Music

Say It Loud! 100 Great Protest Songs: Part 4 - Dead Kennedys to Steve Earle

Photo: Auckland Museum [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. Stay tuned all week as we unveil the top 100.

Read all parts of Say It Loud! 100 Great Protest Songs

Dead Kennedys: "MTV -- Get off the Air" (1985)

What it claimed in its relentlessly self-aggrandizing, self-promoting agenda in the early '80s was that it was an iconoclastic trailblazer changing the course of music history. But what MTV left out was that it was, in fact, "of, by, and for corporate America" -- specifically, major record labels, for which MTV served as a 24-hour infomercial. Witness the worst that the FM dial had to offer -- from crappy AOR like Toto to pathetic pop like Madonna -- set to vapid images. And yet, MTV was basically given a free pass by the vast majority of the music world -- until Dead Kennedys spoke up with "MTV -- Get off the Air", that is. Mixing equal doses of humor and commentary, the song begins with a funky beat and pitch-altered chant of "Fun fun fun in the fluffy chair / Flame up the herb / Woof down the beer" as Jello Biafra does an exuberantly mean imitation of MTV video jockey J.J. Jackson with the promise "to help destroy what's left of your imagination." And by the time the song shifts to blazing punk, the so-called "artists" on MTV get theirs: "See the latest rejects from the Muppet Showshake their tits and their dicks as they lip-sync on screen." The industry is controlled by "tin-eared, graph-paper-brained accountants." MTV has come up with a few good programs since then, but has anything changed with the music industry itself? - Doug Sheppard

The Ramones: "My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)" (1985)

It's strange how one of the most vehement protest songs rock 'n' roll gave us during the '80s came courtesy of a band that many had considered to be on its last legs. Five years removed from their glory years, the Ramones were mired in a musical rut in 1985, but a controversial visit by President Ronald Reagan to a military cemetery in Bitburg, West Germany lit a spark under one Jeffrey Hyman, known by most as Joey Ramone. Whenever the Ramones dabbled in political themes in the past, the results were always tongue-in-cheek ("Havana Affair", "Commando"), but upon seeing news footage of Reagan visiting the graves of Nazi SS members, Joey, a fervent Jewish Democrat, got serious.

Co-written with bandmate Dee Dee Ramone and former Plasmatics bassist Jean Beauvoir, "My Brain is Hanging Upside Down" seethes with anger, Joey spitting his lyrics ("You're a politician / Don't become one of Hitler's children"), but is ingeniously offset by one of the band's most contagious melodies from that decade, and Joey's venom is countered by cheeky "ah, na na na" vocals in the background. The band might have been well past its prime, and fervent Republican Johnny Ramone was none too pleased with the song, but "Bonzo" remains one of Joey's finest moments on record. - Adrien Begrand

Hugh Masekela: "Bring Him Back Home" (1987)

The role of music in South African anti-apartheid resistance is well-documented, both as coded communication between black South Africans and as protest music aimed at the government and the world at large. Hugh Masekela's "Bring Him Back Home" came out in the last decade of apartheid, a no-holds-barred 1987 single inspired by a letter smuggled to Masekela from an imprisoned Nelson Mandela urging him to keep making music. In exile at the time, Masekela wrote what became a rallying cry for the anti-apartheid movement, demanding Mandela's safe release to the township streets with unyielding vocal harmonies and a wall of horns.

South Africa's apartheid government wasted no time in banning the anthemic piece, but its irrepressible melody and message hit hard both inside and outside the nation and marked a shift in Hugh Masekela's musical activism toward more explicit political statements. "Bring Him Back Home" would only be legalized in 1990, after Mandela's release from prison; Mandela himself would dance along to the song as it played during his and Winnie Mandela's tour of Boston. It remained one of Masekela's most-played songs during live performances for the rest of his career. - Adriane Pontecorvo

Suzanne Vega: "Luka" (1987)

Songs about children -- never mind abused children -- carry a high risk of sentimentality, but Suzanne Vega's biggest hit, "Luka", worked all the more powerfully because of the way it skirted any sort of smarminess. The song, written from the perspective of a little boy named Luka, is a heartbreakingly tough snapshot of a battered soul. Luka's not asking for your sympathy and he doesn't want your help, and yet there's a pathos in the way he makes sense of his situation. "I think it's cause I'm clumsy / I try not to talk too loud," he observes, then, "Maybe it's because I'm crazy / I try not to act too proud."

Vega has said in interviews that she wrote the song after observing a young boy who didn't seem to fit in with his peers; she didn't think he was abused, but he got her thinking about children who were. It's a clear-eyed, indelible portrait of a boy who seems specific and real, yet universal. His chorus of "You're only hit until you cry / Don't ask questions / Don't ask why" was sort of shocking on late '80s commercial radio, and yet it got a good number of people asking about it. It's one measure of the song's unlikely popularity that it appeared briefly on a Simpsons' episode; when Homer sings your political lyrics, you know you've made an impact. - Jennifer Kelly

N.W.A.: "Fuck tha Police" (1988)

Before the controversy surrounding the Los Angeles Police Department's Rampart scandal, in which police officers were accused of asphyxiating alleged gang members, and before the Rodney King trial and the Los Angeles riots that followed, there was "Fuck tha Police". West Coast rap crew N.W.A. were self-described "Niggaz With Attitudes" who sought and secured a platform for dealing with racism in the justice system. The song offered a realistic description of police brutality along with a satisfying fantasy of invulnerability in the face of it. Its sheer power put the world on notice and also prompted a concerned letter from the FBI. In crafting one of the most iconic hip-hop records ever, the group took aim at tactics like racial, economic, and age profiling, as well as the problem of black cops seeking acceptance within police culture by being aggressive against minorities.

