20 Protest Songs for Today's Occupy Everything

by PopMatters Staff

2 November 2011


Joni Mitchell and more...

Joni Mitchell
“Dog Eat Dog” (1985)

Apathy was popular in 1985, Joni Mitchell was not. On Dog Eat Dog, her second album for Geffen Records, Mitchell explored the very unromantic themes of tax cuts, rampant consumerism, starvation, corporate greed, and media manipulation. Among this bleak menagerie stood the title track, which brilliantly unveiled the hypocrisy endemic to religious and governmental institutions. Mitchell cited “Dog Eat Dog” as her political awakening after being robbed by “thieves and sycophants” in the state of California: “It’s dog eat dog / I’m just waking up / The dove is in the dungeon / And the whitewashed hawks / Peddle hate and call it love”, she sings ominously. Her protest was observational. She was witnessing a “culture in decline”, expedited by the public’s obliviousness to the insidious ripple effect of Reaganomics and a strengthening Christian right. The economic divide widened under false promises of trickle-down economics, which appeared to benefit only the small percentage of Americans who lived in diamond-studded tax brackets. Listeners, perhaps still under the spell of a charismatic commander-in-chief, were not ready in 1985 to heed Mitchell’s chilling observation—“Holy Hope in the hands of snakebite evangelists and racketeers and bigwig financiers.” How prophetic “Dog Eat Dog” rings today.—Christian Wikane

Public Enemy
“Fight the Power” (1989)

In the summer of 1989, I was 13 years old, still living in the blissful naiveté of youth. Although Public Enemy had already been around for a couple of years, nothing could’ve prepared me for the sonic onslaught that was “Fight the Power”. This was righteous black rage at its finest, music to stimulate the brain and the ass muscles. Even without Chuck D’s booming, authoritative voice, the backing track sounded like a riot in progress—James Brown guitars here, a squealing solo from Branford Marsalis there, even a couple of quotes thrown in from new-jack trio Guy. The lyrics were merely the icing on the Molotov cocktail. “Cause I’m black and I’m proud! I’m ready / I’m hyped cause I’m amped!” D. declares. “Fight the Power” was not only the musical spark that lit my consciousness, it was also the prophetic soundtrack for a sweltering, uncomfortable summer in which Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (which used this song as its theme) packed theaters and a young black kid named Yusuf Hawkins was killed by a mob of Italian teens in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood. The incident intensified racial tension, and provoked a protest march led by Al Sharpton, which nearly incited a riot akin to that depicted in Lee’s film.—Mike Heyliger

“Keep Ya Head Up” (1993)

The musical landscape of 1993 was diverse. Not only had Seattle-tinged apathy arrived and pop-metal’s death knell sounded, but gangsta rap appeared in its earliest incarnation, ushering in the beginnings of the materialistic Culture of Bling that would become a hip-hop staple. Amid the melting pot of commingled materialism and apathy, Tupac Shakur released a song that brought a hard dose of ghetto reality from the streets to the mainstream with “Keep Ya Head Up”. While hip-hop as a genre was maligned as being misogynistic, “Keep Ya Head Up” was positive and uplifting. Simultaneously addressing issues of race, poverty, and sexism, Tupac cautioned listeners not to treat women with disrespect, linking that behavior to the underprivileged condition of blacks in America as a whole. Part of the song’s beauty lies in its stark realism. Much of “Keep Ya Head Up” offers a contemplative Shakur wondering why “We got money for wars / But can’t feed the poor” and “Why we take from our women / Why we rape our women / Do we hate our women?” In spite of the bleak situation, the song offers hope in the face of adversity to get past life’s obstacles. The song’s chorus, centered around a sample of the Five Stairsteps’ “Ooh, Child”, says it all: “Things are gonna get easier… / Things’ll get brighter.”—Lana Cooper

Super Furry Animals
“The Man Don’t Give a Fuck” (1996)

This limited-edition single from Wales’ greatest living rock band didn’t get much radio play (“Warning!” reads its advisory sticker, “This track contains the word ****! 50 times!”), but it still managed to climb to number 22 on the UK charts. The offending word comes from the song’s main hook, a sample of Steely Dan’s “Showbiz Kids”—“You know they don’t give a fuck about anybody else”—and is repeated, ad infinitum, throughout the slam-dunk glaze of the mesmerizing chorus. It’s a brainwashing and desensitizing refrain, but then, that’s the point. The song’s cloudy verses find modern-day listlessness the byproduct of manipulative governments: “Now there’s nothing much to do / But sit and rot in front of televisions” because “Out of focus ideology / Keep the masses from majority.”  The consequence is a cycle of human ruin: the common man don’t give a fuck, because the Man don’t give a fuck about the common man, and so on. In concert, the band ups the political ante, incorporating a loop of comedian Bill Hicks (“All governments are liars and murderers”) with footage of Lenin, Bush, and Blair. Eccentric footballer Robin Friday, who ended his career with Cardiff City, graced the original single’s cover, flicking a derisive bird at an opposing keeper; inside the single, the band hailed a man who refused to let the bastards get him down: “This record is dedicated to the memory of Robin Friday… and his stand against the ‘Man’.—Zeth Lundy

Steve Earle
“Amerika V. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” (2002)

The fighting spirit of the ‘60s and ‘70s of his youth has gone flat like a can of beer left in the sun; one swig of that and all he tastes is bitter. Now, Steve Earle is the demographic of Michael Moore’s Sicko, but Earle beat Moore by a few years with this song:  “Yeah, I know, that sucks - that your HMO ain’t doin’ what you thought it would do / But everybody’s gotta die sometime and we can’t save everybody that’s the best that we can do.” This song is for the hanging by their calloused fingers working class, and the clinging precariously to their status quo middle-class. They’ve filed their complaints and they’re getting fed up with being told to put up and shut up. Sung with a rocky voice pounded by a torrent of booze, corroded by smoke, and choked raw from the sight of seeing a man die, few can sing anger and disappointment as well as Earle. He’s a good, hard spirit worn by troubles but worn rough, not smooth. This song is coarse, bittersweet poetry, made of barbed words that pierce and anchor to those getting’ older bones that are only warming up—with the help of a Tennessee whiskey, or a California Cabernet—for another fight.—Karen Zarker

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