Somewhere in the gray area between Bob Dylan writing “Masters of War” and the 2004 presidential elections, singing songs about the things that matter got very uncool. Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, and Bob Marley were the hip, countercultural voices of their generation, but, up until recently, protest music has been the reserve of crusty punk rockers and be-dreaded folk singers – the kind you’d never want to end up to talking to across a non-vegan buffet table at a party.
However, the past decade has seen a revival of the modern protest song in pop and alternative music, spurred on by mounting disillusion with U.S. foreign policy, the Iraq War, and the increasing interest in politics among America’s youth. Everyone from Godspeed! You Black Emperor to Kanye West is doing it – heck, even Pink had a go with her cheese-layered ballad “Dear Mr. President.”
Of course, the meaning of “‘protest song” is broad – Godspeed! linked major record labels to arms dealers on Yanqui U.X.O.; Kanye rapped about child labor in “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” – and there’s always the danger of wading into clichéd, self-righteous and, worse, Bono-tastic territory. But, so far, we think that this century’s politically-charged fodder has been rather good and, better still, has reignited the interest in this dodgy area of music. Here are our picks for the ten 21st-century protest songs least likely to make your stomach churn.
1. The Gossip – “Standing in the Way of Control” (2006)
Protesting: anti-same sex marriage laws.
There was no standing in the way of Beth Ditto’s Portland-based trio when they released this hammering slice of disco-punk. Not only is the track an infectious, diva-sized smasher, but it emphasizes gender-bending and highlights Ditto’s anger at her country’s discrimination against same-sex couples, after the Bush administration’s Federal Marriage Amendment attempted to outlaw gay marriage. “Standing in the Way of Control” signified a different kind of matrimony, too, between electro and rock. Consequently, juddering remixes from Erol Alkan and Soulwax helped propel its politics onto the dance floor, and its adoption by teen TV series “Skins” and its riotous “house-party-gone-wrong” advertising campaign reaffirmed it as an anthem for rebellious young boys and girls everywhere.
2. Green Day – “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (2004)
Like it or loathe it, punk rock is one of the few genres in which protest songs thrive. Still, no one could have predicted punk-rock pin-ups Green Day’s instant success when they returned in 2004 with the Grammy Award-winning and Billboard-topping album American Idiot. They’d stopped singing about bumming around, getting stoned and the size of their dookies and had instead tapped into the yoof’s post-9/11 disillusionment with the Bush administration, while criticizing its foreign policy and those who endorse it. “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” the record’s fourth single, is a plodding antidote to the album’s hyperactive, pogo-tastic title track. Its tear-jerking music video, starring Jamie Bell and Evan Rachel Wood as a soldier and his girlfriend torn apart by the Iraq War, should have won another Grammy for Shameful Emotional Pornography. But, later, it became a quasi-official tribute song to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which is rather lovely.
3. Jarvis Cocker – “Running the World” (2006)
Protesting: the economic system
This genius video sees Britpop exhibitionist Jarvis Cocker emerging from a children’s playhouse, telling us to “smash the system” and then running his potty mouth over what can only be described as the visuals from a dusty reel of church hymns from 1991. Except, obviously, Cocker has considerably modified the lyrics. Instead, the chorus is the kind of boozy chant you’d hear at a crap pub karaoke night in Cocker’s hometown, Sheffield. Such is his unforgettably dry sense of humor, both in the lyrics that jibe at the rich and in the impeccably timed deadpan delivery of the most taboo word in the English language, “cunts.” With all his poetry readings, yoga dance classes and generally eccentric goings-on, it’s easy to forget that Jarv is the man that waggled his bottom in front of a Michael Jackson performance on live television because he thought it was overblown rubbish. This gem is a not-so-subtle reminder.
4. M.I.A. – “Born Free” (2010)
Protesting: redheads. (J/K, guys!)
Maya Arulpragasam – a.k.a. neon-splattered singer and sonic activist M.I.A – is not exactly one for subtlety. But few were prepared for the visual accompaniment to this promotional song for her third album, Maya, which sent shockwaves around the world and was banned by YouTube. Directed by Frenchman Romain Gavras, who gained notoriety for his gang violence-themed video for Justice’s single “Stress,” the plot features a group of young, ginger-haired boys, who are herded into a van at gunpoint, driven into the countryside, and either murdered or forced to scamper through a minefield. It’s definitely gritty stuff. Unfortunately, some took the video literally, claiming that she was inciting violence against redheads. Rather, it’s a cavalcade of political messages, reflecting the discrimination M.I.A. experienced while hiding with her family during the Sri Lankan Civil War, her feelings on the unjust extrajudicial slaughter of Tamil Tiger rebels – a Sri Lankan political group, of which her father was a member – and, quite simply, the horror of genocide. But, you know, luckily, there have been no anti-redhead demonstrations as a result just yet.
