The Cold War in Popular Music
By: Sara P. Chavarria, Sally Rusk, Rachel Hughes, Catherine Niuzzo Honaman and Kirstin Bittel

Time: 2 days
Prep Time: Reserve Computer Room
Photocopies of Handouts 1 and 2 for each student.
Materials: Computer Room
Handout 1: Song Analysis Form

Handout 2: Lyric Analysis Form


Having addressed a brief account of the Cold War, students need to understand that these were very scary times for people. The idea of Nuclear Holocaust was real. To help students understand the emotions of the time (paranoia, fear, hate) they will conduct a song analysis of the Billy Joel Song: We didn’t start the fire and of Nena’s 99 Red Balloons song. A mixture of class discussion and small group work during this lesson will aid students in their understanding of international relationships in preparation for the Youth Voices Forum.

Students will be able to:
1. Students will analyze pop culture songs to identify cold war themes and chart.

Standards (NCHS)
1. Students will understand and be able to explain why the Cold War took place and ended and assess its significance as a 20th-century event.
2. Analyze causes and consequences of the world’s shift from bipolar to multipolar centers of economic, political, and military power.

Resource Websites



1. Access computers or go to computer room. Go to http://www.teacheroz.com/fire.htm
Play the song by Billy Joel: We didn’t start the fire. Explain that the song is about the time period between 1950s to the 1980s the same time period that encompasses the Cold War so chances are strong that most of the references have a direct connection to the Cold War.

2. Students will pick 5 things from the song (there are 121 links) and go to the links. They must read the excerpts and address the following questions/statements on their analysis sheet.
1. Why is the mention of the person, object, or event in this song?
2. Have students come up with a theme or way of identifying it with the Cold War atmosphere. For example: nationalism, poverty, propaganda, over-indulgence, Americana, dictators, annihilation, devastation, psychological warfare, wars, weapons, etc.

3. The next day, students will share their ideas with the class and create a set of Cold War Themes/Topics the teacher will type up or write on an overhead.

4. Students will now do a similar analysis of the lyrics to Nena’s 99 Red Balloons song.

5. Hand out copies of the lyrics and if possible play the song for them using your computer.

6. Have them take each verse section and determine what the dominant theme(s) is/are using the lyric Analysis form. When they are done, once again, have them write a final statement at the bottom of the form.

Teacher Aid: The song begins with the release of 99 red balloons into the sky. These same balloons are mistaken for something else and therein begins the ‘mistake’. Dominant theme should be devastation and total annihilation (“In this dust that was a city”) due to paranoia (“Panic Bells, its red alert”, mistakes (Back at base, bugs in the software, Flash the message, something’s out there”), and fear of the ‘other’ (“There’s something here from somewhere else”). Other themes: Total war (“This is it, boys, this is war”); Heroism (“Everyone’s a superhero, Everyone’s a Captain Kirk”); and Utter confusion (“Scramble in the summer sky”).

7. Closure. Using the themes students have come up with, ask them. Do these emotions or feelings exist today? Who are they directed at in these modern times?

Prompt by asking:
What has replaced the Cold War in the movies? Who is our new enemy? Do we need to have an enemy

Embedded Assessment

PULSE is a project of the Community Outreach and Education Program of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center and is funded by:

NIH/NCRR award #16260-01A1
The Community Outreach and Education Program is part of the Southwest Environmental Health Sciences Center: an NIEHS Award


Supported by NIEHS grant # ES06694

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Last update: November 10, 2009
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