20 Protest Songs That Matter
#20.'Get Up, Stand Up'
--Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973)
Rebelling Against: Opression!
The late, saintly Bob Marley's signature anthem has become a fill-in-the-blank template for righteous causes of all stripes. Not only is it the official fight song of Amnesty International, but Peter Tosh's sung-spoken interlude – "You can fool some people sometime/ But you can't fool all the people all the time" -- has been called a precursor to rap.
--Green Day (2000)
Rebelling Against: The Moral Majority!
In which rambunctious Billie Joe Armstrong goes explicitly political, pledging eternal allegiance to society's misfits, the downtrodden and the outnumbered. Since this song, the poster band for juvenilia has been active in alternative energy advocacy, Hurricane Katrina relieve and a rock opera about nonconformity.
#18. 'We Shall Be Free'
--Garth Brooks (1992)
Rebelling Against: Homophobia!
When one of the most successful country artists -- make that successful artists period -- audaciously sang "When we're free to love anyone we choose" in this gospel-influenced number, many took it as an endorsement of gay rights. Brooks made the connection more explicit at 2000's Equality Rocks, where he was the only straight male to perform.
#17. 'We're Not Gonna Take It'
Rebelling Against: Authority figures!
In the great Brando tradition, this classic '80s hair band scored big with its rebellion against everything, and nothing in particular. Coopted by Arnold Schwarzennegger in his 2003 campaign for California governor, the song was inspired, according to Dee Snider, by the Sex Pistols and the Christmas caro 'O Come, All Ye Faithful.'
#16. 'Diamonds From Sierra Leone'
--Kanye West (2005)
Rebelling Against: Blood diamonds!
This hip-hop track, which features a sample of Shirley Bassey's Bond theme 'Diamonds Are Forever,' was devised by West to show that much of the ice that keeps us blinged out was mined using child slave labor. His aim was to further show that the profits from these illicit "conflict diamonds" bankroll civil wars in African nations such as Sierra Leone
#15. 'I Ain't Marching Anymore'
--Phil Ochs (1965)
Rebelling Against: War!
The fearless Ochs took Dylan-style folk to another level of topicality, attacking big business, blind patriotism, Jim Crow segregation, even hypocritical liberalism in frank terms worthy of a true outsider. A hero to latter-day rabblerousers Billy Bragg, Eddie Vedder and Sean Penn, Ochs made the ultimate protest statement at age 35: He exited this troubled world by hanging himself.
--The Clash (1979)
Rebelling Against: Fascist capitalism!
The late, great social critic Joe Strummer compared the "blue and brown" suits of middle-class office drones to Nazi uniforms, and the analogies didn't stop there. "Young believers" grow into positions of authority, where they "got someone to boss around/ Makes you feel big now." If contempt was a musical quality, this song's would go to 11.
#13. 'California Uber Alles'
--Dead Kennedys (1980)
Rebelling Against: Lockstep liberalism!
These quintessential protest punks kicked off their confrontational career by imagining a California that has been taken over by a hippie generation turned fascist. Like the Nazis, the state sentences its undesirables to death. The difference: the poison gas is organic.
#12. 'Little Boxes'
--Malvina Reynolds (1962)
Rebelling Against: Conformity!
The theme to Showtime's 'Weeds' first came to life in the hands of topical songwriter Reynolds, who earned her doctorate from that beatnik haven Berkeley way back in 1938. Her view of the mind-numbing 'burbs -- where the homes are all "made out of ticky-tacky" – explained the problem of the bourgeoisie in terms even a child could understand.
#11. 'F--- tha Police'
Rebelling Against: Racial profiling!
In this searing indictment of the Los Angeles police department, Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E put the cops on trial, with Dr. Dre serving as judge and jury. The racial tensions on the streets that N.W.A. had exposed to the world on this track came to a brutal head when L.A. erupted into riots after 1992's Rodney King verdict.
--Billy Joel (1982)
Rebelling Against: Recession!
The pop piano man made a bid for topical currency with this bleak snapshot of a struggling blue-collar town. Despite the promises made "if we worked hard, if we behaved," a generation feels the dream slipping away: "Something happened on the way to that place/ They threw an American flag in our face." Oof!
#9. 'World Wide Suicide'
--Pearl Jam (2006)
Rebelling Against: Operation Iraqi Freedom!
Like a lot of veteran rockers, Eddie Vedder has become a campaigner in middle age, trashing George Bush with an amusing baseball metaphor in "Bushleaguer" – "Born on third, thinks he got a triple." There's nothing metaphoric about 'World Wide Suicide,' which rages against the Bushies and their Iraq war: "Tell you to pray, while the devil's on their shoulder."
#8. 'Maggie's Farm'
--Bob Dylan (1965)
Dylan, of course, is the definitive protest singer, having given the world such inevitable rally hymns as 'Blowin' in the Wind' and 'The Times They Are A-Changin'.' The centerpiece of the infamous "electric" performance at Newport, 'Maggie's Farm' is Dylan's uber-protest song: It was the iconoclast's declaration of independence from the very folk movement that sired him.
#7. 'Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud'
--James Brown (1968)
Rebelling Against: Racism!
Soul Brother Number One officially put an end to the old days of "Negroes" and "colored folks" with this declaration of black pride, which quickly became ubiquitous during the volatile summer of 1968. Recorded, according to JB, with a rainbow chorus of kids of all backgrounds singing the refrain.
--System of a Down (2002)
Rebelling Against: Militarism!
Any number of songs from this hyper-politicized nu-metal band could have made the list. This condemnation of rampant military spending in a world full of starving children gets bonus points for referencing Noam Chomsky, and for the group's hiring of Michael Moore to make the video.
#5. 'Strange Fruit'
--Billie Holiday (1939)
Rebelling Against: Lynching!
Songwriter Abel Meeropol was a Bronx schoolteacher who wrote a poem in response to a gruesome photo from the Deep South. Invariably described as "chilling" – the "strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees" are the bodies of hanged black men – the song is often noted as a critical catalyst for the civil rights movement.
--Edwin Starr (1970)
Rebelling Against: Vietnam!
Soul journeyman Starr wasn't especially political; his debut chart appearance had been a product of mid-'60s James Bond mania ('Agent Double-O-Soul'). But this cover of a Temptations album track made him one of the loudest voices of the Vietnam era. The song has lived on as a generic howl for peace, revived, most notably, by Bruce Springsteen.
#3. 'Take This Job and Shove It'
--Johnny Paycheck (1977)
Rebelling Against: The big boss man!
Written by the uncompromising David Allan Coe and sung by the country singer with the perfect name for the job, this pop crossover hit tapped a universal nerve at a time when the American economy was spiraling down the toilet. Disgruntled wage earners still call their local country stations to request the song when they're ready to quit.
#2. 'Fight the Power'
--Public Enemy (1989)
Rebelling Against: Racism!
The song that traced all that's wrong with America to... stamp collecting? ("Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamp!") PE's most famous joint -- the key audio component of Spike Lee's anatomy-of-a-riot film 'Do the Right Thing' -- has since become an all-purpose anthem of opposition.
#1. 'What's Going On'
--Marvin Gaye (1971)
Rebelling Against: Social injustice everywhere!
When one of the Motown star's early pop tunes was interrupted on-air by news of the Watts riots, he remembered, "I wanted to throw the radio down... and get out there and kick ass with the rest of the brothers." With this, his undisputed masterpiece, Gaye addressed war, poverty and inner-city despair with an exquisite sadness that managed to leave room for hope.
ONTD needs more Pearl Jam.