Like the rest of the world, rock was kept indoors for the majority of the last two years.
Yet, despite being isolated from fans, venues and even their own bandmates, many musicians turned to their work to cope, pass the time and, hopefully, uplift others along the way. The one collective source of inspiration was the coronavirus pandemic itself: What better topic for new, universal music than the same global event that the entire human race was collectively experiencing?
Some artists worked remotely with other collaborators, making music outside of a traditional studio in a way that many had never done before. Some revitalized older songs, writing new lyrics to better fit the current climate. Others expressed sentiments that stood in opposition to global health measures designed to minimize and shorten the effects of the pandemic, like lockdowns and vaccines.
Below is a selection of pandemic-inspired songs that emerged from the last two years:
The Rolling Stones, “Living in a Ghost Town”
Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger states the obvious on this slinky stand-alone single: “Life was so beautiful, then we all got locked down.” Sessions for the song’s recording had first begun in the fall of 2019, but were then finished remotely the following spring. Jagger mourns the loss of live music over a dark groove (“once this place was hummin,’ and the air was full of drummin'”) and captures the general atmosphere of boredom and anxiety that’s plagued most of the world during this awful time: “I’m goin’ nowhere, shut up all alone,” Jagger sang. “So much time to lose, just starin’ at my phone.”
Kid Rock, “Don’t Tell Me How to Live”
Kid Rock hit a number of different sentiments in this expletive-laden collaboration with the Ontario rock band Monster Truck, including his distaste for “snow flakes,” “fake news” and offended millennials. “Years ago, we all thought it was a joke, see that every kid got a motherfuckin’ trophy,” he raps. But Kid Rock doesn’t just target others on “Don’t Tell Me How to Live,” which takes its name from a 2016 Monster Truck song with the same title. He also includes some opinions about himself, saying he’s not unlike David Lee Roth or Brad Pitt and that, like Bruce Springsteen, he is “the motherfucking boss.” Beyond the rapid-fire name-checking and unvarnished opinions, however, the track sounds a lot like the older material which first put Kid Rock on the map in the late ’90s and early ’00s.
Mick Jagger with Dave Grohl, “Eazy Sleazy”
At first glance, a title like “Eazy Sleazy” might not exactly conjure up images of a COVID-riddled world. But Jagger’s surprise-collaboration with Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl actually reveals some silly lockdown musings in the lyrics, referencing a “Tiktok stupid dance” and asking to “hook me up to Zoom.” Jagger even pokes some fun at anti-vaccination sentiments, joking “shooting the vaccine, Bill Gates is in my bloodstream.” Grohl thoroughly enjoyed the project: “It’s hard to put into words what recording this song with Sir Mick means to me,” he told Rolling Stone. “It’s beyond a dream come true.” Jagger’s ode to lockdown boredom offered a lighthearted option for pandemic listening.
Bon Jovi, “Do What You Can”
In March 2020, Jon Bon Jovi shared a photo of himself on Instagram washing dishes at his JBJ Soul Kitchen, which provides food to those in need. The caption read: “If you can’t do what you do … do what you can.” Roughly a month later, the phrase provided the title for a new single, which Jon Bon Jovi debuted acoustically at a benefit concert. “We all got to do our part,” he said during an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. “And whether it’s just staying at home or social distancing, that is just as important a part to play.”
Van Morrison, “Born to Be Free,” “No More Lockdown,” “As I Walked Out”
One of the pandemic’s troubling realities was that not everyone agreed on which courses of action were appropriate. Most agreed that decisions made by public health officials and epidemiologists were to be both trusted and respected, while others like Van Morrison questioned the sincerity and efficacy of such measures. Morrison released three solo anti-lockdown songs, “Born to Be Free,” “No More Lockdown” and “As I Walked Out,” complete with lyrics claiming that government control had reached an overwhelming and unacceptable high, and that pandemic researchers were “making up crooked facts” while the live music industry suffered. “Remember, those who are shutting down our economy haven’t missed a paycheck since lockdown began,” Morrison tweeted in December 2020. “We are not in this together.”
Eric Clapton, “This Has Gotta Stop”
Eric Clapton soon echoed Morrison’s attitude. “There are many of us who support Van and his endeavors to save live music; he is an inspiration,” Clapton said at the time, via Variety. “We must stand up and be counted because we need to find a way out of this mess. The alternative is not worth thinking about. Live music might never recover.” Clapton released “Stand and Deliver,” a track that Morrison wrote, as well as “The Rebels,” which was officially issued by “Slowhand & Van.” Clapton also released his own solo song, “This Has Gotta Stop,” in August 2021.
Weezer were forced to postpone the release of their then-upcoming album Van Weezer, but they still somehow perfectly captured the feeling of loneliness and helplessness that many were feeling during the pandemic with the single “Hero.” “Everybody needs a hero but I’m not everybody else,” Rivers Cuomo sang in the chorus, later adding, “You know I tried to be a hero, but I was lying to myself. I walk alone.” An accompanying music video featured fan footage, as well as a letter at the end, opened to reveal a tribute to essential workers: “While the rest of us retreated to our homes,” Cuomo wrote, “you ran towards the threat in a battle you didn’t even know you signed up for. Your bravery and selflessness are awe-inspiring. You are the reason we shall rock another day.”
