Protest music: 1972 – 2019

Protest music saw a marked decline in popularity during the mid to late 1970s and 1980s.

The United States, strained by social unrest, disheartened by its foreign policy blunders, and facing seemingly endless existential crises, began to turn away from protest music to safer genres or songs that covered apolitical topics.

By the end of the 1980s, however, and throughout the 1990s and 2000s, protest music began reentering the national musical scene with mixed-results.

Protest music during this period became more explicit, violent, and cynical than in years before. 

33. “Do You Hear the People Sing?” by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, and Herbert Kretzmer (1980)

“Do You Hear the People Sing” is the English version of the original French “À la Volonté du Peuple”, the principal song of the 1980 musical Les Misérables. A revolutionary call for people to rise up and rebel, the song has been sung over the years around the world – from the Philippines to Turkey to Belarus – by protestors at pro-Democracy rallies. The version linked is from 1995 is sung in 17 different languages.

34. “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1980)

“The Message” is an early rap protest song written in 1980 by Duke Bootee and Melle Mel. Written in response to the 1980 New York Transit Strike, in which 33,000 employees walked off their jobs, the song is a social commentary on the deplorable conditions created by inner-city poverty. Performed by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, the song is often considered not only one of the most important tracks in the early development of the rap genre but one of the greatest rap songs of all time. 

35. “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” by Willie Nelson (1981)

Originally written by country musician Ned Sublette, “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” was the first LGBTQIA+-themed mainstream country song by a major artist. Sublette stated that the song is based on his experiences growing up gay in New Mexico. When country legend Willie Nelson recorded it in 2006, he said, “When Brokeback Mountain came out, it just seemed like a good time to kick it out of the closet”. Brokeback Mountain is an Academy Award-winning movie about two gay cowboys. Nelson, having had a copy of the song since the 1980s, finally recorded it following the hubbub surrounding the film. 

36. “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen (1984)

No other song perfectly encapsulates the ambivalence and contradictions of 1980s-era America than Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.” Superficially upbeat and utilizing a seemingly patriotic chorus, “Born in the USA” encapsulates a myriad of issues by telling the story of a working-class Vietnam veteran who returns to middle America to find a life he once knew disappearing. Springsteen criticizes the structure of society, war, and the treatment of the working class. The title serves as an ironic reminder that even in the supposed land of limitless opportunities not everyone who is born in the USA is given the same chance to succeed.

37. “F%#@ tha Police” by NWA (1988)

“F%#@ tha Police” by NWA is one of the most controversial songs ever recorded. So much so, it provoked the FBI into writing a formal letter of protest to the record company that produced the song. An intensely personal song written by Ice Cube, M.C. Ren, and the D.O.C., the lyrics protest racial profiling and police brutality. “F%#@ tha Police” lampoons traditional court proceedings by presenting Dr. Dre, a member of NWA, as a judge hearing a prosecution of the police department. Other NWA members take the stand to testify before the judge as witnesses. Through the lyrics, the rappers criticize the local police force. Since its release in 1988, “F%#@ tha Police” has turned into a slogan that continues to influence pop culture today in the form of apparel, artwork, and political expression.

Note: A link to the actual song is not listed due to its violent and explicit nature.

38. “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine (1992)

Not only a protest song but also Rage Against the Machine’s signature song, “Killing in the Name” is described in The Rough Guide to Rock (2003) as “a howling, expletive-driven tirade against the ills of American society.” The song accuses the US police force of being a white supremacist organization that “kills in the name” of white America. Adding to the venom of the song is the fact that it was released only six months after the LA Riots. Due to the controversial nature of the song, it did not receive heavy airplay in the US, but it increased the band’s popularity in Europe.

Note: A link to the actual song is not listed due to its violent and explicit nature.

