Artists are passion people. To feel passionately about things seems to be a prerequisite to the creation of most art forms, maybe music especially.
So on the eve of our latest election, I thought I’d ask you all for your favorite political, social, or protest songs – the good, the bad, and the ugly. It could be songs you love, or songs you hate. It could be social commentary like “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, or it could be more direct like “The Great American Novel” by Larry Norman or… well… just about anything by Derek Webb.
I’d love to hear why you thought the songs you picked worked or even ones you thought were lame. For instance, I LOVE Sting’s Sacred Love record – until he gets to his political song. Then it’s “Skip” and I’m on to the next track. His poetic brilliance degrades into a whiny incendiary diatribe and I just want him to get back to his singing songs that make me feel like making out with my wife.
But in general I like political songs, or songs that carry ultimate social ideas, and have always thought that this is one of the roles of music – to bring cultural change, to be prophetic.
So what are some songs you think hit the mark? Are there any that you feel totally missed the mark? Does Springsteen or Dave Matthews stumping for Democrats color the rest of their music in a negative or positive way? Why do the liberals get all the cool musicians and conservatives have to make do with Billy Ray Cyrus. Should musicians stump for candidates at all? And finally, what I want to know is where is former governor of MN Jesse “The Body” Ventura when we need him most?
I’m hoping that naming our favorite political songs can hopefully lead to a discussion of all this and more. I’d love to hear from you! Even if you hate political songs, let me know about that.
Here are four that I’ve always loved (though you don’t have to name four if you don’t want to):
The Great American Novel – Larry Norman Somehow Norman manages to offend everyone and writes a song that is one of the most culturally relevant of it’s time in the 70’s – addressing hypocrisy, racism, the vietnam war, privacy, and even the space program – without ever coming off as “religious” in the worst sense of the word. It’s still eerily relevant some 30 years later. Here’s a lyric:
When I was ten you murdered law with courtroom politics and you learned to make a lie sound just like truth but I know you better now and I don’t fall for all your tricks and you’ve lost the one advantage of my youth
you kill a black man at midnight just for talking to your daughter then you make his wife your mistress and you leave her without water and the sheet you wear upon your face is the sheet your children sleep on at every meal you say a prayer you don’t believe but still you keep on
and your money says in God we trust but it’s against the law to pray in school you say we beat the Russians to the moon and I say you starved your children to do it
you are far across the ocean in a war that’s not your own and while you’re winning theirs you’re gonna lose the one at home do you really think the only way to bring about the peace is to sacrifice your children and kill all your enemies
the politicians all make speeches while the news men all take note and they exaggerate the issues as they shove them down our throats is it really up to them whether this country sinks or floats well I wonder who would lead us if none of us would vote
well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped from whispering through the fence you know every move I make or is that just coincidence…
…you say all men are equal all men are brothers then why are the rich more equal than others don’t ask me for the answer I’ve only got one that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son
A King And A Kingdom – Derek Webb Potent convicting lyrics from one of the most prophetic voices of our time. What I love about Derek is his protests aren’t angry rants, but there is always the sense that no matter how pointed his observations are, they are born out of a deep love for the people he’s singing to.
my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country, or a man my first allegiance is not to democracy or blood it’s to a king & a kingdom…
And the best part of the song: …but nothing unifies like a common enemy and we’ve got one, sure as hell but he may be living in your house he may be raising up your kids he may be sleeping with your wife oh no, he may not look like you think
If A Song Could Be President – Over The Rhine I just thought this song was good clean fun and an ode to the kind of artist’s that Karen and Linford love. The song weakens the more critical it gets of a specific leader, but all in all I think it’s kind of charming. sample lyric:
If a song could be president We’d hum on Election Day The gospel choir would start to sway And we’d all have a part to play
The first lady would free her hips Pull a microphone to her lips Break our hearts with Rhythm and Blues Steve Earle would anchor the news…
..We’d make Neil Young a Senator Even though he came from Canada Emmylou would be Ambassador World leaders would listen to her
They would show us where our country went wrong Strum their guitars on the White House lawn John Prine would run the FBI All the criminals would laugh and cry If a song could be president
And of course, “Born In The USA” by Springsteen – the most subversive chest thumping patriotic anthem to ever grace the airwaves. Most people don’t get it, and it’s amazing how the song manages to work on so many levels – and with one simple riff that repeats all the way through! How did he do that?
Okay, who’s next?
