Fifteen Classic Protest Songs
They say the personal is political, and the political can be popular music. There's a long history of mainstream music expressing discontent with government and society. But when we step away from our Facebook soapboxes to join a march, "Fortunate Son" isn't exactly the most seamless rallying cry for the masses to sing together. (If you're interested in learning how songs can be used as tools for social movements, there is a workshop organized by Flobots' Noenemies project on Sunday, November 20, at 2 p.m. at Capitol Heights Presbyterian Church.) Below, we've compiled fifteen classic songs that rail against injustice — whether aimed at elected officials, climate-change policy or not returning land to native peoples in Australia. While these songs may not work as chants, they can pump up your sense of duty when blasting in your headphones.
1. Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Fortunate Son”
It’s been said many times that the Vietnam War had the best soundtrack. CCR’s “Fortunate Son” is one of those great songs, like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” that some have misinterpreted as a nationalist anthem, which only serves to rile those same people later,when they learn about the song’s true meaning. Singer John Fogerty wrote the song after David Eisenhower, the grandson of President Dwight Eisenhower, married Julie Nixon, daughter of President Richard Nixon. “There ain’t no way these people are going to war,” thought Fogerty, not long after being drafted himself.
2. Gossip, “Standing in the Way of Control”
Singer Beth Ditto wrote this awesome indie dance anthem as a response to George W. Bush’s proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which would have made it illegal, by way of the constitution, for same-sex couples to get married. “I wrote the chorus to try and encourage people not to give up,” Ditto said at the time. “It’s a scary time for civil rights.” Oh, if only she'd known what was coming.
3. Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)”
This was not, as you might think, a protest song about the Berlin Wall, though it did come in useful later on when it was adopted as an anthem and that wall came down. And, hey, maybe we’ll get to use the song again if Trump gets his preferred way of securing the border. No, this song was actually about rigid schooling and abusive teachers, particularly in boarding schools. It’s a song about the welfare of children, but the fact that it can be adopted by various causes shows just how great the song is.
4. Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen”
Released during the current Queen’s silver jubilee (25-year anniversary) in 1977, at a time when working-class England was suffering economically, the Sex Pistols perfectly captured the frustrations of the youth. Why care about these rich people who don’t seem to be helping at all? Johnny Rotten’s wonderfully sarcastic vocals add a perfectly bitter slant to lines such as, “'Cause tourists are money, and our figurehead is not what she seems.”
5. Radiohead, “Idioteque”
Like all of the songs on Kid A, “Idioteque” wasn’t released as a single, yet it’s one of the band’s most popular songs with fans. Thom Yorke has never fully explained the lyrics, and as is often the case with Radiohead, they can interpreted in different ways. But it’s clear that Yorke is unhappy about climate change, natural disasters and war, among other things. This one captures a mood rather than a specific event or theme.
6. U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
Perhaps the most powerful song in U2’s arsenal, this song reflects the horror felt by an observer to the terrible day in Derry when British troops opened fire on unarmed civil -ights protesters, who were there to bring awareness to what they considered the inhuman internment of anyone involved in the IRA. Bonus: The iconic video for the song was filmed at Denver's own Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
7. Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
Is it a poem set to music, or a song? Who cares? “The Revolution Will Not be Televised” was massively popular during the 1960s Black Power Movement, and it’s been sampled and reproduced countless times as it’s passed into popular consciousness. Just listen: “The revolution will not show you pictures of Nixon, blowing a bugle and leading a charge by John Mitchell, General Abrams and Spiro Agnew to eat Hog maws confiscated from a Harlem sanctuary.”
Read on for eight more classic protest songs in pop music.
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