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

Apr 28, 2020
Originally published on April 28, 2020 8:46 pm

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.

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Like so many others, musicians have had their worlds turned upside down by the coronavirus.


They've had to cancel tours and delay album releases. But some artists have gained a bit of inspiration.


GMAC CASH: (Rapping) I done bought me a mask and a lot of gloves. And I still feel like that is not enough. I ain't shaking no hands. I don't want a hug. Make sure you wash your hands with a lot of love.

SHAPIRO: That's the song "Coronavirus" by Detroit rapper Gmac Cash. He released it on March 15, the same time many places were releasing stay-at-home orders.

STEPHEN THOMPSON, BYLINE: The first wave of quarantine songs kind of have the same tone that I think a lot of commercials have where it's like, we're all in this together. Wash your hands. This is very sad.

KELLY: That's Stephen Thompson of NPR Music.

THOMPSON: So many of us are cooped up in our houses. And we're washing your hands a lot. And how do you write a song that feels universal and speaks to that moment. And I think at the same time, there's a seriousness to it that you also want to capture. And so I think it's very, very difficult to write a really effective song about being in quarantine life.


BEN GIBBARD: (Singing) Sidewalks are empty. The bars and cafes, too. The street lights only changing 'cause they ain't got nothin' better to do.

KELLY: Ben Gibbard of the band Death Cab for Cutie released a coronavirus-themed themed track back in March, as well. It's called "Life In Quarantine."


GIBBARD: (Singing) When our city was still the secret before those carpetbaggers came to town.

KELLY: He says he'll donate the proceeds to Seattle-area relief organizations.

SHAPIRO: U.K.-based rapper Lady Leshurr says she'll also give away the money she makes on her track "Quarantine Speech."


LADY LESHURR: (Rapping) Don't touch me. Big sis needs an apology 'cause I'll be on one like I'm in quarantine. I'm mad had to change up a whole lot of plans. Before you go 'bout your business, wash them hands. Wash them hands. Wash them hands. You better wash them hands. Wash them hands. Wash them hands. You better wash them hands.

SHAPIRO: Thompson says Leshurr injects some humor into the bleak landscape of coronavirus music.

THOMPSON: One thing that I'm enjoying and appreciating listening to these songs about quarantine is that we're starting to enter a wave of songs that are a little bit more joyful, that contain a little bit more silliness and a little bit more of a sense of play.

KELLY: Songs like "House Party," a quarantine tune served with a dash of cheesy '90s revivalism. It's by New Kids On The Block, with help from Naughty By Nature, Boyz II Men, Big Freedia and Jordin Sparks. Yep.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing) It's nine o'clock. Ain't got nothing else but time. I think I'm going to lose my mind. Gon' leave it all behind.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing) When will it stop?

THOMPSON: It is just this whirlwind of cheerful, chaotic, retro stupidity that I can really, really get behind.

SHAPIRO: And in this time, who doesn't need to cut loose?

KELLY: Amen to that. Just be sure to dance responsibly.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Let your feelings go. Let your feelings go. Live our lives now. We're gonna pump it real loud. Don't say no, girl. Here we go. House party, house party, let's get it started... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.