10 Great Songs about 21st-Century Politics

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“The financial crisis has been a difficult topic for songwriters to wrestle with,” Dorian Lynskey told The New York Times last year. “What do you say about a financial crisis where the villains are obscure and the solutions are obscure? That’s a challenge.” The idea that there’s not much political music being made these days has been a popular one of late, but frankly, we’re having none of it. Sure, perhaps there aren’t the flag-waving anthems that characterize the ’60s, but there are still plenty of politically aware songwriters these days. Why, this very week, there are at least two politically weighty records dropping — the new Bruce Springsteen album, and the official release of Cass McCombs’ song about Bradley Manning. We thought we’d celebrate with a selection of the finest lyrics thus far about 21st-century politics.

Cass McCombs — “Bradley Manning”

Bradley Manning — traitor or heroic whistleblower? For such a controversial figure, Manning (and, for that matter, Julian Assange) have been curiously under-represented in song, but Cass McCombs is doing his best to redress the balance with this track, which he debuted on the website of independent news program Democracy Now! last December. McCombs’ song takes the latter view of Manning, which will doubtless endear him to right-wing shock jocks the nation over.

PJ Harvey — “Let England Shake”

One of the most notable things about the rapturous reception that Let England Shake received last year was the widespread sense of amazement that it was an album about something. This isn’t in any way to take away from the brilliance of Harvey’s record, which deserved every bit of the praise showered upon it, but it’s a bit of a shame that we live in a world where music that tackles big issues — the brutality of war, the decline of the West — is the exception, rather than the norm. It suggests that many critics aren’t really listening beyond the charts, which is disappointing.

Gareth Liddiard — “The Radicalisation of D”

The Drones’ songwriter has written some of the 21st century’s smartest songs, political or otherwise — cf. “Jezebel” from Gala Mill, for instance, a labyrinthine history of warfare that’s like a float down the Thames in “The Waste Land” — but this is perhaps his finest achievement. It’s a 16-minute epic that’s loosely inspired by the story of David Hicks, an Australian who was caught by US forces in Afghanistan in 2001 and spent the next six years in Guantanamo Bay, despite never being convicted of anything. The song focuses on what might lead someone into extremism — and while the lyric is never overtly didactic, choosing only to depict its protagonist and let listeners draw their own conclusions, the implication is that it’s poverty and broken families that open the way for ideology and indoctrination. It’s a brutally powerful piece of music, especially from about from about 12:00 on.

Mavis Staples — “Freedom Highway”

Most political songs are motivated by anger and/or a desire for change — it’s rare that someone sits down to write a song about how pleased they are with the way things have turned out. So Mavis Staples revision of the ancient “Freedom Highway” on her Live: Hope at the Hideout record was a refreshingly joyous occasion — the song was first recorded by the Staple Singers way back in 1965, but Staples turned it into a celebration of Barack Obama’s election: “There is just one thing/ I can’t understand, my friend/ Why some folk think freedom/ Was not designed for all men/ Yes, I think I voted for the right man…”

The Felice Brothers — “Ponzi”

Apparently the Felice brothers’ father was directly affected by the collapse of Bernie Madoff’s gargantuan Ponzi scheme, which no doubt explains the vitriolic tone of this song about that very topic. The music is misleadingly upbeat, but it soundtracks a lyric that’s both bitterly sarcastic and not, it has to be said, without a dash of schadenfreude at Madoff’s fate.

Le Tigre — “New Kicks”

As evidenced by the article we linked to in the intro to this feature, there’s been a fair amount of hand-wringing about how the 21st century lacks someone to supply the “voice of a generation” that the ’60s apparently enjoyed. We’re not really sold on this idea — we have a feeling that such labels are applied retroactively, and that at the time, the ’60s probably felt just as confusing and disconnected as the 2000s — but in any case, if there’s no voice of a generation, well, why not let the generation speak for itself? This was certainly the idea behind “New Kicks” — its vocal track is a collection of samples that Kathleen Hanna recorded at various protests, creating a narrative from a multitude of voices recorded around the world.

Nitin Sawnhey feat. MC Natty — “Days of Fire”

This reflective piece is a response to the 2005 death of Brazilian immigrant Jean Charles de Menezes, shot seven times at close range by UK police in a London tube station after being mistaken for a suspect in the bombings on London transport two weeks before. The song’s narrated by MC Natty, who — almost unbelievably — was on the very next train. The lyric is a vivid portrait of the experience of being so close to the shooting — “It could have been me,” observes the rapper — and the atmosphere of paranoia and suspicion that characterized both the weeks after the bombings and the 2000s in general. “On these streets where I’ve played and these trains that I take, I saw fire,” sighs Natty. “I’ve seen the city change in oh so many ways.”

Thom Yorke — “Harrowdown Hil”

More UK politics: specifically, the death of Dr. David Kelly, the biological warfare expert and former UN weapons inspector who committed suicide in 2003 after being identified as the source of quotes in an article by BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan that questioned the UK government’s position on Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (particularly its claim that Iraq had weapons that could be deployed within 45 minutes of an order to do so.) When he was identified as the Gilligan’s source, Kelly was hauled before a televised Commons select committee and questioned; he committed suicide two days later. After his death, doubts arose as to whether his injuries (he cut his left wrist after taking a large dose of painkillers) were sufficient to kill him. It’s these doubts that Yorke addresses in “Harrowdown Hill”: “You will be dispensed with/ When you’ve become inconvenient…/ Did I fall or was I pushed?/ Where’s the blood?”

Sage Francis — “Makeshift Patriot”

A fiercely articulate howl of protest at how Francis perceived the 9/11 attacks were co-opted by the right wing for its own ends, this song was released as a free download exactly a month after the planes hit the Twin Towers. It lambasted the media, the public, and the government for allegedly simplistic, knee-jerk reactions to the tragedy, and ended with the stark warning: “Don’t waive your rights with your flags.” Two weeks later, George W. Bush signed the Patriot Act into law.

Jarvis Cocker — “Running the World”

In which Jarvis distills the complexities of the bazillion problems with living in the 21st century into one succinct chorus: “Cunts are still running the world.” Word.