Protest music holds an important place in American history. Protest music can inspire change, provide a soundtrack for our progress, and offer a piercing look into our past.
From the Civil Rights Era, the push for Women’s Rights and the Stonewall Riots to the uber-capitalism of the Reagan years, the culturally divisive War On Terror, and the corrosive disunity of the Trump era, protest music tells our shared oral history in vivid color–a narrative conveyed equally through hope and despair, triumph and tragedy, grace and rage.
What Makes These Songs So Important?
The following songs were selected based on their cultural impact, historical importance, and continued relevance. They are also chosen from a Western cultural perspective. Of course, there is a tradition of musical protest as big as the world itself. A Russian citizen at the height of the Cold War might have found himself in a Soviet gulag simply for having the audacity to play rock music behind the Iron Curtain.
However, in the interests of narrowing our focus (and also because I’m not sufficiently multilingual to do otherwise), we have limited the scope of this list, with a few exceptions, to songs by English-speaking artists.
How Are These Songs Ranked?
Songs are presented in chronological order as opposed to being ranked against one another. This is for a few reasons.
First, ranking these songs would be an exercise in subjective vanity. How does one compare Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” or Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”? The importance of each song is dictated by its unique moment in history.
Second, presenting these songs in chronological order gives us an opportunity to view American protest music as a single historical narrative. These songs exist on a continuum that tells the overlapping stories of American popular song and political resistance. Common threads weave throughout this story. One revolutionary recording begets another. The movements for freedom, equality, peace, and justice are part of one unending push for something better, from generation to generation.
And remember, it’s not that a great protest song necessarily has the power to change the world. It’s that the best protest songs give voice to those who do.
The 25 Most Important Protest Songs of All Time
“No More Auction Block” may not be familiar to you by title. But there’s a strong argument that this is the most important protest song ever written. The melody for this spiritual originated long before the beginning of commercially recorded music (circa 1890). By one account, “No More Auction Block” could first be heard as sung by Black regiments fighting for the Union in the Civil War.
The song declares an end to slavery, to bondage, to being owned, sold, forced into labor, and to being lashed by the whip. Musicologist Alan Lomax wrote that the song was also heard as sung by freed slaves in Canada who had journeyed there after slavery was outlawed in the U.K. in 1833.
“No More Auction Block” became a familiar hymnal melody in the hands of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, so named for their affiliation with the Historically Black Fisk University in Nashville. The Jubilee Singers were a unique entity, one that blended African slave spirituals with classical European arrangements. This musical integration was a key building block in what would ultimately become “the blues.”
The Jubilee Singers toured the country, performing this song in the 1870s, just one decade after emancipation. This was a courageous act not to be taken lightly. “No More Auction Block” was appropriately passed down through generations of struggle against inequality, with particularly notable versions by Paul Robeson and Odetta. Based on availability, it is Paul Robeson’s version that we have selected for inclusion here.
“Auction Block” only gained in relevance during the Civil Rights Era, providing the melodic blueprint for both “We Shall Overcome” and Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind.” In the larger tradition of protest music, the impact of “No More Auction Block” is incalculable.
“Strange Fruit” may be the most brutally frank composition ever conceived. Delivered in the sour moan that was singer Billie Holiday’s trademark, its lyrics used the metaphor of rotting tree fruit to condemn the horrors of Black lynching in the South.
The song was originally composed as a poem by a white northerner named Abel Meerpol, who was moved by a disturbing photograph of a lynching. Committing the verses to music in 1937, Abel and his wife Anna began performing the song around New York, most notably during one widely publicized appearance at Madison Square Garden.
But the song truly found its voice in the tragically doomed Lady Day. Holiday was apprehensive to record the politically charged song for fear of reprisal. In accounts of her decision to ultimately take on the material, Holiday has said she felt compelled to do so by the death of her father.
Clarence Holiday, also a jazz musician, had developed lung disease from mustard gas exposure during World War I but was refused medical treatment while on tour in Texas. Though he sought care in the segregated black ward of the Veterans Hospital, the delayed treatment allowed pneumonia to set in, claiming the man’s life.
Clearly, Holiday channeled this inspiration in her tortured performance. This was in 1939, and the song’s uncompromising condemnation of racism was daring to say the least. Holiday had the guts to record it, but her label lacked the guts to release it. Columbia worried that record outlets in the South would have a negative reaction to the song. Her producer—the legendary John Hammond — also refused to record the song.
Ultimately, Holiday was released from her contract for a single song, which she recorded for alternative jazz label, Commodore. “Strange Fruit” quickly gained importance among critics. For northern listeners in particular, “Strange Fruit” laid bare the realities of Jim Crow. It became a staple in Holiday’s live shows and, out of respect to its content, it would always be performed last and without an encore.
The postscript on Holiday is a sad one. Holiday struggled with heroin and alcohol much of her life. And it is perhaps no coincidence that she endured her first inquiry from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics just as “Strange Fruit” became a leading part of her repertoire. The notoriously over-zealous drug enforcement agency would harass Billie for the next 20 years, making their final arrest for narcotics possession as she lay dying from cirrhosis of the liver in a hospital bed in 1959. Like her father, she died in a haze of medical and legal negligence.
The postscript on Abel Meerpol is actually quite fascinating. Abel and Anna, closely affiliated with the communist party, adopted two boys whose parents, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, had been executed for espionage.
As for “Strange Fruit,” it has been the source of tremendous influence and the subject of endless academic discourse. Time Magazine even named it the single greatest song of the Century as 1999 neared its end. For all who aspire to protest through song, it remains the highwater mark for courage.
There is perhaps no figure in the history of western music who casts as long a shadow over the tradition of political resistance than Woody Guthrie. The Dust Bowl Troubadour wrote and recorded literally hundreds of songs confronting social issues against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II.
An Oklahoma native, Guthrie spent a portion of the 1930s traveling the route made famous in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Like the Joad family, Guthrie joined countless other displaced farmers on the journey from the Sooner State to the promised land of California. These experiences informed a catalog of songs that remains among the most important in the lexicon of American songwriting. The social and political observations that run like high voltage through his material confronted head-on the pressing conditions of the time, from poverty and famine to political corruption and capitalist greed.
Guthrie’s guitar was famously branded with the phrase “This machine kills fascists.” Though Guthrie was not himself a member of the American Communist Party, he was a powerful champion for many of their ideals. At its essence, “This Land Is Your Land” is a missive that speaks to these ideals. Stripping away the Western vilification and Soviet distortion, Guthrie boiled the communist ideology down to the most basic notion of human equality.
This matter was most certainly on the man’s mind in 1940 when he sat down to write “This Land.” As he worked out the lyrics, he thought of it as a response to “God Bless America.” His composition would be a truer anthem for the downtrodden. Woody recorded his version in 1944, creating a statement that on its surface seems innocent enough. The idea that America is a land that belongs to all of us should hardly seem controversial.
But in fact, according to archivists from the Smithsonian, Guthrie’s original version contained a few more assertive verses that have been largely lost to history. Among them was a verse observing:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me;
Sign was painted, it said private property;
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing;
This land was made for you and me.
Another excised verse said:
Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway;
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me.
In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I’d seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?
These verses would not ultimately become part of the composition taken up by the Weavers—whose members included the great Pete Seeger. Indeed, with the flaring Red Scare and the emergence of McCarthyism in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, the more incendiary lyrics could well have landed a performer in prison. But even absent these verses, “This Land Is Your Land” was a bold statement in a time when boldness came at a price.
There is no song more emblematic of the hope, faith, and unity of the Civil Rights Movement than this one. “We Shall Overcome” has been invoked time and again in the near-century since its composition. Indeed, even for its association with the Civil Rights Era of the late 1950s and 1960s, “We Shall Overcome” remains a staple of public demonstration and a statement that justice and humanity will ultimately prevail over oppression and hatred.
