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.”
8. Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”
One of the most misunderstood songs in American history. The Boss’s lawyers must spend the majority of their days sending out cease-and-desist notices to politicians using the song at campaigns and rallies as an anthem of overt patriotism. D'OH! In fact, the song addresses the trauma that the Vietnam War inflicted on veterans, and the way that vets were treated when they returned home. Trump had it blaring, although after Springsteen made his feelings about the President-elect public, the song started getting booed at rallies.
9. Midnight Oil, “Beds Are Burning”
Australia might be all the way on the other side of the world, but that doesn’t change how powerful and poignant this 1987 song is. Midnight Oil was making it clear that it was in favor of giving native Australian lands back to the Pintupi, an Aboriginal group that was forcibly moved out during the 1950s and '60s. Singer Peter Garrett served as a member of the Australian Conservation Foundation, so he walks the walk. But his harsh and evocative vocals on this song said so much.
Rage Against the Machine
10. Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name”
There are plenty of Rage tunes that have hit the political nail square on the head, but “Killing in the Name” deserves its place on this list, because it managed to work its way deep into the public consciousness. You could argue that people are listening to this song, nodding their heads along to it, who have no idea that it’s about racism on an institutional level and police brutality, but the counterpoint would be that maybe some part of the message will hit home, even if it’s years later. Damn, the thing was even a Christmas number one in England.
11. X-Ray Spex, “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
In which the late, great Poly Styrene said loud and proud, forty years ago: “Don’t even try to shut this woman up.” The song is a feminist anthem, but it also tackles issues like consumerism and materialism: “Some people say little girls should be seen and not heard,” Styrene says at the start of the song. “But I think, 'Oh, bondage, up yours!” Future riot grrrls Bikini Kill, L7 and Babes in Toyland were surely taking note.
12. Joan Baez, “We Shall Overcome”
This traditional hymn evolved into a protest song and became a huge part of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. Revolutionary folkie Pete Seeger has played it a lot over the years, but this recent version that Joan Baez performed at the White House in front of President Obama at an event celebrating music from the Civil Rights era is hair-raising.
13. Public Enemy, “Fight the Power”
The sentiment is simple but the message is powerful, and the theme is absolutely relevant today. The leaders lead, but you don’t have to take their decisions lying down if you feel that they are wrong. Every person has a voice — use it. Chuck D mocks the idea that equality exists in America, saying, “We’re not the same, because we don’t know the game.” “Fight the Power” was recorded in 1989, but the lyrics could have been written last week.
14. Pete Seeger, “What Did You Learn in School Today?”
Seeger died at the age of 94 in 2014, and that was a real shame, because few had done so much for social activism over such a long period of time. Though often criticized for his involvement with the Young Communist League in the 1930s and '40s, Seeger always used his voice to champion selfless causes. This particular song deals with misinformation given to children: “I learned our government must be strong/It’s always right and never wrong/Our leaders are the finest men/And we elect them again and again.”
15. Bob Dylan, Various songs
The latest Nobel Laureate in Literature has to be included on this list, but picking just one song is impossible. Arguably the finest lyricist of the modern era, we could have filled this list wth fifteen Bob Dylan protest songs. From civil rights and anti-war songs such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” to the powerful “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” which deals with the black bartender who was murdered by a rich tobacco farmer in Maryland, who only received six months in jail as punishment. Now's a good time to revisit Dylan's deep cuts and the previous social-art movements that influenced him.
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