The genius of the track, though, is the presentation: the crew's shoe-on-the-other-foot courtroom parody, illustrating how false testimony and misconduct can run rampant. Calling the case "N.W.A. versus the Police Department", "Fuck the Police" has Judge Dre presiding over a trial filled with testimonial verses from Ice Cube, MC Ren, and Eazy-E, which culminates with a police officer being found guilty of being "a redneck, white-bread, chickenshit muthafucka." The song's power has found a resurgence recently after the release of the biopic Straight Outta Compton, released into a social landscape still fighting against police brutality and racial tensions 30 years later. - Quentin Huff

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

Elvis Costello: "Tramp the Dirt Down" (1989)

How should an artist express contempt for the leader of his country? Should there be a balance between a fair and equitable assessment of the documented damage this leader has wrought upon her nation's people and pure rage? By 1989, Elvis Costello was 12 years into his career as a punk, rocker, balladeer, country crooner and new romantic. "Tramp The Dirt Down" is an achingly beautiful folk ballad that never mentions Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher by name save for the first bridge ("When England was the whore of the world / Margaret was her madam") but she's lurking throughout. She's a beast dripping with greed and avarice, kissing unsuspecting babies. The only thing the singer wants is to live long enough to see her vanish: "…when they finally put you in the ground / I'll stand on your grave and tramp the dirt down."

Costello restored the song to his repertoire after Thatcher's April 2013 death with the comment, "I don't feel vindicated. I didn't personally kill her." Not since Bob Dylan hoped imminent death on the "Masters of War" had music contained such righteous, beautiful, necessary rage. Costello went one step beyond, named his target in 1989, and brought it back 24 years later to make sure nobody forgot. - Christopher Stephens

Sinead O'Connor: "Black Boys on Mopeds" (1990)

Sinéad O'Connor doesn't sing bullshit. Trained in the bel canto school of singing, O'Connor cannot sing anything in which she lacks an emotional investment. This means that rather than erring on the side of safety, her protest songs take on a laser gaze. We all know how little she cares about what people think of her and her convictions, and though her extra-musical actions probably sparked more debate than any of her songs, her protest songs are unsurprisingly blunt.

One of the best, "Black Boys on Mopeds", calls out Margaret Thatcher by name; then it surveys Britain, sees only poverty and police brutality, and essentially concludes: "Fuck this place." (She uses Van Morrison's Celtic fantasy "Madame George" to sink this mythology, casting light on the way music that celebrates national heritage can whitewash reality.) And it's sadly still salient. O'Connor no longer has any investment in "Nothing Compares 2 U" and no longer sings it, but when she performs "Black Boys on Mopeds" it's as powerful as ever. - Daniel Bromfield

Ani DiFranco: "Lost Woman Song" (1990)

The first time I heard "Lost Woman Song", I was sitting in the small cinderblock confines of my college dorm room at an all-women's college in Boston. It was 1995, shortly after 25-year-old Shannon Lowney, a receptionist at an abortion clinic, was shot two blocks from my quaint and grassy campus by 22-year-old John Salvi. DiFranco's song is both a protest for a woman's right to choose and a protest to the protestors that inhibited those rights in the late '80s and early '90s. In the song, DiFranco discusses the abortion as a "casualty" she endured -- "a relatively easy casualty", an almost prophetic designation as violence against abortion clinics skyrocketed to a bloody climax on the eve of 1995.

DiFranco's sparse music is populated by lyrics that continually rise in angry enforcements of her rights and fall with the sad realization that sometimes anger doesn't get you all the way there. The self-questioning runs like an undertow, threatening to pull her under as she stands alone, and clearly paints a picture of what most artists only create impressions of. The song stands not only as an assertion of her right to "exercise [her] freedom of choice", but also as a manifest expression of her right to make her choice without external judgment. - Betsy Grant

Rage Against the Machine: "Killing in the Name" (1991)

How can you have a discussion about the greatest protest music of all time and not include a group whose name literally commands its followers to gather all that bottled-up angst and take a crowbar to the establishment? "Killing in the Name" was written six months after the Rodney King beating and the ensuing riots in Los Angeles. Zack De La Rocha never sounded as angry as he does here as he slowly builds on the repeating line, "Some of those that work forces / Are the same that burn crosses." Here, forces refer to the police, military or other groups who are meant to protect, but in certain cases have abused their power. He relates these groups to those that burn crosses, a symbol used by the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan. But Rage doesn't put all the blame on the "forces", because a bigger "Machine" is puppeteering and, of course, they just do what they tell them. As the protest climaxes and the instrumental becomes chaotic, the outro screams perpetually against the power structures of today: "Fuck you, I won't do what you tell me!" - Chris Thiessen

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