Like many of the gospel-tinged folk songs that typified the Civil Rights era, this one traces its roots to the southern fields where Black slaves sang spirituals to help ease the burden of their labor. In many instances, such songs existed strictly in oral tradition until ultimately being committed to parchment. In this case, a Methodist minister named Charles Albert Tindley was the first to publish music and lyrics. His 1901 composition was titled “I’ll Overcome Someday” and proclaimed:
This world is one great battlefield,
with forces all arayed;
if in my heart I do not yield,
I’ll overcome someday.
The Tindley composition was primarily spiritual in nature. When it was ultimately adapted as a protest song, it was repurposed with more earthly concerns in mind. The modern incarnation of “We Shall Overcome” can be traced to a 1945 strike by tobacco workers in Charleston, South Carolina. Earning just 45 cents an hour, workers picketed for a pay raise. Led by labor activist Lucille Simmons, they sang:
We’re on to victory, we’re on to victory
We’re on to victory some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We’re on to victory some day
We’ll walk hand in hand, we’ll walk hand in hand
We’ll walk hand in hand some day
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe
We’ll walk hand in hand some day
Lucille Simmons taught the song to Zilphia Horton, who was the music director at the Highlander Folk School in New Market, Tennessee. Highlander was an institution of tremendous importance during the protest era, providing training and inspiration to critical Civil Rights figures, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis. It was also the institution that ultimately helped bring “We Shall Overcome” to national prominence.
Horton began sharing the Simmons version with her students. She explained:
“I sang it with many different nationality groups. And it’s so simple, and the idea’s so sincere, that it doesn’t matter that it comes from the tobacco workers. When I sing it to people, it becomes their song.”
It was this version that found its way into a publication called the People’s Songs Bulletin. People’s Songs was an organization directed by folk-legend Pete Seeger. That Seeger, a white singer, began teaching this song to others is a matter of some importance.
As a former member of the Albany State College-based Freedom Singers, Cordell Reagon recalls that the decision to alter “I” to “we” came from white allies in the Civil Rights Movement. It was this change that signified a Civil Rights Movement unifying around both Black and white marchers in the quest for equality. This version would also be passed down within the halls of Highlander. When a man named Guy Carawan moved from Southern California to Tennessee to become the Folk School’s new musical director, he came to recognize the singular power of this composition.
The version included here was recorded by Carawan in 1945 and explicitly conveys his intent to teach the song to others.
Guy’s wife recalled their mutual arrival at Highlander in 1959 and the impact that composition had on students just as the sit-in movement began sweeping across the South. She remembered:
“Guy was there trying to find out what songs we were using as part of our demonstrations—and mostly we didn’t have a lot of songs. He taught us a number of songs that weekend, and one of them was ’We Shall Overcome.’ And I can remember this electrifying feeling when we heard it, that that song just said exactly what we were doing and what we were feeling.”
It quickly became the single most emblematic song in a movement anchored by spiritual music. So powerful and pervasive was its message that it even crossed the lips of the president. When Lyndon Johnson appeared before Congress in March of 1965 to call for legislation ensuring equal voting rights, he declared:
“It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause, too, because it’s not just Negroes, but really, it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”
Today, “We Shall Overcome” is the de facto soundtrack to the march for justice, whether by anti-war protesters in the U.S., students facing off with the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square, or by those who resisted South Africa’s apartheid. There is a reason for its constant invocation.
While so many protest songs take a topical approach to delivering their message, “We Shall Overcome” is distinctly universal, endlessly applicable to the struggle for justice, and inherently hopeful in the face of seemingly insurmountable suffering.
Bob Dylan’s importance to the protest movement can’t really be reduced to a single song. His songwriting played an enormous role in making Greenwich Village a hotbed for northern political resistance in the 1960s.
And yet, with countless moments to choose from in Dylan’s catalog, the obvious choice is still “Blowin’ in the Wind.” This standard has been invoked by marchers and Dylan’s contemporaries with such frequency that it might as well be public domain. To wit, Dylan would years later reveal that its melody had been co-opted from an old spiritual called “No More Auction Block.” Its melodic inspiration was a composition sung, according to one telling, by Black regiments fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Check our entry on “Auction Block” to learn more.
Appropriately, it was also a cover that put this song on the cultural map for Dylan. Dylan was, by this point, well-known and highly regarded within the robust beatnik and folkie scene turtlenecking up the Village. The Hibbing, Minnesota native was already a legend in the making, his erudite lyrics and fierce literacy distinguishing him among the younger scenesters.
The release of the Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963, and its lead single, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” brought Dylan a new level of attention. So too did his romantic connection to Joan Baez, who was at the height of her fame.
These events collided with Dylan’s breakout performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. It was also that very weekend in July that Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of “Blowin’ in the Wind” hit #2 on the Billboard Charts.
This was the point at which Dylan ascended to a songwriting throne from which he has never been unseated. And in fact, for the rather impossible-to-overrestimate impact of his future compositions, it may never get any more important or influential than this one, at least from a Civil Rights perspective.
The searching ambiguity of “Blowin in the Wind,” the aching sentiment that simply wishes to know how much longer we must wait for peace, freedom, and equality; this feeling resonated immediately with Civil Rights marchers and with the growing movement in opposition to the mounting Vietnam War. To many, it remains the definitive anthem of the 1960s.
In the years immediately after, Dylan would write arguably more compelling lyrics of protest. “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (1964) was certainly more forceful in its sentiment; and few lyrics written are more accurate or devastating than “Masters of War.” (1963) But when future generations open the big book of Western music to peer into history, they will find “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
Sam Cooke produced the Civil Right Era’s most elegant statement. From 1957 to 1963, Cooke landed more than two dozen Top 40 hits, establishing a reputation as a smooth-as-silk soul singer with a clear debt to the gospel traditions that colored his upbringing. Cooke was also among the first Black performers to take managerial control of his own affairs, insulating himself from the exploitative shenanigans that deprived many contemporaries the financial spoils of their success.
With hits like “Chain Gang,” “Wonderful World,” and “Twistin’ the Night Away,” Cooke largely dealt in pop fare, though easily some of the most enduring ever made. Two events transpired to lead Cooke into more topical waters.
The first event was the late summer 1963 release of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind.” To Cooke’s ears, this was a composition that addressed America’s racial hypocrisy with such clarity that he was at once stunned it had been written by a white man and ashamed that he had not himself sung on the plight of his own people. Cooke immediately added Dylan’s song to his own repertoire.
The second event came a mere two months later, when Cooke, his wife, and his touring retinue arrived at a Holiday Inn in Louisiana for a night’s lodging. Though Cooke had called ahead for reservations, the clerk told the all-Black entourage that there were no vacancies.
When the hotel refused to make accommodations for the group, Cooke became incensed. Though his party succeeded in calming him down, they departed with a flourish of insults and honking horns.
By the time they arrived at the nearby Castle Motel, law enforcement was already waiting. Cooke and company were arrested for disturbing the peace. Headlines, the next day, read “Negro Band Leader Held in Shreveport.”
The incident infuriated Black Americans and spurred Cooke into action. It was said that the words and melody veritably poured out of Cooke, that his most gorgeous and moving composition literally came to him fully formed. The lush orchestral production was handled by ace arranger Rene Hall.
“A Change Is Gonna Come” was, to an extent, the rhetorical counterpart to “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Whereas the latter inquired about change in an open-ended way, Cooke assured that change was most definitely on the close horizon. Its intent as a missive for the Civil Rights movement could not be mistaken, even if Cooke would never live to see it adopted as such.
