The Fifth Dimension and singing about racism

The Fifth Dimension - Age of AquariusIn the 60s and 70s, pop music lyrics began focusing on issues of brotherhood and racism like no time before or since. Peace and love were in the air, fueled by growing outrage over the war in Vietnam and mistreatment of black Americans. The sweet pop style of The Fifth Dimension lended itself to a gentle approach, in contrast to the clever and overt lyrics of Sly Stone’s 1968 “Everyday People” or the edginess of Nina Simone. But like so many other artists, the Fifth Dimension confronted racism through their music. Even when they acknowledged pain, though, the songs focused on uplift and hope—on the optimism of what was possible.

Indirect Approach: Aquarius

The quintessential song, of course, is “Aquarius/Let the Sun Shine,” which became the most played song on the radio in 1970, a year after The Fifth Dimension recorded it. Written by Galt McDermott, James Rado, and Gerome Ragni, the medley derived from two songs in the 1967 musical Hair, which thematically dealt with prejudice, among other things. The lyrics tell about the dawning of a new age of awareness, harmony, and understanding among people.

A Subtle Metaphor: Up, Up and Away

The Jimmy Webb tune “Up, Up and Away” reflects a more subtle attitude. In 1967, the lyrics “The world’s a nicer place in my beautiful balloon”—especially when sung by a black quintet—referred to something quite specific, despite the veneer of seeming about a general feeling. The entire song can be heard as a coded metaphor for escape, like the kind of deliverance mythologized in countless gospel hymns.

Coded Reading: Puppet Man

“Puppet Man,” written in 1969 by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, is on its face a straightforward song about a man who is willing to be at the beck and call of his lover (“I’m your personal marionette”). That’s certainly the way it comes across when sung by a man. However, the lyrics take on another layer when sung by quintet of black men and women. Like the cartoon of the “happy” black man who exists just to perform for his overseers in the scathing video “This is America” by Childish Gambino, “Puppet Man” comments on the black performer straightjacket. “Pull my string,” and I’ll perform for you. “Take my heart and take my soul, I’m giving you complete control.” I doubt this was the intent of The Fifth Dimension when they chose to record the song, but it makes an interesting alternative reading of the song.

Let’s Be Direct: Save the Country

The Fifth Dimension had another hit with the 1969 Laura Nyro song “Save the Country.” This time, the references are overt, starting with the title. “Keep the dream of the two young brothers” could refer to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. “We could build a dream with love,” and babies singing “We Shall Overcome.” The style of the music, with references to the glory river and washing away the devil, draws from gospel tradition. No need to be subtle about racism and brotherhood here. And that, perhaps, reflects a shift from the relatively safer terrain of 1967 (at the start of the group’s popularity) to the gutsier demands of 1969.

These were the key songs about brotherhood and racism that became hits, but the group performed other well-known tunes, like the Burt Bacharach and Hal David song “What the World Needs Now” and “People Got to Be Free” by the Rascals.

And, the sad thing is, these songs are as relevant today as they were fifty years ago…

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