Blues, jazz, country, and folk songs have long explored human challenges, especially during wartimes and the Great Depression, but the majority of music that achieved substantial popularity pre-’60s served to uplift an audience, especially when performed live. The most salient legacy of the ’60s was that the emotional bandwidth of popular music was radically expanded to include an appreciation for the subtleties and nuances of human experience, particularly what might be called the interior experience. As a result, persona — the point-of-view of the singer/performer, along with such psychological states of suffering such as despair, rage, and anxiety — began to play a larger and larger role in songwriting.
The three major archetypes in rock music, including what we’d broadly call Americana, are the Rebel (independence, individuality, freedom), the Ecstatic Dancer (pleasure, excitement, beauty), and the Wounded (importance of brokenness, importance of vulnerability, reality of struggle). Popular music prior to and throughout the ’50s typically sourced the energy of the Ecstatic Dancer. With the ’50s — perhaps most notably Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis (worth considering that they could afford to rebel, being that they were white) — the energy of the Rebel archetype also began to play a role. The addition of the Wounded energy to popular music, though, is a legacy of the ’60s. The Wounded and Rebel are now the two primary archetypal sources of rock music. The energy of the Ecstatic Dancer is more abundantly present in the pop, R&B and easy-listening domains.
The below list exemplifies these personas. No list can be truly definitive; however, it’s my sense that the 17 songs listed herein, especially when considered collectively, provide an overview of how the use of persona evolved in popular music from 1964-1991. I hope, too, that the complementary discussions illustrate how, over time, original lines of genre have thinned and blurred, resulting in the numerous hybridized forms and stylistic integrations now part of the cultural vernacular (alt-country, blues-rock, folk-rock, etc.).
To some degree, the exploration of persona and trend towards psychedelia overlapped and became somewhat singular in the ’60s. Persona is related to perspective, whereas I associate psychedelic rock as it was explored by the Beatles, Cream, and Hendrix, among others, as referring more to sound. In the case of Dylan: his pre-Bringing It All Back Home albums were primarily works of lyrical and melodic innovation and can be regarded as templates for the use of persona in popular music. Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, however, seem to advance both the psychedelic, to some degree in terms of sounds, and the use of persona, in terms of point-of-view and lyricism.
I’d add, though, that the three above-mentioned albums also advanced psychedelia via lyricism. The use of surreal images, non sequiturs, and alternating perspectives drew heavily on the poetic traditions of Dada, Surrealism, and the NY School, and can rightly be considered psychedelic, more so for their verbal content than their overall sound; that is, psychedelic rock, as a genre, was advanced as much by Dylan’s lyricism as, for example, Hendrix’s guitar and soundscapes. Following are 17 songs that radicalized, expanded, and defined the use of persona in popular music.
Bob Dylan, “North Country Blues” (1964)
In many ways, Dylan’s lyricism is the foundational source in terms of the expansion of persona in contemporary music. His work is also the key link to pre-’60s folk, country, and acoustic-based blues. Songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone”, “It’s Alright, Ma”, and “Desolation Row” certainly extended the bounds of rock lyricism, reconfiguring narrative and integrating experimental poetic techniques into a popular form.
Another and earlier song, however — “North Country Blues” from 1964 — clearly illustrates Dylan’s lyrical innovativeness and adept use of persona, while also demonstrating both his debt to and movement beyond his predecessors. In this song, a piece that references the hardscrabble life of miners and their families, Dylan accesses the essentials of traditional music, in addition using vivid imagery and phrasing that would serve as a launch pad for and bridge to his later and more avant garde work (the abovementioned songs and others).
The Rolling Stones, “Paint It Black” (1966)
The proto-punkish “Paint It Black” evokes feelings of bleakness, depression, and repressed rage. The lyrical and vocal tones remind one of Milton’s characterization of Satan in Paradise Lost: “Horror and doubt distract / His troubled thoughts, and from the bottom stir / The hell within him; for within him Hell / He bring”.
In terms of mood, this track runs radically counter to the ’50s pop orientation towards uplifting themes (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis), though the song’s infectious melody and Jagger / Richard’s impeccable pop sense create a balancing effect, rendering the dark content irresistible, the singer utterly seductive (as only Satan can be; in fact, this song more effectively mines the “Satan as patron hero” model than does the later and more obvious “Sympathy for the Devil”). Brian Jones’ use of sitar, inspired by George Harrison’s use of the instrument on “Norwegian Wood”, adds an otherworldly and psychedelic dimension to the song.
