11 Tracks That Belong in the Hall of Fame for Political Songs

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In a genre that often goes terribly wrong, these efforts stand out as all-time greats




When poorly executed, as they often are, political songs are some of the worst songs there are. That's why success in the genre is noteworthy. You'll find a lot of "ten best" lists out there, which are great for stoking debate, but my musical knowledge, like that of most people, is missing decades of songs from whole genres. So rather than assert a definitive canon, what I want to argue is that all of the following belong in the Hall of Fame for Political Songs -- and to encourage dissents and additions, especially from folks whose iTunes libraries look different than mine. I've granted Bob Dylan a lifetime achievement award and kept him out of the competition to make things fair.

In no particular order:

11) Strange Fruit performed by Billie Holiday

Says Dorian Lynskey in his history of protest music:

Written by a Jewish communist called Abel Meeropol, Strange Fruit was not by any means the first protest song, but it was the first to shoulder an explicit political message into the arena of entertainment. Unlike the robust workers' anthems of the union movement, it did not stir the blood; it chilled it. "That is about the ugliest song I have ever heard," Nina Simone would later marvel. "Ugly in the sense that it is violent and tears at the guts of what white people have done to my people in this country." For all these reasons, it was something entirely new. Up to this point, protest songs functioned as propaganda, but Strange Fruit proved they could be art.




10) Mississippi Goddamn by Nina Simone

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it, yet




9) La Marseillaise as performed in Casablanca

The French national anthem makes the list for its use in this cinematic scene alone -- gives me chills every time I watch it.

8) Rednecks by Randy Newman

The album on which this song appears, Good Old Boys, is one of the most underrated of its era. It got a 5 star review in Rolling Stone, but the brief staff review on iTunes gets closer to capturing the genius: "From the scathing, Lester Maddox-invoking opening bars of 'Rednecks,' Randy Newman serves notice here that he's taking no prisoners -- an especially nervy gambit considering the themes of this loose concept album: the racist near-past of America's Southern underbelly and its odious, lingering legacy." Don't worry, Southerners, he doesn't spare the North.   




7) The Promise by Bruce Springsteen

Said Joe Posnanski in his wonderful essay on this song, "Born to Run is about that brilliant age when you know dreams don't come true, but you still believe they might come true FOR YOU. And The Promise is about the every day numbing of those dreams." Written decades ago, it fits these times.




6) The Star Spangled Banner as performed by Jimi Hendrix

"What about Jimi Hendrix, right? He has a distinctive rendition of the national anthem, and assuming the national anthem is suddenly entitled to copyright protection that it wasn't before, he can't do that, right?" -- Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Roberts





5) Political Science by Randy Newman

We'll know we're in trouble if a presidential candidate tries to use this as his campaign song without irony.




4) Zombie by The Cranberries

A protest song about The Troubles in Ireland -- "It's the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen. In your head, in your head they're still fighting."

 

3) The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down by The Band

Said a Rolling Stone reviewer in 1969, "Nothing I have read... has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does... It's a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn't some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today."

When I read my colleague Ta-Nehisi Coates urging his community of readers to look deep into history, and grapple with understanding the mindset even of the folks on the wrong side of it, I think of this song.




2) Paper Planes by MIA

Reviewing MIA's album in The Stranger, Eric Shandy wrote:

"Paper Planes" is the standout track on an album full of contenders--a crush-stoned summer jam that transforms the guitar riff from the Clash's "Straight to Hell" into synthetic sunshine. It's also Kala's most exciting synthesis of the political and the pop, a playful dig into the real, dirty business of rump shaking... It's a sly, funny acknowledgement of the economics behind her status as an exoticized sex symbol.

The Clash sample is deep, too. They were one of the first major punk bands to play with revolutionary politics and combat icons in the pop marketplace; jacking one of their songs suggests that M.I.A. is fully aware of the contradictions and pitfalls of pushing art laced with such potent symbols. It's rump shake as revolution as rock 'n' roll swindle. The breezy track contains more conceptual layers, musical information, and lyrical self-reference than seems possible in a three-and-a-half minute pop song




1) A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke

"Though only a modest hit by his standards, Sam Cooke's 'A Change Is Gonna Come' became an anthem of the 1960s civil rights movement, and would come to be heralded as his magnum opus," as All Things Considered once put it. "Released as a single around the time of Cooke's death in December 1964, the song became a sensation within the black community." And then beyond it.


Yes, I know. There is so much left out. Have at it in comments.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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