protest songs
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Say It Loud! 100 Timeless Protest Songs

PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of protest songs, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity that resonate today.

80. The Mothers of Invention: “Trouble Every Day” (1966)

Frank Zappa‘s entire career was full of cultural and political commentary, but much of it was coated in layers of satire, some too juvenile for its own good. His most sincere piece of social protest, however, was his first: “Trouble Every Day”, the penultimate track on Freak Out!, his debut album with the Mothers of Invention. Zappa’s outraged reaction to watching the Watts riots broadcast on television is a cold-water coda to an otherwise sardonic record of pop culture lampoons.

Over a simple blues backbeat and the echoing wails of a harmonica, Zappa’s double-tracked vocal riffs on “the mass stupidity” of a broken America: the ugly state of race relations, the uselessness of cultural revolution, and the media’s exploitation of it all. “Hey, you know something, people?” he asks mid-song, as the slicing guitar tears on behind him, “I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots of times I wish I could say I’m not white.” It was a gutsy statement for a fledgling rock band to make in the mid-1960s, one that played devil’s advocate to the blossoming optimism of the peace-and-love movement. – Zeth Lundy

79. Steve Reich: “Come Out” (1966)

First, Steve Reich sets the scene by using a quote: “I had to, like, open the bruise up and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” A fairly gruesome image, not to mention a statement of desperation — intriguing enough to convince people to seek out the context of the quote, heavy enough for anyone to know that no matter what the context, something serious was going down. That “something serious” happened to be the Harlem Race Riots of 1964, in which six black boys (one of whom was Daniel Hamm, who said the words quoted) were convicted of a murder that only one of them committed.

Hamm’s statement came after he realized opening a wound was necessary to convince the police that he needed medical attention after the beating they administered. The spoken word snippet repeats three times, then Reich bases the entirety of the rest of the composition on the barely-one-second snippet “come out to show them”, first looping the sample, splitting it and phasing it into two, then four, and then eight different parts, all saying the same phrase at slightly different times.

The piece works musically because those five words are spoken rhythmically and melodically (the words almost sound as if they’ve been sung in a minor key), leading to myriad possibilities of juxtaposition via Reich’s tape-phasing techniques. What Reich is also doing, however, is putting a horrific detail from a terrible day in the spotlight and ultimately surrounding the listener with it, making Hamm’s statement the one and only component of his composition, giving us nowhere to hide. – Mike Schiller

78. Aretha Franklin: “Respect” (1967)

Aretha Franklin released her version of “Respect” in the middle of an especially tumultuous time in the US, with the Vietnam War, race, and gender serving as motivating points for activists. Within a few weeks of the single’s release, Muhammad Ali refused to enter the military, and race riots broke out in a number of cities. Franklin’s cut epitomized the times and became a rallying cry. Ostensibly, the song isn’t a protest song. Written and originally performed by Otis Redding, the song merely vocalizes a person’s demand for proper treatment by a money-borrowing lover. You can wrap it up as a neat little domestic squabble, a scene captured dramatically with a concise vocal (particularly on Redding’s rendition).

However, between the climate of the era, Franklin’s intense delivery, and her general cultural awareness, “Respect” took on an entirely different political aspect. Franklin’s ad-libbed bridge takes the song to a higher level: She sounds as if she’s losing control, having been fed up for too long, before finally cutting off her climactic phrase to belt out only its abbreviation: “Take care — TCB!” The abbreviation marks the pinnacle of the song’s urgency, and it also throws in some specifically African-American signification in the slang. The addition of the unforgettable backup vocals also established a sense of community, making Aretha less the angry sugar mama and more the sound of a movement. Or, to be more accurate, movements.

“Respect” was a number-one crossover hit, appealing to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights activists. Franklin, a truly singular talent, had put together a performance with a remarkable unifying draw, and the resonance of that strength and activity has lost none of its strength. – Justin Cober-Lake

77. The Beatles: “Revolution” / “Revolution 1” (1968)

The Beatles knew a thing or two about the mob mentality. The Fab Four came face-to-face with it more than once during their careers — and were frightened nearly as much by the crowds cheering for them as those railing against them. So it’s not surprising that while they became high-profile protesters themselves, they also had some serious concerns about populist movements. That inner conflict makes “Revolution” — their protest song about the dangers of protest — one of the most politically nuanced songs on this list.

Lennon and the lads were openly questioning the Left they knew so well: “We all want to change the world / But when you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out.” When Lennon added the word “in” to the album version of the song, he took it a step further, openly admitting his own uncertainties. Whenever it seems like we’re looking for easy answers, “Revolution” is a welcome reminder that the most important thing is to think for yourself. It’s not enough to protest; you need to be fully aware of what you’re protesting for. – Adam Bunch

76. MC5: “Kick Out the Jams” (1968)

Long before being corrupted into a marketing catchphrase, “Kick Out the Jams” was the title track of MC5’s explosive first album. Adopted as the rallying cry of the Motor City’s rock ‘n’ roll revolutionaries, those four simple words came to imbue the band’s approach to music — and life. Kicking out the jams was analogous to talking the talk and walking the walk and served as a profound declaration against apathy and the status quo. At their best, the Five had no peer on stage, and their signature song resonated amongst fans and followers as a call to arms. With the addition of an incendiary fifth word, the song’s opening charge expanded the scope of the band’s attention.

