Editor's Choice

PopMatters Picks: Say It Loud! 65 Great Protest Songs

There's no time like the present for protest music. PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike.

Edited by Zeth Lundy / Produced by Zeth Lundy and Sarah Zupko

Most songs are written for one of two reasons: love or protest. At its fundamental level, self-expression in music is all about raising awareness, the subject of which fluctuates between beauty and outrage -- two kinds of passion that rouse people to song in equal measure.

The protest song is not simply an idealist's sing-along custom-made for populous sit-ins and social demonstrations; human protest is waged at every level of our existence, in private and in public, and transcends the picket line to include battles for gender rights, racial equality, and freedom from the tyranny of self-righteous authority figures. The very best protest songs are those that touch upon universal themes that can be reapplied to a multitude of struggles from decade to decade, whether or not they were originally written in response to a specific event.

It makes sense that music -- pop music, in particular, the readymade stuff of the masses -- is used as a fundamental tool of dissent. Music speaks for us as individuals and groups, in eminently hummable phrases and cathartic dominion; its audience connects with its populist means of chorus and refrain; and its immediacy, its need to relay a message in mere minutes, is a most urgent sympathizer. Protest music's tipping point in popular culture came in the 1960s, when songwriters like Bob Dylan redirected pop music's focus to relevant real-time crises, such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. It has continued to be a vital method of expression for years since, lending voice to fights for basic human rights and campaigns of logic against hollow governmental agencies, most notably during the tumultuous tenure of the latest Bush Administration and its ongoing quagmire in Iraq.

This isn't to say that protest songs are surefire ways to make a difference, because honestly, there's very little a three-minute ditty can do to rid the world of all its evils. In fact, you could even say that putting one's faith in a protest song is an act of futility or absurdity, and you'd probably be right. Still, we shouldn't be stopped from dissenting, from stating truths or challenging wrongs, because if you don't take a stand for something then you'll be defined by anything. PopMatters has scoured the musical spectrum for the best examples of the protest song form, including anthems of great popularity and obscurity alike. May they inspire you to stand up and be heard in the midst of whatever dark hour you find yourself in.

-- Zeth Lundy

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"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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