Compare "Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin, "Hazy Shade of Criminal" by Public Enemy, and "The Rising" by Bruce Springteen, in terms of their themes.
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"Stairway to Heaven," by Led Zeppelin, tells of a woman trying to buy her way into heaven, as if "money talks"—even with God. Somehow, money makes it all okay:
There's a lady who's sure all that glitters is gold
And she's buying a stairway to heaven.
The song continues with what might seem to be theological overtones:
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.
The sense is that if one holds tight to what he believes to be right, there will be times of joy. Later the lyrics seem also to indicate that if one messes up as the woman at the song's beginning does, there is still hope:
Yes, there are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There's still time to change the road you're on.
This all reflects the idea introduced at the song's beginning: that money cannot buy everything. An argument can be made for a theme that reflects the importance of being a good person.
Whereas "Stairway..." seems to concentrate on the power of money, Public Enemy's "Hazy Shade of Criminal" focuses on people in positions of power, and asks the question—due to highly questionable behavior—who is the real criminal here?
Rollin' in a blue 'n' white gang
Ready to bang, biggedy bang...
The colors bring to mind white-collar crime and blue-collar crime: in a sense, they really are no different, though white-collar criminals are treated in a very different way in our society. The quote still begs the question, "Who the criminal?"
Finally, it is no wonder that the lyricist questions the ethics of the powerful politician:
Politikin' writin' bad checks, still dey gettin' wreck...
This song challenges the idea of who has the power; it asks how different is the white-collar criminal from the blue-collar criminal? Both are dishonest. However, the blue-collar criminal is up-front, in a way—wrong and caught; while the white-collar criminal sneaks around behind a false front of respectability...acting the criminal, too, but behind closed doors.
Springsteen's "The Rising" is a completely different kind of song: there is a darkness that we confront in "Hazy Shades..." in searching out hidden criminals; we almost get a bitter metallic taste in the mouth for the woman in "Stairway" who believes everything has a price; however, Springsteen looks into the darkness in his song and creates an anthem to those who risked and gave their lives on September 11, 2001. The firefighter's voice is heard:
Can't see nothin' in front of me
Can't see nothin' coming up behind
I make my way through this darkness
I can't feel nothing but this chain that binds me...
The chain is his responsibility to save lives: his credo. His words strike a chord within us that resonates today, even ten years after the event:
Left the house this morning
Bells ringing filled the air
Wearin' the cross of my calling
On wheels of fire I come rollin' down here...
Springsteen captures the "it was a morning like any other, until" sense. The cross of his calling is the square, cross-like logo on his firefighter's hat, displaying the number of his fire station.
"The Rising" reflects the rising of the spirit of the person who loses his life to give life back to others. There is redemption in the darkness of this song: heroism that is difficult to grasp.
To me, this is the most powerful of all the songs, cutting into the "quick" of one's soul.
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