From the 1940’s- from rock and roll, R&B, to Southern Rock- and on through the decades- psychedelic rock, industrial rock, pop, heavy metal, alternative rock, and hip hop-wonderful musicians have produced songs that evoke strong emotions about society, politics, and the human race.
I think it’s worthwhile to showcase political music, because society and politics are some of the driving forces behind artistic creation for many artists. Precisely why I’ve compiled a list of my top 20 favorite politically-inspired songs.
There are a lot of political songs out there, but for this list I tried to stay away from anti-war songs, because there are just SO many of them, and that’s all you hear about. Most of the famous political songs are anti-war, so I just wanted to give you a fresh list. Although, some of them are anti-war and some of them are very well-known songs, I just couldn’t leave them out.
Here they are from oldest to newest. I hope you enjoy!
1. All You Fascists Bound to Lose- Woody Guthrie
“Race hatred cannot stop us, This one thing we know. Your poll tax and Jim Crow, And greed has got to go. You’re bound to lose, You fascists bound to lose.”
Some good ol’ classic country for you. This song was written in 1944, at a time when fascism was on the forefront. Even here in the United States we had government-sanctioned racism- like Woody points out- the Jim Crow laws.
2. Taxman- The Beatles
“Should five per cent appear too small… Be thankful I don’t take it all, ‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman”
“f you drive a car, I’ll tax the street. If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat. If you get too cold I’ll tax the heat. If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.”
One thing I love about the Beatles- lyrical simplicity. This song says it all in simple words with a catchy beat. Pure genius.
3. America- Simon & Garfunkel
“”Kathy, I’m lost,” I said, though I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, They’ve all gone to look for America. All gone to look for America. All gone to look for America.”
Where has America gone? Simon and Garfunkel have gone to look for America.
4. What is Truth?- Johnny Cash
“Well, man, could it be that the girls and boys, Are trying to be heard above your noise?And the lonely voice of youth cries “What is truth?”
“A little boy of three sittin’ on the floor looks up and says, “Daddy, what is war?” “Son, that’s when people fight and die.” The little boy of three says “Daddy, why?”
“The young girl dancing to the latest beat, Has found new ways to move her feet. The young man speaking in the city square, Is trying to tell somebody that he cares. Yeah, the ones that you’re calling wild, Are going to be the leaders in a little while. This old world’s wakin’ to a new born day, And I solemnly swear that it’ll be their way. You better help the voice of youth find, “What is truth”.
God damn this song is exceptional. Johnny Cash lays it out for us once again, denouncing the “old-timers” who simply blame problems on the “crazy” youth. Well, the youth are our future leaders, and you better get used to it and help them find the truth. Thanks Johnny Cash.
5. Ball of Confusion- The Temptations
“Well, the only person talking about love thy brother is the preacher. And it seems nobody’s interested in learning but the teacher. Segregation, determination, demonstration, integration. Aggravation, humiliation, obligation to my nation.”
“The sale of pills are at an all time high. Young folks walking round with their heads in the sky… Evolution, revolution, gun control, sound of soul. Shooting rockets to the moon, kids growing up too soon. Politicians say more taxes will solve everything.”
The Temptations write about the Vietnam War, racism, gun control, drug abuse and more all in one funky and spunky song. I love it.
6. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)- Marvin Gaye
“Money, we make it, ‘Fore we see it, you’ll take it. Oh, make you wanna holler, The way they do my life”
“Crime is increasing, Trigger happy policing. Panic is spreading
God knows where, where we’re heading”
Focusing on shining a light on the economic woes of inner city ghettos in the 1970’s, Marvin Gaye manages to evoke raw emotion in a soulful and groovy kind of way. He says, “make me wanna holler”- well, Marvin, I think you did with this song. Splendid job.
7. Ohio- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
“Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming, Four dead in Ohio.”
This song is a reaction to the Kent State Shootings on May 4th, 1970, which involved the shooting of unarmed college students (protesters) by the Ohio National Guard. The guardsmen fired 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others, one of whom suffered permanent paralysis.
