Smells Like Teen Spirit

(Nirvana 1991). Representing the “Nevermind” attitude of Gen X's grunge years, “Smells like Teen Spirit” is an anthem of apathy, almost making it an anti-protest song. While the often misinterpreted (and misheard) lyrics represent the generation that often felt misunderstood, their contradictory meaning also establishes the ironic and sarcastic nature this generation is known for. As Kurt Cobain explains, “The entire song is made up of contradictory ideas…It’s just making fun of the thought of having a revolution. But it’s a nice thought.” In context of the video, however, there is no mistaking what this song protests, as high schoolers who finally tire of politely sitting on the bleachers during a pep rally rush the court and form a mosh pit with the band.  

 


Little Game

“Little Game” (Benny, 2014). A product of the cultural politics of the millennial age, “Little Game” was conceived by 15-year-old Ben J. Pierce, who purposefully designed the song and video to fit into the conduits of social media. The song and video protest the robotic complacency of standardized gender roles and the consequences of non-conformity. The video echoes the putatively naiveté of the lyrics. The point is that the hegemony of traditional gender construction is so, so simple to go along with, like a game, given that it literally begins as a role-playing game at childhood. But the realities are quite serious: a socially condoned banishment of many individuals into a kind of nightmarish land of misfit gender where not just gender “freaks” suffer but kill themselves. Not child’s play at all. 

 

Rockin' in the Free World

"Rockin' in the Free World" (Neil Young, 1989). “Rockin’ In the Free World” is a slashing critique of the hypocrisy in American politics. The story is that Crazy Horse guitarist Frank Sampedro gave birth to the song when, after seeing images of American flags being burned in Iran (in 1989!), he commented, "Whatever we do, we shouldn't go near the Mideast. It's probably better we just keep on rockin' in the free world." 

Specific references are made by Young on George H. W. Bush’ s 1988 presidential campaign promise to make America a “kinder, gentler nation” and his “thousand points of light” remark in his 1989 inaugural address. The song subsequently became the anthem of the fall of the Soviet Union. More recently, Donald Trump used the song during his announcement to run for President in June. Young quickly announced that he had not authorized Trump to use the song and authorized its use by Bernie Sanders, whom Young supports. 

The version we include is legendary in itself. Young performed the song on SNL on September 30, 1989 and without exaggeration it is considered one the greatest live performances in rock history. We include a link to the description of the performance and its aftermath. As one YouTube comment put it: “THIS, children, is HOW you play FUCKING ROCK-AND-ROLL!!!!"

Turn this shit up and enjoy!: "That's one more kid that’ll never go to school / Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool"

 

There's colors on the street
Red, white and blue
People shufflin' their feet
People sleepin' in their shoes
But there's a warnin' sign on the road ahead
There's a lot of people sayin' we'd be better off dead
Don't feel like Satan, but I am to them
So I try to forget it, any way I can.

Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.

I see a woman in the night
With a baby in her hand
Under an old street light
Near a garbage can
Now she puts the kid away, and she's gone to get a hit
She hates her life, and what she's done to it
There's one more kid that will never go to school
Never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.

Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.

We got a thousand points of light
For the homeless man
We got a kinder, gentler,
Machine gun hand
We got department stores and toilet paper
Got styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer
Got a man of the people, says keep hope alive
Got fuel to burn, got roads to drive.

Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world
Keep on rockin' in the free world,
Keep on rockin' in the free world.

This Land is Your Land

“This Land is Your Land” (Woody Guthrie, 1944). Woody Guthrie wrote this song in response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie thought was too self-righteous and unrealistic. Guthrie titled the original version “God Blessed America” before he reworked the lyrics and changed the title. The song was recorded in 1944; since then it has been sung and recorded by a legion of artists. Some of us remember singing this song in our elementary school music classes before music was considered superfluous for education. “This Land is Your Land” is a joyous protest against anyone who thinks this great country belongs to them. As Bruce Springsteen put it, this is perhaps the greatest song ever written about “our home”. We include here Springsteen’s singing of this beautiful anthem at Barack Obama’s Inauguration in 2009, along with 93-year old Pete Seeger and his grandson. Seeger, who passed away just last year, traveled with Guthrie through many of the places described in the song. 

