What is interesting about this 1970 song from British folkie Cat Stevens is the middle ground position of the rhetoric. The lyrics, in part, accept the benefits of technology and engineering. Yet Cat still asks questions about what such changes might mean, in moving us away from the basics. Where will children play when housing developments or “office parks” replace playgrounds? The benefits of modern industry still have the trade off of environmental changes. Progress abounds, but also never ends, like roads that go on and on, but to where?
In these respects, Where Do The Children Play is a moderate protest song, and some might say, balanced. It acknowledges the complexity of public policy and how political matters are rarely black and white. It pays respect to the benefits of change while still pausing to consider any unintended consequences of progress. We’ve come a long way, let us say, from grass huts, to skyscrapers. But how high should buildings go: until they block out the sun?
Unlike many a a protest song, it doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. It is as if the singer was trying to start a conversation or public debate: let’s take stock before it is too late. He does warn we can take things too far, to the extent that progress will tell us what to feel, and even when to die.
Of course, we know Cat Stevens answered his own questions by checking out of Western “progress,” to some degree, by converting to Islam and changing his name. The discussion remains.