Griff for making anti-Semitic remarks. “I got so much trouble on my mind”, Chuck D famously declared at the beginning of that track. He wasn’t kidding.
In addition to the Professor Griff matter, Chuck D went as far to directly state the band did not hate all white people. “All I want is peace and love on this plant / Ain’t that how God planned it?” Chuck D asks on the title track. On “War at 33 1/3”, Chuck D comes out of the gate with a dizzying flurry of anger, stress, and frustration. It’s the lyrical equivalent of a flurry of punches from Muhammad Ali in his prime. Internal drama aside, the band also found room to address the abysmal and sometimes fatally slow emergency response in low income areas (“911 is a Joke”), gender warfare in the African American community (“Revolutionary Generation”) and racism in Hollywood (“Burn Hollywood Burn”).
Critics loved it, even though some of the album’s flaws were inexcusable. For someone who is regarded as one of the sharpest social commentators in music, Chuck D succumbs to the tired “what they did to Jesus they’re doing to me” comparison in “Terrordome”. What’s worse is the humorless, homophobic “Meet the G That Killed Me”. Charles Arron of Spin tried to defend the song by saying that Chuck D “…is voicing the weakness, paranoid, and betrayal that dammed is family, in desperate hope of redeeming it.” That’s a stretch to say the least.
These missteps, as major as they are, don’t dull the impact of the album as whole. So much was addressed, from the racism in Bensonhurst to one’s own struggle with racial identity. And while so much was being said about the lyrical content, the musical impact was just as shattering. The dense, sample-heavy layering on Fear of a Black Planet by the Bomb Squad resulted in an album that will continue to reveal new elements no matter how often you listen to it.
Blue Sky Mining and Fear of a Black Planet came out when I was a sophomore in high school. These two albums (along with Soundgarden’s Louder Than Love) were practically melted into my Walkman and made sense of a world that often seemed chaotic on its best days and apocalyptic at its worst. Little did I know that 20 years down the road, both albums would do a better job summing up a summer of media-engineered race baiting and environmental catastrophe than any album released today.