For those unfamiliar with it, Pitchfork's regular "Poptimist" column is by far the most insightful, entertaining, and even educational section of the site. The article from this past Friday touched on the often-forgotten phenomenon of the "answer song." Before the days of MTV and Viacom, before the tentacles of the industry had managed its tightest grip yet (and before copyright lawyers became the overly-gorged parasites we know them to be today), it was a fairly common occurrence for artists to write songs that "replied" to other popular tunes of the day. Author Tom Ewing cites the example of Lydia Murdock's "Superstar," sung from the point of view of a well-known and jilted "Billie Jean," and even went so far as to lift the bass-line of the original Michael Jackson song.
"In their heyday answer records were half cash-in, half empowerment: typically an answer record is recorded from a woman's point of view, expanding and overturning a pop situation to give it perspective."
But there is another layer to the "answer song." They represent a time when music was seen as much more than entertainment, and were a vehicle for the transmission of ideas--songs were part of a dialogue, forums for debate and discussion between different points of view battling for space in society.
At their best, "answer songs" knew no ideological bottom-depth. Case in point: Nina Simone's version of "Revolution." I'm sure folks will recognize the tune--even if she does blues it up quite a bit, and regards the subject matter without any of the hesitancy of the song's original performers:
With the notable exception of Hip-Hop, "answer songs" are incredibly uncommon. Much of that has to do with the industry's attempted separation of music from the daily struggle to make sense of the world. Songs like this, however, show that the current situation is an exception rather than a rule. There is a need for dialogue today, a need to debate ideas about the world and how it works, what's wrong with it and what might be the solution.
Especially today, when the internet has given us unprecedented access, there is room like no other time for music to be part of the debate. After all, humans are naturally social animals, and to regard music as divergent from that is to ignore its very function.