In Search Of Ethical Pop Songs

It was around this time last year that Ethics Alarms expanded its list of the top Hollywood movies with ethical lessons and themes to 25. (You can find the complete collection here, here, here and here.) I am researching a similar list for popular songs, and this task is far more difficult. Most pop songs, if they have a story at all, convey unethical lessons and cautionary tales: exemplary ethics are not, apparently, the stuff hits are made of.

I am soliciting nominations. To get you started, here are two on my list, both oldies. The first is “Ringo,” one of those talking songs like Jimmy Dean’s “Big John” (also a candidate for the list), performed by Pa Cartwright himself, Lorne Greene. The ethical values shown in this Western tale are kindness, reciprocity, loyalty, and gratitude:

My second nomination is one of several sound-alike hits from Gary Puckett and the Union Gap. In this song, Gary illustrates an understanding of Restraint Bias—none of us is as resistant to temptation as we would like to believe. The song is about responsibility. (I don’t think Roman Polanski was a fan of the Union Gap).

I await your playlists.

28 thoughts on “In Search Of Ethical Pop Songs

  1. Everyone’s heard this song:
    (No laughing at me, I know it is corny)

    Clarence Carter

    I was born and raised down in Alabama
    On a farm way back up in the woods
    I was so raggedy, folks used call me, “Patches”
    Papa used to tease me ‘bout it
    Of course deep down inside he was hurt
    ‘Cause he’d done all he could

    My papa was a great ol’ man
    I can see him with a shovel in his hand
    See, education he never had
    But he did wonders when the time got bad
    The little money from the crops he raised
    Barely paid the bills we made

    Oh, life it kicked him down to the ground
    When he tried to get up, life would kick him back down
    One day papa called me to his dyin’ bed
    Put his hands on my shoulders and in tears he said

    He said, “Patches
    I’m dependin’ on you, son
    To pull the family through
    My son, it’s all left up to you”

    Two days later papa passed away
    And I became a man that day
    So I told mama I was gonna quit school
    But she said that was daddy’s strictest rule

    So every morning ‘fore I went to school
    I fed the chickens and I chopped wood too

    Sometimes I felt that I couldn’t go on
    I wanted to leave, just run away from home
    But I would remember what my daddy said
    With tears in his eyes on his dyin’ bed

    He said, “Patches
    I’m dependin’ on you, son
    I tried to do my best
    It’s up to you to do the rest”

    But then one day a strong rain came
    And washed all the crops away
    And at the age of 13
    I thought I was carryin’ the weight of the whole world on my shoulders
    And you know mama knew what I was going through

    ‘Cause every day I had to work the fields
    ‘Cause that’s the only way we got our meals
    You see, I was the oldest of the family
    And everybody else depended on me
    Every night I heard my mama pray
    Lord, give him strength to face another day

    4 years have passed and all the kids have grown
    The angels took mama to a brand new home
    God knows people, I she’d tears
    But my daddy’s voice kept me through the years

    Sayin’, “Patches
    I’m dependin’ on you, son
    To pull the family through
    My son, it’s all left up to you”

    I can still hear papa when he said, “Patches
    I’m dependin’ on you, son
    I tried to do my best
    It’s up to you to do the rest”

    I can still hear papa when he said, “Patches
    I’m dependin’ on you, son
    To pull the family through

  2. Here’s one where the ethics are a problem:

    “What’s The Matter Here?”
    10,000 Maniacs

    That young boy without a name anywhere I’d know his face.
    In this city the kid’s my favorite.
    I’ve seen him. I see him every day.
    Seen him run outside looking for a place to hide from his father,
    the kid half naked and said to myself “O, what’s the matter here?”
    I’m tired of the excuses everybody uses, he’s their kid I stay out of it,
    but who gave you the right to do this?

    We live on Morgan Street;
    just ten feet between and his mother, I never see her,
    but her screams and cussing, I hear them every day.
    Threats like: “If you don’t mind I will beat on your behind,”
    “Slap you, slap you silly.”
    made me say, “O, what’s the matter here?”
    I’m tired of the excuses everybody uses, he’s your kid, do as you see fit,
    but get this through that I don’t approve of what you did to you own flesh and blood.

    “If you don’t sit on this chair straight
    I’ll take this belt from around my waist and don’t think that I won’t use it!”

    Answer me and take your time,
    what could be the awful crime he could do at such young an age?
    If I’m the only witness to your madness offer me some words to balance out what I see and what I hear.
    Oh these cold and lowly things that you do I suppose you do because he belongs to you
    and instead of love and the feel of warmth you’ve given him these cuts and sores don’t heal with time or with age.

    And I want to say “What’s the Matter here?”
    But I don’t dare say.

    • This is clearly about an ethical dilemma faced by a young, powerless individual. I’ve never heard the song… but it should be on the list… asking the question “What can I do when I KNOW “something’s the matter, but… don’t dare say?”

