Music has always been primarily a source of entertainment for the fans and a means of self expression and creativity for the musicians. Music has also served as a pulpit to voice political views and increase awareness for political causes that might have been ignored if not for the influence and popularity of the music and the musicians. Protest songs are often equated with the 1960s and 1970s and the prominent voice of opposition they gave to a divided nation living in the shadows of an unpopular foreign war, government abuses of power, and racial tensions.
Unfortunately, many of the same issues that inspired songs of protest in the 1960s and 1970s either still remain or have returned with different names, and different players. Thankfully, modern day musicians, like their predecessors, have continued to use their public platform to increase awareness of political and cultural issues in an attempt to bring about change through the power of music. The following songs are some of the best protest and political awareness songs of the last ten years.
When the President Talks to God – Bright Eyes
” When the President talks to God
Do they drink near beer and go play golf
While they pick which countries to invade
Which Muslim souls still can be saved?”
This song doesn’t beat around the bush. It’s a highly critical commentary in the form of a series of rhetorical questions about George W. Bush and his policies and actions. The song isn’t subtle in its condemnation of the President and his party, whether it is concerning women’s rights, illegal wars, the death penalty, racial disparity, dishonesty, or the co-opting of religion for political purposes. Things might have been entirely different if the news media had been this critical of the former President while he was in office.
Bomb the World – Michael Franti and Spearhead
“We can chase down all our enemies
Bring them to their knees
We can bomb the world to pieces
But we can’t bomb it into peace.”
This song is a love letter for peace and a hate letter for war in general. It addresses the insanity of war and calls for the power of the peaceful to rise above the politics of hate and aggression. Sometimes it’s the simplest solutions that can solve our problems. If only our political leaders had the insight of some of our musical artists.
Self-Evident – Ani DiFranco
“On a morning beatific
in its Indian summer breeze
On the day that America
fell to its knees
after strutting around for a century
without saying thank you
This song is Ani DiFranco’s cathartic musical poem about September 11th. It was her way of coming to terms with the devastating event, what led up to it, and its aftermath. When other artists were canceling concert dates in the fall after the September 11th attacks DiFranco went on tour where she said she got a sense of the political mood of the country. She realized there was a hunger for an opposing voice that differed from the barrage of propaganda from the mainstream media and the politicians who were using the September 11th attacks to play on the country’s fears and emotions to further a political agenda. The mere fact that DiFranco was able to tap into the mood of the country in the immediate aftermath of the attacks is a sad comment on the media and the politicians that misread, chose to ignore, or decided to shape the sentiment of the country in the wake of September 11th. This collective mood is quite evident when you listen to this song which was recorded live in Ann Arbor, Michigan in the spring following the fall of 2001, and you hear the positive, emotional reaction of the audience to DiFranco’s poignant lyrics.
We Can’t Make It Here – James McMurtry
“Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin?
Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in?
Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today?
No I hate the men sent the jobs away”
This song is James McMurtry’s 2005 painfully accurate commentary on the devastating state of the economy for the struggling working class in America and the huge divide between the haves and the have nots. It exposes the disconnect between the wealthy few and everyone else by calling attention to the issues of low wages for workers, unemployment, layoffs, outsourcing , corporate greed, neglect of veterans, the death of the manufacturing base, and the Iraq War; all of which contributed to the wrecked economy and the destruction of the middle class. This song also serves as a condemnation of the presidential administration at the time and its role in perpetuating the policies that increased the divide between the wealthy and the working class. Like most great protest songs, it gives a voice to the voiceless and shines light on issues that are not getting the attention they deserve.
What Happens Tomorrow – Melissa Etheridge
“Truth is of the people, by the people, for the people.”
This song is Melissa Etheridge’s call to action for the people that want change to improve the world we all share. She poses the musical question of what will happen if we don’t wake up and fight for our rights now, and where will we be tomorrow, as she sings “If not now when? If not today, then what happens tomorrow?”
The song does not want you to cower in helplessness, but instead offers optimism and gives us hope that we are starting to wake up from the fear we have been bullied into by the powers that be who have used this tactic of fear for their own benefit, but as Etheridge sings, we have started to look around us and effect change for the better. If you ever have the opportunity to see Etheridge’s Live Earth concert performance of What Happens Tomorrow back to back with I Need to Wake Up, (it used to be on YouTube but has since been pulled down) you will see from the energy of the performance and the emotional reaction of the audience why this is one of the best protest songs of the last ten years.
American Skin (41 Shots) – Bruce Springsteen
“It ain’t no secret
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
This powerful song, inspired by the shooting death of unarmed immigrant, Amadou Diallo by New York City police officers was widely misinterpreted as being an indictment on police. However, as Springsteen has himself said, the song was about the widespread racism that exists in our world and the song was not written as a critical statement against the police. Springsteen explained that the first verse of the song is from the policeman’s point of view as he kneels beside the shooting victim and prays for his life and that the point of the song was to expose what “systemic racial injustice, fear, and paranoia do to our children, our loved ones, ourselves” and “Here is the price in blood.”
This emotional song shows us that not all protest songs are critical of war and politicians and authority figures. Some of the best protest songs can be about elements in the fabric of our society and within all of us that can be changed from within to improve the world for everyone.
Hiway 9 – Eliza Gilkyson
“So the little man gathered all his chicken-hawks in
and the neo-cons and his daddy’s kin
With their own clear channel and a helluva spin”
This is a simple catchy tune that nonchalantly addresses the war for oil foreign/economic policy that has been a strategy followed by the U.S. over the years. The song isn’t shy about calling out the Neoconservative movement for selling this policy as God’s will, especially a certain father and son dynasty and their media cohorts for promoting and celebrating this course of action over the years. This is a great protest song because it makes its point directly but subtly, not with an in your face approach, but more of a here’s how it is in case you missed it delivery adding to its appeal.
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