The 8 Ball 9.23.12: The Top 8 Political Songs
Posted by Jeremy Thomas on 09.24.2012
From The Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" and U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday" to John Lennon's "Imagine," the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and more, 411's Jeremy Thomas counts down his top 8 political songs of all time!
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I'm your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You're free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is "wrong" is just silly. With that in mind, let's get right in to it!
Before you start reading, have you bookmarked 411Mania.com yet? It's the easiest thing in the world to do, and it'll get you your daily dose of entertainment news that much quicker! Typing the URL out in the address bar is such a pain, don'tcha think? Hell, make it your home page and it'll be that much easier for you!
Also, do you Twitter? If not, you should! And while you're at it, add these to your list of people that you follow so that you can get the latest updates!
It's coming up on October, which means that the political races in the United States are heating up. It's that time, in case you have been living in a Luddite isolationist commune, when every four years the US decides who its president will be as well as many other political races. Politics has been all over the news and even for people who don't follow it, it's been difficult not to at least have an idea of what's going on. In addition, after over eight highly successful years the Politics Zone here on 411mania will be going away shortly. You can read Ashish's political columns here, but it will not be too long before they won't be on 411 anymore. In commemoration of the Zone, this week I thought I would take a look at my eight favorite political songs of all time.
Caveat: No major caveat here, I suppose; the primary requirement is that the song had to be political in nature. I tried to keep these songs expressly political and not just philosophical or socially-conscious; there is a bit of a difference. That's why you won't see 2Pac's "Changes" for example on here; it doesn't speak politically, but more about social issues in an overreaching way. The other thing I want to point out is that yes, I am clearly more along liberal lines. I like to refer to myself, only semi-jokingly, as a left-wing wackjob. So of course that's going to slant my views on political songs. I will say that there are many well-written and effective conservative political songs but they aren't my thing for obvious reasons. Keep that in mind and realize that if you comment about the lack of conservative songs, I will assume it means you didn't read this. Which, honestly, is par for the course! (Kidding...mostly!)
Just Missing The Cut
Credence Clearwater Revival – "Fortunate Son"
NWA – "Fuck tha Police"
Buffalo Springfield - "For What It's Worth"
#8: Dar Williams – "Empire"
There was a time when folk music rose to the forefront of the political music scene, acting as a voice for the people in crying out for changes in the world and in the government. That time more or less came to an end and folk music as political or protest music went into remission for many years; in a large manner, it has stayed there partly due to the genre falling out of favor. Folk music is hardly dead though, and like many other genres it has split and merged with other genres. Dar Williams is one of the better folk pop artists out there, gaining recognition from critics, contemporaries and fans alike. One of the best things about Williams is that she is unafraid to tackle weighty topics in her music, with recurrent themes ranging from religion and gender issues to anti-commercialism, relationships and more. On her 2005 LP My Better Self, one of my favorite albums of hers, she took on the increasingly imperialistic nature of the United States in "Empire." The song is pure folk-pop in sound but carries a very sharp edge, taking on the character an empire's callous leader that blinds the public with propaganda, cows them with bullying and sows dissent. Considering the year of the song, it's not difficult to see who she was referring to and there are pointed references the Abu Ghraib incident among others. It's a wonderfully-written song that doesn't hold anything back but delivers its message in a very elegant way.
#7: Rolling Stones - "Gimme Shelter"
The Rolling Stones are absolute icons of rock and roll; I don't think anyone would ever question this. They also wrote one of the most powerful protest songs about the Vietnam War ever made. How many artists in the 1960s were able to get away with a song that screams about how close rape and murder are to people's everyday lives? The song became an essential part of the band's shows for years and an iconic part of rock and roll; there are those who have gone as far as labeling it as the greatest rock and roll recording of all time. I wouldn't go quite that far but there is no denying its power. Jagger's voice alone hits all the right emotional chords, but it's Merry Clayton's guest vocals that really bring the song home. Clayton's performance is so emotionally wrenching that you can hear her voice crack a couple of times; she tragically suffered a miscarriage upon returning home from the recording studio and some have attributed the emotional and musical stress she put on herself for this song as a contributing factor. I reference that not in any way to shine a positive light on such an unfortunate incident, but rather to point out how much of herself she put into this song. The resonance was heard throughout rock and roll history.
#6: Flobots - "Handlebars"
Rap music has made for some of the greatest politically charged and/or protest music of all time. Much like many forms of music, the genre started out as a populist form of music and as such it has provided ample ground for this particular genre. There are a lot of great rap groups out there and many of them have put on some great political music. The Flobots have become one of my favorite politically-oriented rap groups though; they have a talent for blending hip-hop with other elements to create great songs that resonate politically. One of their best songs is their breakout hit, "Handlebars," which I love for the structure. It's a really bad-ass song that starts out soft and optimistic and slowly, progressively grows more aggressive and violent as it goes on. This is a simple yet powerful depiction of that famous and very true adage that power corrupts. The smoothness of the transition is actually a little bit frightening, because you can totally believe this kind of evolution into becoming a monster, and the theme is relevant not only when looking at the corruption of governments but in a much more individualistic way as well. It's easy to come out and spit freestyle about what pisses you off with the government; a song like this is much trickier and they handle it expertly.