Cooke performed “Change” live just once in his career, debuting his defining composition on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on February 7th, 1964. It might have been recalled as a monumental television event were it not eclipsed by the arrival of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s stage just two days later. This largely forgotten broadcast was the only time that Cooke would ever perform the song live.
On December 11th, 1964, Cooke would be gunned down by a hotel clerk under mysterious circumstances. Cooke’s sudden and shocking death only magnified the funereal vibe of “A Change Is Gonna Come” when it was released just 11 days later. It peaked at #31 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts and, more importantly, became a statement of purpose for the Civil Rights Movement.
As Cooke’s biographer, Peter Guaralnick observed:
Generation after generation has heard the promise of it. It continues to be a song of enormous impact. We all feel in some way or another that a change is gonna come, and he found that lyric. It was the kind of hook that he always looked for: The phrase that was both familiar but was striking enough that it would have its own originality. And that makes it almost endlessly adaptable to whatever goal, whatever movement is of the moment.
The image of a train carrying righteous passengers is elemental in American songwriting. As the rails began carrying Americans across great sweeping distances, blues, gospel, and country songwriters built their own mythology around the locomotive.
The imagery took on even greater significance for Black Americans with the emergence of the Underground Railroad, a series of tunnels and safe houses that helped former slaves escape north to freedom.
For Curtis Mayfield—whose early life was steeped in gospel traditions — the train was a powerful vehicle for the notion of transcendence. In 1965, With the Civil Rights movement intensifying, Mayfield wrote “People Get Ready.” To Mayfield, the train was an unstoppable force, fueled by the determination, faith, and unity of its passengers. The Impressions’ “People Get Ready” was a call for participation.
Directing his message to Americans of all races and religions, Mayfield urged listeners to get ready. Like a locomotive churning down the tracks, equality was coming.
Mayfield pressed his listeners:
People get ready
For the train to Jordan
Picking up passengers
From coast to coast
Faith is the key
Open the doors and board them
There’s room for all
Among the loved the most
Mayfield sang of equality as an inevitability so long as Americans “got on board.” Its release, in 1965, just as the federal government passed a series of Civil Rights laws into action, made its message feel particularly poignant. It became the Impressions’ biggest hit, reaching #3 on the Billboard R&B Chart and #14 on the Pop Chart.
According to the Library of Congress, Martin Luther King named “People Get Ready” the unofficial anthem of the Civil Rights movement.
When we think of protest songs from the Vietnam Era, we may picture hippies holding signs, occupying grassy hills and tripping out to the lysergic sounds of San Francisco. But protestors weren’t the only people who were angry about the war.
The soldiers fighting on the ground had plenty of their own reasons to be mad. As the conflict wore on, and the reasons for the war became ever hazier, the men and women serving in Southeast Asia had cause to wonder just exactly what they were fighting and dying for. The ideological nature of the war and the violent reality which followed led to confusion, resentment and disillusion for its combatants.
“We Gotta Get Out Of This Place” may not have been written with these feelings in mind, but it embodied everything that the soldiers fighting in South Vietnam felt about their circumstances. Originally written by powerhouse Brill Building songwriting tandem Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill with the Righteous Brothers in mind, it was instead paired with the rough and tumble British Invaders, The Animals.
Their 1965 take, distinguished by Eric Burdon’s gutty vocal performance, was seized first by the youth culture both in the U.S. and the U.K. Its gritty urban imagery and the urgent desire for escape resonated with a younger generation bristling against parental, legal, and governmental authority. That bristling would soon spill over into outright resistance. The Animals captured this boiling tension in a way that landed them at the #2 spot on the U.K. Charts and #13 in the U.S.
This was just the beginning of its impact, though. Over the next four years, tensions and violence would only escalate in Vietnam. The titular refrain of the Mann/Weill composition declared that “We gotta get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do.” It’s easy to see why this one hit especially hard for American G.I.s
It was among the most frequently requested spins for radio DJs broadcasting on the American Forces Vietnam Network and it was considered a staple among USO rock bands at the time. In fact, in 2006, two professors from the University of Wisconsin conducted a survey among thousands of Vietnam veterans. The respondents overwhelmingly identified “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” as the song they most associated with the war.
In a text appropriately entitled We Gotta Get Out of the Place: The Soundtrack to the Vietnam War, countless veterans recall their striking memories upon hearing or singing this song in the midst of war. To wit:
“A band that didn’t have ‘We Gotta Get Out of This Place’ in its set list could find itself in serious trouble. Steve Plath, who served with a combat engineer unit in 1968–69, remembered being at a club when a Filipino band admitted they didn’t know the song. ‘We pretty much ran them off the stage,’ he said with a laugh. ‘I thought someone was going to get hurt. If you couldn’t play the Vietnam anthem, what good were you?’”
With its explicit reference to picket signs and confrontations between police officers and protesters, this one feels like a staple of the late-60’s anti-war movement. In spite of its tone and timing, “For What It’s Worth” actually predates the Vietnam protest era by just a few months.
In fact, Buffalo Springfield’s protest was very specific to its home in Southern California. Buffalo Springfield was made up of musicians who would become far more famous in other bands (i.e. Stephen Stills and Neil Young in CSN&Y; Richard Furay in Poco), Dewey Martin and Bruce Palmer. This composition would be their only Top 40 hit.
As the self-appointed leader of the group, Stephen Stills wrote and sang “For What It’s Worth,” for the first time lending his evocative rasp to a ‘60s anthem.
This is perhaps why this song is often misinterpreted as a tribute to the anti-war movement. In fact, it related to a much more limited conflagration between police and protesters, though one that would predict greater civic unrest in the months to come. As the story goes, Buffalo Springfield had become a staple of L.A. ‘s ever more happening Sunset Strip music scene. By summer of 1966, they had become the house band at the now-legendary Whisky a Go Go.
That esteemed position made them very much a part of the problem, as far as local residents and businesses were concerned. As a music scene grew organically around the Strip, crowds of young people converged each night, choking traffic and irritating squares. Said squares were successful in coercing the city to pass an ordinance, in November of that year, imposing a 10PM curfew. You can probably guess how that went over.
Young music junkies revolted and local FM radio stations egged them on. Though rallies in mid-November began peaceably, tensions ran high as protests continued late into the month. By December, protesters and police were engaged openly in violence. On December 5th, Stills wrote this song detailing the experience.
Funny side note on the name of the song, which is never actually stated in the lyrics: When Stills brought his demo to famed Atlantic record honcho Ahmet Ertegun, he said, “I have this song here, for what it’s worth, if you want it.”
Released just a month after its composition, this one reached all the way up to #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 in early 1967 (which should tell you just how much Top 40 fodder has changed in the 55 years since its release). It was also timed perfectly with the escalation of violence in Vietnam, the growth of the protest movement, the proliferation of the hippie counterculture, and that whole wave of patchouli-smelling goodness that we associate with the 1960s. Clearly, in uttering the immortal lines to open the tune, Stills tapped into something that was in the ether. “There’s something happening in here,” he said, “What it is ain’t exactly clear.”
Stills couldn’t quite put his finger on the broader implications of the Sunset Strip riots but he knew it was the prelude to something much bigger. Indeed it was. So while it wasn’t written with Vietnam specifically in mind, “For What It’s Worth” would be inextricably linked to the time, to the war, to the counterculture, and to the lexicon of modern protest.
“Respect” was originally written and performed by soul legend Otis Redding, but you can be forgiven if this is the first time you’re hearing about his 1965 version. A slower, more pleading undertaking in Redding’s hands, the original “Respect” is a cool footnote and nothing more.