Bono, “Let Your Love Be Known”
Bono shared a brand-new song on St. Patrick’s Day 2020. The U2 frontman had been touched by recent images of exhausted healthcare workers and busy hospitals surfacing from Italy, one of the places where the pandemic initially hit the hardest. “Let Your Love Be Known” was made up swiftly, “about an hour ago,” Bono admitted via Instagram. He said the song was “for the Italians who inspired it, for the Irish, for ANYONE who this St. Patrick’s Day is in a tight spot and still singing. For the doctors, nurses, carers on the front line, it’s you we’re singing to.”
Randy Newman, “Stay Away”
Randy Newman took the news of the pandemic seriously, but he also knew that people could use a little bit of laughter in spite of it all. His song, “Stay Away,” offered some happy-go-lucky teasing, even as the world hunkered down indoors. “Venus in sweatpants, that’s who you are,” he sang, emphasizing that the greatest, most considerate thing society could do for one another at the time was give one another some space. “Baby, keep your distance, please. ‘Stay away from me,’ words of love in times like these.” Newman later performed the song on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, before adding: “Everybody stay safe. It sounds simple and it is. Stay away, wash your hands, don’t touch your face. Don’t touch mine, either.”
Mike Love, “This Too Shall Pass”
Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love didn’t really set out to write a COVID song. “About a week into the quarantine, I was sitting around thinking about everything that people are going through in our country and in our world and I started to write a poem,” he told Your Tango in May 2020. That turned into “This Too Shall Pass,” which was recorded remotely. He didn’t want it to be a downtrodden tune, opting for a more buoyant old-school tempo. “I wanted something upbeat and positive,” Love said, “a similar affect to the mid-’60s vibe in the right key for my voice.” He could see the bright side of things too: “I think [the pandemic] will make us all more grateful and appreciate the freedom to enjoy life.”
Mike Campbell, “Lockdown”
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell was originally supposed to be on the road in 2020, promoting the debut LP with his new band, the Dirty Knobs. Instead, Campbell decided he may as well get his groove on — while doing a little bit of helpful fundraising – while stuck at home. Stepping into the role of one-man band, he made “Lockdown” available for download in April 2020 via a donation to Feeding America. “Since we’re all keeping away from each other, I have been doing what I always do when I am home: writing and recording,” Campbell said at the time. “I came up with ‘Lockdown’ for fun. Everyone around me (including my wife Marcie, who helped with the recording and shot the video footage) loved the song, so I’m putting it out for people to enjoy and to raise some money for Feeding America. It feels good to do something positive to help in this time of crisis.”
Drive-By Truckers, “Quarantine Together”
The members of Drive-By Truckers did not actually “quarantine together” as this song title suggests. Instead, they beamed in from their respective homes to record the song. The companion music video for the track came complete with cats and kids running amuck. “Through the miracles of science and technology, DBT has recorded a brand-new single,” Patterson Hood said in a statement. “I wrote ‘Quarantine Together’ during our first week in isolation and sent my basic track (recorded in my Heathen Attic) to the gang. Everyone then put their own parts on it and David Barbe mixed it.” “Quarantine Together” explores the possibilities inherent even in socially distant relationships: “What if we acclimate and call this isolation a date,” Hood sang. “Maybe enough time could go by, we could be each other’s mistake.”
Queen with Adam Lambert, “You Are the Champions”
Brian May and Roger Taylor updated the old Queen favorite “We Are the Champions” with a new pandemic-specific sentiment. This new version, recorded with singer Adam Lambert, paid tribute to front-line workers: “You are the champions,” Lambert sang. May later explained: “Just like we sent our young men and women into two world wars to fight, these young men and women are now fighting for us and risking their lives every day. That’s what this song has become about. It’s for everyone who is out there working and putting their life at risk.” Taylor’s daughter, Dr. Rory Taylor, appeared in the song’s video, holding up cards that said: “We will keep fighting COVID. Stay safe.” All proceeds from “You Are the Champions” were donated to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund for the World Health Organization.
Gal Gadot and others, “Imagine”
Actress Gal Gadot meant well when she posted a video to Instagram intended to represent collective solidarity despite pandemic-induced physical separation. “We are in this together; we will get through it together,” she wrote in the caption. “Let’s imagine together.” The accompanying video featured Gadot leading off an a cappella rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” with the help of various stars, including Sarah Silverman, Will Farrell, Natalie Portman, Mark Ruffalo, Maya Rudolph and others. The reception was mixed, to say the least. Viewers saw little value or comfort in a slew of wealthy celebrities singing a song about a world with “no possessions” at a time when many were struggling for the bare minimum. “Sometimes, you know, you try and do a good deed and it’s just not the right good deed,” Gadot admitted to Vanity Fair. “I had nothing but good intentions and it came from the best place, and I just wanted to send light and love to the world.”
Live Lounge Allstars, “Times Like These”
Dave Grohl was deeply honored that BBC Radio 1 would request the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” for a group cover song, with proceeds donated to the Children in Need and Comic Relief charities. “When my manager first called and explained the project to me, I literally had to fight back tears – that’s how flattered I was that the BBC would consider one of my songs for such an important cause,” Grohl told NME. He and bandmate Taylor Hawkins ended up working with a group dubbed the Live Lounge Allstars that included Chris Martin of Coldplay, Royal Blood, Dua Lipa, 5 Seconds of Summer, Rita Ora, Ellie Goulding and others to create a new version of “Times Like These.” “To all those amazing artists who took the time to learn and sing the words that I scribbled on a bit of hotel stationery nearly 20 years ago,” Grohl said, “I am beyond humbled. You have no idea.”
Top 40 Rock Albums of 2021
In spite of the ongoing pandemic, music soldiered on.