  3. I vote for the Beatles’ “Revolution” – res ipsa loquitor…

    You say you want a revolution
    Well, you know
    We all want to change the world
    You tell me that it’s evolution
    Well, you know
    We all want to change the world
    But when you talk about destruction
    Don’t you know that you can count me out
    Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
    all right, all right

    You say you got a real solution
    Well, you know
    We’d all love to see the plan
    You ask me for a contribution
    Well, you know
    We’re doing what we can
    But when you want money
    for people with minds that hate
    All I can tell you is brother you have to wait
    Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
    all right, all right

    ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…

    You say you’ll change the constitution
    Well, you know
    We all want to change your head
    You tell me it’s the institution
    Well, you know
    You better free you mind instead
    But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
    You ain’t going to make it with anyone anyhow
    Don’t you know it’s gonna be all right
    all right, all right
    all right, all right, all right
    all right, all right, all right

  4. I think it is difficult to have a fleshed-out ethical dilemma and resolution in the typical 2-5 minutes that are normally allotted to a pop song. I think most would reside in either country or rap music, both of which do have more of a tendency to tell a story.

    They Might Be Giants have some good songs in general about various ethical situations.

    Arrested Development-Mr. Wendel (not judging a book by it’s cover)

    Slick Rick- Children’s Story- (crime, no matter how alluring, does not pay)

    Marvin Gaye- Inner City Blues/What’s Going On/Mercy, Mercy Me (economic policy, police brutality, importance of taking care of the environment)

    Public Enemy- Fight the Power (the importance of protest)

    Michael Jackson- Man in the Mirror (change begins with one person)

  5. I’ve been lurking for a while, but this is a topic where I can contribute. 🙂

    Try “The Riddle” from Five for Fighting. Or a bunch of others from the same guy (John Ondrasik, Five for Fighting is his stage name); another favorite of mine is “World”.

    Thanks Jack for your work, keep it up!

  6. Try “Politically Incorrect” by Gretchen Wilson and Merle Haggard. Or an old favorite of mine “The Ballad Of The Green Berets” (I dedicate it to all the troops serving in Afghanistan)

  7. I guess I am stuck in the ’70s, or thereabouts (like my age). To be honest, I have never thought much about ethics while enjoying music of any kind. Not even when I watched musicals. But two songs from the 1970s time frame immediately came to mind, once I read your call.

    One is “Cat’s In the Cradle,” by Harry Chapin. I have not listened to any of his music for months, but it is possible that he wrote many songs where ethics could be considered. On second thought…maybe that song is not so much about ethics, as about the circle of life, the tragic repetition of history, and brokenness in relationships, regardless of ethics or lack thereof.

    The other is “The House You Live In,” by Gordon Lightfoot. I remember so many decades ago, when I strummed a guitar more often, learning that song with a mind to sing it to my kids. I never did; the best I could do was to lullaby only one of my daughters, in more recent years, with “Blackbird.” – the old Beatles acoustic thing – after I learned to pick, and not just strum.

    While we’re here, I would appreciate your opinion (other commenters’, too): If you know the song, what do you think of my dancing with my daughter at her wedding reception (you know, the classic tradition of the bride and her father dancing?) while the George Benson tune plays, “Everything Must Change?” (There’s another one from the 1970s, right? GAD!) “Blackbird” would be great, but it is not dance-able; “Butterfly Kisses” is just too sappy beyond anything that is real about me. I have asked my daughter (though she is not engaged yet, but probably will be soon) if I can have any say-so in the music to be played for dancing at her wedding reception. Three tunes I have in mind are “White Wedding” by Billy Idol, “Gimme All Your Lovin” by ZZ Top, and “You Shook Me All Night Long” by AC/DC. Surely there is a mix-master who could fit those into his playlist if they aren’t already in, right?

  8. Two have finally come to mind:
    “Easy To Be Hard” from Hair
    “Get Together” by the Youngbloods
    I especially liked Eeyoure’s mention of “The House You Live In” by Gordon Lightfoot. Good choice!
    I’m sure there are others that I will remember…eventually.

  9. Hi Jack,
    Here are three. One is not a pop song but a singer-songwriter number. Here are links to the videos. We are thinking of more as well.
    Same Love by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis

    Dear Mr. President by Pink

    People Look Around by Catie Curtis (not official video I don’t have flash)


  10. Here are my suggestions: “Royals” by Lorde; Waterfalls” by TLC; “easy to Be Hard” byThree Dog Night (also from the musical Hair); “man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson; “Same Love” by Macklemore; “let’s Wait Awhile” by Janet Jackson. And, how can we overlook “do They Know It’s Christmastime” and “we Are the World”?

    • I think I’ll write a parody of this song and call it “Forever Dumb”. It will be dedicated to the low information voter who elected Obama w/o checking his credentials 😉

      • Not criticizing, just encouraging: You might have a richer well for your lyrics, if you start with “Forever Numb.” That allows for even smart people to get caught up in the “mania” which (in their minds) keeps alive their perception of the aura of infallibility and unassailability they seem to want to think surrounds their Blameless One. Even smart people think, say, and do the most vexingly “numbskull” things, from what I have observed.

        • Hey, some of us voted for Obama with our expectations set at “tolerable mediocrity”.

          Can’t necessarily say he met even that standard, so that’s on me.

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