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Celebrating Americons

Four musical moments in history that helped shape our lives and our country.

Rock and roll has had a hefty impact on American pop culture and, consequently, our country's identity for the past fifty years, more often than not intersecting with our politics and whatever social unrest is currently afflicting us. In honor of the Fourth of July, we picked four pivotal moments in music that helped shape — or continue to shape — who we are as a people and as a country.

Bob Dylan gets it wrong while still getting it right (1963): In 1963, Dylan released The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and recorded its followup, The Times They Are a-Changin', to be released the following January. Freewheelin's "Masters of War" is arguably the most important song to come out of the folk-music anti-war movement, while The Times tackled everything from the civil rights movement to poverty to the outsourcing of jobs. Dylan has never been more focused or hopeful, even if most of his work from this period exists now only as ironic prognostication.

Jimi Hendrix plays "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock (August 18, 1969): Easily one of the most iconic moments in rock history, Hendrix's feedback-bruised take on the national anthem used chords to imply machine-gun fire and the whistling of dropping bombs to the 400,000 men and women at Woodstock. It persists as a haunting attack on the government charged with defending the flag he was paying tribute to.

Marvin Gaye asks, "What's going on?" (May 21, 1971): There's a reason that the '60s and '70s are said to have produced most of the greatest music. Things were incredibly fucked up back then, so artists had a lot more to write about than getting laid and navel-gazing. Marvin Gaye understood this and produced the first soul album to take on the 10,000 Day War, the fallout of the civil rights movement and urban unrest: What's Going On, an American anthem for social consciousness.

Green Day reminds America its rock stars used to have balls (September 21, 2004): It's not like protest rock had completely vanished from the music-verse by 2004, but it had certainly been a long time since anybody had been able to get rich recording it. Green Day changed all that when the band released its magnum opus, American Idiot, a rock opera that struggled to make sense of post-9/11 America even as Americans were struggling to make sense of how, two months after the album's release, George W. Bush had been re-elected. Two years later, things were back to normal, and pop music had once again become irreverent and irrelevant.

 
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