Evie “Me, me, pick me (hand in air waving frantically) for president!” Coates
AAAAHHHHH!!! Me, me, pick me!! (hand in air, waving frantically.) Ahem. Evie’s hands-down, very-most-favored political song: “Christ for President” by Billy Bragg and Wilco from the “Mermaid Avenue” record. I should clarify, for those who are not familiar with this album, that all of the songs’ lyrics were written by American legend, humanitarian and philanthrope, Woody Guthrie. Billy Bragg and Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco fame, got their hands on them (from Woody’s daughter, I believe) and put them to music. It’s pure genius, the lot of it.
If you’ve never heard this song, it’s a twangy, noisy romp lead by Jeff Tweedy’s scratchy vocal touting our Lord and Savior’s political platform. I LOVE it. There’s a plinky, rough-edged little piano bridge that pleases my ears and brings to mind an old saloon player. I wish there were a music video of this tune. With no further muss or fuss, I give you…..
“Christ for President”
Let’s have Christ our President Let us have him for our king Cast your vote for the Carpenter That they call the Nazarene
The only way We could ever beat These crooked politician men Is to cast the moneychangers Out of the temple Put the Carpenter in
Oh it’s Jesus Christ our President God above our king With a job and pension for young and old We will make hallelujah ring
Every year we waste enough To feed the ones who starve We build our civilization up And we shoot it down with wars
But with the Carpenter On the seat Way up in the capitol town The USA Be on the way Prosperity bound
Eric “politics schmolitics” Peters
I don’t come from a politically active family – even though my dad watches CSPAN all night long – so I’ve never really grown to embrace politics on the whole. I’ve never embraced a whole politician either. Nor has one stolen candy from my baby. But either way, I don’t much care for political songs. They bore me.
To be completely forthright, however, I must admit that I actually wrote my first politically-tinged song sometime after the 5th anniversary of 9/11. It will theoretically be on my new album which I’m now slowly working on. In it, I’m not really shaking a finger at any one particular person, but it’s about as feisty as I get. Which isn’t much. I hope it’s not a rude song. Or boring, for that matter.
I doubt I’ve answered your question.
I’m usually turned off when music tries to go political but I think I can squeeze out a few favorites.
1- Sunday, Bloody Sunday – U2 – I love this song, such awesome drums. The thing that really elevates it to greatness for me is the live version in the Rattle and Hum movie. Bono’s speech in that song (at about 3:40 in the link) is just spectacular.
2- What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye – Does this one really need explanation? All I can say is that I love his music (I’m a sucker for some Motown) and this is one of those songs that never gets skipped when it comes up in the playlist.
(And for kicks) 3- Jerusalem – Matisyahu – Who knew Jews could do reggae? Heck, I don’t even like reggae but I’m just bonkers about this song, it’s so bizarre. Consider it the musical analog to Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union.
Runners up – We Ain’t Gonna Take It (Twisted Sister) is sorta political…kinda, a whole slew of stuff by the Boss that I passed over since we’ve talked about all that recently, and Zombie by The Cranberries because I once blew some speakers in my car listening to that song too loud.
Love the topic and the idea. And my choices are fairly easy: -A King and a Kingdom, D. Webb -Big Yellow Taxi, J. Mitchell -Empire, Queensryche (takes me back to my hair metal days)
Next to love songs, protest songs are probably the largest category in popular music. At it’s heart, the act of songwriting is fundamentally a form of protest. In the solitary act of committing pen to paper, the songwriter passionately affirms that his scralls deserve a louder voice. He hopes to raise awareness, if even within himself.
Many protest songs are utterly predictable. As Hollywood movies lean left, so protest songs lean left. Before we hear note one or word one, we know this to be true. “Grunt, left good, right bad.” “Grunt, peace good, war bad.” “Duh-ayyy, government good, individual bad.” “Grunt, grunt, wealth bad, unless it is distributed equally among everyone.” “Duh-ayyy.”
So when I consider great protest songs, my number one criteria is that they have a brain. So many protest songs dutifully take and regurgitate the Luden’s Cherry Cough Drops as divvied out by left wing propagandists. It’s a deceptive pill to swallow: looks good, sounds good, seems good, tastes good, feels good, but doesn’t make you well.
The best protest songs smartly communicate nuance and subtlety. Further, these songs communicate something bigger and more transcendent than expedient political solutions. The best protest songs advocate solutions within, not without. With those benchmarks in mind, here’s three of my favorite protest songs:
1. “Revolution” by the Beatles – You say you’ve got a real solution, well you know we’d all love to see the plan. (I like the sarcasm.)
You ask me for a contribution well you know we’re all doing what we can. But if you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell you is brother you have to wait.
These lyrics readily acknowledge that despite the truth that most of us want the same ends—when it comes to politics—there is more than one way to get there. The transcendent part comes in the hook, when John (Can there be any doubt that John wrote this one?) writes, You know it’s going to be all right.
