10 Political Songs

I’ve been thinking a lot about music and what it can do as a political or social tool. So I was thinking: Why is it when you hear the words “political music” you think so instantly about the counterculture and anti-war movements of the 1960s, or about the underground punk movement of the late ’70s? Why hasn’t there been more?

This drove me, of course, to build my own personal Top Ten Favorite Political Songs list. And as always, there must be disclaimers: First, these are songs that personally give me that chilled-to-the-bone, I’ve-got-to-get-out-and-personally-change-the-system-this-instant feelings. However, I tried to be as versatile as possible. I know Bright Eyes didn’t make the list — nor did quite a few wonderfully political tracks that just don’t do it for me. This is list is by no means comprehensive… it’s maybe even a little scattered. Like everything I do, it’s personal. Which is why I probably shouldn’t go into politics.

And so I give you:

Sophie’s Top Ten Favorite Political Songs Of All Time.

10. The Smiths – “Meat Is Murder”

Here’s the thing — As a vegan, I think this song was pretty revolutionary. I mean, the opening lines of the song are: “Heifer whines, could be human cries; Closer comes the screaming knife.” A better animal rights song has yet to be written (Actually, Nellie McKay’s “Columbia Is Bleeding” is pretty good too… but it didn’t get its own kick-ass EP). Granted, Morrissey is crazy when it comes to animal rights. He’s seriously starting to lose his mind (or did he lose it years ago?). But it’s okay. We animal rights activists must embrace our crazy kin. Such is the reality that we have idolized an octogenarian who dresses up as a chicken and parades outside the KFC in Portland.

9. The Pogues – “And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”

I have an ex-boyfriend who told me that he’d sit in the car and listen to this song and cry. It’s one of those songs — a perfect anti-war anthem, deliberately-but-delicately sung in that always-poignant Irish accent, brilliantly set to a waltz rhythm — that gets you in the middle of the chest. Especially when he sings, “Never knew there were worse things than dyin’.” This takes the personal narrative anti-war musical genre to the next level. Unfortunately, this song (which was first introduced to me by the Unitarian Church) doesn’t really get sung much. I think that’s because Pogues frontman Shane McGowan kind of has to sing it. Joan Baez tried once (like, twenty years before McGowen made it his own)… but this version is somehow 1000 times better. I love Joan Baez, too.

8. Nellie McKay – “Sari”

I truly think Nelly McKay is one of the greatest and most overlooked musicians of my generation. In this pseudo-rap she absolutely brilliantly combines the sarcastic voice of the disaffected twenty-something with the mounting rage bubbling just below the surface from a society Ms. McKay calls out as seriously fucked up. This jam-packed song needs to be listened to over a dozen times before you’ll pick up on all the biting political social commentary (and semi-obscure pop culture references) she throws in there like it ain’t no thang (“Cryin’ for Senator Wellstone and then proceeding to moan/ At our own supposed sabotage of the elections at home;” “I may listen to Enya’s greatest hits/ And try to control my hissy fits with pride;” “In part of the liberal theology that’s leading us to hari-kari;” etc.) I’m personally shocked she ever performs this live — I’m especially shocked she does it with such poise and utter composure.

7. The Clash – “I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.”

Perhaps this is particularly interesting coming from one of the most popular British bands in the history of America, but this upbeat anthem which bluntly “never mind[s] the stars and stripes” in favor of “the Watergate tapes” coyly trashes the Land of the Free in all its glory. But it’s intelligent (as the Clash characteristically manages to be): “Yankee soldiers” too caught up “shooting skag” and talking “dollar talk to the dictators of the world” arrogantly overlook the damage they’re doing on a global scale as the so-called greatest country in the world deteriorates around them. And you can dance to it! This album (self-titled, the band’s first full-length), while not as musically credible as “London Calling” is their most political. And no one has done it since quite the way the Clash did it then.

6. Dead Kennedys – “Holiday In Cambodia”

Sometimes I think punk rock was a careful science of poetry and satire — and that was really it. This is the song to listen to when you need a soundtrack for feeling violently guilty for being powerful, rich and white. A good moment for punk rock… even if all the kids at the shows probably spent hundreds of dollars on heroin and never knew what suffering was, regardless of what the Kennedys kept telling them in this song (p.s. – maybe I’m a prude, but I’d rewrite it without the n-word. Unnecessary.)

