In researching this article, yes, some of us actually do a little research before spouting off, many of the lists I saw contained obscure songs by Rage Against The Machine and groups most of the public never heard of.
My question is: if most of the public never heard of the song or the group, how could the song have possibly brought about societal change or changed the attitudes of Joe and Jane Sixpack?
You see, my list of the top 10 political songs includes the criterion that the song must have made at least a ripple on the sea of public opinion at one time. If not, as Ray Davies of The Kinks wrote “it’s only words you can dance to.”
Listeners of obscure groups can object to “commercialism” all they want, but if only a small core of devoted fans ever heard the song in the first place, how could the song have much effect? It’s like voting for some Independent candidate for President. It might feel good momentarily, but in the end, what does it change?
For a candidate, party, or a song to truly make a difference, it must reach a large target audience. Some of the political songs on this list helped to shape public opinion, some just sounded good with an underlying message. I’ll let you the reader decide which ones are which.
Here is my Top 10 list of the top political songs of the rock era, beginning with the 60’s.
As most of us over 40 and virtually all over 50 know, the 1960’s brought about a sea change in American society. The most turbulent decade since the 1860’s kicked the status quo 50’s to the curb and, for good or bad changed America forever.
The Times They Are A’ Changin’/ Bob Dylan (60’s)
This song is an absolute must for a list of political songs as it chronicled the vast changes taking place and the call to the public to lead, follow, or get out of the way.
Come gather around people wherever you roam, and admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone, if your time to you is worth saving, then you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, ’cause the times they are a’ changin’.
Fortunate Son/ Creedence Clearwater Revival (60’s)
One of the greatest injustices of the American involvement in Viet Nam was the fact that the draft existed then. So many exemptions were allowed, mostly for those with money and connections, it allowed guys like Dick Cheney who talk tough to get college deferments and any other means of legally avoiding the draft, leaving the war to be fought mostly by the young and poor.
Some folks are born, silver spoon in hand, Lord don’t they help themselves now, but when the taxman comes to the door, the house looks like a rummage sale, yeah, it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senators son, yeah.
Ohio/ Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (1970)
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own, this summer I hear the drumming, four dead in Ohio..
In 1968, Richard Nixon got elected President based on a “secret plan” to end the Viet Nam war. By 1970, with the plan still secret, a figment of Nixon’s fevered imagination, four students at Kent State University in Kent, OH were killed while staging an anti-war rally. It was about that time that public opinion started turning. Coincidence? I don’t think so and this song was a rallying cry.
The 70’s, which came to be known as the “me decade” didn’t produce nearly as many top political songs as the 60’s. One such song was:
What’s Going On/ Marvin Gaye
This classic touched on topics ranging from war to poverty to the environment.
Picket lines and picket signs, don’t punish me with brutality was one of the more memorable lines in this top political song.
The 80’s brought an unprecented time of prosperity… for the few, while most Americans stayed the same or backslid under Ronald Reagan’s economic policies dubbed “Reaganomics”. The rich got richer under “supply side” philosophy which Daddy Bush correctly called “voodoo economics.”
Money’s Too Tight To Mention/Simply Red
This song wasn’t earth-shaking in it’s impact, but sums up the 80’s so well, I had to include it. The lyrics are easily relatable today, also.
I been laid off from work, my rent is due, my kids all need brand new shoes, so I went to the bank to see what they could do, they said “son, looks like bad luck got ahold on you.”
The song continues as a screed against Reaganomics and a lament that “I can’t qualify for my pension”.
While the 80’s were bad for millions of people as Reaganomics squeezed the middle class, it was a good decade for political songs after complacency set in in the 70’s. Reagan supplied his critics with plenty of ammo such as:
It’s A Mistake/Men At Work
With Ronald Reagan’s incessant saber-rattling about nuclear war, the fear of World War III reached it’s highest point since the 50’s. Late in his 2nd term, Reagan changed his stance somewhat, but in ’83 this Aussie group summed up the nuclear threat spot on.
After the laughter has died away, and the boys have had their fun, no surface noise now, not much to say, we’ve got the bad guys on the run, don’t try to say you’re sorry, don’t say he drew his gun, they’ve gone and grabbed old Ronnie, he’s not the only one, sayin’ it’s a mistake. The song ends with a line “whistle your favorite tune, we’ll send a card and flower.”
I dare you to listen to this song and not hum it for awhile after.
The Way It Is/Bruce Hornsby
In some political songs, the message probably get missed in the backbeat, or mumbled words ala Dylan, but the thing about this political song is that there’s no missing the lyrics to this one.
Standin’ in line, markin’ time, waitin’ for the welfare dime, ’cause they can’t buy a job, a man in a silk suit hurries by, catches the poor old lady’s eye, just for fun he says: get a job..
The last verse in the song goes: well, they passed a law in ’64, to give those who ain’t got a little more, but it only goes so far, ’cause a law don’t change another’s mind when all they see at the hiring time, is the light on the color bar…
Sun City/Artists United Against Apartheid
In 1985, Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band penned this political song as a protest against the posh South African resort of Sun City and artists who performed there.
In those days, the South African policy known as “apartheid”, essentially the same as segregation in the U.S., was still in place. Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned on bogus charges and non-whites were not allowed to vote.
Our government tells us we’re doing all we can, constructive engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan, meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope, well, this quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke, I, I , I, I ain’t gonna play Sun City..
The song predictably was banned in South Africa and only played on about half the rock stations in the U.S. Numerous rock and rap artists collaborated on the single and video.
For those who think such songs can’t change anything, in less than a decade, not only were South African blacks voting, but Nelson Mandela was out of prison and elected President in 1994. It could be a coincidence, I doubt it. This song crystalized anti-apartheid sentiments and helped ratchet up the international pressure on the racist South African regime.
Black Gold/Soul Asylum
For a few years in the late 80’s there were few political songs on the airways. Then the first Gulf War broke out and this Minneapolis band had one of the first political songs on the 90’s.
The more George H.W. Bush claimed that the war was about Saddam Hussein’s “naked agression” in invading Kuwait, the more it seemed that the war was really about oil, or “black gold.”
Black gold in a white plight, won’t you fill up the tank and go for a ride, I don’t care about no wheelchair, I’ve got so much more to do with my life.
The song goes on to lament the spoils of war with: this spot was a playground, this flat land used to be a town..
Political songs in the new millenium had not been abundant, at least in the mainstream, until the latter part of Dubya’ 2nd term. Green Day had several political songs on the huge CD American Idiot. This was the best in my opinion.
I beg to dream and differ from the hollow lies, this is the dawning of the rest of our lives, on Holiday.
The song is a stinging indictment of the Bush administration and offers scathing remarks about the way the so-called “religious right” marched in lockstep with Bush. Can I get another Amen? There’s a flag wrapped around a score of men, a gag, a plastic bag on a monument.
In 2003, when the Iraq invasion took place, the spin from the Bushies was that the war would be quick and painless, gas would be cheap and plentiful and everyone except Saddam and his ruthless crew would live happily after and the Iraqi people would welcome us as “liberators.”… How did that turn out, anyway?
This song is about the suppression of protests and freedom of speech, constitutional rights Bush and Cheney tried their best to erode. That makes this one of the top 10 political songs for this list.
There were many others considered, but these ten were selected to balance out political songs over several decades of the rock era and to offer a variety of styles.
You can sample or download these songs at: www.last.fm/. Just type the name of the artist in the search bar and go.