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.

50. Devo: “Beautiful World” (1981)

Devo‘s satirical core philosophy of de-evolution functions as a protest against the blind foibles of modernity and of American culture in particular, and “Beautiful World” might just be their masterwork: an attack on white privilege released 35 years before the conversation entered America’s public consciousness. The lyrics are deliberately mundane, failing to rise even to the level of greeting card verse as they offer a simple-minded appreciation of the banalities of middle-class American life. But that, of course, is the trap. The evil in the banality is the unacknowledged white privilege that enables such fantasies to dominate late-20th-century American culture.

This is protest music that ensnares the listener in the crime, particularly through the acidic accompanying video that received extensive MTV airplay. There, we see Boojie Boy spinning a wheel of video clips that get progressively more violent: beauty pageant parades of glistening white skin give way to fire hoses and dogs attacking black protesters; the blooming flowers that open the video are bookended by a blossoming mushroom cloud. Throughout, Gerald Casale sings like a dutiful choirboy until the song’s last chorus, where the emphasis of “It’s a beautiful world for you” is answered by negation: “not me”. – Ed Whitelock

49. The Specials: “Ghost Town” (1981)

“Ghost Town” was the most unlikely chart-topper the UK has ever seen. Substituting eerie atmospherics and a spooky dub bass for the sing-along chorus typical of the genre, it was a broodingly sullen protest against inner-city decay, devastating unemployment, rising racial tensions, and all the other good stuff that Margaret Thatcher had to offer Britain. Further, “Ghost Town” pretty much predicted the large-scale Brixton, London, and Toxteth riots of that same summer and hit the UK’s number one spot the day after “disturbances” broke out across the country. Seldom, if ever, had a pop record caught the mood of a nation so spectacularly well.

With hindsight, “Ghost Town” and the summer of rioting, which will be forever associated with it, seemed to mark something of a change in British music and politics. Previously, we’d enjoyed the directionless rabble-rousing of bands like the Pistols and the Clash — punk, lest we forget, was forged in the torpor of a country ruled by the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments. But now, there was a hate figure worthy of the name. As unemployment grew and industrial strife brought the country close to all-out civil war, performers such as the Redskins, Easterhouse, Billy Bragg, Paul Weller, Elvis Costello, and others all began to pour on the bile. But the Specials did it more effectively and with a much better sense of timing. – Roger Holland

48. The Clash: “Know Your Rights” (1982)

When you’re talking about the Clash, you’re looking at an entire catalogue of politically-engaged protest music. There’s a reason that my generation considered the Clash as “the only band that matters”. Joe Strummer is and will remain my biggest hero because he wrote music about “things that matter” and blew up the Clash when it was clear they were going to become corporate rock stars. Authentic to the very end as they say, and that end was Combat Rock, the 1982 album that housed hits like “Rock the Casbah” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go”. “Know Your Rights” sits atop the track list and serves as a powerful statement of intent for a record that also includes “Straight to Hell”, a song bemoaning the plight of the immigrant in a racist world.

Stating three basic rights – the right not to be killed, the right to food money, and the right to free speech – the song is a ferocious barn-burner, twisted with fury and cynicism over governments’ unwillingness to protect basic human rights. Sure, we’ll give you some money so you can eat, but first, we’ll humiliate you and tell you you’re undeserving and always keep you guessing if you’ll get fed again. Yeah, you have the right not to be killed unless a policeman kills you or an aristocrat. No justice for you. We’ll say we support free speech, even build a whole country around that principle, but just don’t be “dumb enough to actually try it”.

Timeless. Essential. Sadly, true then and now. – Sarah Zupko

47. Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five: “The Message” (1982)

As someone once recommended, don’t believe the hype. “The Message” was neither the first political hip-hop record nor the best. Indeed, it had precious little to do with Grandmaster Flash or four of those Furious Five. But nonetheless, it was the song that seized the public imagination and the one that posterity remembers. Rolling Stone, for example, ranked it as the 51st best song of all time.

Old school hip-hop built upon a synthesizer riff crafted by Sugar Hill session player Duke Bootee, “The Message” stopped the block party dead to talk about social decay, Reaganomics, and how the strain of having to stay home and watch Dallas when you really want to go see Sugar Ray fight can drive a poor boy to crime, into prison, and on to an ugly, untimely death. MC Melle Mel’s energetic style and socially conscious lyrics may have been enough to get “The Message” added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry, but I wonder how he’d fare today, exclaiming that “I might hijack a plane”? – Roger Holland

46. Robert Wyatt: “Shipbuilding” (1982)

Though Robert Wyatt could be much more blatant in his Socialist propaganda, this sweet, affecting anti-war song (written, in particular, about the Falklands War) is probably the most moving tune in his catalog. Penned by Elvis Costello (heard here on backing vocals along with the Attractions’ Steve Nieve playing beautiful piano), rather than making an obvious statement about the horrors of battle, “Shipbuilding” draws a heartbreaking portrait of a small town drawn into a conflict where holiday celebrations (birthdays, Christmas) are disrupted as men are called to prep boats as their craft and their probable means of destruction (hence the title). But even after all the eloquent details that proceed it, nothing prepares you for the hopeful and mournful last lines: “With all the will in the world / Diving for dear life / When we could be diving for pearls.” You’d have to pity anyone who wasn’t moved by such a touching sentiment. – Jason Gross

45. U2: “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983)

From their earliest days, the members of U2 were open in expressing their Christian faith (save for their secular bassist Adam Clayton). Bono, Edge, and Larry Mullen, Jr. complicated fans’ expectations and prejudices regarding faith, a radical act for a group with U2’s ambition. But it is radical faith that informs their strongest protest, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” Inspired by the January 1927 “Bloody Sunday” in Derry when British police fired on a group of unarmed protesters, striking 28 and killing 14, the song transcends simple protest to reveal the complicated work of healing.

