A lot of people are happy… and even more are angry!!! The world in one day seems more divisive than ever. President Trump’s Inauguration hasn’t been a celebration but rather a clear indication of the deep divisions that separate people throughout the world. Although, now that I think about it, I’m not sure when politics were going all that smoothly. Watching the Women’s rights marches today reminds me of all the past protests over the years. Gender, sexuality, race, and war remain the themes and the only thing that ever changes are the people singing the songs. For those of you looking for a quick soundtrack to all the crap going on… here is one to add to your list.
Sonic Youth – Youth Against Fascism
With the first Gulf War (Iraq) as the background, Sonic Youth vent their frustration and overall hatred of the stupidity in their country. In what is almost a laundry list of issues and various assholes, Thurston Moore calls out poverty, racism, Judge Clarence Thomas, fascists, skinheads, the Christian right and finally, in their drop the mic moment, delivers a line for George Bush himself. “Yeah the President sucks / He’s a war pig fuck / His shit is out of luck / It’s the song I hate”.
Credence Clearwater Revival – Effigy
From the same record that spawned the much more popular anti-war tune “Fortunate Son”, deep cut “Effigy” is clearly the more desperate and impassioned younger brother. While the subject of the ‘burn’ is ambiguous, the emotional content is anything but. John Fogerty lets his voice trail and moan as he laments “The palace door / Silent majority weren’t keepin’ quiet anymore / Who is burnin’ / Effigy.” Watching protests world wide, this song always comes to mind.
Staples Singers – For What It’s Worth
Starting out as a more Gospel oriented band, by the 60’s the Staples Singers had joined the civil rights movement and their music reflected it. Something about this cover being stripped of Neil Young’s signature guitar and leaving only the Staples’ family vocals and Pops’ understated blues guitar make it powerful. Like a whisper, “For What It’s Worth” comes off more sorrowful than the angry original Buffalo Springfield classic. The result is that it demands your attention.
Sam Cooke – A Change Is Gonna Come
A virtual anthem of the civil rights era by one of the greatest voices to grace this planet, Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is both enlightening and heartbreaking simultaneously. Written as both a challenge and answer to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind”, Cooke’s classic seems more heartfelt and honest with its mixture of despair and gospel belief. To this day, it is impossible to listen to without goosebumps appearing on the skin and a need for tear suppression.
Green Day – American Idiot
You would think that the song and album would say it all, but the band really try to put it all out there in what would become a signature moment for the band. With the second Gulf War (Iraq) in the backdrop, Green Day takes a shot George W Bush and tries to antagonize his supporters with the lyrics “Maybe I’m the faggot America / Not a part of your redneck agenda.” They pulled the song out two days before the election at MTV EMA’s Awards in November changing the lyrics from “mind-fuck” to “Subliminal mind-Trump America.”
Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer – Redemption Song
Something about Cash and Strummer, both unknowingly not far from the grave themselves, singing about regret and not standing idly rings true. Bob Marley’s words (lifted from a speech by Marcus Garvey) “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery” takes on a more significant meaning in the era of media hatred and laments that all news is fake news. Once you add the gravity of broken voices, it becomes that much more urgent. Of course, Marley himself was already suffering from cancer when he wrote this song and was quite reflective about the fragility of life.
The Dirtbombs – Living For The City
Stevie Wonder wrote “Living In The City” as a stroll through the failure of the American Dream. A place where people are casually left behind. The irony is that you need to really listen to the lyrics to catch the anger in the original, as Wonder plays up his pop sensibilities. The Dirtbombs cover leaves nothing ambiguous about it. Mick Collins’ garage/blues guitar lines and more ferocious vocal treatment bring this family story right into the moment. A song that was once angry becomes “livid.”
Bob Marley & the Wailers – Get Up, Stand Up
A tour of Haiti influenced Bob Marley to begin writing this anthem with Peter Tosh. The song was so important to the Wailers that differing versions would appear throughout the 1970’s. It appears first as a Wailers single, then a Bob Marley & the Wailers track, then a Peter Tosh solo single and finally as a solo performance by Bunny Wailer. It would eventually be the final song Bob Marley would play live before his death in 1981. Regardless of the performer, it’s meaning can’t be misinterpreted, and the warning to so-called leaders is obvious… “You can fool some people sometimes / But You Can’t fool all the people all the time”.
Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name
Between Tom Morello’s insane guitar work and Zac de la Rocha’s screams of pure anger “Killing In The Name” could make even Chuck Norris blush. Another song released in the Bush Sr years, Rage Against The Machine pull no punches in this expletive-filled song against institutional racism and police brutality. It’s kind of hard to miss the implication of lyrics “Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses.” In the end, it’s a pretty simple message for both those ordered to do wrong, and those standing against it… “Fuck You! I won’t do what ya tell me!” repeat over and over folks.
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Gaye may have been blessed with one of the sexiest damn voices on this earth, but he could also tell you just how fucked up the world really is at the same time. Rather than professing anger, Gaye goes for the high road as he tries to de-escalate problems with love. He too looks at “brutality” but suggests we move past it to love one another.
Hole – Plump
People have made a career going after Courtney Love. Yet in one fell swoop, she writes a song that is ambiguous enough to take on several meanings, and powerful enough to be one giant middle finger to media hysterics, the double standards and stupidity of slut shaming, body shaming and celebrity obsession. Who else could sing “I don’t do the dishes, I throw them in the crib” with both a wink and a snarl. It may indeed be a personal sounding protest, but it is a little more universal than most would admit. It’s brilliant!
Bruce Springsteen – Born In The USA
After years of playing it as a rallying cry for jingoistic Republican rallies, now Trump fans are booing “Born In The USA”… I guess the songs’ true meaning is out. Not quite. Republican’s were just pissed “The Boss” was actively campaigning for Clinton. Despite it’s anthemic chorus, “Born In The USA” was and remains a powerful rebuke against nationalism and war.
Peter Gabriel – Biko
In a world that often looks at protesters as instigators of problems, people often forget the price that is paid for using your voice. “Biko” is one of the most powerful songs ever written about a man who was murdered for daring to fight for equality in his nation. Stephen Biko’s death in 1977 was the rock that started the avalanche towards the end of apartheid and Gabriel’s song helped focus the worlds’ attention on South Africa in 1980. As a reminder, he often ends concerts with it.
Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam
Like many protest songs, “Mississippi Goddam” was written in direct response to the worst of humanity. In this case, it was the murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the later bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Simone laments about the slow pace of change while people die, “Alabama got me so upset / Tennessee made me lose my rest / And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam.” The song became a civil rights anthem. In fact, her next record Sings The Blues included a reply (“Backlash Blues”) to the backlash she received over “Mississippi Goddam”. She had no regrets because none were required.
The Clash – White Riot
Some idiots thought the Clash were trying to incite race riots with this song. Those people really missed the point. Instead Joe Strummer was telling white kids to protest for a real reason and do away with their misplaced angry bullshit. After watching the rhetoric fly in the election I find this song to be more relevant that ever. Lots of blame, but is it really directed where it should be? Don’t look at me for an answer… I’m just asking the question.
NWA – F*** Tha Police
People get upset when you put down “the boys in blue” but when a massive part of the population is afraid of them, there is a serious problem. NWA put the police straight into the middle of their musical crosshairs and let loose, finding the LAPD to be guilty of being a “redneck, white bread, chickenshit motherfucker.” Spend ten minutes watching the news and you’ll see that sentiment still rings true for minorities throughout the western world.
Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man In A White World
The only song I’ve included from 2016, it features the exact same themes carried from the socially conscious songs throughout the 20th century. Except that we are well into the second decade of the 21st century and the world requires new voices to keep singing. Kiwanuka highlights that despite the fact that many people view the world as having changed, it really hasn’t changed much at all. Worse, unlike Cooke, Gaye, Marley, and Simone, Kiwanuka’s song leaves one not with hope but resignation. I want to believe he’s wrong… but… optimism does seem in short supply these days.
Helen Reddy – I Am Woman
In the 21st Century, “I Am Woman” sounds almost cliché and rather obvious. It is a straight-forward list of equality and empowerment. It is almost embarrassing that this needed to be stated at all in 1972. Except that the current President of the United States of America has been caught saying that he can get away with grabbing women by the pussy because he is a rich celebrity. The embarrassment here is that 45 years after it achieved being a #1 single, it is still relevant. In fact, as I’m writing this more women are marching in Washington to protest the President’s antiquated sense of morality than people that actually showed up to celebrate his inauguration. Ouch!