No umbrage intended to the great Mr. Redding, but his version became immediately irrelevant with the 1967 release of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Whereas Redding pleaded for respect, Franklin simply demanded it. Indeed, Franklin fully recast the song’s meaning, replacing Redding’s refrain—“But all I’m askin’ is for a little respect when I come home” — with her own:
Find out what it means to me
Take care… TCB
Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me, Sock it to me
This strident tone was exactly what both the Civil Rights Movement and the Women’s Liberation Movement needed at precisely this moment in time. Over an iconic saxophone break by the omnipresent King Curtis, Franklin claimed her royal mantle as the Queen of Soul with an anthem of self-determination like no other in history. Franklin didn’t ask for equality. She didn’t wonder rhetorically when it might come. She declared that the time was now.
“Respect” spent two weeks on top of the Billboard Singles chart and established itself as an anthem both for Black Americans and women as they took to the streets demanding equal rights. As Rolling Stone magazine observed when naming “Respect” among the five Greatest Songs of All Time:
“Franklin wasn’t asking for anything. She sang from higher ground: a woman calling an end to the exhaustion and sacrifice of a raw deal with scorching sexual authority. In short, if you want some, you will earn it.”
Even Redding begrudgingly acknowledged that the song no longer belonged to him, introducing his own performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival by wryly calling “Respect” a song “that a girl took away from me, a friend of mine, this girl she just took this song.”
She did indeed. The song was the proclamation of one who took what she wanted. Fortunately, in this case, she gave the song to the world, a gesture that is perhaps among the most empowering in pop music history. The enormity of Franklin’s accomplishments in the career that would follow cannot be overstated, but then, nothing would ever quite approach the status of this first massive success.
The idea that Black Americans were entitled to freedom, equality, and justice—while much disputed — was nothing new in 1968. As this list demonstrates, no shortage of songs spoke on this very matter. However, Black Pride was a notion just coming into focus. James Brown wasn’t telling black people just to demand equality with this gritty funk breakdown. He was telling his listeners to be proud of their Blackness, to embrace their Blackness boldly and with confidence.
If the ambition for Black Americans had previously been to simply find a way to live within a white society, James Brown spoke of a different and greater ambition. He urged Black Americans to live up to their own cultural and social expectations, to embrace a Black American identity that to this juncture had been subordinated by the basic struggle for humanity and recognition.
Released just months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., it captured all the fury and style of a culture long suppressed. Brown didn’t urge Black people just to seek parity with whites. He urged self-empowerment.
Look a’here, some people say we got a lot of malice
Some say it’s a lotta nerve
I say we won’t quit moving
Til we get what we deserve.
Its refrain uses the call and response technique that originated in the cotton fields and churches of the rural South. The song’s urgency is perhaps best captured by the chorus of children from the downtrodden Watts and Compton neighborhoods near Vox Studio in Los Angeles. The Godfather of Soul called, “Say It Loud!” The children, most perhaps being encouraged to express this sentiment for the first time in their lives, declared “I’m Black and I’m Proud!”
It’s also not insignificant from a musical perspective that this was the first appearance on any James Brown record of trombonist extraordinaire Fred Wesley.
“Say It Loud” was released as a two-part single and topped the R&B chart for a full six weeks. It reached up to #10 on the Hot 100. So immediate was its message that it was viewed by many as the unofficial anthem of the Black Panther Party.
No doubt, many listeners who heard the song were also, for the very first time in their lives, being urged to declare their Blackness with pride.
When the U.S. government tries to kick you out of the country for your music, you’ve obviously done something right. The idea that a song with such a simple and defensible message could be considered incendiary and politically dangerous should tell you a lot about the Vietnam-fueled tension between the American public and its political leadership.
“Give Peace a Chance” is significant for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it was Lennon’s first solo release. He was still a member of the Beatles at the time but was on honeymoon in Montreal with Yoko Ono. They used their honeymoon as an opportunity to stage a peaceful protest against the war in Vietnam. Inviting members of the press, friends, fellow musicians, artists, comedians and a host of others to visit their hotel room, they held a bed-in.
When members of the press asked Lennon—who was at the height of his fame right then—why he and Yoko were determined to remain in bed throughout their honeymoon, he simply replied, “give peace a chance,” over and over again.
Reporters were flummoxed, so Lennon wrote a song to explain the idea more clearly. On June 1st, 1969, surrounded by revelers that included Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsburg, and Petula Clark, Lennon and Yoko recorded this one while sitting in bed. Comedian and war critic Tommy Smothers joined on guitar.
Released a month later, it hit #14 on the U.S. charts and was quickly adopted as an anthem of the anti-war movement. Its stomping tribal beat and the chanted refrain lent readily to repetition at the peace rallies occupying cities across the nation.
On November 15th, 1969, half a million protestors sang its message in Washington D.C. on Vietnam Moratorium Day. Folk legend Pete Seeger led the proceedings and, in between refrains, shouted things like “Are you listening, Nixon?”
Turns out, Nixon was listening. As the Beatles splintered and the war became increasingly unpopular in the U.S., Lennon immersed himself simultaneously in a solo career and anti-war provocation. Lennon’s output in the 1970s was frequently confrontational. (Of course, you know the socialist-utopian message behind “Imagine,” but if you’re really looking for a political critique that remains as true today as it was then, check out “Gimme Some Truth”).
The Nixon administration was not amused by the Brit’s meddlesome public life. In fact, the FBI kept a pretty robust file on his activities. Indeed, in 1972, the Nixon Administration issued a deportation order that haunted Lennon through much of the rest of his life.
Lennon ultimately managed to win his right to remain in the U.S. But one thing was clear. The U.S. government feared peace and Lennon’s unique power to fight for it.
The line between rockers and soldiers seemed pretty sharply drawn in the Vietnam era. The tie-dyed longhairs inhabiting Greenwich Village and Golden Gate Park seemed a million miles away from the guys tromping through jungles or trolling the Mekong River. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty walked between worlds. Serving in the U.S. Army Reserves, he was a soldier but never fought in Vietnam. Fronting swamp rock’s leading exponent, he performed at Woodstock, but he wasn’t really a hippie.
With one boot in each world, Fogerty was uniquely suited to examine the hypocrisies that predicted the march to war.
After fronting a band called the Golliwogs alongside brother Tom with little success or attention, Fogerty joined the Army Reserve circa 1965 and spent time at Forts Bragg, Knox and Lee. He was discharged in July of ’67 and immediately rejoined his brother under the name that would make them famous.
They notched their first hit, with a cover of Dale Hawkins’ “Suzie Q,” by 1968. It was that same year that Fogerty remembered witnessing news coverage of the flaring Vietnam War alongside coverage of a glamorous wedding between President Nixon’s daughter Julie and former President Eisenhower’s grandson David.
Fogerty was struck by the immediate irony that these men who so passionately advocated for the war would never have to send their own children into danger. Fogerty observed:
The thoughts behind this song – it was a lot of anger. So it was the Vietnam War going on…Now I was drafted and they’re making me fight, and no one has actually defined why. So this was all boiling inside of me and I sat down on the edge of my bed and out came ‘It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no senator’s son!’ You know, it took about 20 minutes to write the song.
“Fortunate Son” was perhaps the first rock and roll song to so perfectly articulate the inequality that feeds into war, the notion that rich men sit behind desks and sign declarations of war while young men are drafted to take up arms and die for that signature. Obviously, a lot of Americans felt the same way because “Fortunate Son” peaked at #3 on the Billboard Charts in December of 1969.
In addition to the fierce recognition in Fogerty’s refrain, the opening riff immediately conjures the image of helicopters touching down alongside rice marshes and thatch hut villages.
On May 4th, 1970, college students at Kent State occupied their own campus to demonstrate against President Nixon’s recently-announced expansion of the Vietnam War into Cambodia. During a confrontation, a group of National Guardsmen opened fire on the crowd of peaceful protestors. Four unarmed students were killed and nine others were injured.
