100-best-protest-songs-4

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

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

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.

The Cranberries: “Zombie” (1994)

Dolores O’Riordan’s striking voice enabled her to blend the tenderness and fury of public mourning in The Cranberries’ “Zombie”. She wrote the song in response to a 1993 IRA bombing in England in which two children, boys aged 12 and 3, were killed. As an Irish woman and a mother, O’Riordan was deeply affected by the tragedy and implored listeners to rethink the ongoing political violence that was hurting yet another generation. Commemorating her death in 2018, Paste recalled O’Riordan introducing “Zombie” at Woodstock ’94: “This song is our cry against man’s inhumanity to man, inhumanity to child,” she said. “And war, babies dying, and Belfast, and Bosnia, and Rwanda.”

O’Riordan’s anger shines in the harsh guitar and drums that level out the incongruity of her singing, which varies from a near whisper to a shout as she mournfully condemns the IRA. The BBC banned The Cranberries’ video of “Zombie” due to its controversial intermingling of clips of armed soldiers and young boys playing at war, along with O’Riordan herself, cast entirely in gold, standing in front of a cross and surrounded by children also cast in gold. These visual juxtapositions aptly represent the song’s expression of discord and discontent. – Linda Levitt


Bruce Springsteen: “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995)

Tom Joad was the hero of John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. He was portrayed by Henry Fonda in John Ford’s film adaptation, and he was the subject of Woody Guthrie’s “Tom Joad”. Tom departs each version telling his aged mother as he runs off to escape the police that she can find him wherever people are oppressed. Springsteen, like Guthrie, echoes “Joe Hill”, and makes Joad’s exit lines more explicitly political: “Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free / Look in their eyes, Mom, you’ll see me.” “The Ghost of Tom Joad” implies that the ’90s are much like the ’30s: “Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge / Shelter line stretchin’ ’round the corner / Welcome to the new world order.”

The last line is an ironic invocation of American triumphalism at the end of the Cold War. The chorus picks up on another symbol of American optimism, one that Springsteen himself has often celebrated: “The highway is alive tonight / But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes.” The tune is spare, but it is mournful and emotionally powerful, unlike the more distanced songs on Nebraska. Mourning is appropriate since Tom Joad is now a ghost and it is unclear whether the struggle he represents is alive or dead. – David R. Shumway


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


Various Artists: “A Tree Never Grown” (2000)

The 1999 shooting of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by three New York City police officers remains a polarizing event in this country’s ongoing struggle with racial prejudice. The erroneous killing (via 41 “unintentional” bullets) was the galvanizing force behind the Hip Hop for Respect EP, organized by Mos Def and Talib Kweli. “A Tree Never Grown” distinguishes itself among the other more-star-studded songs because of its two-pronged approach. The verses (from nine different MCs) range from angry reactions to the actual event to meditations on the larger relationship between black citizens and the powers that be. In contrast, Mos Def’s softly sung chorus looks beyond politics to the heartbreaking truths of an unnecessary death, a reminder that beneath all the vitriol is an issue that transcends skin color.

Some might say this startling twist on “We Are the World”-style collaborations suffers from too many voices, but that’s what makes it so relevant — in the shooting’s aftermath, the country was ablaze with opinions, making the right response difficult to pin down. For all its faults, the song (and, really, the whole EP) demonstrates why hip-hop is such an important social platform, translating honest reactions from the street to wax while filtering as little as possible along the way. – Ben Rubenstein


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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