2016: A year of intense hostility, immense fear, and incredible division. With so much volatility churning in the airwaves, it is difficult for acceptance and love to take shape. What 2016 needs is an outlet for expression, a way to voice the frustrations of the American public, and there’s no better method for dissent than through music. Below is a list of the most influential protest songs of all time. Each song holds as much relevance to today as it did when they were released.
- “Masters of War” by Bob Dylan (1963)
Album: The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
Released before the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1965, Dylan’s dynamite anti-war anthem destroys politicians and world leaders, branding them as ‘masters of war’ — they play with the world and use people as pawns in their game to attain even more power. In this song, Dylan discusses the eternal military-industrial complex, where the politicians who lobby for and sponsor these wars rake in an obscene amount of money. The lyric “you hide in your mansions, while young people’s blood flows out of their bodies and is buried in the mud,” demonstrates the hypocrisy that those who want the wars are never the ones who fight in them. The fierce ending of “I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead” drips with contempt for these masters of war. Dylan begs the question: how can we win a war when the consequences are eternal?
- “Blowin’ In the Wind” by Bob Dylan — Peter, Paul, and Mary cover (1963)
Album: In the Wind
Another ‘60s gem, Dylan’s masterpiece poses questions that we cannot answer because they are “blowin’ in the wind,” or are out of our grasp. These questions, when placed in the context of the 1960s, deal with the civil rights and anti-war movements. Inquiries such as, “how many years can some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” is a direct denunciation of the unjust treatment of African-Americans. At this time, Dylan struggles to understand how people are still not treated equally, particularly in a country that claims to be ‘the land of the free.’ The lyric “how many deaths will it take ’til he knows that too many people have died?” is another cry of frustration towards world leaders who continue to use war as a means of foreign policy. “Blowin’ In the Wind” is a testament to how we must all stand up for what’s right because it is as natural to love and embrace one another as it is for the wind to blow.
- “Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie — Donovan cover (1965)
“Universal Soldier” is a criticism of soldiers since the beginning of time. It expresses that we are all to blame for war because we continue to fight these wars – wars would not exist if there were no soldiers. The line, “he’s the one who must decide who’s to live and who’s to die,” demonstrates the power that each soldier has, for the ability to kill is one that should not be taken lightly. As the song progresses, it shifts towards an even darker tone as Donovan declares, “his orders come from far away no more,” for it shows how we all have become blinded and indoctrinated to believe in the cause; this allows the soldier to continue fighting. But, as Donovan points out, “this is not the way we put the end to war.”
- “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield (1967)
Single by Buffalo Springfield
Contrary to what the majority of Americans believe, this song is not about the Vietnam War. It’s a reference to the Sunset Strip Riots that began in 1966, which were clashes between young adults and police over a new local curfew. However, it didn’t take long for the song to become an Anti-Vietnam War anthem. “Stop, hey, what’s that sound, everybody look what’s going down,” is a call for people to see the violence going on, and to do something to end the madness. “For What It’s Worth” displays the confusion over the hostility between the police and the protesters. It also addresses how divided the US was at that time, for “there’s battle lines being drawn.” It’s an iconic tribute to the clashes between generations that still continue today.
- “Revolution” by The Beatles (1968)
Album: The Beatles
Released at one of the most volatile, if not the most volatile, point in American history, “Revolution” is a rejection of the radicalized anti-war movement. To list off a few events/facts of 1968, there was the TET Offensive, the violence at the DNC in Chicago, and MLK’s assassination. The Beatles called for a peaceful movement and to not stoop down to the violent war hawks’ level. Rather than try to rework the entire American system, Lennon suggests “you better free your mind instead,” for the only thing you have control over is yourself. This song further proves The Beatles’ desire for peace and love.
- “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)
Album: Willy and The Poor Boys
One of the most iconic songs of the Vietnam War era, “Fortunate Son” attacks the unjust draft system and its targeting of the poor and uneducated. College students and workers in fields such as education and medicine were deferred, which left those who did not have enough money to go to college as eligible for conscription. The singer screams “it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I’m no military’s son” because sons of military officers and politicians had their fathers pulls strings to get them out of Vietnam. In this song, the singer is not one of the “fortunate ones” who can avoid Vietnam simply because of circumstance. One of the key lines is, “they ask us how much should we give, they only answer more, more, more,” which is a direct attack towards General Westmoreland who called for more troops to be sent to their senseless slaughter in Vietnam.
- “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones (1969)
Album: Let it Bleed
“Gimme Shelter” deals with how easily humanity can switch from war to love. Mick Jagger belts out, “war is just a shot away,” while “love is just a kiss away,” exemplifying how it takes the same effort (if not less) to reach for love. The Rolling Stones want shelter from all the hatred and war going on in the world during the Vietnam War era.