Neil Young viewed pictures of the incident in Life Magazine just days later and was immediately moved to write the lyrics to “Ohio.” Its ominous refrain, “four dead in Ohio,” was delivered with the same shock and horror felt by most Americans as they watched the stomach-churning events on the evening news. Young has said that the Kent State Massacre was “probably the biggest lesson ever learned at an American place of learning.”
So important was the lesson that the supergroup rushed it to the studio. Though CSN&Y’s “Teach Your Children” was already burning up the charts, the group sent this one to market right away. It was released in June of 1970, following on the heels of the shooting by a mere month.
The torn-from-the-headlines approach and Young’s trademark sweet-and-sour vocal delivery channeled the nation’s growing disenchantment with the war. The song’s success would also suggest a growing sense of mainstream sympathy for protesters. To that point, everyday Americans dismissed the anti-war movement as a leftist fringe. To see the blood of unarmed students spilled on their own campus, even politically disconnected Americans were moved to sadness and anger. These feelings were palpable in “Ohio,” which in spite of its heaviness, landed at #14 on the Billboard Hot 100.
That Neil Young name-checked the president himself—“tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming” — made it a courageous political statement. Assigning blame in the deaths of the Kent State four to Richard Nixon was an important gesture, and one that endeared CSN&Y to the counterculture movement. As a matter of fact, this explicit charge was enough to see the song banned from play on AM radio stations. But the FM underground made it both a commercial success and a moment of unsurpassed cultural importance as the nation’s attitude toward war and protest gradually shifted.
In 1969, Gil Scott-Heron was a student at the Historically Black Lincoln College. As the protest movement escalated, his campus was gripped by the call to action. Like most HBCUs in the era immediately following the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Lincoln was besieged by resource shortages, conservative leadership, and general disadvantage. As unrest erupted on the Lincoln campus, Gil immediately rose to the challenge of leadership. He was instrumental in helping his classmates hone their message and seek peaceful solutions.
Gil was on the front lines of the push for equal rights, and was therefore witness to the rage, the confrontation, the anger, and the inequity. And yet, he observed, when he turned on his television, all he saw were happy white people advertising sparkly products as though the nation wasn’t tearing itself apart at the seams. It occurred to him that even with revolution rippling on the streets, the struggle of his brothers would not be televised.
The sentiment inspired him to write this poem. His first take was a spoken-word reading backed only by congas and bongos, as much in the style of Harlem Renaissance laureate Langston Hughes as the beatnik jazzers of the 1950s. As Gil reads, there is a growing sense of urgency and discontent over the failure of the straight world to honestly acknowledge the struggle in its midst.
In 1971, Gil recorded the definitive version with full jazz fusion backing and released it as a B-Side to the equally challenging “Home is Where the Hatred Is.”
The mood is menacing and tense, as Gil declares:
There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down
Brothers in the instant replay
There will be no pictures of young being
Run out of Harlem on a rail with a brand new process
There will be no slow motion or still life of
Roy Wilkens strolling through Watts in a red, black and
Green liberation jumpsuit that he had been saving
For just the right occasion
Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and
Hooterville Junction will no longer be so damned relevant
and Women will not care if Dick finally gets down with
Jane on Search for Tomorrow because Black people
will be in the street looking for a brighter day.
“The revolution” he says, “will be no re-runs brothers” because “the revolution will be live.”
Gil Scott-Heron reminds us that the pop culture we hungrily consume is often a distraction from the real fight.
Marvin Gaye was well-established as the most debonair leading man in the Motown stable, churning out high-octane hits about love and heartbreak from the Motor City throughout the 1960s. But the events transpiring around him made it increasingly difficult for the archetypal soul singer to write lightly on matters of romance.
In 1967, Marvin’s brother Frankie returned from three years in Vietnam with a lifetime’s worth of horror stories. And all around him, Marvin watched as friends and neighbors were consumed by crime, addiction, and increasingly violent civil unrest. His conscience tugged at him to produce something of true consequence.
This impulse coincided with a 1969 Four Tops tour. Marvin’s hit-making stable-mates traveled through Berkeley in May of 1969, crossing paths with the infamous People’s Park anti-war protest. After witnessing the police brutality visited upon the peaceful protestors, Four Tops singer Obie Benson responded by writing an inquisitive set of lyrics questioning violence against youths in the streets of America and in Vietnam. Essentially, Benson was moved to ask “What’s going on?”
When he brought the song back to his bandmates, they rejected it, calling it a “protest song.” Benson insisted that it was, in actuality, a love song. But when he shared it with Gaye in 1970, Marvin heard both love and protest. This was the statement he so desperately hoped to make. Tailoring the song into something darker, moodier, and spilling over with the bittersweet groove of ‘70s ghetto life, Gaye reconfigured the title question into a title assertion. He wasn’t asking, “what’s going on?” He was telling you, the listener, “this is what’s going on.” There are too many mothers crying, too many brothers dying.
The essence of “What’s Going On,” is the notion that:
War is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today
The sessions which produced the tune were uniquely laid back given the rigidity that typified most Motown studio dates. Berry Gordy’s general bent toward studio perfection was absent here as Gaye produced his own session. The lilting saxophone that opens the song wafts through the composition like the marijuana haze that clouded the studio. The result was a masterpiece that Berry Gordy absolutely despised. He did everything in his power to stop Gaye from putting out the “protest song.”
Motown was a pop factory. Hitsville did not deal in topical themes.
Lucky for Gordy, Gaye ran an end-around, releasing the song with the help of a sales VP and selling two million copies out of the gate. It was Motown’s fastest-selling single to that date, almost certainly because it spoke so elegantly to the experience of racially and economically disenfranchised Americans.
And its plea—“Don’t punish me with brutality” — was a statement in clear solidarity with the young people marching in the streets and those being sent off to war. The folk singers and psychedelic rockers who took up the mantle of the protest era could be dismissed as part of a counterculture. By contrast, Motown was very much a part of the mainstream. This made Gaye’s statement — the defining moment of an always brilliant career — a bellwether of the nation’s changing climate. The protest movement that at first seemed to represent fringe agitators came increasingly to serve as a channel for the nation’s collective rejection of segregation and war.
Once the song became a commercial success, Gordy not only relented but insisted that Gaye churn out an album to go with it. “What’s Going On” became the title track for an album that delivered a sweeping, panoramic, and unflinching look at Black life in America. With evocative masterworks like “Mercy Mercy Me” and “Inner-City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” the 1971 release would become the most sophisticated full-length release in the Motown oeuvre and, arguably, the single greatest achievement in the history of soul music.
Bob Marley was more than a pop superstar to his fellow countrymen. He was seen by many as a spiritual leader, a status powerful enough that it would earn him an assassination attempt in 1976. Of the numerous events leading to this moment, surely the 1973 release of the provocative “Get Up, Stand Up” was key.
Marley and bandmate Peter Tosh co-wrote “Get Up, Stand Up” after touring Haiti. Both were moved by the devastating poverty permeating the nearby island nation and produced this composition urging resistance and revolution. It was to become Marley’s most confrontational political message to this point and increasingly became the band’s statement of purpose. Though driven by Marley’s experience in Haiti, the message was a universal call to arms against racial inequality, oppression, police brutality, political corruption, and gang violence.
Marley and his Wailers were not yet world famous at this juncture but this would set them on their path. “Get Up, Stand Up” would be the most important moment on the vitally important album, Burnin’, ushering reggae, and Jamaican music in general, into a new era of political purposefulness. Though its chart performance would be minimal (it made the Top 40 in the Netherlands for whatever that’s worth), it would become the closing statement in nearly every live Marley performance thereafter.