 

Heroes

“Heroes” (David Bowie and Brian Eno, 1977). Released in the album of the same name in 1977, “Heroes” was conceived during arguably Bowie’s most creative period as a musician, when he lived in West Berlin. “Heroes” is a love song of two individuals living in the shadow of the Berlin wall. Eno and Robert Fripp play on the track, which evokes the best of the Wall of Sound legacy. The song was highly influenced by Bowie’ interest in Krautrock groups like Kraftwerk and Neu!. “Heroes” is as much an anthem of hope and defiance as it is a love song. The quotation marks around the song’s title speak of this irony. “Heroes” is a paean to fantasy as a celebration of the possibility of the seeming impossible. The song as had immeasurable influence since its release. Is there a better line than “I wish you could swim/Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”? We include Bowie’s live performance in Berlin in 2002.

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can beat them just for one day
We can be heroes just for one day

And you, you can be mean
And I, I'll drink all the time
'Cause we're lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we're lovers, and that is that

Though nothing will keep us together
We could steal time just for one day
We can be heroes forever and ever
What d'you say?

I, I wish you could swim
Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim
Though nothing, nothing will keep us together
We can beat them forever and ever
Oh we can be heroes just for one day

I, I will be king
And you, you will be queen
Though nothing will drive them away
We can be heroes just for one day
We can be us just for one day

I, I can remember (I remember)
Standing by the wall (by the wall)
And the guns shot above our heads (over our heads)
And we kissed as though nothing could fall (nothing could fall)

And the shame was on the other side
Oh, we can beat them forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day

We can be heroes
We can be heroes
We can be heroes
Just for one day
We can be heroes

We're nothing and nothing will help us
Maybe we're lying, then you better not stay
But we could be safer just for one day

Oh-oh-oh-ohh
Oh-oh-oh-ohh
Just for one day

 

Strange Fruit

"Strange Fruit" (Abel Meeropol 1937).  Written first as a poem, "Strange Fruit" was poet-activist Abel Meeropol's protest against racism. Inspired by the disturbing photograph of the 1930 lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in Marion, Indiana, the lyrics are graphic and haunting. After pairing the lyrics with music, Meeropol and his wife Laura Duncan performed the song at Madison Square Garden. The song was eventually given to Billie Holiday, who first performed the song at New York's first integrated night club Cafe Society. Because the song was so controversial, special rules were drawn up to help prevent retaliation against Holiday and the Cafe Society. For example, "Strange Fruit" would always be Holiday's last song and waiters would have to quit serving before she began singing. Holiday recorded the song in 1939, and it sold a million copies. Time Magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century" in 1999, and the song remains significant today, as violent acts of racism continue to terrorize our country. 

Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop

Imagine

"Imagine" (John Lennon, 1971). Co-produced by Lennon, Ono, and Phil Spector, “Imagine” is one of the best and most recognizable anthems for peace of all time. Part of the song’s success is that its progressive lyrics are paired with a commercial sound, making it more accessible to a large audience. In one of his final interviews, Lennon said the song was “Anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated it is accepted. Now I understand what you have to do. Put your political message across with a little honey.” His politics may sound like a utopian dream, especially in light of rampant contemporary religious extremism, but perhaps we can make this dream possible if we unite in spreading this message: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will live as one.” 

 

Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding

"(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" (Nick Lowe, 1974). Made famous by Elvis Costello and his band The Attractions in 1978, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” was included in his 1979 Armed Forces LP and beautifully mocks the cynical generation that would eventually become the forever hated yuppies. More than 30 years later the song still rings true concerning all those soulless neo-yuppies who think that peace, love, and understanding is “funny.” We include the original video of this classic song as well as a great live performance when Costello guess-hosted David Letterman’s Late Night in 2003 and the sublime version from A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! (2008) sung by Stephen Colbert, Elvis Costello, Feist, Toby Keith, John Legend and Willie Nelson. What’s so funny?!

 
 
 

As I walk through
This wicked world
Searchin' for light in the darkness of insanity.

I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?

And each time I feel like this inside,
There's one thing I wanna know:
What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?

And as I walked on
Through troubled times
My spirit gets so downhearted sometimes
So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

'Cause each time I feel it slippin' away, just makes me wanna cry.
What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?

So where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

'Cause each time I feel it slippin' away, just makes me wanna cry.
What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding? ohhhh
What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?