Merle Haggard, “Sing Me Back Home” (1967)
Haggard’s voice is both rugged and endearing, the narrative both hardboiled and heartbreaking. The singer is an inmate, apparently sentenced to death, who is known in the prison for his guitar playing and singing. This inmate is asked by another prisoner, who is being escorted to the death chamber, to play a song before his execution. In the course of singing, the inmate reflects on a church visit that happened a week earlier. He ponders how he sabotaged his life, making the wrong and self-destructive decisions.
Haggard’s inmate epitomizes the hard-living and, in this case at least, rueful outsider / rebel persona embraced by outlaw country (perhaps influenced by Hank Williams, among others). It’s this kind of persona, and perhaps this song in particular, that so impacted The Byrds and Gram Parsons (the title of Parsons’ second solo album, Grievous Angel, is plucked straight from the mythos of outlaw country and rebel rock) as well as later musicians, including Uncle Tupelo and Ryan Adams (both with Whiskeytown and as a solo act).
The Velvet Underground, “Heroin” (1967)
When Lou Reed died in 2013, Greg Kot wrote an article in which he suggested that the Velvet Underground influenced rock as much as the Beatles. I think he’s probably correct. The branches of punk rock (Ramones) and art rock (Television, Sonic Youth), including shoegaze (My Bloody Valentine) and to some extent dream pop (Mazzy Star; so many current acts, including Deerhunter), can be linked to the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground was the first, prototypical, and quintessential alternative band. “Heroin” best illustrates how radical the band actually was, thematically and sonically. Lou Reed spotlights the plight of the addict while also highlighting the tedium experienced by someone enslaved to such a lifestyle. While drugs had certainly been referenced in rock before the release of the Velvet Underground’s debut album, Reed’s manifesto was more direct, realistic, and unadorned that any previous work. The soundscape, including the lo-fi and both languid and incendiary guitar, perfectly complements the lyric and snarling vocal.
The Doors, “The End” (1967)
Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger, and John Densmore combined an appreciation for the blues with an affinity for the experimental. This musical orientation was combined with Jim Morrison’s penchant for psychedelic mysticism, his poetic lyrics a reconfiguration of Blake, Rimbaud, and the Beatniks. While the blues influences would manifest most effectively in 1971’s LA Woman (perhaps the Doors most cohesive release), it was the band’s self-titled debut and particularly this track that most lastingly asserted an iconoclastic perspective, the musical textures and Morrison’s high-Romantic lyrics drenched in what can only be dubbed “exquisite suffering”.
“The End” is a seminal song instrumentally, lyrically, and vocally, a work of musical and verbal confessionalism, memorable for its use of Oedipal references, imagistic non sequiturs, and epic dreamscapes. It’s an exemplary persona song and psychedelic manifesto.
Glen Campbell, “Wichita Lineman” (1968)
Written by Jimmy Webb, Glen Campbell’s cover is perhaps the best among various takes. The sound of the slightly flanged guitar was a progressive production move for the country genre and certainly reflects the broad impact of ’60s rock and how cross-genres were already well in the making. Campbell’s earnest voice, coupled with the presence of pristine strings, delivers the sense of melancholic yearning experienced by the “lineman”. At the same time, the song has a polished and contained tone.
The tune is essentially a love song offered from a unique perspective. The lineman dreams about his love while he dutifully performs his job: an Everyman, a behind-the-scenes worker with an all-American ethic. In this song, Campbell conjures a palpable loneliness — his central character alone on the lines — resulting in a timeless tune and memorable persona song.
Johnny Cash, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (1970)
Written by Kris Kristofferson and first recorded by Ray Stevens, “Sunday Morning” is sung from the point-of-view of someone hungover and coming down from a drunk (on a Sunday morning). The singer compares himself to others who seem to have more fulfilling lives, which leads him to reflect on his destructive decisions and how he’s missed out on love and belonging. Cash’s voice does the song justice, full of yearning and earnest regret.
As with Merle Haggard’s abovementioned song, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” represents the perspective of the outsider, the outcast, the man who has forsaken the “sweet things” in life. In the case of this song, the lyrics flesh out a specific narrative to which almost any listener can relate — that part of the human make-up that deals with failure more easily than success. This is a standout tale of the “lost soul”, a template utilized in earlier country and blues songs but that would become a staple in so many rock songs of the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond.
The Kinks, “Lola” (1970)
A quintessentially accessible song, at least sonically, the narrative is related by a man who meets and is attracted to a transgender woman or transvestite. The melodies in this song epitomize pop awareness, a proto-punk anthem that also incorporates folk and rock elements. The song was apparently banned by several radio stations in Britain and the US, and widely in Australia. (Who knew that this subject matter would be so offensive to Australians!)
