The second part of our anti-establishment protest songs still doesn’t include any folk music. Songs like “Blowin’ In the Wind” have an enduring legacy, but since rock and pop have dominated radio in one form (punk, grunge) or another (rap, hip-hop) for decades, we thought it was more fun and relevant to focus on songs that make you want to smash a brick through a window. In that spirit, here are the top 5:
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard killed four students during a protest of the Vietnam War at Kent State. Days later, Neil Young was moved by the famous photograph of of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio bent over in anguish next to the dead body of her friend Jeffrey Miller. Young was enraged by “four dead in Ohio” and he called his bandmates (David Crosby, Stills, Graham Nash) to record the song just 24 hours later. The song is an anguished cry that is the counterpoint the their massive hit “Teach Your Children,” which was jetting up the pop charts at the time. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young soon broke up, leaving “Ohio” as their final statement on the turbulent era.
- “Fight the Power”
Hip-hop can’t be left out of the history of protest songs. While many Americans were celebrating capitalist excess of the 1980’s, Public Enemy was reminding the world that there were millions of people being left behind. “Fight the Power” was a No. 1 hit on the Hot Rap Singles Chart and reached No. 20 on the Hot R&B Singles Chart. The song evokes many musical touchstones of the African American community, including Negro spirituals, James Brown, Afrika Bambaataa, gospel church music, and civil rights protest chants. Chuck D rapped about Elvis appropriating black music and criticized a conservative culture that worshipped John Wayne – a shocking thing to a 1989 audience. The song exhorted black people to be black and proud, a la the Godfather of Soul himself. The song’s stature has only grown with age.
- “Fortunate Son”
Creedence Clearwater Revival had a controversial hit with “Fortunate Son” and this meaning of the music continues to reverberate to this day. John Fogerty served in the Army Reserves, so he wrote lyrics about how rich and powerful families were able to ensure their kids were never sent to fight in foreign wars. This was a historical fact, but some people continue to believe it was some sort of attack on the American military. It wasn’t. It’s just a reminder that those on the front lines are not Fortunate Sons like Donald Trump (who escaped the War because of “bone spurs”) and George W. Bush (who spent the War in the Texas Air National Guard, where he partied for a few years before sobering up and entering the business world, where he also failed. And then failed up by becoming president, resulting in another foreign war– which is precisely the message of the song!)
- “God Save the Queen”
Punk was an enormous protest against basically everything. Musically it was both a back-to-basics rallying cry and a middle finger to excessive prog-rock anthems that meandered along for 9 minutes. Politically, punk never took just once stance. However, whatever the establishment is doing, you can count on punk to oppose it. Enter the Sex Pistols. The Pistols time the release of “God Save the Queen” to coincide with the United Kingdom’s Silver Jubilee, celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 25 years on the throne. The song attacks the concept of the Monarchy and quickly earned itself a total ban by the BBC. Despite throngs of people calling for their heads, the Sex Pistols persevere. The song channeled the anger of many working British people, who were being crushed by conservative policies in the 1970’s. The song manages to be both high camp and credulous rage. All of this wound up propelling the song to No. 2 in the U.K., despite the ban and opprobrium.
- “Killing in the Name Of”
Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name Of” protests many of the same things that Gambino seems to do – except it does all of it better, at least musically. The song’s rage-fueled refrain (“f**k you I won’t do what you tell me”) was originally written as a response to the beating of Rodney King by the LAPD. The song was released in 1993 and made it only to number 25 in the United Kingdom. The video was censored in the U.S. because of its explicit imagery – which included real police brutality – and its profanity. Seventeen years after its debut, the song made it to No. 1 in the strangest way. The X Factor had a history of landing the Christmas No. 1 in the U.K. A local disk jockey was fed up with the insipid songs, so he started a campaign to make “Killing In the Name Of” the Christmas No. 1. And he succeeded in 2009. The (depressing) fact that it is now more relevant, urgent and true than when it released makes it tops on our chart.