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Pandemic Songs: The New Music Genre

Songwriters draw inspiration from this challenging time

spinner image Randy Newman performs virtually on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon
Randy Newman performs virtually during a musical appearance on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon."

COVID-19 pulled the plug on live music. If there's a silver lining, it's how musicians have responded to the pandemic through songs of pain, frustration, anger and hope.

Spotify data analyst Glenn McDonald maintains a playlist, The Sound of the Virus, that tracks tunes about the pandemic. The tally, updated daily and ranked by popularity, exceeds 8,300 songs and is currently topped by “Stuck With U” by Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. Every genre, mood and point of view crops up in COVID songs. You'll find hope and inspiration in “Sing for Life,” a passionate ballad from U2's Bono and Jennifer Hudson, and Yoshiki. Optimism radiates from Beach Boy Mike Love's “This Too Shall Pass,” featuring John Stamos. Queen + Adam Lambert retooled the uplifting “You Are the Champions."

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Others express the claustrophobia of isolation. Country singer Luke Combs pines for hugs, handshakes and ballgames in “Six Feet Apart.” In his rocking “Lockdown,” Mike Campbell sings about being alone, avoiding bad news and “microwaving everything I eat.” Detroit rapper Gmac Cash, whose handful of COVID tunes includes a tribute to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, admits in “At Home” that he'd rather be at school, at work or waiting 40 minutes for food at a restaurant than at home, where “I tried to cook and made me a burned steak."

Anger bubbles over in Riley Green's country tune “Better Than Me,” which opens with, “Is the world on fire? Feels like a bad dream/Did the hammer come down? Feels like a kick in the teeth.” And sorrow flows from Adam Hambrick's “Between Me and the End of the World,” based on his wife's work as a physician's assistant administering COVID-19 tests.

Plenty of musicians are wringing humor from adversity. Randy Newman's signature wit threads through “Stay Away,” a song about social distancing. Americana husband-and-wife duo Buddy and Julie Miller delivered a public service song, “Concerning Bleach,” that's both stinging and hilarious. And even the annoying Baby Shark jumped into the pool with the novelty ditty “Wash Your Hands."

spinner image Gloria Estefan performing virtually with an acoustic guitar
Gloria Estefan performs through Zoom on the television show, "The Talk."

Some artists are taking on activist roles. Gloria Estefan reworked her spirited 1989 hit “Get on Your Feet” to make “Put Your Mask On!” Bon Jovi's “Do What You Can” encourages volunteerism. The song's title was introduced in an Instagram photo of Jon Bon Jovi washing dishes at his JBJ Soul Kitchen restaurant in Red Bank, New Jersey, which gave away food during the lockdown.

And then there's Dane Clark, whose impulse to record a song about being cooped up snowballed into the first full pandemic-themed rock ‘n’ roll album, Songs From Isolation. Clark, John Mellencamp's drummer since 1996 and a singer-guitarist with six solo albums to his credit, says the impetus for the album was simple: “It gave me something to do."

At home in Anderson, Indiana, Clark was on a morning stroll in early March surveying the quiet streets and wondering how his community was coping. “I thought, Why don't I write something about what's going here?” Clark, 60, says. “Artists have to write about real life. What's more real than this?"

He called musician and longtime songwriting partner Jason Sturgeon to collaborate. Clark had the song “Six Feet Away” half finished in his head before he got to his piano.

"That was the first,” he says. “Boy, songs just started pouring out of me. I've got a neighbor who's recently widowed, and I was thinking about how he couldn't see anyone and how hard that must be. So the next song I wrote was ‘Ain't Gettin’ Out of Bed Today.'"

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Others quickly followed. Clark enlisted his 23-year-old daughter, Abigail, to sing on several tracks, and also approached Lovin’ Spoonful founder and harmonica player John Sebastian, 76. He's featured on five of Songs From Isolation's 13 tracks, including the sole cover, Jimmy Cliff's apt “Sitting in Limbo."

Clark's Indiana bandmates, dubbed the Backroom Boys, contributed recorded parts from remote work spaces. “I picked the best players around,” Clark says. “They had to have a home studio. It was easy because nobody was going anywhere. I still haven't seen any of these guys."

Every track on Songs From Isolation pertains to the pandemic experience. “I've gotten through this thing fine, but I know a lot of musicians in Indiana who haven't,” he says. “People are struggling socially, psychologically, monetarily. I've been in Mellencamp's band for 25 years. We were supposed to tour in January. That's not going to happen. All the sound guys, drivers, crew are out of work."

Clark believes music's power to heal and enlighten has helped many cope with the pandemic.

"I found my voice finally. I'm a late bloomer,” he says. “I want this to be heard, and I hope it touches people and helps them get through these desperate times.”

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