39. “American Life” by Madonna (2003)

Much of the protest music of the Bush/Iraq War-era has mostly been derided by music critics and popular sentiment. Efforts such as “Rock Against Bush,” a project seeking to unite punk and alternative musicians against the 2004 U.S. Presidential re-election campaign of George W. Bush, failed miserably.  “American Life” by Madonna is typical of the uninspired protest music that many think characterizes this era. In the song, the artist that brought the world “Material Girl,” tried to make a statement about “the shallowness of modern life and the American Dream during the presidency of George W. Bush.” The song, a bizarre mix of folk, pop, and techno, was deemed by Medium’s Richard LaBeau as “almost listenable until the 3 minute and 10 second mark where she breaks into one of the most ill-conceived rap breaks in music history.” Entertainment Weekly‘s Ken Tucker deemed it: “not like the clever self-twitting she clearly intended, but rather a facile confirmation of her haters’ conviction: that the middle-aged Madonna does not have a worldview beyond her next Pilates appointment.” “American Life” is a testament to the fact that not all protest music is particularly successful.

40. “American Idiot” by Green Day (2004)

Anybody that came of age in the 2000’s remembers Green Day’s “American Idiot,” a response to the many patriotic songs coming out in post-9/11 America. The song contended that mass media had cultivated paranoia, degeneracy, and ignorance among the public. Songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong felt that the 24-hour-news cycle crossed the line from journalism to reality television, showcasing violent footage from the Middle East intercut with advertisements. Armstrong then heard the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “That’s How I Like It” on the radio, a song with patriotic themes. Armstrong said: “It was like, ‘I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ‘oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ This is exactly what I’m against.” This strong reaction to “That’s How I Like It” inspired “American Idiot”.

41. “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

The chorus of “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar has become an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement, often sung during rallies and marches. The song begins as a spoken-word treatise before shifting into a shapeshifting portrait of black America that brings in a variety of instruments with Lamar’s lyrics. Writers at BET (Black Entertainment Television) proclaimed the song as the new “Black National Anthem.” Although the music video touches on violent and dark themes, the lyrics themselves are hopeful. The controversial nature of the song led Geraldo Rivera of Fox News to call the song “disgusting,” and criticized Lamar, stating that “Hip Hop has done more damage to African Americans than racism in recent years.” Lamar responded with, “How can you take a message of hope and turn it into hate?”

42. “If You Have a Right to Burn My Flag (Then I Have a Right to Kick Your A**)” by Creed Fisher (2016)

Country star Creed Fisher is a self-described “proud redneck” and “If You Have a Right to Burn My Flag (Then I Have a Right to Kick Your A**)” represents his manifesto to the Obama era. In the song, Fisher refers to Obama as “El Presidente” and says that he’s “lost his mind.” Fisher also expresses that he is “mad as Hell” at those who “don’t like our traditions,” “don’t like our flag,” and “don’t like our country.” Obviously not one to shy away from threats of violence, the lyrics state that “whoopin’ your (a flag burner) a** would be worth a few nights in jail.” Fisher’s song is one of many in his discography that protests the Obama presidency and the modern progressive movement.

Note: A link to the actual song is not listed due to its violent and explicit nature.

43. “This is America” by Childish Gambino (2018)

“This is America” by Childish Gambino is unique in the annals of American protest music. Gambino’s uniqueness is due to the fact that the song and the music video are both powerful statements that work together as a piece of art. “This is America” addresses the issues of gun violence, mass shootings, police brutality, racism, and discrimination in the United States. Pitchfork‘s Stephen Kearse described the song as a representation of the “tightrope of being black.” The music video follows Gambino as he dances through scenes of extreme violence and chaos. Gambino’s video references blackface minstrelsy, the 2015 Charleston church shooting, the shooting of Philando Castille, traditional African dances, and films such as Get Out, Mother!, and City of God. Will Gompertz, an editor of the BBC, proclaimed that “This Is America” was a “powerful and poignant allegorical portrait of 21st Century America, which warrants a place among the canonical depictions of the USA from Grant Wood’s American Gothic to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, from Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware to America the Beautiful by Norman Lewis.”

Note: A link to the actual song is not listed due to its violent and explicit nature.

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