God Save the Queen

God Save the Queen (Steve Jones, Paul Cook Glen Matlock, Johnny Rotten). Released as a single in May 1977, during Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee and later on the Sex Pistols only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen” was banned by the BBC and the IBA but nonetheless made it to no. 2 on the British charts. This is perhaps the quintessential punk song of all time given its scathing disrespect for the British Monarchy and all that it stood for. The Sex Pistols set a standard for contempt and insult through punk music that will never be matched, regardless of the countless groups they inspired. If rudeness and affront are vehicles for protest, then “God Save the Queen” is the gold standard of punk protest (and BTW, these motherfuckers could play!: “God save the Queen/ She ain't no human being/ There is no future/ And England's dreaming”

God save the Queen
The fascist regime,
They made you a moron
A potential H-bomb

God save the Queen
She ain't no human being
There is no future
And England's dreaming

Don't be told what you want
Don't be told what you need
There's no future
No future
No future for you

God save the Queen
We mean it man
We love our Queen
God saves

God save the Queen
'Cause tourists are money
And our figurehead
Is not what she seems

Oh God save history
God save your mad parade
Oh Lord God have mercy
All crimes are paid

When there's no future
How can there be sin
We're the flowers
In the dustbin
We're the poison
In your human machine
We're the future
You're future

God save the Queen
We mean it man
We love our Queen
God saves

God save the Queen
We mean it man
There is no future
And England's dreaming

No future no future no future for you
No future no future no future for me
No future no future no future for you
No future no future for me

Man in the Mirror

"Man in the Mirror" (Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett, 1988). Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” a quintessential protest song of the MTV era, forces the listener to open his eyes and confront human suffering as a first step to peace: start with the man in the mirror. Along with the song’s lyrics, the video is a montage of images that forces the audience to bear witness to social harms around the globe. The video, one of the best of the MTV period, combines scenes of violence, protest, and reconciliation. Starting with the face of a starving Ethiopian child and transitioning to a homeless man pushing his cart of belongings, the video goes on to show major tragedies and positive human accomplishments from recent history: the Vietnam War, the Kennedy assassinations, the Kent State shootings, the Iranian hostage crisis, the rescue of Jessica McLure, MLK, the Civil Rights movement, Mother Theresa, Lech Wałęsa, the Camp Davis Accords signing between Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, and Jimmy Carter, the IMF Treaty signing between Reagan and Gorbachev, Live Aid and Farm Aid, and other notable people and events. Jackson himself is absent from the video except for a brief moment when he appears among a large group of Asian youths giving peace signs. It’s hard to spot the King of Pop, but perhaps that’s the point. To be selfless. 

"I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change”

 

Amazing Grace

Amazing Grace (John Newton, 1773-1779). One of the most identifiable songs in the English language, Amazing Grace was written by English pastor and poet John Newton, a Christian convent who based the hymn on his own struggles. Although its roots are in England, the song became a standard hymn during the Second Great Awakening (1800-1830) in America. The song’s message of faith and restoration was appropriated by America’s African American community and has become one of the most sung folk hymns in history. Amazing Grace was ubiquitous during the Civil Rights Era and has had an immeasurable influence on modern folk and gospel music. It is literally the universal anthem of hope and redemption. That Newton was a slave trader who found repentance and forgiveness imbues the lyrics with an ironic power that resonates today. We include a live version sung by the Celtic Women of 2009 and Friday’s singing of the hymn at the end of President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the 9 victims of the Charleston, South Carolina shootings.

Ohio

Ohio, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (Neil Young, 1970).

Recorded by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Ohio was written and recorded literally in the days after the Kent State shootings in May 1970. The shooting deaths of four students took place on May 4th, and Neil Young wrote the song after seeing photos of the shootings in Life magazine’s May 15th issue. The song was recorded in Los Angeles on May 21st. The context of the protests at Kent State was Richard Nixon’s Cambodian Incursion, which began on May 1st. The tragedy at Kent State continues to be remembered through the song as much as John Filo’s iconic Pulitzer Prize winning photograph.

Whatever your position is on Vietnam, this is truly one of the most chilling protests songs ever recorded. Young later wrote that David Crosby was weeping after the final take. You can literally hear Crosby’s keening during the song’s fadeout. The four dead were Jeffrey Glenn Miller, Allison B. Krause, William Knox Schroeder, and Sandra Lee Scheuer. 

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio
Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are cutting us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.


Good Enough

Good Enough, Cyndi Lauper (1985). Recorded for The Goonies soundtrack, this song echoes the film’s underestimated critique of class warfare within the economic conditions of mid-80s America. It is not insignificant that the two-part video includes some pro-wrestling 80’s icons as stereotypical capitalist parasites given the economic circus that the WWF was in that era. The Buster Keaton-like video also includes a quite politically incorrect (by today’s standard’s) reference to the Benihana chain as economic predators of sorts, referencing the economic Japan paranoia that was prevalent in 80’s America. The song’s “What’s good enough for you?” message is especially relevant today, when economic hoarding is celebrated as “free enterprise” and most individuals are left to embrace the cruel optimism that if they just work a little harder and play by the rules, they will “have enough” or maybe, just maybe, more than enough.

