Music can be very powerful. Out of all of the music made over the last 70 years, some songs were powerful enough to influence important political and cultural movements.
When enough people can relate to a song’s message and sound in a similar way, history’s made and icons are born. Check out these 30 songs that have made a huge impact from the moment they first hit the airwaves.
Bill Haley, “Rock Around the Clock” (1954)
Bill Haley has the distinction of being the first musician to popularize rock and roll in the ’50s. His band, Bill Haley & His Comets, sold over 60 million records worldwide thanks to hits like “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator”.
The song that gained the band major popularity was “Rock Around the Clock”. While it wasn’t the first rock song to hit the charts, it was anthemic for a growing trend of ’50s rebellious youths. The song encouraged young people to stay up late and party, which was controversial and revolutionary for its time.
Chuck Berry, “Johnny B. Goode” (1958)
Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ told the story of a boy from New Orleans who grew up to lead a rock band. In reality, Berry used “Johnny” to sing about his own rebellious experiences as one of the world’s first rock stars. It was the first taste of musicians singing about the extravagant lifestyle that accompanies famous singers.
Berry wrote four other songs about his rock and roll persona, ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ to continue telling stories about becoming a rock star. The name for his persona didn’t come out of anywhere, either. Berry was born at 2520 Goode Avenue, and he took further inspiration from his piano player, Johnnie Johnson.
Ritchie Valens, “La Bamba” (1958)
Originally a Mexican folk song, Valens added a rock and roll rhythm to the lyrics and turned it into an instant crossover hit. It was the first fully Spanish rock song to perform well on the Billboard charts at the time.
At just 17 years old, Valens was set for stardom. Unfortunately, on February 3, 1959, Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash. The tragic event later became known as “The Day the Music Died.”
Ray Charles, “What’d I Say” (1959)
Widely credited as one of the first soul songs, “What’d I Say” started out as an improvisation during a concert. With a little time left during a set, the enthusiastic crowd encouraged Charles and the band to keep playing (and to record the excitable energy).
The song’s exciting blend of gospel, rhumba, rock and rhythm and blues launched Charles into the mainstream radio stations. Following Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, it caused major controversy, as the sexual implication in the lyrics of the song’s second half made it one of the most explicit songs on the radio.
Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come” (1964)
This powerful song written by Cooke was a response to the struggles faced by him and those around him during the Civil Rights Movement. Furious with the way his friends and family were being treated, and after hearing Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Cooke added his take on the injustices towards African Americans.
Two weeks before the song was released, Cooke was shot in the chest and killed at a motel by the motel’s manager. She had claimed self-defense, but it was widely disputed. After his death, the song became even more important to the Civil Rights Movement.
The Beatles, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” (1964)
After John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the country was in a collective lull. Out of nowhere, Brit-pop phenomenon the Beatles crossed over to the United States with upbeat, positive sounds. The world was ready to feel happy again when The Beatles stepped out on the scene.
The mega-hit “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was their first No. 1 single on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The country was still reeling from the loss of Kennedy, but their infectious hit turned up America’s collective energy. When they performed their upbeat music on The Ed Sullivan Show, 70 million viewers turned in to see the instant superstars.
The Mamas and The Papas, “California Dreamin'” (1965)
The groovy foursome was a leader in the countercultural movement of the ’60s, blending folk and gospel with rock music. “California Dreamin'” was the upbeat song that channeled America’s collective longing for change during a time of revolutionary challenges to the country.
The song was emblematic of the struggle to escape the nation’s divisive issues. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement caused divides among families and communities. But with lyrics about retreating to sunny and relaxing California, often idealized in beach music and movies, America fell in love with The Mamas and The Papas’s new sound.
Aretha Franklin, “Respect” (1967)
When you first hear Franklin’s voice on this track, you know you’re about to hear a legend sing. Franklin’s “Respect” was a landmark song for the feminist movement. The empowering command for equality is largely considered to be the best R&B song of all time.