Several other songs that spotlighted crossdressing were released around this time, as well, including the Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says” (1969), David Bowie’s “Queen Bitch” (1971), and Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” (1972). However, “Lola” stands as the boldest template for this subject matter, and Ray Davies’ direct and unabashed vocal still stands as one of rock’s best moments.
Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (1971)
A prototypical spoken word piece combined with a jazz soundscape, this song served as an influential precursor to hip-hop and funk as well as the “slam” movement of the ’80s and ’90s. The quintessential revolutionary manifesto, Scott-Heron’s work addressed the collective experience of the African-American culture, referencing politics, pop culture, and relevant history — the exile of blacks from mainstream American life.
Expressed in a tone replete with wounding, sarcasm, and defiance, the piece was embraced by the Black Panthers as well as other “Black Power” movements. Scott-Heron mentions several public (white) figures who “will not be part of the revolution”, illustrating the disconnection between races in America while also lauding the unique attributes of the black community. In this way, Scott-Heron urged African-Americans to recognize their own resources and create their own bastions of power and influence.
The song continues to be relevant, a work both culturally or historically framed and universal in its scope.
Joni Mitchell, “River” (1971)
Various songs by Joni Mitchell released at different points in her career could be on this list; however, I’ve included “River”, from her album Blue, a track that was never released as a single but has been covered by numerous artists. Mitchell’s song is wistful but compelling, the stark piano part creating a melancholic background for the lyrics. Mitchell sings, “I wish I had a river / I could skate away on”. The fact that it’s Christmas, a time typically associated with belonging and celebration, and that the singer is alone, further adds to the moody tone of the song. The lyrics conjure sadness, the uneven ending resulting in an appropriate lack of resolution.
Mitchell perfectly conjures the psychological state of someone in transition or limbo, someone moving from one life chapter to the next. “River” is an immediately accessible song, told from a unique point-of-view, and a clear influence on numerous songwriters, including such unlikely artists as Led Zeppelin and Prince.
Don McLean, “American Pie” (1971)
It’s well known that the death of Buddy Holly played some part in inspiring this song; however, Don McLean’s greatest achievement certainly exceeds direct eulogy. The song is a poetic sprawl somewhat comparable to and perhaps in some way influenced by one of Bob Dylan’s longer works. The song utilizes different perspectives, surreal references, and imagistic leaps; yet, there’s a remarkable cohesion to it. This is in part achieved by the presence of a single voice that delivers the song in a sustained tone.
There’s also a thematic continuity, at least obliquely, and recurrent melodies help to anchor the epic. At over eight-minutes in duration, this was a long song by commercial standards — although by the early ’70s longer songs were becoming more common — and yet it never loses energy or momentum. “American Pie” was a songwriting feat, a lasting contribution to the history of musical persona, voice, and lyricism.
Harry Chapin, “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1974)
Covered by numerous artists over the years, “Cat’s in the Cradle” is an anthemic narrative sung from the perspective of a busy father who never spends much time with his son, the end of the song then showing that the son has grown up to be very much like his father, both men dedicating themselves to career and money-making, and missing out on the growth of their children and the importance of family. The song is a well-crafted commentary on capitalism and intergenerational conditioning, how the obsession with social and vocational advancement leads us to be absent from our lives and, in the absence of intentional legacy — created through time spent together, projects undertaken, meaningful conversations, etc. — this same orientation towards being absent and unavailable is passed down.
Ultimately the song addresses how we so often define ourselves by the externals in our lives (such as work), entering into a vicious cycle of never being satisfied. I’m reminded of the Greek myth regarding Erisychthon, who was cursed by the gods with an insatiable appetite. No matter how much he ate he remained hungry. He ended up consuming everything in his life and dying of starvation. The song is a timeless manifesto, possibly even more relevant today than when it was released in 1974.
Janis Ian, “At Seventeen” (1975)
An important and early feminist manifesto, Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen” is sung from the perspective of a girl who isn’t, by her own estimation, beautiful or refined, at least when she measures her looks and bearing by mainstream social standards. Ian sings of withdrawal into and reliance on (romantic) fantasies as well as crippling loneliness. The song explores how it feels to be rejected, to be an outsider, and not by choice. Lyrics are delivered from the point-of-view of an adult woman, now reflecting on her early life and the experience of social exile and exclusion.
The urgency of the song is heightened by the fact that the singer doesn’t reveal how the experiences of her teen years impacted her as she aged. How she dealt with the pain she experienced at that time, or if in fact she did, remains a mystery. A powerful persona piece, this song continues to have cultural relevance, especially when considered in the context of bullying, an issue that has come to light in recent years.