The radicalism of this song is its call for peace amidst justified anger, its abandonment of eye-for-an-eye vengeance. Bono’s cry of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is not a propagandistic call to militaristic action but rather a recalling of that horrible day as inspiration to stop the violence. Acknowledging that both the British army’s militaristic bullying and the IRA’s domestic terrorism fuel the engine of ongoing violence, he concludes that one side has to stop. Through his Christian vision, Bono calls on those most aggrieved to overcome “the trenches dug within our hearts” to make the most difficult choice and “claim the victory Jesus won.” That victory is forgiveness, the most difficult, necessary, and, for the time, radical act if the violence were to end. – Ed Whitelock

44. Nena: “99 Luftballons” (1983)

Nena’s “99 Luftballons” was a massive hit in the 1980s, topping the charts in the US and Australia with the original and best version of the song sung in German. Despite its funky beats and killer chorus laden with poppy hooks, it’s a serious song and one that takes a strong anti-war stance. The 1983 tune emerged from the imagination of Nena guitarist Carlo Karges, who was attending a Rolling Stones gig in Berlin when he saw a bunch of balloons being released. That inspired the cautionary tale in which 99 balloons are released, and they are mistaken for UFOs. The military shoots them down even though they are simply balloons, and the surrounding countries attack. There’s a 99-year war that results in total devastation.

It’s pretty heady for a pop tune, but it’s such a clever way to get the point across: war is bad; war is really bad, and we need to avoid it at all costs; nothing good emerges from war. Most importantly, World War III could begin over something innocent or mistaken because of the human propensity for violence. Those are notions worth revisiting in this age of populist uprisings and war-mongering across the globe. – Sarah Zupko

43. Twisted Sister: “We’re Not Gonna Take It” (1984)

Although the glam-adjacent heavy metal band had been fully operational with Dee Snider as lead singer since 1976, they did not achieve their first and only Top 40 hit until 1984, with this single off the Stay Hungry album. What began as a fairly generic teen punk manifesto with an accompanying music video full of slapstick humor ultimately morphed into a protest anthem against censorship. Ranked seventh on the list of “filthy 15” songs targeted by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, the song and its singer emerged as a vanguard of the music community’s disagreement with the prudish mission of the PMRC. Snider’s articulate testimony against the RIAA’s “parental advisory” sticker ultimately did not prevent its adoption, but it did put enough of a dent to contribute to the dissolution of the PMRC by the mid-1990s. In 2016, the song received renewed attention after Snider donated it as an anthem for the pediatric cancer foundation Heal Every Life Possible. – Megan Volpert

42. The Pogues: “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (1985)

Written by Eric Bogle in 1971, this song references the 50,000 Australian soldiers who died at the Battle of Gallipoli at the hands of Turkish troops in the First World War. The beautiful imagery and lyrics describe the futility and horrors of war as a human construct, as the protagonist returns home, an amputee, only to have the generations after him lose interest in his original cause and unable to dance the free-spirited “Waltzing Matilda”, the very song that inspires Australian boys to go to war and fight for their values. Obviously, this was an oblique metaphor for the uselessness of the Vietnam War, but has appreciated with age to be commentary on all war. Though it’s been recorded time and time again, the rendition by the Pogues is most notable and important for the new generation of the left, to which it was released in 1985. The legacy of the song lives on as this Doonesbury fan brilliantly utilized it as a metaphor for the war in Iraq. – Bobby Evers

41. Artists United Against Apartheid: “Sun City” (1985)

Forget “We Are the World”. Relegate “Do They Know It’s Christmas” to its place as a nice seasonal song. For pure rock ‘n’ roll politics, no one can beat “Little” Steven Van Zandt and his Artists United Against Apartheid project, which he formed in response to what he saw as the decidedly non-committal attitude of voguish celebrity charity projects. Van Zandt used the recent boycott of the South African luxury resort area as a way of bringing the bigotry of the nation into perspective. With help from a divergent cast of musicians — famous faces from jazz, rap, punk, and pop — the former E Street Band guitarist created the perfect fusion anthem, a danceable diatribe with a heart as heavy as its beat.

With an instantly memorable chorus and a fearlessness in naming names (as in Joey Ramone’s classic line “Constructive Engagement is Ronald Reagan’s plan”), “Sun City” evokes the 1960s style of easy-to-remember slogans with proto-hip-hop chants. Literally pouring their souls into the song, even Bono and Bruce Springsteen deliver with the kind of undeniable urgency missing from their previous participation in political rock events. Thanks to an equally impressive video, it remains the high watermark in the 1980s artists-as-activists movement. – Bill Gibron