Originally written and released by Otis Redding in ’65, Franklin’s rendition made the song the anthemic classic it is today. Its success and powerful message paved the way for countless black female singers to express themselves and command respect in the music industry.
Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” (1967)
This song was the perfect representation of the end of the innocence of the ’60s. The band’s tongue-in-cheek retelling of the children’s story Alice in Wonderland mixed with a lot of double entendre made this far-out song an instant classic.
During the late ’60s, a disillusioned generation experimented with hallucinogens to escape the threatening Vietnam War. When Jefferson Airplane released this song, it was the first big radio hit to find a way to coyly address the growing trend of using drugs to escape “down the rabbit hole.”
David Bowie, “Rebel Rebel” (1974)
As punk and arena rock were still gaining steam, glam rock was a force in the ’70s, and Bowie was its fearless leader. Bowie was the first headlining music artist to experiment with personas and gender-bending. Throughout his legendary career, Bowie continued to push boundaries.
“Rebel Rebel” is a standout track that fully encapsulates Bowie’s rebellious edge. With each of his personas, like Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke, Bowie incorporated outrageous outfits and sounds to amplify his glamorous music. He also paved the way for other gender-bending performers like Grace Jones, Annie Lennox and Marilyn Manson.
Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975)
The epic rock ballad is one of the highest selling songs ever and perfectly encapsulated the hard guitar sounds that were popular at the time. Queen was able to distinguish their sound from contemporaries like Led Zeppelin, Heart, and Pink Floyd with songs like “Bohemian Rhapsody”.
Running just under six minutes, the track takes operatic, hard rock and dramatic shifts to elevate it above all other rock songs of the decade. We don’t need SNL’s Wayne’s World friends Wayne and Garth to remind us how great the song is. But it certainly helped introduce the song to another generation of instant fans.
Donna Summer, “I Feel Love” (1977)
Summer’s “I Feel Love” was one of the most popular songs of the disco era of the ’70s. While there are many other songs that are classics from the disco era, the Library of Congress added “I Feel Love” to the National Recording Registry as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.”
“I Feel Love” is widely credited with originating E.D.M. (electronic dance music). While other dance songs were recorded with orchestras, the production team produced the song with a synthesizer. Respected music producer Brian Eno declared after hearing the song, “Look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.”
Sex Pistols, “God Save The Queen” (1977)
“God Save the Queen” is the national anthem of the United Kingdom. The Sex Pistols song of the same name is largely credited as the best punk single of all time. It’s no surprise they named the song the way they did, as they unapologetically opposed the British Monarchy.
The song was a rallying cry to stop the mistreatment of poor and middle-class citizens. Comparing the queen to a “fascist regime” caused the song to be banned and condemned on radio stations, but that only made the demand greater for the punk sound.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” (1982)
“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is considered to be one of the first rap songs ever made. As rap music was finding its footing, most early rap songs consisted of boasting about success or a series of party chants.
“The Message” stands out for being the first rap song that told the truth about the struggle of early ’80s inner-city life in America. The idea of rapping about daily struggles and injustice was later picked up by legendary rappers including Jay-Z, Notorious B.I.G. and even Rage Against the Machine.
Michael Jackson, “Billie Jean” (1983)
After the success of his album Off the Wall, Jackson’s second single from his follow up album Thriller was incredibly successful on the radio as well as on the budding MTV network. It was the first music video of a black musician to be aired on rotation on MTV.
The bass-driven arrangement helped pioneer sleek, post-soul pop music. The song became Jackson’s best selling solo single, topping the Billboard Hot 100 chart for seven weeks. It also helped Thriller become the greatest selling album of all time.
Madonna, “Like a Virgin” (1984)
While Madonna was already known for her upbeat dance music, “Like a Virgin” was the first song in Madonna’s catalog to top the charts. Through frequent album and video releases, Madonna created a whole new kind of female superstar. This song in particular also launched her career-spanning commitment to blend religion with sexuality.
