Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday was this month, and it made us think about how music can be used to try and foster change. Music has always been used to convey political or social issues: Folk music was basically created on that premise. Anti-war songs have been around since there has been war. Sometimes artists band together to raise an issue, see “Sun City” by Artists Against Apartheid or “We Are the World” by USA for Africa. You can call them protest songs or songs with a conscience trying to bring an issue to light and get some discussion going. Here are some of our favorites.
This one was easy for me, I love protest music, I literally had a cassette in the 80s called Protest Songs, some of the best from the 60s. I could fill up this whole list with just those songs or from the famous TV commercial for Freedom Rock. Remember that, great music and great commercial.
But I did branch out a bit for my list, not only did I get the anti-war songs, but I hit on climate change, Native American rights, and homelessness.
- “War”, Edwin Starr (1976) – A classic, it’s lyric, “War what is it good for?” was used in a Seinfeld episode as an alternative title to Tolstoy’s War and Peace.
- “I Need to Wake Up”, Melissa Etheridge (2006) – A companion to Al Gore’s climate change film An Inconvenient Truth, just as important now.
- “Talkin’ bout a Revolution”, Tracy Chapman (1988) – Chapman’s music always discussed social issues such as hunger and homelessness, and this song is their showcase.
- “Masters of War”, Bob Dylan (1963) – A bad-ass anti-war song that has one of my favorite lyrics, as it ends, “And I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead”.
- “Do They Know it’s Christmas?”, Band Aid (1984) – Bob Geldof’s charity single for famine in Africa, is now a Christmas staple, and really the only good super group song out there.
- “Fortunate Son”, Creedance Clearwater Revival (1969) – A scathing anti-war song, fits any generation. Why don’t the sons of the wealthy have to go to war?
- “Eve of Destruction”, Barry McGuire (1965) – One hit wonder about the problems of 1965. In 55 years, it’s only gotten worse.
- “Peace Train”, Cat Stevens (1971) – Back before he was supporting Fatwas, Cat Stevens was asking all of us to climb aboard his steam engine of peace. 10,000 Maniacs did a fantastic remake of this song.
- “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, Buffy Sainte-Marie (1992) – An issue close to me is Native American rights, and this song reminds us of the massacre at Wounded Knee. The Indigo Girls, a very social conscious band, remade this just 3 years later.
- “Ball of Confusion (What the World is Today)”, The Temptations (1970) – A great psychedelic hit for the Temptations, Love and Rockets updated the track in the ’80s with more current issues.
Bonus: “The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m Fixin’-to-Die-Rag”, Country Joe and the Fish (1967) – A complete satire of a song and anti-Vietnam War, this song is catchy and the only known hit for the Fish. The hyperlink gives you their iconic Woodstock performance, but my favorite version is below from a short 1969-1970 series, Playboy After Dark. (Don’t worry, it’s PG).
MG: You have a healthy dose of 60’s songs on here, which really was the decade of the protest song. “Fortunate Son” has been featured in 90% of movies set in the 60’s and/or about Vietnam, but it’s a song I still love. I forgot about “Masters Of War” – as you said, great lyrics – although Dylan could never have imagined the behemoth war machine that now lords over the USA six decades later. I hope Natalie Merchant isn’t reading our blog, she’ll hate that you mentioned the cover of “Peace Train”.
I’ve always loved songs that were about something other than relationships or just having a good time. I do feel like the current musical community has lost the ability to write issue-focused songs that are also commercially successful. It’s hard for me to think of many examples from the last two decades. For me, the song doesn’t always have to have direct lyrics about a specific issue, sometimes just the general sense that we have to do better as a society is enough to move me.
- “Biko”, Peter Gabriel (1980) – I wonder if many younger people even know about the murder of anti-apartheid pioneer Stephen Biko in South Africa in 1977. Gabriel’s song helps to keep his legacy alive, and this song always gives me the chills.
- “Praying For Time”, George Michael (1990) – Michael’s lyrics about “wounded skies above” and income inequality resonate even stronger now.
- “Russians”, Sting (1985) – This song was criticized for its heavy-handed lyrics, which it has, but sometimes a direct message works best. It’s odd how years later we all still live under the threat of nuclear annihilation, but no longer give it much thought.
- “What’s The Matter Here?”, 10,000 Maniacs (1987) – Natalie Merchant was so good at telling stories in her songs. This one about witnessing child abuse at the hands of parents living next door, but being reluctant to say anything, was one of her best.
- “Freedom”, Rage Against The Machine (1993) – This post would be remiss not to include a Rage song. Almost all the bands songs were about social injustice. I love the simple, quietly spoken line: “Anger is a gift”.
- “Imagine”, John Lennon (1971) – I’ve always admired Lennon for having the balls to write a song suggesting the world would be better off without religion or national borders. You could say he was a dreamer, but it’s a powerful message.
- “Bullet The Blue Sky”, U2 (1987) – I could fill all 10 spots with U2 songs. “Pride” and “Sunday, Bloody Sunday” are more well known, but this song about US military intervention in Central America always resonated with me. The Edge’s guitar-work on this is masterful.
- “Driven Out”, The Fixx (1989) – This song talks about how greed and environmental destruction have detached humanity from nature and the Earth. Once again, it hasn’t gotten any better in the past 30 years.
- “Sign O The Times”, Prince (1987) – Prince simplified the musical composition and let his lyrics about topical issues (AIDS, poverty, drug addiction) take center stage.
- “Ignoreland”, REM (1992) – Michael Stipe rips off a rant about corruption and greed in American politics, specifically against Republican machinations and their manipulation of the electorate via a complicit corporate-driven media.
Bonus: “You Need to Calm Down”, Taylor Swift (2019) – She may not have the social justice cred of a Dylan or U2, but since I was lamenting the lack of recent social issue songs, I’ll give credit where credit is due. Swift takes a break from relationship songs to offer a plea to turn down the social media vitriol and general hate in our current sociopolitical climate. The comedic and colorful video highlights the songs’ theme of tolerance, particularly for the LGBTQ community.
DJ: Good list, glad you took on more recent stuff. How could I space Rage and John Lennon? If not for “Imagine” for at least “Give Peace a Chance”. He had many more too. “Freedom” is the ultimate, should have been on my top ten. “Biko” is a good track, people forget how strongly musical artists were fighting for South Africa. Along with “Sun City” and “Biko” you also had The Special’s “Free Nelson Mandela”. I am sure Natalie Merchant does not read this but you at least appeased her by including her.