Since the nation’s founders rocked out to “God Save George Washington,” music has been an integral part of our political system. Songs have drawn attention to problems in society, served as rallying points for the citizenry and opened discussions on topics that were otherwise unapproachable. To celebrate Election Day, we’ve assembled fifteen songs of all persuasions that are as at home at a political rally as on a playlist. Each of these tracks, all homegrown, is in its own way an essential part of our country’s political and musical history.
15. They Might Be Giants: “James K. Polk” Some prefer their political music to be deadly serious, there’s also much to be said for a little irreverence in the genre. Brooklyn duo They Might Be Giants delivers a deadly serious history lesson about our eleventh president in its own tongue-in-cheek way. Though the Zamfiresque solo in the middle is a bit of a reach, it’s impossible finish the song without feeling like Polk is a personal friend.
14. Rage Against the Machine: “Killing in the Name” Perhaps no band in the era of alternative music has been as associated with their political views as Rage Against the Machine. Though their political stance can best be described as “righteous indignation with minimal introspection,” Rage has continued to insert itself to the country’s political discourse since its inception. Other bands may make statements, play benefits, or give endorsements, but Rage can always be counted on to be on the front lines of any political event in the United States.
13. Warren Zevon: “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” Warren Zevon wrote songs about a wide variety of topics, but nothing summed up his nihilistic worldview better than “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.” While most political songs try to enact change or draw attention to a problem, Zevon was content to give this scathing state of the union address. “Lawyers, Guns and Money” is a musical answer to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the next step for political music after the fall of Saigon and Watergate.
12. The Dead Kennedys: “California Uber Alles”Any discussion of the Dead Kennedys has to begin with the band’s political message. Jello Biafra and company railed quickly and creatively on everything from consumer culture to the military-industrial complex. They were never more on target, however, than on “California Uber Alles,” a paranoid freak-out predicting a Jerry Brown dictatorship. Though Biafra’s fears were never realized, the song is a prime example of the angry political stance that defined the punk movement.
11. Wycleaf Jean: “President” Opinions may vary on Wyclef, but “President” stands as an impressive piece of political songwriting. Though his prediction of being assassinated seems overly pessimistic as the country moves forward with the current election, “President” is a protest song that is able to remain uplifting. Wyclef’s performance of the song in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a moment that strips away any pretension he may have as an artist. It’s just a man making a statement with music.
10. John Prine: “The Great Compromise” The problem with a great deal of political music is that it focuses almost entirely on politics and leaves out the elements needed for any measure of musical success. “The Great Compromise” is the rare case where the song’s political message is enhanced by the skill of the songwriter. Prine’s use of an extended metaphor of an ill-fated love representing his tortured feelings about the war in Vietnam is brilliant in that it utilizes the familiar conceit of the pop song to make a much broader statement. “The Great Compromise” is by turns humorous and tragic, but always compelling.
9. Steve Earle: “F the CC” Though there is much to be said for a deft songwriting touch with regard to political music, there also will also always be a place for the simple rally song. On his album The Revolution Starts Now, he penned songs about everything from the plight of truckers in Iraq and his own prurient feelings for Condoleezza Rice. Though the title track was supposed to be a rallying cry for a Kerry White House, it is “F the CC,” the profane, punk-sounding screed against living in the age of Big Brother, that made the most profound statement.
8. Merle Haggard: “Okie From Muskogee”
Although some would write off the songs of Merle Haggard as the antiquated ravings of the rural right, they show a depth often missing in most political music. Haggard will never be mistaken for Wavy Gravy, but he is also not the protagonist of “Okie From Muskogee” or the even more polarizing “Fightin’ Side of Me.” He wrote those songs to show the conservative point of view of the people where he lived, and the roots of those political views. In doing so he humanized what many cognoscenti considered the “other side” of the Vietnam War. Though the two sides might never agree, Haggard knew that before there could be any reconciliation there had to be some degree of understanding.
7. Marvin Gaye: “What’s Going On” Marvin Gaye’s most memorable singles aren’t political, but on “What’s Going On” Gaye is able to perfectly marry his pop sensibilities with a subtle political message. Though that message is sometimes lost in its silky groove and Gaye’s own voice, he brings an emotion to the lyrics that eventually drives the point home, and in the way that really only he could: by making his statements impossibly cool. Other political songs might have a purer intellectual pedigree, but “What’s Going On” makes its statement by demanding repeated listens.
6. Bruce Springsteen: “Born in the U.S.A.” “Born in the U.S.A.” is a classic case of not judging a book by its cover, in this case the iconic cover of Springsteen’s rear end on the front of the album and what seems to be a jingoistic title track. The song, however, isn’t about the greatness of the nation so much as how much the common man was suffering during the Reagan years. Springsteen has never shied away from political content and many of his songs, from the “The River” to the cathartic “The Rising,” are undeniable classics. “Born in the U.S.A.” is his magnum opus, on par with The Grapes of Wrath as a depiction of the hard times that often deny the American dream.
5. Public Enemy: “Fight the Power” Any of a number of Public Enemy’s incendiary calls to action could have made the list, but “Fight the Power” was always their mission statement. From the Thomas “TNT” Todd quotation that leads off the song to Flavor Flav’s lyrical takedown of both Elvis and John Wayne, the song is confrontational and eloquent at the same time. Though Public Enemy was visibly mad as hell about the current state of affairs, “Fight the Power” laid out a case for their outrage that was irrefutable. The song however, separates itself in that rather than being strident or preachy, the beat and lyrics were compelling enough that everyone, from the city to the suburbs, couldn’t get it out of their heads.
4. Jimi Hendrix: “The Star-Spangled Banner”
Perhaps it says a little bit about our the priorities of our society that we most often hear our national anthem at sporting events, and then it’s offered butchered by has-been pop stars or local attention seeker. The citizenry is content to mumble along sometimes, though most could more easily recite the lyrics from the latest McDonald’s commercial. What a coup it was, then, when Hendrix took this song, even stripped of its lyrics, and made it seem exciting and even somewhat dangerous. His version of the anthem may offend traditionalists, but its inventiveness and raw emotion distill something essential about the American spirit.
3. Billie Holiday: “Strange Fruit”
In rare cases, a political song can be an act of bravery. After her record company refused to even record this song, Holliday sought out a new label. She also performed “Strange Fruit” in concert, though she said she often feared reprisals for doing so. Though it’s not as immediately recognizable today, the song, mostly based on Holliday’s strength as a performer, was integral in bringing racism and lynching to forefront of the national consciousness. “Strange Fruit” is a testament to the power of the perfect pairing of singer and song to make an indelible political statement.
2. Bob Dylan: “Blowin’ In the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”
Dylan started his career by doing his best Guthrie imitation, and his signature political songs showcase a little of that influence with the gift for poetic language that characterized his later work. As the legend of Dylan grew over time, it became easy to place his political songs as just another phase of his chameleon-like career. Both of these songs, brilliant in their deceptive simplicity, eloquently described the turbulent ’60s but are just as vital today.
1. Woody Guthrie: “This Land Is Your Land”
Though other spots on the list could be debated, the most familiar composition from the most famous political singer in the United States has to have the top slot. Although Guthrie’s songs dealt with a wide variety of topics, his political pieces have become part of the American lexicon. Most of what our society now views as the populist American dream has its roots in the folksy socialism practiced by Guthrie. No song summarizes this vision quite like “This Land Is Your Land,” which imagines all citizens having equal access to, as well as sharing, the bounty of the United States. He also gets extra props for being the godfather of the movement and inspiring generations of musicians that followed in his footsteps.