As to Marley’s political influence, he was slated as the keynote performer for the 1976 Smile Jamaica concert. The concert was organized by Prime Minister Michael Manley as a way of bringing together two warring political groups. For his part, Marley had no political affiliation other than the pacifism dictated strictly by his Rastafarian faith. Manley’s political rivals felt differently though, and attempted to silence Marley by riddling his home with bullets two days before the show.
The courageous Marley, undeterred by his minor bullet wounds or the more serious injuries affecting his manager and his wife, made the scheduled appearance, forcing rival gang leaders to shake hands before the crowd.
Such was Marley’s power, charisma and influence, all movingly on display in “Get Up, Stand Up.” Today, this is an anthem belonging to resistance groups and freedom fighters the world over. It was, also, appropriately, the final song that Marley performed live before his death in 1981. Rarely has an artist departed with a more perfect final testament.
The British exponent of punk that included the Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned will always be the genre’s most immediately identifiable offshoot. But in truth, the origins of punk music are inherently American, as are the fashions and values that it proliferated to a generation of disaffected gutter-dwellers. If you’re searching for ground zero, look no further than Richard Hell. Indeed, his band was the very first rock act to take the stage at CBGB in New York’s Bowery, ultimately setting the tenor that would make it the punk landmark.
Simply stated, this is where the Sex Pistols got all their ideas from. “Blank Generation” may be one of the most underrated of history’s great protest songs. But it captured punk’s nihilism at its moment of birth, etching the spiky, dissonant template for what was to come.
Before taking leadership of the Voidoids, Hell was already a progenitor of punk. The Kentucky-born Richard Mayers had taken his nom de plume upon arrival in New York as a member of pre-punk pioneers, the Neon Boys. As the group evolved into the also-legendary Television, Hell departed, spending a brief stint alongside former New York Doll Johnny Thunders in the Heartbreakers.
He formed his own band in 1976 and, one year later, released his debut album. The title track was a song he had previously performed as a member of Television. “Blank Generation” is the perfect punk anthem, an ingenious blend of anger and indifference punctuated by angular, stabbing riffs and Hell’s ragged vocal caterwauling. The lean, minimalist drumming comes courtesy of one Marc Bell (who you might know better as the future Marky Ramone).
If “Blank Generation” strikes you as a little restrained for a punk blueprint, consider the incalculable influence that Hell would have on the generation of punks to immediately follow. As it happens, Hell was really the first guy to spike his hair and wear ripped clothing held together by safety pins. After an abortive attempt at managing the New York Dolls—who were unraveling in a haze of heroin addiction — a British producer named Malcom McLaren spent one more year in America, working with Hell.
When McLaren returned to England, he founded a punk fashion boutique called Sex, largely influenced by Hell’s self-directed style. In a matter of months, McLaren partnered with a young John Lydon, formed the Sex Pistols, and fashioned their look entirely after Mr. Hell. If the fashions weren’t enough to assure Hell’s legacy, McLaren also urged his new charges to create an anthem in the mold of “Blank Generation.” It was from this urging that Lydon—now called Johnny Rotten — composed “Pretty Vacant.”
Like the greatest of punk stories, Hell’s is tantalizingly brief. His own heroin struggles prevented Hell from producing a followup record until 1982, by which time punk’s thunder had been synthesized into the more innocuous New Wave movement. Hell’s time in the sun was over, and outside of punk and critical circles, his name drifted into relative obscurity.
Still, “Blank Generation” remains not only a landmark of the genre, but one of its finest examples of songwriting and delivery. Its lyrics claimed that, in essence, this new generation belonged to nobody, had nothing, and stood only for rebellion. Hell had given an emergent genre a perfectly indifferent rallying cry, and a look to go with it.
Few singles have ever been released into so grand a hailstorm of controversy as that which enveloped “God Save the Queen.” To say nothing of its subversive attack on the stolid callousness of the British royal family, the conditions surrounding its pressing and promotion make this one as powerful in context as content.
When the legendary and legendarily self-destructive New York Dolls imploded, their one-time manager Malcolm McLaren returned to his native England in search of a new vehicle. Bringing the Dolls’ recklessness and Richard Hell’s gutter fashion sensibilities back across the Atlantic with him, McLaren hitched his wagon to a group of snotty London pub rockers and helped craft the Sex Pistols.
In addition to matching the band with the shredded threads and safety pin look that would become synonymous with punk, McLaren imbued lead singer Johnny Rotten with the radical left wing politics that would become the band’s calling card.
The Sex Pistols would quickly gel into a ferocious unit, capable of detonating explosive blasts of sneering political subversion. As the Sex Pistols merged a set of savage rock and roll covers with original tunes attacking British royalty, consumerism, and conservative politics, they attracted a growing following of future punk leaders and landed a deal with EMI, recording their debut single, “Anarchy for the U.K.” in late 1976.
Early the following year, the Sex Pistols embarked on a 20 date tour but obstruction from local governments caused the cancellation of all but seven engagements. Trouble continued for the Pistols as EMI employees, disgusted by the band’s message, refused to ship its single.
Their behavior during the tour was also covered substantially by the press, which developed a morbid fascination with the band’s proclivity for spitting, fighting, vomiting, and bleeding both in concert and while socializing. Under intense internal pressure from British government officials, EMI bailed on their contract with the Pistols. The band promptly celebrated a new contract with A&M by storming the label’s offices, terrorizing employees, destroying bathrooms, and bleeding in the hallways.
Though they had already recorded and pressed their next single, “God Save the Queen,” A&M dropped the band and destroyed the run of records. The Pistols signed with Virgin two months later and, in spite of protest from packing employees, managed to ship “God Save the Queen.” Its subversive lyrics decried the Queen, resonating with countless young working-class Britons disillusioned by the deeply classicist implications of the crown. It was thus that, in spite of having been banned from radio play pretty much everywhere in England, “God Save the Queen” reached the second spot on the sales charts. It was held from the top, according to most accounts, by government intervention.
Virgin released the Pistols’ one and only full-length record,1977’s punk bible, Nevermind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. The album was a #1 hit and only further magnified the group’s penchant for chaos and the degree to which audiences were receptive to this chaos.
With “God Save the Queen” in particular, the Pistols tapped into the anti-establishment rage that so many disenfranchised Britons harbored toward the aging aristocracy.
Taken out of context, “I Will Survive” is just a disco mega-hit that’s been played way too many times on the radio. In its original context though, this was a powerful declaration of identity, pride, and determination.
The Gaynor song is distinct among those on this list in that it is not politically explicit. It doesn’t outwardly address gay rights or even speak directly to the experience of the gay community. And taken literally, the song is about the narrator’s declaration of independence from a bad relationship.
But the song’s lyrical tenacity and its peak-period disco bonafides rendered “I Will Survive” a de facto LGBTQ anthem. If the song was co-opted by the gay community, then it was merely the fair play of turnabout. Indeed, disco itself was a distinctly queer form of musical expression that artists like Gaynor and Donna Summer had co-opted on their way to chart-topping success.
As LGBTQ anthems go, there are probably better songs–George Michael’s “Freedom ‘90” comes to mind–but there’s never been one quite so important. Though the rise of disco would ultimately lead to its cultural mainstreaming, the disco scene was in its earliest essence a distinctly gay phenomenon. As Alice Echols explains in Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, it was less the quality of the music and more the social impact of disco that made it consequential.
Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” is a perfect case in point. As a review of the Echols text explains, “the group that formed disco’s most loyal fan base was gay men. When the Firehouse, the first New York gay disco, opened in 1971, two years after the Stonewall riots, it revolutionized the way gays mingled—until only recently, same-sex dancing had been forbidden, even at gay bars, whose owners were wary of police raids. Fueled by drugs and DJ mixes that were carefully constructed to build and climax, discos allowed gay men to experience ‘tribal oneness.’”