8. Panic In Detroit- David Bowie
“He looked a lot like Che Guevara, drove a diesel van. Kept his gun in quiet seclusion, such a humble man. The only survivor of the National People’s Gang. Panic in Detroit!”
“I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine, And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights.”
Panic in Detroit was written based on Iggy Pop’s descriptions of revolutionaries he had known growing up in Michigan. It’s also said that the song reflects the 1967 Detroit Riots- which lasted 5 days and resulted in 43 dead, 1189 injured, over 7,200 arrests, and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed! Damn.
9. Pigs (Three Different Ones)- Pink Floyd
“Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are. You well heeled big wheel, ha ha, charade you are! And when your hand is on your heart, You’re nearly a good laugh. Almost a joker. With your head down in the pig bin, Saying “keep on digging”. Pig stain on your fat chin. What do you hope to find? When you’re down in the pig mine, You’re nearly a laugh!”
A gritty song about the people “at the top of the social ladder” and those in power (politicians). This is one of my favorite songs of all time, not exaggerating. The lyrics are dark, relatable, and wonderful and the instrumentation is unlike any other song ever made. Epic guitar solos, bass lines, and the use of the talk box to make pig noises? Um, yeah.
10. The Trees- Rush
“So the maples formed a union, And demanded equal rights. The oaks are just too greedy. We will make them give us light’. Now there’s no more oak oppression, For they passed a noble law. And the trees are all kept equal. By hatchet, axe, and saw”
Words cannot describe how much I love this song. A simple little story- one that sounds like you might find it in a children’s book- and epic drums and guitar solos, as always from Rush. The story is about the evils of egalitarianism; in order to make everyone equal, the strong is always sacrificed. You must break the legs of the tall in order to make them equal to the short. Very objectivist by nature.
11. The Happiest Days of Our Lives > Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)- Pink Floyd
Sorry the video kind of sounds weird in the middle.
“When we grew up and went to school, There were certain teachers who would hurt the children in any way they could. By pouring their derision upon anything we did, And exposing every weakness, However carefully hidden by the kids. But in the town, it was well known, When they got home at night, their fat and psychopathic wives would thrash them within inches of their lives!”
And the rest, you all know.
If you have never seen Pink Floyd’s rock opera, The Wall, stop whatever you’re doing and go watch it. It will change your life.
This song has many themes; the evils of rigid schooling in the U.K., conformity, educational slavery, human weakness, and war. All brilliantly presented in the song (which actually has 4 parts, but I’m focusing on the middle two). Plus, it contains one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.
12. Welcome to the Occupation- R.E.M
“Listen to the cause where you are fed and educated. Primitive and wild. Welcome to the occupation… Here we stand and here we fight. All your fallen heroes held and dyed and skinned alive. Listen to the Congress fire. Offering the educated, primitive and loyal. Welcome to the occupation”
This song is supposedly about American intervention in Central America in the 80’s; Nicaragua was a possible target for American invasion and socialism was running hot in Central America during that time.
Anyway, I just like R.E.M. and Michael Stipe’s voice.
13. One- Metallica
“Now that the war is through with me, I’m waking up, I cannot see That there is not much left of me. Nothing is real but pain now. Hold my breath as I wish for death. Oh please God, wake me.”
I’m not a huge Metallica fan, but this song moves me. It’s based on Dalton Trumbo’s 1939 novel Johnny Got His Gun, telling the tale of a soldier who is severely wounded and loses his arms, legs, eyes, ears and mouth. His mind functions perfectly, however, leaving him trapped inside his own body. In 1971 a movie version was released, which is where Metallica got the footage for their music video. I watched that movie, and it is SO depressing. It made me love this Metallica song. Seriously, watch it.
14. Settle For Nothing- Rage Against the Machine
“To escape from the pain in an existence mundane. I gotta 9, a sign, a set and now I gotta name. Read my writing on the wall! No-ones here to catch me when I fall. Death is on my side….suicide!
