The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Contributed by: Ann Schmidt, Conrad Weiser High School, Wernersville, PA


As the Cold War evolved over four decades, the end of the world seemed imminent as the nuclear arms race continued to escalate. Popular music, especially in the 1980s, reflected this growing pessimism. By 1989 and 1990, as the Berlin Wall fell and Communism crumbled in Eastern Europe, popular music began to contain more optimistic commentary regarding the Cold War. This lesson uses popular music to illustrate changing attitudes about the Cold War from the 1980s through to 1990. The final project extends the lesson through to the present.


The student will be able to: 

  1. develop an understanding of pessimistic attitudes of the Cold War;
  2. analyze selected songs and identify what historical events they reference;
  3. recognize the ordinary person’s view of the Cold War (which often seems to contradict that of the politician);
  4. listen critically to the style of music in each song and distinguish similarities and differences in each of the songs;
  5. create a musical collage or timeline for the period since the collapse of the Soviety Union (1990) to today.


suggested for secondary U.S. History students.

Time Frame

one class period to listen to and discuss the music. One to two class periods to work on and develop the collage/timeline.


CD/tape player; CDs/tapes of selected songs; paper and writing materials for timelines, tapes for collages


This lesson would be part of a unit dealing with the Cold War Era (1945-1990). Before starting this lesson, students would have studied the origins of the Cold War and some of the conflicts during the early years from 1945 to 1961. Highlights would include the Marshall Plan, the Berlin Airlift, the Berlin Wall and American Bomb shelters (simulated in an activity).



  1. Begin the lesson by reviewing activity on bomb shelters and the fears of the nuclear age. Explain that by the 1980s these fears turned to pessimism about the government’s Cold War policy and a great deal of anti-nuclear sentiment among the general population. This changing attitude is reflected in the songs of the time period.
  2. Listen to “Russians” by Sting.
    • What does the music itself (as opposed to the lyrics) convey to the listener? (Answer: heavy/sober in feeling/tone/attitude)
    • Who are the people that Sting mentions in the song? (Answer: Mr Kruschchev, the leader of the Soviet Union; Oppenheimer, the lead scientist in the creation of the first Atomic Bomb; Mr. Reagan, President of the United States)
    • What is Oppenheimer’s deadly toy? (Answer: Atomic Bomb)
    • What viewpoint does this song reflect ? (Answer: may vary but may include everyday person’s view of the Cold War; a plea for peace)

  3. Listen to “Rust in Peace” by Megadeath. Discuss what comes to mind when they hear this song. Answers may vary.
    • Is this a song of optimism or pessimism? (Answer: Pessimism)
    • Why? (Student should point to evidence in the song to support their answers.)

  4. Listen to “Leningrad” by Billy Joel. Discuss historical events referenced in this song.
    • After Leningrand - birth of Communism in Russia
    • McCarthy time - time of communist hysteria in post World War II years (1951-1954)
    • 38th parallel - Korean War
    • Air Raid drills - practiced weekly in schools
    • Levittown - growth of the suburbs
    • Cuban Missiles - October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis
    • Watched my friends go off to war - Vietnam
    • What message can be taken away from this song? (Answer: If people get to know each other, they’ll find they are not so different from each other)

  5. Students read background information on the Scorpions. Point out the importance of their travels to the Soviet Union in 1988. Listen to the song “Wind of Change.”
    • What does this song suggest about the future of the Soviet Union? (Answer: things are going to change for the better; optimisim)
    • Why could the Scorpions foresee these things one to two years before they actually happened? Answers will vary.

  6. Ask students why they think the Berlin Wall came down? Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Students will most likely give economic/political/social reasons. Point out that perhaps it also had something to do with rock and roll!


In groups of three or four, students will create a musical collage or timeline illustrating political, social, and economic issues relating to world peace from 1990 to the present.

Learning Log: What did you learn from this activity? How does it connect with the previous activity on bomb shelters?

Selected Recordings

“Leningrad” recorded by Billy Joel (Storm Front, Columbia Records, 1989); lyrics and music by Billy Joel

“Russians” recorded by Sting (The Dream of the Blue Turtles, A&M Records, 1985); written and arranged by Sting and based on a theme by Sergei Prokofiev

“Rust in Peace” recorded by Megadeath (Rust in Peace, Capitol Records, Inc., 1990)

“Wind of Change” recorded by Scorpions (Crazy World, Mercury Records, 1990); lyrics and music by K. Meine

Enrichment/Additional Resources

Have students brainstrom major historical events that have happened since the Cold War ended. Ask students to bring in any song that relates to one of the events that they brainstormed. Students should include a copy of the lyrics, as well as background information on the artist. The students must explain what historical event the song relates to and why.

Resources that provided background information for this unit include:

Friedlander, Paul. Rock and Roll: A Social History. Boulder: Westview Press, 1996.

Romanowski, Patricia and Holly George-Warren. The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll. New York: Fireside, 1995.

Todd, Lewis Paul and Merle Curti. Triumph of the American Nation. Chicago: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1986.