Though Gaynor’s one and only major hit came on the tail end of disco’s reign—the point at which it reached mainstream critical mass (owing in no small degree to John Travolta and the Bee Gees) — its subtext seemed to capture everything about the experience of claiming identity and community at a time when both were so deeply embattled. Gaynor’s song captured a sense of minor-key triumph that embodied the bittersweet victories of the Civil Rights movement, the determination of the movement for women’s equality, and the emergence of the gay rights movement, even if it did all of these things quite incidentally.
Released at the tail end of 1978, “I Will Survive” reached the top spot for one week in 1979. One year later, the AIDS crisis gripped the gay communities that revolved around the disco scene. As men in close-knit communities watched their friends and partners fight and lose their battles with the disease, the sentiment at the heart of Gaynor’s song took on added significance.
In an essay for the journal Popular Music, Nadine Hubbs referred to “I Will Survive” as “a classic emblem of gay culture in the post-Stonewall and AIDS eras and arguably disco’s greatest anthem,” arguing:
A textual message of defiant and enduring presence was already well tailored to queer identification needs, but this message and the song’s titular statement took on even deeper meaning with the dawn of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
To call “I Will Survive” a protest song presupposes the notion that the quest for mere survival is under attack, and that the will for survival is an act of political engagement. For the gay community that struggled for basic human dignity, and—during the AIDS crisis—for civic compassion, survival was indeed a matter of uncertainty. But “I Will Survive” flew in the face of this uncertainty with a pride that has become synonymous with LGBTQ rights:
I spent oh so many nights
Just feeling sorry for myself
I used to cry
But now I hold my head up high
Dated and overplayed though it may be today, “I Will Survive” was truly a powerful LGBTQ anthem in its time and place. And it remains a cherished artifact from a moment in history when the rise of disco also meant a rise in the mainstream visibility, profile, and acceptance of members of the queer community. Today, “I Will Survive” ranks at or near the top of nearly any list of LGBTQ anthems, reaching second in a recent IndieWire survey and topping a reader’s poll from TimeOut New York.
The death of disco was as much a consequence of social circumstance as it was the result of the ever-shifting tide of popular music. But true to its titular claim, “I Will Survive” endures with a familiarity that only hints at its significance.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, hip hop was indeed an urban phenomenon, but few of its leading crews actually spoke directly to the urban experience. In the earliest stages of its evolution, hip hop was party music and the DJ was king. It was all about the breaks, the scratching, and the music selection. The emcee was basically there to keep the party moving, to lather up the crowd while the DJ dropped the needle behind him. To wit, the group in question here took its name from DJ Grandmaster Flash as opposed to any of the talented rappers that made up the Furious Five.
Rap was an afterthought and so too was the lyrical content of that rap. In 1982, “The Message” changed everything. When emcee Melle Mel stepped out in front to deliver a searing seven minute documentary about life in America’s decaying inner-cities, he signaled the next stage in rap’s evolution.
Though many of hip hop’s earliest pioneers cut their teeth in tough, gritty, often violent neighborhoods, nobody in the emergent scene had laid bare the realities of this life in their lyrics. Dark, brooding, and slowed to the pace of something more akin to Sly and the Family Stone or Funkadelic than the party music the Furious Five typically performed, “The Message” was unflinching in its description of life on the streets. Its blunt reflection on the drugs, prostitution, blight and death that permeated the South Bronx—where the group first gained notoriety — read more like an evening news broadcast than Billboard fodder.
In fact, members of the group were particularly apprehensive about recording something as serious and seething as “The Message,” fearing it would alienate the clubgoers that comprised their audience. But visionary Sugarhill Records founder Sylvia Robinson urged the Furious Five onward. She obviously knew what she was doing.
“The Message” would, in fact, reach #62 on the Billboard Hot 100 and would immediately alter the course of hip hop. Its tense refrain spoke volumes:
“I feel like I’m getting close to the edge. I’m trying not to lose my head.”
From that point forward, rappers would aspire to likewise speak volumes. The minimalist Herbie Hancock-inspired synth of “The Message” gave way to the primacy of the rapper and, in doing so, changed forever the focal point of rap. This, in turn, made the rapper an increasingly powerful vessel for social commentary, particularly regarding the conditions facing urban Black Americans.
“The Message” is often regarded as the single greatest hip hop song of all time and the blueprint for countless future social commentators, from Public Enemy and NWA to Tupac Shakur and Kendrick Lamar. More importantly, for many Americans living in the comfortable confines of their suburban developments, this was a first glaring look into the bleak realities facing America’s inner-cities.
For a song that gets tossed around a ton on 4th of July, this one is actually a pretty harsh critique of America. Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan didn’t get the memo.
It’s easy to mistake this one for a big pile of shiny patriotism. Its anthemic refrain and the stadium-sized success of the record bearing the same title sort of obscure the fact that this song is about the misery and disregard that awaited returning Vietnam vets.
This is basically the story about a hard-luck, working class guy who can’t find honest work, “gets in a little hometown jam,” ships out to Vietnam, loses his brother to the war, comes home to no job prospects, and, ten years after the war, has “nowhere to run” and “nowhere to go.”
Again though, as the title track of the biggest album of 1984, and the hit that delivered Springsteen from mere stardom to commercial immortality, it didn’t really feel like a protest song. That is, until it became fodder for a very public confrontation between a rock musician and a sitting president.
As Ronald Reagan coasted to reelection in 1984, Springsteen arguably gave him far more difficulty than did Democratic challenger Walter Mondale. During a visit to Springsteen’s home state of New Jersey, Reagan attempted to co-opt the Boss’s soaring popularity, in spite of the fact that the Springsteen camp had already politely declined a request seeking his endorsement.
In a campaign speech, Reagan declared that:
America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside your hearts; it rests in the message of hope in songs so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen. And helping you make those dreams come true is what this job of mine is all about.
For many listeners, Springsteen’s appeal was in his honest and unflinching exploration of the working class American experience. Reagan sought to capitalize on the connection but failed spectacularly. Springsteen was quick to retort.
Two days after being namechecked by the president, he told a concert audience in Pittsburgh:
The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.
He consequently launched into the decidedly bleak “Johnny 99,” about an auto worker who gets laid off, commits murder, and gets the electric chair. It was an unmistakable shot at a president who Springsteen viewed as an enemy of the working class.
If “Born in the U.S.A.” had been a statement of social observation, the Reagan flap made it a vehicle for genuine protest. Reagan had essentially given the most popular rocker in the world a platform to criticize the president and his policies. To that point, Bruce had rarely been politically active or outspoken, but it served as a wakeup call that he would heed throughout his later career.
Today, Springsteen is a highly visible and vocal champion of progressive causes, with later music like “American Skin” and “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” taking on pressing social issues even more explicitly.
We may never know if Ronald Reagan ever actually listened to “Born in the U.S.A.” but he helped to cement its historical importance.
The video accompanying Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was split between imagery of the group’s live performances and footage from simulated street protests. The mashup prompted the band’s biographer to comment that the video “accurately [brought] to life…the emotion and anger of a political rally.” Arguably, the song itself achieved this very feat.
We include “Fight the Power” on this list with some reservation, largely because of the controversy surrounding its release. Naturally, the majority of songs included on this list advocate for inclusion or speak out against violence, hatred, or prejudice. In the scope of its content, “Fight the Power” does this. Its release would, however, be clouded by the prejudices of Public Enemy’s own membership.
The song was originally commissioned by director Spike Lee for use in his groundbreaking film, Do the Right Thing. In response to Lee’s request, Public Enemy produced this gritty and militant message of resistance against inequality. If the songs of resistance during the Civil Rights era echoed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s message of peaceful protest, Public Enemy’s composition was written more in the mold of the Black Power movement.
