PopMusic: A Public Health Music Collection

Listen closely, and you’ll hear music with a message

Published on February 7, 2013by Lauren Weisenfluh

There’s a paradox in public health: When it’s done well, it’s invisible. So it goes for music, too: Beneath the surface of some of the catchiest tunes are powerful commentaries on population health. As a plea for healthier working conditions during the American labor movement, workers sang, “We bring more than a paycheck to our loved ones and family/ We bring/ asbestosis/ silicosis/ brown lung/ black lung disease/ And radiation hits the children before they’ve even been conceived.In the mid-‘80s, rockers earned millions of pounds in aid for an Ethiopian famine by asking listeners to “Feed the world/Let them know it’s Christmas time/and Feed the world.” Less than a decade later, as the American AIDS epidemic was raging, Salt N’ Pepa urged their fans: “Let’s talk about sex, baby/ Let’s talk about you and me/ Let’s talk about all the good things/And the bad things that may be.”

Song has empowered communities to mobilize change for the protection of the public good, including public health. Music has established solidarity in social movements, such as AIDS activism and worker safety, provided an outlet for cultural expression, and promoted behavioral changes. Today, The 2×2 Project begins a series that examines how music reflects public health concerns. Each week, we will highlight a tune that captures, by design or default, a public health phenomenon. While some social marketing campaigns happen to make for great music (think Johns Hopkins’ year 2000 “Stop AIDS Love Life,” which showcased 17 of Ghana’s musicians to raise awareness of the disease), some of the most arresting songs are less deliberate – if no less affecting – in their public health commentary.

“Song is part of social movement,” notes Dr. Amy Fairchild, a professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. And social movements “are related to public health, as public health is one of the many sort of fields where one of the central commitments is protecting public good.” The idea is particularly poignant during the labor movement, when workers sung organizing songs such as “Silicosis is Killing Me” and “More Than a Paycheck” to advocate for healthy working conditions.

Public health has also emerged in song as an expression of culture. “There’s music that wasn’t written with an advocacy purpose,” says Dr. James Colgrove, an associate professor of sociomedical sciences at the Mailman School of Public Health. “It wasn’t trying to reach a public health goal. It was a cultural expression of attitudes about illness.” History is littered with these songs, Colgrove says. Tuberculosis is prominent in many forms of musical expression, including “La traviatta” and “La bohème”, two 19th century Italian librettos, and Victor Hugo’s novel, Les Misérables.” More recently, HIV/AIDS has generated a large amount of music, including the musical and movie “RENT.”

Music has also emerged as a tool for health education. Sex education songs are promoted to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and H.I.V./AIDS. Lassa fever songs have popularized methods to prevent that disease’s spread in Sierra Leone.

While public health has inspired numerous songs, the impact that music has had on public health is less clear. “It’s a hard question to get at,” Colgrove says. Regardless of its un-quantified impact, songs such as “Silicosis is Killing Me” and “More Than a Paycheck” had a strong impact on the labor movement, he says. The “Stop AIDS Love Life” campaign calculated its effect in Ghana, showing significantly increased condom use and demonstrating that music can save lives: “You
 can maintain one lover. If it’s not on, it’s not in. Or you can wait until marriage. Love Life. Stop AIDS.”

Know a great public health tune we should feature? Let us know. Email submissions to Dana March or comment in the discussion box below.

Edited by Jordan Lite. Additional research by Arti Virkud.