Last week we published a list of what we considered to be some of the worst political songs ever — the trite, the mawkish, the hopelessly naïve. Predictably enough, the feature generated plenty of comment section debate, including one call for a corresponding list of good political songs. We actually ran a feature a while back about good 21st-century political anthems, but still, your wish is our command — so without doubling up any, here’s a selection of songs we consider to be as moving and effective as those other songs are banal and ineffective. Your comments are, as ever, welcome.
Marvin Gaye — “What’s Goin’ On”
Clearly annoyed by our comments on “Give Peace a Chance,” a commenter on this article’s predecessor accused us of not being able to see the value of a simple statement. For the record, we refute this allegation, for the reason that “Give Peace a Chance” is less simple than it is disingenuous. Compare and contrast to this song, for instance, which makes gentle but powerful observations on the civil rights struggle, and isn’t trite in the least.
Billie Holiday — “Strange Fruit”
And here’s an example of how subtlety can be far more effective than chest-beating and sloganeering. If you didn’t know, it might take you a couple of listens to realize that the strange fruit of the title were lynched black men. Nearly 75 years after it was recorded, this is still as haunting as ever.
The Drones — “Jezebel”
At the other end of the spectrum, this labyrinthine lyric encompasses everything from US nuclear testing in the antipodes to the murder of Daniel Pearl. You could spend ages unpacking its verses, but ultimately it’s a howl of disgust at the things humans do to one another in the name of war, and one of the most powerful lyrics of the 21st century thus far.
Fela Kuti — “Coffin for Head of State”
Plenty of musicians have been vocal about their politics over the years, but few have suffered for doing so as much as Fela Kuti. His anti-government song “Zombie” — itself more than worthy of a place on this list — infuriated Nigerian president Oluṣẹgun Ọbasanjọ so much that he sent soldiers to attack Kuti’s Lagos compound. In the ensuing raid, Kuti’s mother was hurled from a window and killed. Lesser men would have hidden after such a horrific event — instead, Kuti released this, a 20-minute denunciation of the murderers that somehow managed to sound as exuberant as it was outraged.
Gil Scott-Heron — “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”
You can take your pick with the late poet laureate of Harlem — the somber anti-nuclear ballad “We Almost Lost Detroit,” the whip-smart early spoken word of “Watergate Blues,” the sardonic “Whitey on the Moon.” But sometimes the obvious choice is the best one, and this is a classic for a reason.
The Clash — “Clampdown”
People tend to pick “Know Your Rights” or (shudder) “Rock the Casbah” for lists like this, which only goes to show that there are plenty of music writers who only own Combat Rock. We much prefer this standout track from London Calling, a hot knife through the rancid butter of the work “ethic” imposed on the working class to keep them happily manning factories for the rich.
Le Tigre — “Deceptacon”
Of course, political songs don’t have to function on a grand scale. They can be personal as well as universal, and the best — like this gloriously surrealist takedown of a man who happened to question Kathleen Hanna’s songwriting credentials — are both.
Public Enemy — “Fight the Power”
“Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me.” It’s kinda hard to believe how controversial this statement was in its time — but it remains surely the most succinct statement of African-American alienation that anyone’s ever committed to tape.
Bob Marley and the Wailers — “War”
Arguably Marley’s best song, and the only one he didn’t write himself — the lyric comes from a speech given in 1963 by Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie I to the UN about how Africa could not enjoy peace while disenfranchisement and racial discrimination persisted. The entire speech is worth reading, as it gives context to the relatively short passage quoted by Marley in the song.
Manic Street Preachers — “A Design for Life”
The Manics have never been shy about leaping in with opinions first and worrying about the consequences later, and while this approach hasn’t always worked — viz. “Freedom of Speech Won’t Feed My Children,” for instance — when they get it right, the results are peerless. As far as political anthems go, “A Design for Life” remains their finest moment, a meditation on working class literacy, the closure of the pits in Britain in the mid-’80s, and what it means to be a man when everything that defined your self and your livelihood is taken away from you.