“Kick out the jams, motherfuckers!” was a shot directed at the oppressive establishment and a retaliatory strike against those parties thought to quell artistic, social, and intellectual freedoms. Some protested with signs and sit-ins, others with boycotts and rallies, but the MC5 used words and notes to fight their battles. And now, after nearly four decades, the song still retains its sense of euphoric rebellion when vocalist Rob Tyner demands, “Let me be who I am / And let me kick out the jams / Yes! Kick out the jams / I done kicked ’em out.” – Adam Williams

75. Gilberto Gil: “Aquele Abraço” (1969)

Written just before Gilberto Gil left imprisonment in Rio de Janeiro, recorded upon his subsequent stint under house arrest in Salvador, and at its most popular after his exile from Brazil, the 1969 samba-based single “Aquele Abraço” was never meant to be a protest song. In it, Gil evokes joyful images of Rio—its people, its parades, its culture—and, in so doing, gives the city the heartfelt embrace suggested in the song’s title.

In a time and place of government censorship, though, no expression is without a political aspect. “Aquele Abraço” won the Rio-based Golden Dolphin prize in 1970, while Gil was still forbidden from returning to his own country. Gil refused the award with a scathing letter in the resistance-oriented periodical O Pasquim, pointing out the hypocrisy in receiving awards from institutions upholding “cultural fascism” and decrying the idea that gentle “Aquele Abraço” is acquiescing to the government’s ideas of “pure” Brazilian music and writing inoffensive samba for the rest of his career. He ends the letter with an explicit rejection of the prize: “Let the dolphin go back to the tranquil waters of its insignificance.” The song remains an act of revolutionary love for a cherished city. – Adriane Pontecorvo

74. Creedence Clearwater Revival: “Fortunate Son” (1969)

The phenomenon of sons (and daughters) of the rich and powerful gaining exemption from otherwise required military service may be ancient and entrenched, but so is the subsequent resentment — particularly in a nation that prides itself on having severed ties with such by-products of class entitlement. Time and again, however, it’s often the most fervent hawks who go to the greatest lengths to avoid fighting or whose wealth and influence make it all the easier to do so.

John Fogerty certainly knew the score when he penned this Creedence Clearwater Revival classic for 1969’s Willy and the Poor Boys, taking on not only the Vietnam War supporters who conveniently declined to enlist but also hippies who could afford their protests with fancy trust fund educations. With a handful of rockabilly chords and a twangy guitar hook, Fogerty and Co. played it smart by playing it broadly: not referencing the conflict by name allowed the band to keep the theme applicable to any future age, where it would, unfortunately, remain certain that the privileged would continue to invoke patriotism in their lust for war while sending the unprivileged to do the dirty work for them. – Michael Metivier

73. Merle Haggard & the Strangers: “Okie from Muskogee” (1969)

Although regarded by many as a patriotic song, “Okie” fails to take the traditional rally-round-the-flag approach prevalent in much of contemporary country music. Merle Haggard‘s anthem to the traditional American small town is, in fact, a protest against changing social mores, alternative lifestyles, and, well, protests. His way of life, waving “Old Glory down at the courthouse”, was in stark contrast to that of the 1960s generation of drug-taking, love-making hippies earning much alarming media attention.

Life in the town of Muskogee involves respect, football, white lightin’ (moonshine), and cowboy boots; clear signs of the decline of the American way of life are evident in those using marijuana and LSD, burning draft cards, growing long hair, and wearing beads and sandals, none of which presumably can be found in heartland America. Life in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Haggard argues, is “livin’ right”, and it’s an argument that resonated with those Americans Richard Nixon labeled “the silent majority”, propelling “Okie from Muskogee” to the top of the charts for four weeks. In a time when protest songs filled the airwaves, it’s ironic that Haggard scored his biggest hit protesting the rise of a discontented culture. – Michael Abernethy

72. Plastic Ono Band: “Give Peace a Chance” (1969)

John Lennon recognized the power of a good slogan. Whether it was “All you need is love”, “War is over if you want it”, or even Bagism and the Bed-In for peace, he had a knack for boiling an idea down to its essence. And no song boiled down the essence of the ’60s anti-war movement better than “Give Peace a Chance”. From the verse that asks you to forget about all the distractions (like revolution, evolution, masturbation, flagellation) and the kind of minimalist production values you’d expect from a song that was written and recorded in a Montreal hotel room, everything about the song is stripped down to focus on the powerful, catchy refrain.

Sung on the record by a full chorus that included the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, Petula Clark, and Tommy Smothers, those few simple words — “All we are saying is give peace a chance” — didn’t take long to dig deep into the cultural consciousness. Within a few months, “Give Peace a Chance” was being sung by throngs of demonstrators outside the White House, well on its way to becoming the anti-war anthem of not only the Vietnam era but of peace movements worldwide for decades to come. – Adam Bunch

71. Black Sabbath: “War Pigs” (1970)

With prophetic lyrics penned by “Black Sabbath” bassist Terry “Geezer” Butler, “War Pigs” first appeared on Black Sabbath‘s 1970 album Paranoid. The original album title was War Pigs, but Warner Brothers changed it to avoid any perceived animosity to the Vietnam War. The song’s original title was “Walpurgis”, and the lyrics initially condemned Christianity rather than war (this original version is available on Ozzy Osbourne’s The Ozzman Cometh: Greatest Hits collection from 1997). With the new words, the song became a searing indictment of politicians who callously send others to war. (A war pig, not coincidentally, is a sadistic military tactic used in ancient warfare where warriors doused pigs with incendiary materials and sent them into enemy lines to cause panic among transport animals.)

Punctuated by Bill Ward’s chaotic drumming, Ozzy’s soulful voice and haunting screams, and Tony Iommi’s guitar work, the song is arguably the first and most important protest song in the heavy metal pantheon. The wildly pumping bass lines from Butler reflect the underlying machinations lurking in war plans, and Iommi’s perverse riffs, especially at the coda, remind us how logically and beautifully orchestrated and justifiable war plans might seem at first and how quickly they descend into pandemonium once adrenaline and politics wash over. – Chris Justice