Family and religious organizations were up in arms over the combinations of religious symbolism and virginal wedding attire worn in the single’s music video and live performances. Blending pop music with controversy became a recipe for success for the countless female pop singers to follow in her footsteps, earning the title of Madonna-Wannabes.
Prince, “Purple Rain” (1984)
The eponymous movie, soundtrack, and song are the greatest opportunity fans will likely ever have to know the man behind the legend. Purple Rain was the only film that Prince starred in but did not direct, but it was still his most revealing artistic moment. Historically, it was the first, full-length autobiographical rock musical film to further launch its star’s career.
The film’s pinnacle moment was the title track, which combined gospel, R&B, rock and orchestral music. “Purple Rain” kicked off a new chapter in the world of R&B. The heavy guitar riffs at the beginning and end made the song more accessible to mainstream rock audiences, and it remains the icon’s signature song.
Public Enemy, “Fight The Power” (1989)
“Fight the Power” incorporates various samples and references to African American culture, social injustices, and black church services. The song’s lyrics contain revolutionary rhetoric calling the listener to “fight the powers that be.” It became a successful hit that called on the black community to become more politically active.
In the song, the group also takes shots at John Wayne and Elvis for not being proper representations of their community. Lyrics like, “Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp,” helped illustrate the underrepresentation of black success in American history.
Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, arena rock was full of instrumental theatrics and big-haired band members. And then came Nirvana with “Smells Like Teen Spirit” which is credited as the first alternative song to cross into mainstream success.
The song and accompanying video brought an end to the hair metal and stadium rock that dominated the ’80s. The grunge movement was born, thanks to the video’s heavy rotation on MTV, and the popular song became an anthem for apathetic kids in Generation X.
Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You” (1992)
Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s country song remains the best-selling single by a woman in music history. Pop music got a taste of gospel with Houston’s booming voice and haunting tone. The instantly recognizable ballad solidified her as a legend, and The Bodyguard Soundtrack remains one of the most successful soundtrack albums of all time.
The song spent 14 weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and is one of the best-selling singles of all time. After Houston’s untimely death on Feb. 11, 2012, the song topped the US iTunes charts, and the single returned to the Billboard Hot 100 charts at number three.
Pulp, “Common People” (1995)
The Britpop invasion of the mid-nineties consisted of rock bands like Oasis, Blur and Radiohead. Their popular songs were often either upbeat songs about being rock stars or haunting alt-rock ballads. But no other song is a better representation of this era and its radical listeners than Pulp’s “Common People”.
The dance song covered incredibly difficult material that was instantly relatable to a generation of middle to lower-class citizens. By telling the story of a wealthy girl having fun with a poor boy and hearing her bragging about her financial security, the song became an anthemic standard for the working class around the world.
Backstreet Boys, “I Want It That Way” (1999)
At the end of the ’90s, people grew weary of alternative/grunge music and wanted to feel happy again. Enter the era of bubblegum pop. Songs about love and dancing were all over the radio from musical acts like The Spice Girls, Ricky Martin, N*Sync and Britney Spears.
But no other song captures the ethos of bubblegum pop perfection better than the Backstreet Boys’ most celebrated song. Record labels carefully crafted together attractive pop stars to dominate the music industry, and these boys were all the rage. Their catchy chorus and shiny music video launched the genre to a global level and topped the charts in 25 countries.
Christina Aguilera, “Beautiful” (2002)
Aguilera’s Stripped, the follow up album to her bubblegum pop debut, was a sharp contrast to the manufactured, innocent image that many pop stars had at the time. She combined her pop roots with soul, hip hop, metal, rock and roll, gospel and Latin into her album. After denouncing her manufactured innocence with her outrageous “Dirrty” video, Aguilera was ready to get serious.
Next, Aguilera released “Beautiful,” the ultimate pop song about self-empowerment. Its video included imagery of a gay couple kissing in public and a trans woman getting dressed. Both of these visuals were very controversial at the time but made the song an instant LGBTQ anthem. Years later, pop stars like Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, and Selena Gomez credit Aguilera for inspiring them to sing about female and LGBTQ empowerment.