It called for Black Americans to resist institutionalized racism and police brutality with uncompromising ferocity. It was, indeed, the perfect mission statement for Lee’s film, which examined the tension and violence enveloping many urban Black communities in the U.S.
Unfortunately, as the date of its release approached, group member Professor Griff regaled a Washington Times interviewer with his colorfully anti-semitic views. Though no such ideals penetrated the lyrics of the song itself, the controversy tainted its release, even leading to boycotts by Jewish advocacy groups.
The consequence was, ultimately, Professor Griff’s temporary dismissal from the group. Under the haze of controversy, Public Enemy reached a one-off agreement with Motown for the song’s release. It consequently reached #1 on the Hot Rap Singles chart and was named as that year’s best song on the highly-regarded Village Voice Pazz & Jop critics’ poll.
The song was re-released in 1990 as part of Public Enemy’s Fear Of a Black Planet record and, ultimately, served as a statement of purpose for angry Black youths. While groups like NWA shined a glaring light on police brutality, the crack epidemic, and gang violence, Pubic Enemy offered a political treatise on how to confront these things. When the police beating of Rodney King, the following year, exposed much of America to the reality of these conditions, Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” became a living document.
As with songs like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” and “Born in the U.S.A.,” this is one that many different people have claimed for many different purposes. The story goes that the song was conceived after the burial of Ayatollah Khomeini (though this may be apocryphal). Allegedly, after observing some newspaper photos in which Iranians carried Khomeini’s casket through the streets while burning American flags, Crazy Horse guitarist Poncho Sampedro proclaimed that “Whatever we do, we shouldn’t go near the Mideast. It’s probably better we just keep on rockin’ in the free world.”
With Sampedro’s permission, Young turned the suggestion into the anthemic chorus of a song that was at once highly critical of the United States and, to a certain perspective, patriotic in its own ironic way. The verses deconstructed the bleakness of Reagan’s America, turned George Bush’s ‘thousand points of light’ campaign promises against him, and identified a growing connection between American consumerism, oil, and warmongering.
By contrast, this was the song that we heard so clearly on the evening news, the chorus repeated with impassioned and un-ironic earnestness by students who pulled bricks from the Berlin Wall and got their first glimpse of light beyond the Iron Curtain.
Pretty much exactly in the way that Ronald Reagan attempted to co-opt “Born in the U.S.A.” because of its misleadingly anthemic chorus, non-English speaking audiences perceived the chorus as a promise of post-Soviet, Western freedom. Perhaps some English-speaking Americans with a poor understanding of sarcasm did as well.
If a language barrier allowed it to become the unofficial anthem of the falling Iron Curtain, Neil Young encouraged such interpretation, dedicating his first live performance to the young man who famously stood in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square.
Like “Born in the U.S.A.,” the song’s impact on popular music would also be profound. In addition to setting the mold for popular music’s treatment of protest music in the post-Cold War era, “Rockin’ in the Free World” is the first grunge song. This is the moment when one of the most important critics during the Vietnam Era earned his title as Godfather of Grunge.
Of the preceding generation, perhaps Neil Young succeeded in remaining most relevant, particularly by passing the baton to Pearl Jam through their collaborative concerts, joint album releases, and enduring friendship.
Quite to the point, “Rockin’ in the Free World” became Pearl Jam’s de facto encore during the second Gulf War. With emotions running high over the war on both sides of the political fence, lead singer Eddie Vedder had taken to performing his encore while wearing a grotesque rubber George W. Bush mask. Such performances were met with almost equal hostility and support by audiences, underscoring the continuing rhetorical power of Young’s composition and the cultural divides about which he wrote.
In the years that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, a brief facade of American solidarity gave way to our sharp sociocultural divides. Disagreement raged between those who supported the Bush Administration’s bellicose crusade for vengeance and those who viewed America’s War on Terror as wrongheaded and dangerous. Two distinct sides emerged in America’s culture war, inflected with the racial, religious, regional, socioeconomic and ideological tensions that have come to even greater visibility today.
As the Bush Administration pursued its agenda in Afghanistan and Iraq, coupled with its increasingly draconian surveillance efforts at home, the rock and roll community raised its voice collectively in protest. But perhaps none articulated the discontent of the American left better than ‘90s pop-punk stalwarts, Green Day.
With the approach of the 2004 presidential election, the band set out explicitly to create a record that might incline voters to reject the War On Terror at the ballot box. From this ambition came a concept record about America’s decaying small town values and the hypnotic power of cable TV news to control the narrative.
The title track, “American Idiot” is a classic punk riff, all buzzsaw intensity and Molotov cocktail posturing. Because President George W. Bush’s intelligence was often a target of anti-war critics, the title seemed a fairly explicit statement against the president. But lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong notes that the song was intended as an even broader statement against the kind of small-minded gullibility that characterized the president’s supporters as well.
In discussing his inspiration for the lyrics, Armstrong remembered being disgusted upon hearing a specific Lynyrd Skynyrd song on the radio—“That’s How I Like It” — in which the proudly confederate Southern rock band glorifies its redneck credentials. Armstrong recalled, “It was like, ’I’m proud to be a redneck’ and I was like, ’oh my God, why would you be proud of something like that?’ This is exactly what I’m against.”
He clearly wasn’t alone. The lead single off of a massively successful record (and later, a Broadway musical), “American Idiot” topped the Modern Rock Charts and made #61 on the Billboard Hot 100. The latter is a pretty remarkable achievement, not just because it was Green Day’s first entry, but because precious few rock and roll tracks during this era breached a chart otherwise dominated by hip hop and pop. Clearly, the message resonated with no small number of Americans as an unpopular war raged in Iraq.
“American Idiot” is a salvo of guitar and fury that laid bare an inescapable reality. There were two distinct Americas. The singer spoke for those who rejected the version of America embodied by Lynyrd Skynyrd, George W. Bush, and the War on Terror.
As history will tell you, “American Idiot” did not swing the election away from the incumbent president, though you can’t blame the little punk trio from Berkeley, California for trying.
Honorable Mention–The Next 25
And because the tradition of protest music is so rich and varied, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to give you a few bonus tunes. Below, we give you the Next 25 Most Important Protest Songs of All Time:
26. Pete Seeger – Where Have All the Flowers Gone (1955)
27. Freedom Singers – We Shall Not Be Moved (1963)
28. Nina Simone – Mississippi Goddam (1964)
29. Phil Ochs – I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore (1965)
30. The Who – My Generation (1965)
31. Arlo Guthrie – Alice’s Restaurant (1967)
32. Country Joe and the Fish – I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag (1967)
33. MC5 – Kick Out the Jams (1968)
34. Rolling Stones – Street Fighting Man (1968)
35. Sly & the Family Stone – Stand! (1969)
36. Jimi Hendrix – The Star Spangled Banner (1969)
37. Jefferson Airplane – Volunteers (1969)
38. War – Edwin Starr (1970)
39. Joni Mitchell – Big Yellow Taxi (1970)
40. Signs – Five Man Electrical Band (1971)
41. Jimmy Cliff – The Harder They Come (1972)
42. The Staple Singers – I’ll Take You There (1972)
43. Zombie – Fela Kuti (1976)
44. X-Ray Spex – Oh Bondage, Up Yours! (1978)
45. The Clash-London Calling (1979)
46. Freedom! ‘90 – George Michael (1990)
47. Dead Kennedys – Holiday in Cambodia (1980)
48. Midnight Oil – Beds Are Burning (1988)
49. NWA – Fuck Tha Police (1988)
50. Rage Against the Machine – Killing In the Name (1992)