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

Yothu Yindi: "Treaty" (1991)

Yothu Yindi's "Treaty" is a powerful indictment of the inadequate progress on a treaty promised between the Aboriginal peoples and the Australian government. Specifically, Prime Minister Bob Hawke pledged to bridge the poverty gap and strengthen services alleviating over-crowded housing and poor medical access. These promises were unmet. The song begins with lyrics "I heard it on the radio / I saw it on the television." This is a direct condemnation of political doublespeak that promised reparations to Indigenous peoples yet avoided amelioration.

"Treaty" was adopted as the unofficial anthem for the Reconciliation Movement, activism connecting Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals. Lyrics including "Now two rivers run their course / Separated for so long" directly address the cultural divide deeply felt across the country. Initially released in 1991, the single received limited airplay and failed to chart until the song was remixed to "Treaty (Filthy Lucre remix)". Inspired by Yolgnu and Balanda culture, "Treaty" was the first song in the Indigenous Australian language, Gumatj, to gain popularity while bringing attention to the systemic inequities. - Elisabeth Woronzoff

R.E.M.: "Ignoreland" (1992)

Automatic for the People is critically and popularly praised as perhaps R.E.M.'s best album. Along with the slow and somewhat sorrowful songs like "Drive" and "Man in the Moon", the album featured "Ignoreland", reflecting the band's tradition of hard-rocking, politically-inflected songs. Stipe's twist of pronouncing words with a different syllabic stress than normal use demands a close listen, which acts like a revelation. After a few albums with deliberately difficult-to-understand mumbled lyrics, it was no surprise to fans that "Ignoreland" required some sorting out. Stipe's anger is undeniable, and he assured it would resonate with the decision to mix the vocals through an amplifier. Accompanied by the hard press of roiling instruments, "Ignoreland" was impossible to ignore.

The song is an indictment against what the public generally chose to ignore, choosing instead to gladly receive the spoon-fed misinformation of Reagan-era politics. The song marvelously moves from the rant of "The undermining social democratic downhill slide into abysmal / Lost lamb off the precipice into the trickle down runoff pool / They hypnotized the summer / nineteen-seventy-nine" to the chant of "defense, defense, defense" followed by "yeah, yeah, yeah, Ignoreland", rendering a song that is both nearly impossible to sing along with and a simple fist-raising chant. - Linda Levitt

Sonic Youth: "Swimsuit Issue" (1992)

In three minutes of noisy distorted mess, Sonic Youth delivers a brutal, potent track about the degradation of women in a song voiced by bassist Kim Gordon that moves from the personal to a wider cultural narrative of use and abuse. A wall of filthy noise accompanies Gordon's lyric, relating the tale of a young office worker subjected to sexual harassment and eventually rape at the hands of her boss. The tale is not without revenge and retribution, as the young woman tells all to the press, via Gordon at her most indignant.

In the song's trancelike second half, Gordon lists off women's names against a backdrop of brutal distortion: "Paulina, Catherine, Vendela, Naomi." The names continue going by -- each one more mesmerizing -- as Gordon names every model featured in the 1992 swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, abused in a different way. The song deals with some complicated "swimsuit issues", not least the role the media plays in presenting women as both victims and commodities. Sonic Youth reminds us that protest songs don't have to include acoustic guitars and twee harmonica melodies stuck in 1965. They don't even have to be about war. Not with guns, anyway. - Sarah Kerton

Almamegretta: "Figli di Annibale (Children of Hannibal)" (1993)

Countless Italian bands have been influenced by and play black American music — jazz, R&B, blues, hip hop. But only one has written a song inspired by Malcolm X — the Neapolitan group Almamegretta (Wandering Soul), whose 1993 indie hit, "Figli di Annibale"(Children of Hannibal) drew on remarks the African American leader made in 1964. "Hannibal was famous for crossing the Alps mountains with elephants," Malcolm observed. "And he had with him 90,000 African troops, defeated Rome and occupied Italy for between 15 and 20 years. This is why you find many Italians dark – some of that Hannibal blood."

On "Figli di Annibale", Almamegretta's lead vocalist Gennaro "Raiss" della Volpe raps over a dub track of electronics, bass, and drums. "Molti italiani hanno la pelle scura / Molti italiani hanno i capelli scuri" (many Italians have dark skin / Many Italians have dark hair) because the blood of the North African general runs in their veins. The song certainly has historical holes. Nonetheless, the song connected with Italians, especially the radical youth alarmed by the racism and xenophobia of the Northern League, which in the early '90s was beginning to win elections in northern Italian cities. Today, the League is poised to form a new national government, along with the anti-immigrant Five-Star Movement. - George de Stefano

2Pac: "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

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 soldier 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

Face: A Visual Odyssey (By the Book)

By turns alarming and awe-inspiring, Jessica Helfand's Face: A Visual Odyssey offers an elaborately illustrated A to Z—from the didactic anthropometry of the late 19th century to the selfie-obsessed zeitgeist of the 21st. Enjoy this excerpt of Face, courtesy of MIT Press.

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