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From The Urgent To The Absurd, Musicians Take On The Coronavirus Through Song

New Kids on the Block's "House Party," featuring Boyz II Men, Big Freedia, Jordin Sparks and Naughty by Nature, is just one of the coronavirus quarantine-inspired songs released over the past months.
Screenshot by NPR
New Kids on the Block's "House Party," featuring Boyz II Men, Big Freedia, Jordin Sparks and Naughty by Nature, is just one of the coronavirus quarantine-inspired songs released over the past months.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected musicians around the world. Many have had to cancel tours, delay album releases and find new sources of income. But some artists have found inspiration in the virus.

One artist to channel the pandemic into music is Detroit rapper Gmac Cash, who released a song called "Coronavirus" on March 15 — around the same time many cities first issued stay-at-home orders. "I ain't shakin' no hands, I don't want a hug / Make sure you wash your hands with a lot of love / So if you got that CV, they gon' find you / If you coughin', I ain't tryna be around you," he raps.

In just over a month since it was uploaded, the song has amassed over 3 million views on YouTube. It's the most popular video on his channel by far. Since then, he's also released three more songs related to the coronavirus: "At Home," "15 Days of Quarantine" and "Stimulus Check."

Gmac Cash centers absurdity in his raps about the virus, but not every song has been so fun. Many of the very first wave of quarantine songs mimicked the same tone as a lot of recent commercials — "We're all in this together, wash your hands, this is very sad" — and made the music feel one-note.

The best quarantine songs attempt to balance the immense loss many are facing with the more mundane changes to daily lives. A standout from that first, gloomy batch of quarantine tracks is "Life in Quarantine" by Ben Gibbard of the band Death Cab for Cutie. Gibbard performed daily live streams for the first several weeks of the lockdown to raise money for COVID-19 relief, and initially premiered the song with The Stranger, a Seattle news outlet. Proceeds from the "Life in Quarantine" go to Seattle-area relief organizations such as Aurora Commons, a nonprofit support service for the homeless.

The fundraiser is an emerging trend with the coronavirus-themed songs. Singer-songwriter Matt Maltese, for example, released "Ballad of a Pandemic" as a fundraiser for The Trussell Trust, an organization that supports food banks in the United Kingdom.

But it's not all doom and gloom. U.K. rapper Lady Leshurr, who drops a freestyle to coincide with the 'Queen's Speech' every year, took the opportunity to make 2020's entry a more topical song called "Quarantine Speech." In the video, she puts on a hazmat suit and wanders around her apartment venting all of her social distancing frustrations.

Finally, there's the fun and chintzy 1990s revivalism of "House Party" — New Kids on the Block's entry into the coronavirus song canon, which features Naughty by Nature, Boyz II Men, Big Freedia, and Jordin Sparks.

It is a whirlwind of cheerful, chaotic, retro absurdity, and maybe that's the secret to the perfect quarantine song: Something that allows the listener, for a few minutes, to cut loose.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
Stephen Thompson
Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)