Beyonce ft. Jay-Z, “Crazy in Love” (2003)
This is the song that launched Beyoncé into her own field after leaving Destiny’s Child. The song, which samples The Chi-Lites’s 1970 song “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)”, “Crazy in Love” is a contemporary R&B and pop love song that incorporates elements of hip hop, soul, and 1970s-style funk music.
The concept of mixing current production techniques with throwback funk would later become a trend that dominated the new millennium. It certainly helped that legendary rapper Jay-Z added his flow on the song. Little did we know that they would later become one of the most powerful musical duos of all time, in large part thanks to their very first duet.
Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy” (2006)
“Crazy” is widely credited as the first universal hit song in the new millennium. It blended pop, rock, hip-hop, alternative and many other genres to become one of the most radio-friendly songs across all genres. This is especially impressive because, after the new millennium, the internet gave people the power to explore genres rarely played on the radio.
The song also started the trend of giving more credit to the producer behind the music. Gnarls Barkley member Danger Mouse became a household name along with the duo’s singer, Cee Lo Green. In the following years, many more producers and DJs would get top billing when songs were released to the public.
Amy Winehouse, “Rehab” (2006)
At a time when the internet and photographers had the power to extensively track the lives of celebrities and musicians, Winehouse’s tragic but celebratory song “Rehab” came out. Not only did it reintroduce Motown and soul sounds to mainstream radio for years to come, but it openly addressed the singer’s personal struggle with drugs and alcohol.
The honesty in her lyrics and catchy chorus made it a worldwide hit at a time when celebrities frequently checked into and out of rehab under the public eye. Unfortunately for Winehouse, the song and her dangerous lifestyle made her vulnerable to the internet tabloids and paparazzi who followed her every troubling turn.
M.I.A., “Paper Planes” (2008)
A surprise hit for Sri-Lankan rapper M.I.A, “Paper Planes” received praise for covering subject matter often ignored on mainstream radio stations. The song and accompanying video satirize American perceptions of visa-seeking foreigners and immigrants from Third World nations.
With a chorus that includes a children’s choir, African rhythms, a sample from The Clash and gunshots, the unconventional song gave a voice to immigrants and refugees on American airwaves. M.I.A. further helped American airwaves include artists from other countries, helping future culture-blending artists like ZAYN, BTS and Rosalía.
Kanye West, “Monster” (2010)
This particular track from West’s celebrated Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album is notable for corralling as many powerhouses as possible onto one song. West included artists from different genres like Jay-Z, Bon Iver, Rick Ross, and introduced the world to Nicki Minaj.
The lyrics and the song’s accompanying video were controversial at the time for its extensive horror imagery, as well as its treatment of women. However, Minaj’s verse has become the most iconic from the song, launching her career as the leading voice of female rap for the next decade to follow.
Rihanna featuring Calvin Harris, “We Found Love” (2011)
Rihanna’s career was already full of hits that helped bring Caribbean rhythms back onto the charts. Her foray into dance music, however, became a chart-topping representation of the early ’10s. In this time period, music producers and DJs gained power and name recognition as E.D.M. became more popular.
The uptempo, electro-house song that told a tragic love story was a mainstay at nightclubs and festivals for years to come. The industry took notice, and music producers still try to work with major pop stars to achieve similar success years later.
Childish Gambino, “This is America” (2018)
Purposeful rap was back in a big way in 2018. Gambino’s rap/gospel song became an instant protest anthem, covering gun violence and mass shootings, along with longstanding racism and discrimination against African Americans. Gambino brought several rappers into the song, including 21 Savage, Young Thug, Quavo and others.
The accompanying video was a series of haunting portrayals of social injustices towards African Americans. The internet spent weeks watching the video, attempting to decode its symbolic imagery. It lead to several thought pieces that tried to make sense of how the violent, fast-paced video represented America’s violent present.