 
 

Girls Just Want to Have Fun

“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Robert Hazard, Cyndi Lauper, She’s So Unusual, 1983)

One of rock’s greatest feminist songs, Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” is an exhilarating and joyous tirade against the tyranny of boredom. (For you millennials, “feminism” was a powerful protest movement concerning women’s’ rights, and feminism has arguably become extinct outside of a few conclaves in New York, Portland and San Francisco.) Note: boys also just want to have fun. The song was originally recorded by its writer Robert Hazard from a male perspective. Lauper changed the gender and created an MTV and cultural classic. 

 

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Robbie Robertson, The Band, 1969)

The poignancy and power of this song is that it is told from the point of view of a white Southerner during the last days of the Civil War. That it’s a protest song about war is not unusual of course, but that it speaks of the dignity and suffering of the Confederacy states is almost incredible in 1969. No doubt Robbie Robertson collaborated with Arkansas-born Levon Helm, who sings the lead in the Band’s recording, and learned much about the other side of the Civil War from Helm. It is hard to overstate how powerful this song was in the context of counter-culture hippie America. The heartbreaking beauty of the song speaks not just to all those Virgil Caines who suffered and died for something we all can and cannot truly understand. Although the studio version from The Band’s self-titled 2nd album is great, we must include Joan Baez’s live performance from The Midnight Special in 1973 (her cover was a Top 10 hit in 1971) and The Band’s performance in The Lastz Waltz, their farewell concert in San Francisco’s Winterland on Thanksgiving Day 1976. 

Get-Up, Stand-Up

That this is the official song of Amnesty International pretty much says it all. This Bob Marley masterpiece (co-written with Peter Tosh) was recorded for The Wailers sixth album Burnin’ (released in 1973, the last with Tosh and Bunny Wailer). We include the performance of this song at London’s Rainbow Theater in June 1977, which has been called one of the best live performances in the history of pop music: 

We sick an' tired of-a your ism-skism game -

Dyin' 'n' goin' to heaven in-a Jesus' name, Lord.

We know when we understand:

Almighty God is a living man.

You can fool some people sometimes,

But you can't fool all the people all the time.

So now we see the light (What you gonna do?),

We gonna stand up for our rights! (Yeah, yeah, yeah!)

 

Oxford Town

"Oxford Town" (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963) was written in response to Broadside magazine's invitation for writers to write about the enrollment of James Meredith, the first black admitted to the University of Mississippi. Although there is no mention of Meredith or the University, the song's themes of racism and violence are a powerful contrasts to the beautiful melody and emotionally ironic singing of early Dylan.

 

Masters of War

"Masters of War" (Bob Dylan, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, 1963) follows the melody of "Nottamun Town," an English folksong, probably dating to the Middle Ages, that was recorded by the so-called “Mother of Folk,” Jean Ritchie, who created the arrangement. "Masters of War" is a poignant condemnation of the people who stand behind wars, the “masters” who fuel the patriotism and fear that leads to war, then stand back while soldiers and civilians are slaughtered. The song's ongoing relevance has caught the attention of many people, and it has been covered by Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, and Tim O’Brien, just to name a few from a long list. In 2007, the song was part of Mountain’s Masters of War Dylan covers album with guest Ozzy Osbourne singing the song. We would also like to give honorable mention to Dylan's "Talkin' John Birch Paranoid Blues" (1962), a satirical song about a paranoid narrator who fears the communists have infiltrated the U.S. Please note the John Birch Society is alive and well as we speak.

 

The Hammer Song

“The Hammer Song” (Pete Seeger). This protest classic needs to be understood in its historical context of Cold War America. The lyrics might seem tame compared to other protest ballads but its call for warning, justice and universal brotherhood was powerfully subversive at the beginning of 1950s complacency and paranoid McCarthyism. We had a difficult time choosing between the Weavers classic 1950 recording, the Weavers live from their 1963 Carnegie Hall reunion concert, and the classic cover by Peter Paul and Mary of 1962.

 

The Ballad of John Henry

“The Ballad of John Henry” (traditional). This mother of protest songs is known variously as “John Henry,” and “The Legend of John Henry”. Developed from a traditional work song or hammer song, the tale of John Henry quintessentially speaks of defiance, protest and perseverance. We have chosen Lead Belly's classic recording from 1939. The song has been recorded by numerous artists through the ages, including Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen among others.