On a trivial note, the Beatles achieved that dirty guitar sound–which some rock and roll historians call the earliest precursor to heavy metal–by plugging the electric guitars directly into the recording console.
2. “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye – It’s not a coincidence that the title track from the most spiritual of albums from Marvin Gaye came at a time of great personal crisis. Gaye had fallen into a debilitating depression after his singing partner—Motown artist Tammi Terrell—died of a brain tumor. For a long time, Gaye refused to record or perform.
“What’s Going On” advocates dialogue over dogma:
Picket lines and picket signs, Don’t punish me with brutality Talk to me, so you can see Oh, what’s going on What’s going on
Using the words, “mother,” “father,” and “brother,” to me implicitely communicate that change begins at home; in the family and in individual hearts. The rest of the album has an overtly spiritual flavor as well including the Marvin Gaye penned, “God Is Love.”
3. “Blowin’ in the Wind” – Bob Dylan – In 4th grade music class, the cooler than cool Mrs. Steifel came up with the innovative idea of letting the class pick its own music from the world of pop music rather than those horrible kid anthems. It’s one of my earliest memories of being conscious of lyrics. Mrs. Steifel insisted that we sing the songs well, so we practiced them over and over and over again, eventually committing the lyrics to memory.
Dylan ask a series of rhetorical questions, with the reply to each one of them, The answer is blowin’ in the wind. In light of Dylan’s later conversion the Yes,’n’ how many seas must a white dove sail, before she sleeps in the sand? is especially poignant and poetic, as is the title, “The Answer is Blowin’ in the Wind.” I like to think of that wind as The Spirit Wind. The song is by most accounts, an anti-war song. But by leaving the lyrics satisfyingly ambiguous, Dylan left the final interpretation up to the listener. Thanks, Bob. (Can I call you, Bob?)
Honorable mention goes to “Okie from Muskogee” by Merle Haggard and “When the President Talks to God” by Bright Eyes. I am not a particular fan of either tune, but I like the level of passion in both. And I want to hear them back to back on the radio someday.
“The Times, They Are a-Changin'” by Bob Dylan.
On the tour last week I spent about four hours in the car listening to old Bob Dylan songs, and was once again floored. When this one came up it felt as prophetic and timely as it must have back in the 60’s when he wrote it:
The line it is drawn The curse it is cast The slow one now Will later be fast As the present now Will later be past The order is Rapidly fadin’. And the first one now Will later be last For the times they are a-changin’.
Oh, and I just thought of another, by my favorite rock and roll band from the nineties, Tesla. That’s right, I said Tesla. They were a hair band, but they really stood out among their effeminate peers by not wearing makeup or tight leather pants. And, they actually sang songs about things. The very name of the band, for example, isn’t a city in Oklahoma (really, I had to explain that more than once in high school), but the oft-overlooked inventor of A/C power and the radio (it wasn’t Marconi, contrary to the textbooks), Nikola Tesla. The inventor’s sad and fascinating story is hinted at several times in their songs and album titles. I say all that to say, I just remembered this song. It ain’t terribly deep, but it’s a welcome lyrical departure from, say, “Unskinny Bop”, by Poison, or “Up All Night”, by Slaughter.
(I’m not suggesting that you go and download the song, by the way, even though its guitar part makes me want to raise my pinky and index finger. I’m not sure I’d be able to stand it anymore. But here it is.)
Modern Day Cowboy
Stormy night under jet black skies, Billy pulls into town the thunder rolled and the lightning bolts come crashin’ to the ground Cold as ice, hard as stone, as he walks into the room With another man who was feeling the same way, all hell’s breakin’ loose
Bang bang, shoot ’em up, bang bang, blow you away
It’s a showdown in the no man’s land, for the cowboy of the modern day Come sundown, don’t be hangin’ round, ’cause the cowboy’ll blow you away
Al Capone and the Bad Boy Jones, on the wrong side of the law Johnny D and his company, always first to the draw, Gangster lean, feelin’ so mean, try to take more than their share ‘Cause all they saw was ruling it all, the scent of blood was in the air
So here we are and we’ve come this far, but it’s only getting worse Foreign lands with their terrorist demands, only cause the good to hurt The U.S.A., the U.S.S.R., with their six-guns at their side I see the message, written on the wall, too much anger deep inside
Bang bang, shoot ’em up, bang bang, blow you away
There’s also my other favorite nineties rock and roll band, Extreme, whose songs were usually brilliant political and social satire disguised as delightfully melodic, riff-heavy rock. I have a great story about a few conversations I had with Extreme’s frontman Gary Cherone about his Christian faith.