- “War Pigs” by Black Sabbath (1970)
Similar to “Masters of War,” “War Pigs” calls out the politicians who create wars for profit. The beginning line, “generals gathered in their masses, just like witches at black masses,” likens world leaders as Satanists who gather as “sorcerers of death’s construction.” Black Sabbath keeps with the Satanist theme as the song discusses Satan’s pleasure from the war ensuing and the lives being led to slaughter. “They leave that all to the poor” is another recognition of the government’s targeting of the poor in their game for more power and money. Lives are treated as nothing more than “pawns in chess,” for the cost of winning and losing makes no difference to them.
- “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)
Album: What’s Going On
Gaye pleas for peace and love, as he affirms that “we don’t need to escalate, you see war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.” This powerful tune deals with police brutality in the late 60’s and highlights the violent clashes between protesters and the police. “What’s going on?” is a question for us all to answer about the direction society has taken. Gaye declares that there is no need to judge each other when we are all humans. All we need to do is understand each other’s perspectives, and recognize that our similarities outnumber our differences.
- “Sunday Bloody Sunday” by U2 (1983)
U2 brilliantly uses the tragedy of 1972’s Bloody Sunday in Derry, Northern Ireland to condemn all acts of hatred and intolerance. On Bloody Sunday, British soldiers shot 26 unarmed Irish protestors, killing 14 of them. The lyric “how long must we sing this song?” is asking why humans always resort to hatred and violence. “We can be as one…” refers to U2’s hope that Ireland, as well as the world, could unite behind a message of peace and love. All across the globe, people die from acts of war and terror yet we are immune because it has become so common. U2 proclaims that there is still plenty of work to be done for peace, but it is possible to “claim the victory Jesus won.”
- “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young (1989)
The title/lyric “rockin’ in the free world” is meant be satirical. In this powerful song, Young discusses all the horrible things going on in the United States such as a homeless man getting beaten by police. Still, we are constantly told we are the best. This notion of superiority occurs, for each of us “don’t feel like Satan, but I am to them.” Neil Young ironically cries out to “keep on rockin’ in the free world” because we deserve what we have unless we do our part to make a change.
- “Know Your Enemy” by Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Album: Rage Against the Machine
RATM expresses in this explosive song how we must look to our own government as the enemy and not the countries they say we must hate. “The land of the free… whoever told you that is your enemy,” is the most iconic line of this song and demonstrates RATM’s frustration with America’s tendency to oppress and discriminate against its own people. There are references to police brutality with “something must be done about vengeance, a badge, and a gun.” Another famous RATM lyric, “fight the war, fuck the norm,” challenges us all to defy and stand up for what is right. At the end of the song, RATM lists “compromise, conformity, assimilation, submission, ignorance, hypocrisy, brutality, the elite,” as “American dreams.” The enemy lies within us all.
- “Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Album: Rage Against the Machine
There is no better way to explain RATM than with the lyric “fuck you I won’t do what you tell me!” This lyric concludes the song, with frontman Zack de la Rocha screaming this 16 times in a row. In this song, there is an enraged cry for defiance, rebellion, and change. It is a strong stance against police brutality and the corruption of the judicial system in America. The song’s title is in reference to how those in charge kill “in the name” of some higher purpose or reason; this is how they justify those murders and abuses of power. RATM calls us all out for our blind obedience and indoctrination into a corrupt system with the lyrics, “now you do what they told ya.”
- “Boom!” by System of a Down (2002)
Album: Steal This Album!
Straight off of one of the most underappreciated rock albums of our time, “Boom!” is another outcry against the Iraq War, particularly the politicians like George W. Bush who sponsored it. Lyrics such as, “manufacturing consent is the name of the game,” describes SOAD’s fury over the government’s lies and search for empty justification for a false war for profit. SOAD pleads with society as to why we must kill each other when we are the same species, especially when we can use the same amount of money used for war towards causes for good. All the band wants is for us all to save lives, rather than take them.
- “B.Y.O.B (Bring Your Own Bombs)” by System of a Down (2005)
“Why don’t presidents fight in the war? Why do they always send the poor?” SOAD screams these eternal questions with unfiltered rage. “B.Y.O.B” is an open condemnation of the Iraq War. In this song, SOAD describes the act of war as the politicians going to a party where they are “dancing in the desert, blowing up the sunshine,” with bombs and firearms. “B.Y.O.B” completely destroys the politicians and leaders behind the Iraq War and does so in a way that fills the listener with intense rage.
While you continue to watch and listen to all the maddening fear and hate going on, turn your attention to any of these songs and your rage will be satisfied. If you are looking for more recent songs, Prophets of Rage (a super group of RATM, Cypress Hill, and Public Enemy) have continued the tradition of protest anthems. Give “The Party’s Over” a listen.
Happy Raging this election season!