If we don’t take action now, we settle for nothing later. Settle for nothing now, and we’ll settle for nothing later.”
The lyrics say it all! Don’t settle, demand more! And of course Rage Against the Machine rocks it out.
15. America Snoring- Grant Lee Buffalo
“They wanna legislate the moon, They wanna legislate the womb. They wanna legislate all the things they hate. They wanna legislate this tune. And I hear america snoring snoring. I hear you america snoring snoring… Give wind time to blow, the rooster to crow. Plug my ears but I hear, America.”
Just a little underrated 90’s band slingin’ awesome political songs… About American apathy to societal problems and political issues.
16. Ghost of Tom Joad- Bruce Springsteen
“Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge. Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner. Welcome to the new world order. Families sleepin’ in their cars in the Southwest. No home no job no peace no rest… Now Tom said “Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy, Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries, where there’s a fight ‘gainst the blood and hatred in the air- Look for me Mom I’ll be there. Wherever there’s somebody fightin’ for a place to stand, or decent job or a helpin’ hand, wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free- Look in their eyes Mom you’ll see me.”
Again, I’m not a huge Sprinsteen fan, but this song is just so good. Folky, good lyrics, good story, full of emotion. Supposedly the song is about the times after the Great Depression, but it’s obviously relevant to today as well.
17. Fight Song- Marilyn Manson
“Nothing suffocates you more than the passing of everyday human events. Isolation is the oxygen mask you make. Your children breathe-in to survive. But I’m not a slave to a god that doesn’t exist. But I’m not a slave to a world, that doesn’t give a shit…
The death of one is a tragedy, but death of a million is just a statistic.”
I love Marilyn Manson. This is a new development- I always thought ugh, Marilyn Manson? that 90’s weirdo with fake boobs and weird tatoos? But then I actually listened to his music. He writes about everything that nobody wants to talk about, especially this song. Plus, it’s dark, hard, and slightly sickening. All signs of good art.
18. Pet- A Perfect Circle
“Don’t fret precious I’m here, step away from the window. Go back to sleep. Lay your head down child, I won’t let the boogeyman come. Counting bodies like sheep to the rhythm of the war drums… I’ll be the one to protect you from your enemies and all your demons. I’ll be the one to protect you from a will to survive and a voice of reason. I’ll be the one to protect you from your enemies and your choices son. They’re one in the same. I must isolate you, isolate and save you from yourself.
Swayin’ to the rhythm of the new world order and count the bodies like sheep to the rhythm of the war drums”
It’s about time you learned that I am a serious Maynard fan (mostly his Tool days, but I do love some A Perfect Circle and Puscifer).
This song is particularly attractive to me- the lyrics are good plus it has an interesting timbre.
19. Uprising- Muse
“They’ll try to, push drugs that keep us all dumbed down and hope that, we will never see the truth around… Another packaged lie to keep us trapped in greed. And all the green belts wrapped around our minds, and endless red tape to keep the truth confined… They will not force us, they will stop degrading us, they will not control us. We will be victorious!”
Muse is surprisingly political! Great lyrics to this song. Makes me want to go riot the streets.
20. Impersonator- The Employees
“Nothing to say but the words on display and they all read the same, all the words on the page. Telling them all what you want them to hear- they believe in you now, but they won’t in a year… You came just to hear your song. You came just to sing along. Watch what you say in the place that you stay. You just never know who will be listening too. Secret is out now you’re under attack, they’ve left you for good and they’re not coming back.”
Corrupt politics anyone? These boys are from Illinois- one of the most corrupt states in the union. They’ve got a lot of inspiration…
Plus, the music rocks with their epic guitar solos and energetic drums.
What have I missed? Any suggestions for post-2009 political songs?
*Special thanks to my fellow blogger for introducing me to The Trees by Rush. http://dangerousmatthew.wordpress.com/2013/09/12/the-trees-by-rush/