And finally, I’ll mention the late great Rich Mullins, whose first record featured this diamond in the rough. I’ve sung it to myself more than once over the last few months:
Save me, save me Save me from my contempt for the things that make me strong Save me from any value I could put a price tag on Save me from Soviet propagandists Lord save me from Washington Please save me Lord save me
Save me save me Save me from the slick pop sounds Laid down in virgin vinyl grooves Save me from any woman who would be turned On to the aftershave I use Save me from trendy religion that makes Cheap cliches out of timeless truths Lord save me, Please save me Save me
One of my favorite “state of the union” songs is Joni Mitchell’s “Sex Kills.” It’s not exactly a hopeful song, more a song about the present state of the fallen world we live in – a world of dashed hopes. I always find it interesting that people with Joni’s mindset start out as idealists and eventually become cynics. George Carlin once said, “A cynic is just a disappointed idealist.” After forty years of banging on the doors of “The Establishment” idealists are tortured by the fallen nature of man, something they don’t want to believe in. They start with faith, and that faith is shipwrecked because it isn’t in a holy God but in fallen man.
I listen mostly to Joni’s more idealistic music, the earlier stuff, though I love her whole catalog. The end of all nature will the ideal envisioned by God, who sees the end from the beginning. That ideal-ism is the true realism.
The production on this song is perfect. Eerie, captivating, repetitive, moody, brooding – and sadly resigned.
I pulled up behind a Cadillac; We were waiting for the light; And I took a look at his license plate- It said, “Just Ice.” Is justice just ice? Governed by greed and lust? Just the strong doing what they can And the weak suffering what they must? And the gas leaks And the oil spills And sex sells everything And sex kills … Sex kills …
Doctors’ pills give you brand new ills And the bills bury you like an avalanche And lawyers haven’t been this popular Since Robespierre slaughtered half of France! And Indian chiefs with their old beliefs know The balance is undone-crazy ions- You can feel it out in traffic; Everyone hates everyone! And the gas leaks And the oil spills And sex sells everything And sex kills … Sex kills …
All these jackoffs at the office The rapist in the pool Oh and the tragedies in the nurseries- Little kids packin’ guns to school The ulcerated ozone These tumors of the skin- This hostile sun beating down on This massive mess we’re in! And the gas leaks And the oil spills And sex sells everything And sex kills … Sex kills … Sex kills … Sex kills … Sex kills …
Jason— What a question! My favorite political song? I can only think of least-favorite political songs. For me, at least, art that is easily recognizable as “political” art already has a strike or two against it, whether I agree with its politics or not. Wendell Berry’s novels are very political. But the politics sneak up on you. You finish and say, “Hey, wait a minute, I just read a very political book!”
I’m trying to think of a song that does the same thing. If I could, that would be my favorite political song. Since I can’t, here are two nominees:
1. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” As political songs go, that’s a great one. From what I understand, it was quite effective in accomplishing its political aims. It started out life as the crudely political “John Brown’s Body Lies a-Moldering in the Grave,” before Julia Ward Howe changed the words. Her use of prophetic language (“He is trampling out the vineyard where the grapes of wrath are stored”) brings the transcendent to bear on the political. I gained a new appreciation of its power when I went to a men’s prayer lunch on Sept 12, 2001—the day after the terrorist attacks—and a couple of hundred men sang it—with almost too much gusto.
2. Ben Shive’s “4th of July.” Does that count as a political song? Really, it’s a self-consciously a-political song. The last stanza:
This nation, indivisible Will perish from the Earth As surely as the leaves must change and fall And the band will end the anthem To dust she will return So the sun must set on all things, great and small But the first star of the evening Will outlive them all
Honorable Mention: “Sweet Home Alabama.” The politics may be distasteful (Is “Watergate does not bother me” supposed to make me feel better about the segregationist Alabama of that era?)—but I suspect I’m not the only one around here with a soft spot for that song. A few years ago I was in Scotland at a village music festival. One of the bands struck up those first few licks of “Sweet Home Alabama,” and the crowd went nuts.
p.s. Jason, I disagree with you about Over the Rhine’s “If a Song Could be President.” It’s clever enough, but I think it’s easily the least compelling song on that otherwise brilliant CD. It’s a perfect example of why I don’t like political songs. Two genius song-writers go flat when they turn their attention to political questions.
Marvin Gaye – What’s goin on? It is not profound, but it is killer. And that makes me think of the Marvin Gaye national anthem… here it is…
Father, father, everybody thinks we’re wrong Oh, but who are they to judge us Simply because our hair is long