5. Phil Ochs – “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”

My parents had this great “Folk Songs ’65” record in their extensive collection that had a Phil Ochs song on it — and they’d listen to that song on repeat. It turns out, Ochs was one of the most prolific anti-war folk heroes of the ’60s anti-Vietnam movement, but for some reason he didn’t have the popular staying power of Bob Dylan. And it’s a shame, too, because his voice is just as unique and his songs are just as powerful. Finding good Phil Ochs records is no easy feat — but if you can do it, I’d suggest investing immediately. This, perhaps his most popular song, is not even his best… but it gives a good picture of the kind of rhythmic, heartbreaking songs he produced again and again and again: the backdrop to a youth culture who burned their draft notices.

4. Patti Smith – “People Have The Power”

I don’t know about you, but Patti Smith really does it for me. Something about her Diane-Keaton-in-Annie-Hall-esque attire and that incredible voice that seems to be born from something foreign and holy… I don’t know. I guess it’s cliche to love Patti Smith. This song, however, would make my list even if Patti Smith wasn’t so chill — the lyrics are just that groundbreaking. Unlike her cynical punk rock counterparts, Smith’s just-political-enough song makes you feel like changing the world — without ever making you want to slit your wrists over the horror of it all. Maybe this is the spineless child in me, but I think there’s something in all of us that wants to just… well… hold hands. See number three.

3. John Lennon – “Imagine”

Speaking of holding hands: This is probably the platonic hand-holding universal peace song to end them all. It probably gets the number one slot on most peoples’ Top Ten Political Songs list because… well… how could it not? John Lennon just makes it sound so good. And so easy. And so right. Amazing how a song which idealizes “living for today” could last decades after it was recorded — and the ideal still stands.

2. Ani DiFranco – “Self Evident”

I know how you may feel about Ani DiFranco. You probably think she’s a ball-busting, man-hating, overly-poetic type, right? The kind of girl you dated in college and she was just way too smart and serious for you? And you didn’t “get it” when she shaved her head? Trust me: You’re still going to love this piece. It’s really more of a beat poem than a song… and it takes about three minutes to take off (bear with her as she goes on about the whole “rushing down the throat of a giraffe” thing), but when it does, I have the feeling it could turn even the most staunchly conservative slave-to-the-stock-markets into a blue-blooded, card-carrying liberal. The cheers perfectly punctuate DiFranco’s masterful craftsmanship in this almost-perfect response to the attacks on the Twin Towers and World Trade Center. Oh yeah: And the song is exactly 9 minutes and 11 seconds long. Time it. I dare you. It’ll creep you out.
1. Public Enemy – “Fight The Power”

Public Enemy came just in time. Their music was accessible, danceable, and political: It launched rap and hip-hop to incredible heights where it still stands, influencing young revolutionaries across the country. “Fight The Power” is a perfect song. There is no other song that Radio Raheem could possibly loop on that huge boom box of his. It is the perfect song.

(Runners up: Ben Folds – “All U Can Eat;” M.I.A. – “Pull Up The People;” Radiohead – “2+2 = 5;” N.W.A. – “Fuck The Police;” Elliott Smith – “A Distorted Reality is Now a Necessity to be Free;” The Two Gallants, “Waves of Grain”)

5 responses

9 08 2007
Ten Political Songs « upside down again.

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9 08 2007
katie

the radio scene made me almost physically sick. i was watching it by myself and i screamed. SCREAMED.

nice list. i wish ani did not have such a bad rap. i love that motherfucker.

9 08 2007
Loretta

What a wonderful blog, thank you so much. Loretta

27 01 2008
Kat

this list is possibly the best i’ve ever seen

8 10 2008
Nick

I just put together my own list of top-ten political songs:

http://www.proudprogressive.org/blog/2008/09/19/top-ten-political-protest-songs/

It’s interesting to browse other people’s lists and see what we have in common. In your case, I also included Imagine. I considered including something from Dead Kennedys, but ultimately decided against it in favor of several songs from Bad Religion.

PS. I agree with you about the n-word in Holiday in Cambodia. That’s bothered me as well.

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