Suzanne Vega, “Luka” (1987)
Related from the perspective of a child, this song unabashedly explores the reality of child abuse. Throughout the song, Vega / Luka relates: being hit by a parent, crying and being told not to cry, and the tendency to minimize the abuse / not let other people know the truth (the toxic secret). Also, the song highlights how abuse creates in the abused person a sense of isolation as well as a misplaced sense of guilt and worthlessness.
Vega’s accessible voice and the hummable melody serve as balm to the dark content. The song reached a larger audience than it might have due to the video created for and aired on MTV. I recall the late ’80s and early ’90s as a time when this topic received much attention in the media and was regularly explored in therapeutic environments. I recall, too, that in the early ’90s I began to hear the term “inner child” on a regular basis, a reference to that part of a person that was wounded during formative years and remains unhealed.
This song was part of that social wave, both heightening awareness and documenting a persona representative of so many people’s early experiences and what thousands of children still endure, to varying degrees, on a daily basis.
N.W.A, “Straight Outta Compton” (1988)
From the opening (spoken) line to the radical rap lyrics snarled and barked by Ice Cube, MC Wren, and Eazy-E, the title song from N.W.A’s debut marked the presence of a new and undeniable collective voice that would deeply impact the culture, coinciding with the PMRC’s campaign for “Parental Advisory” stickers on albums with sexual or violent content. A fresh and more visceral (“street”) iteration of the messages delivered by a long line of black leaders from Frederick Douglas to Ralph Ellison to Malcolm X, this album was a protest of the Reagan years as well as the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and ghettoization in America.
This track and others, including “Fuck tha Police”, resulted in the group being on FBI and congressional watch-lists, and being banned from various performance venues. Some debate whether this is the first “gangsta” content (referencing tracks by Ice-T and/or Public Enemy); however, Straight Outta Compton (album and song) became the prototypical example, one that crossed racial divides, popularizing the “gangsta” approach and serving as a template for much of the rap released through the ’90s and well into the ’00s.
Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car” (1988)
Tracy Chapman’s self-titled debut included this hypnotic song. The singer quits school to take care of her father, works as a “checkout girl”, and meets a man with a fast car. Together, they seem to have dreams of creating a better life for themselves; however, only the singer takes any steps to improve their circumstances (and her options are limited). Her boyfriend seems to care only for his fast car.
By the end of the song / narrative, the singer is brokenhearted, resigned, and bitter. The chorus — “So remember we were driving, driving in your car / Speed so fast I felt like I was drunk / City lights lay out before us / And your arm felt nice wrapped ’round my shoulder / I had a feeling that I belonged…” — uses an immediately accessible circumstance, delivered via a timeless melody, to conjure youth and the lofty dreams that often accompany youth: riding in a fast car, perhaps with the windows down, everything seems possible. There’s an immense sense of belonging, that one’s life has meaning, that one is destined for stellar accomplishments.
Often, though, the experience of aging, moving into adulthood, is tantamount to a relinquishment of aspirations, the onset of mere survival. With “Fast Car”, Chapman captured, revamped, and updated a universal experience, also crafting a manifesto with cultural, racial, and political undertones.
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
Nirvana’s “Teen Spirit” captured a new zeitgeist in music and culture. The band’s major label debut album, and certainly this single from it, illustrated a unique amalgam of punk and pop, songs that were hook-filled and radio-friendly (at least in hindsight) as well as rife with noise, discontent, and rage. The oblique lyrics of the song — delivered via infectious melodic lines and a central riff which in turn was borrowed by various other artists for the next several years — proved anthemic. The song’s chorus — “With the lights out, it’s less dangerous / Here we are now, entertain us / I feel stupid and contagious / Here we are now, entertain us” — encapsulated the restlessness and disillusionment of teens and 20-somethings in the early ’90s.
As punk in the ’70s (the Ramones, the Sex Pistols, the Clash, etc.) emerged as a reaction against mainstream rock, so Nirvana led a new wave of popular music in the ’90s, “grunge” eclipsing the glam and pop hard-rock of the ’80s, Cobain’s voice and the band’s raw but accessible sound was so globally embraced as to become emblematic of an age.
Lists aren’t definitive, but they highlight patterns and initiate relevant discussions. It’s my sense that the 17 songs mentioned above, especially when regarded collectively, illustrate an evolutionary process in popular music, how persona — the “I” of the song — has evolved, broadened, and expanded to more fully represent a diversity of experiences as well as emotional, political, and cultural orientations. The more that historical connections and contexts are considered, the closer we come to an understanding of our greater and more important stories: the lives we live and how we express those experiences.