5. PJ Harvey – “The Words That Maketh the Murder” (2011)
Protesting: England’s conflicts through the ages.
Grunge queen turned folksy kook Polly Jean Harvey isn’t someone who you would readily associate with protest music, but that’s exactly what she has approached on her forthcoming album, Let England Shake. Not that she would call it a protest album, or even a political album: she’d probably rather have dinner with Britney Spears and discuss her new dubstep influences than be seen as dogmatic. Thankfully, she’s not at all. Instead, the record is a haunting address of her nation steeped in gothic imagery and concerned with the British Empire’s history of conflict through the ages, rather than overtly referencing any current foreign affairs. On this, its second single, she adopts the persona of a soldier who has seen others “fall like lumps of meat,” while facetiously delivering the line, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations,” from Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.” Once you unravel the layers to this multifaceted ditty, enhanced by its documentary-style video shot by Iraq War photographer Seamus Murphy, you’ll find its core is simply quite brutal.
6. Radiohead– “Idioteque” (2000)
Protesting: global warming
Probably the only band to tackle the green-fingered issue of global warming without sounding like they grow their own vegetables and only use one sheet of paper when they go to the bathroom, Radiohead go great guns on Kid A’s anti-dance anthem “Idioteque.” Well, at least we think that’s what Thom Yorke is addressing when he warns, “We’re not scaremongering, this is really happening… Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming.” Its icy organ drone and glacier-crisp drums rather underline the band’s point. What’s next? We’re hoping for new songs about inflation and rising VAT.
7. Tom Waits – “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004)
Protesting: war, man
Gravelly-voiced legend Tom Waits is a no-mess kinda guy. He single-handedly cracks down on ticket touts, has a whole section dedicated to “lawsuits” on his Wikipedia page, and wasn’t afraid to channel his inner disco diva when he made himself into a human mirror ball on his last tour. So when he decided to move on from portraying America’s bourbon-soaked lowlifes and release an album with an anti-war slant, you knew he wasn’t going to beat around the bush (sorry). 2004’s Real Gone was significant too because it was the first time the blues musician had ever been in step with what’s going on politically. Its real power, however, comes from its feeling of timelessness: on closing track “The Day After Tomorrow,” Waits could be a disenchanted Civil War soldier drunk on liquor in a trench and writing a letter home. Since Real Gone, he has continued this politically-minded path, tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on his song “Road to Peace” and homelessness in his forthcoming poetry book, Seeds On Hard Ground . Is there anything this man can’t do?
9. Bruce Springsteen – “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” (2006)
Protesting: the government response to Hurricane Katrina
Springsteen’s first folk record, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, was a collection of 13 covers of protest songs that symbolized the link between America’s troubled past and present. For this particular song – originally written and recorded in 1929 – Springsteen rewrote the lyrics to confront the way that Hurricane Katrina’s victims had been treated during the aftermath. The video here, taken from Brucie’s performance of the track in Los Angeles in 2006, clearly represents its sheer force in the face of the band’s pedal steel player.
10. Conor Oberst – “When the President Talks to God” (2005)
There is something for everybody on the 2008 compilation Body of War: Songs that Inspired an Iraq Veteran, whether you’re a fan of frenetic indie electronics (Sufjan Stevens), globetrotting hip hop (Talib Kweli, Cornel West), lo-fi anti-folk (Kimya Dawson), or old-school punk rock (Bad Religion). But it’s Mr. Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst, and his stark and stripped-down folk song, “When the President Talks to God” that’s the harrowing stand-out. It was hailed by Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper as “this young century’s most powerful protest song,” which we’re not arguing with. But, seeing as Oberst is already tired of writing the soundtrack for a generation, it’s also a great way to shock the hell out of your religious studies teacher, as on this homemade fan video.
10. Neil Young – “Let’s Impeach the President” (2006)
Protesting: George W. Bush
Neil Young was so sick of waiting around for young bucks to stop writing about their drug habits and partying in the club and pen some new protest songs about America’s present-day troubles that, godammit, he just had to do it himself. And he did it quite directly on this Grammy Award-nominated track from the album Living With War. Three guesses as to what it’s about: it starts with the first few notes of “Taps,” the famous piece used every night on U.S. army bases to signify “lights out,” followed by a list of reasons to impeach the then US president, George W. Bush, and clips from his famous speeches throughout. Like Jarvis, Young sees the merit in putting his lyrics up on the big screen, making it sing-along family fun for all.