#5: U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
As a rule, I dislike recordings of live music performances. Live albums, live performance music videos, concert films...for the most part, all of these attempt but fall short of capturing the experience of being at a live concert. There is simply an energy that is lost in the fact that...well, you're not actually there live. All that being said, U2's live performance of "Sunday Bloody Sunday" from the Red Rocks concert that spawned Under a Blood Red Sky is one of the few exceptions; I actually prefer this performance to the studio version. Protest and political music is very difficult to turn into a worldwide phenomenon because they often deal with issues that are not geopolitical in nature, but rather specific to one country. "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is a good example of that, as it portrays the conflict between Northern Ireland and England. However, the band created a song that speaks in such a universal way that it demands our attention no matter what country or part of the world we're from. Not only does it do a fantastic job of portraying the conflict, it does so not in terms of supporting one side or another, but in terms of pointing out how much the conflict has torn apart everyone in the vicinity. As Bono says at the beginning, it's not a rebel song but it is certainly a political one.
#4: Rage Against the Machine - "Guerilla Radio"
If you knew any group was going to make this list, it probably had to be these guys. Rage Against the Machine's profile has fallen over the past several years due to their inactivity and Zach de la Rocha being a little bit of a jackass. However, they remain one of my favorite socially-focused bands and they produced some of the best politically-charged music of the last two decades. "Guerilla Radio" is their best song, coming off their last album The Battle of Los Angeles. It features de la Rocha holding absolutely nothing back (as if he ever could) as he takes verbal shots at any target that comes within range. The band is decidedly left-wing, but that doesn't stop them from firing as many shots at the Democrats as they do Republicans. When you hear "More for Gore or the son of a drug lord/None of the above fuck it cut the cord," it's a real eye-opener as to what political music can be at its best. The track is completely uncompromising and really helped lead the way into other protest music that would come in the years following. You can disagree with the message, but you cannot deny the power and conviction of case he's laying out and the call to arms he's providing.
#3: Bob Dylan - "The Times, They Are A-Changin'"
I know Dylan's showing up in my lists a lot lately, and they're not intended to be connected; they just turn out that way. Really, do you honestly think that I could do a political songs list without him? It's kind of hard not to repeat myself, so I'll try to do some strong rewording at least. Dylan wrote some of the most important protest songs of all-time. Many of them, however, were distinctly non-political. "The Times They Are a-Changin'" did not travel down that route; it is quite political in the way it sums of the 1960s. It covers every political topic that people were feeling in the era, but it does so without specifically zeroing in on any of them. Instead of taking shots at political leaders or parties it looks at the important social issues of the day, which not coincidentally are important social issues of the current era as well. The song may not be Dylan's most poetic, as it has a very pointed message, but it is certainly one of the most powerful and effective politically-charged songs of his impressive career.
#2: John Lennon - "Imagine"
Bob Dylan and John Lennon are almost equally inextricable from political music of the 1960s. And while Dylan was the better poet and songwriter between the two, Lennon was the unmitigated master of taking his political and ideological views and putting them into songs that weren't just great voices for change, but great songs as well. "Imagine" is the most famous political song of all-time and for good reason. It's often vilified as being communist and atheist, and a lot of people find it difficult to argue against those but I don't see it as such myself. There is a difference between those accusations and what the song's lyrics speak to, which is eliminating borders and dogmatic law so that there we don't have disputes over territory or God. This isn't a song about hatred or tearing everything down; it's about hope and becoming one people undivided by imaginary lines. And even if you don't like the song much, just on legacy alone you have to consider it one of the top political songs of all-time.
#1: Public Enemy - "Fight The Power".
As I said earlier, few genres resonate more strongly with political change than rap music. And among rap groups, with a wide variety of the greatest artists in the genre having contributed great political songs, none of them comes close to one of Public Enemy's most famous songs. The group was always known for its social activism and willingness to speak out confrontationally about the issues important to them. With "Fight the Power," they created one of the most iconic and influential rap songs of all time. The song is a pure and uncompromising call to arms by the group, filled with rage and taking no prisoners as it tells people to fight the powers that be. It hits nearly every important issue of the era, from racism to economic inequity, and calls upon people to choose intelligent means of activism and awareness. It's angry and rightfully so, but it's intelligently angry and it remains relevant today, almost a quarter-century later.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Tired of the politics? Me too after writing all that. So enjoy something people of all stripes can agree on: sex feels good. Here's the Lonely Island explaining such with the help of Akon!
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don't forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.