Fight the power: The Top 50 protest songs

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Public Enemy protest songs

Sex Pistols never mind the bollocks20. The Sex Pistols – “God Save the Queen”
from Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977; Virgin)

Every Sex Pistols song is a protest. Their very existence was a political reaction against the middle-aged, stagnant, mediocre music scene of the mid-1970s. They are the sound of the new generation finally snapping, breaking free of the condescending, irrelevant pap that young people were being forced to swallow. Of course, no Pistols song is more expressly political than this merciless, furious attack on Britain’s unelected ruling classes. It was released the week of Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee, a putridly conservative, state-sponsored national street party. They say the powers that be held it off the top spot in the UK Singles Chart that week in favor of Rod Stewart’s anodyne “Sailing.” That’s when you know you’ve made an impact. – Max Pilley

Bruce Springsteen Born in the USA19. Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the USA”
from Born in the USA (1984; Columbia)

Frequently on other listicles covering the most misunderstood pop songs of all time, Bruce Springsteen’s arena-rock lament about the weakened plight of a Vietnam vet is still varnished as a patriotic rallying cry by the very forces it criticized. Part of that dissonance has to do with the song’s instant impact: the horn-like synthesizer, the thickly gated drums, the credo-like chorus. The setting is so at odds with the bleak content that you could make an argument that it’s a form of satire. Springsteen, brimming with confidence like never before, knew what he was doing. – Paul Pearson

Dead Kennedys - Fresh Fruit For Rotting vegetables18. Dead Kennedys – “California Über Alles”
from Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980; Alternative Tentacles)

As the 1970s became the 1980s, California worked its way through Ronald Reagan as governor before the nation raised him to the Presidency. Halfway through Reagan successor Jerry Brown’s time in the office, young punk Jello Biafra effectively threw up his hands in enough-of-this-shit mode. Nicking imagery from Nazi Germany and George Orwell’s 1984, and with sound pulled from the whine of surf guitar and the clipped punk delivery of The Ramones, Biafra and his new band lampooned Brown as a “Zen fascist.” To have Dead Kennedys tell it, no authority—not even an aging hippie—is a safe one. – Adam Blyweiss

top 50 protest songs17. Buffalo Springfield – “For What It’s Worth”
from Buffalo Springfield (1966; Atco)

Originally penned by Stephen Stills as a response to the Sunset Strip curfew riots of 1966, Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” has been misinterpreted as an antiwar song for decades—but for good reason. The song’s lyrical generality allowed itself to remain applicable to future social conflicts and events it predated like the Kent State shootings, the DNC riots of 1968, and widespread opposition to the Vietnam War. By finding a commonality between political issues without ever fixating itself on one specific instance, “For What It’s Worth” takes a stand against all kinds of violence and polarization in America. The universality of its message may explain the song’s abundance of covers and reinterpretations, not to mention its shrewd criticism of urban sprawl by The Muppet Show. By calling upon youth to evaluate events through a lens of acceptance and peace, Buffalo Springfield leave listeners with a set of guidelines for individual interpretation, in hopes of strangling the roots of injustice. – Patrick Pilch

top 50 protest songs X-Ray Spex16. X-Ray Spex – “Oh Bondage Up Yours!”
from Germfree Adolescents (1978; EMI)

“Some people think little girls should be seen and not heard, but I say… OH BONDAGE, UP YOURS!” Poly Styrene was having none of your patriarchal bullshit in 1977, this proto-riot grrrl with an axe to grind with sexism, capitalism—basically any oppressive system put in place to control anyone who wasn’t a wealthy white man. “Oh Bondage Up Yours!” is a shot of adrenaline the moment that Styrene screams the title phrase, and that jolt manages to hold its spark for the full three minutes as the band deliver their empowered and fiery one-finger salute to a consumerist, backward-thinking society. (With a saxophone solo, no less.) In 1977, few songs gave as powerful a kick to the gut as this one did. Forty years later, few still do. – Jeff Terich

top 50 protest songs James Brown15. James Brown – “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)”
from Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud (1969; King)

The ultimate result of sometimes contentious meetings between the Godfather of Soul and the Black Panthers—partly, no kidding, about Brown’s overly pomaded hair (the Panthers objected to it)—“Say It Loud” was a natural development for a man who took his commitment to his fans and his community seriously. Even with the call-and-response chorus employing school kids in the Compton and San Fernando areas of Los Angeles, “Say It Loud” was still a little too controversial for the local black radio station, whom Brown threatened to boycott in the press. Once they relented, Brown’s call for black self-empowerment became one of his signature statements. – Paul Pearson

Rage against the machine14. Rage Against the Machine – “Killing in the Name”
from Rage Against the Machine (1992; Epic)

The PMRC’s perfect storm: heavy metal thunder, punk sloganeering, and an angry rapper with a mic in his hand. In the span of just six repeated lines, Rage undermine connections between the Ku Klux Klan and police forces, and underline American racial tensions against the backdrop of 1992’s infamous Rodney King verdict. But all we remember—all we need, really—is the last lyric, Zach De La Rocha’s clarion call to resistance and rebellion for anyone, anywhere, at any time: “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me!” – Adam Blyweiss

Public Enemy fear of a black planet13. Public Enemy – “Fight the Power”
from Music from Do the Right Thing Soundtrack (1988; Motown) and Fear of a Black Planet (1990; Def Jam/Columbia)

Spike Lee commissioned a song from Public Enemy for his landmark 1989 film Do the Right Thing, and the result was one of the greatest opening credit sequences in cinema history. But “Fight the Power” endures as a staunch but celebratory call for the saving and uplifting of black culture in contradicted times. Chuck D deepened the message of the Isley Brothers’ 1975 track of the same name, citing the need to keep black influences from being whitewashed in the history books in the song’s most infamous lyric: “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me/Straight up racist that sucker was.” Chuck D publicly rescinded that opinion after learning more about Elvis’ background, but the point’s still well made. Rap’s most message-conscious group weren’t going to let history be revised. – Paul Pearson

top 50 protest songs Neil Young12. Neil Young – “Rockin’ in the Free World”
from Freedom (1989; Reprise)

While I have to give a special nod to the wink Carcass gave this song on “Keep on Rotting in the Free World,” Young’s version was fought over by both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who each used it during their recent Presidential campaigns—which leaves some question as to whether the message resonated as much as it should have. Inspired by a comment one of his guitarists made while watching news footage of American flags being burned in the Middle East, “Rockin’ in the Free World” is now and was then head-and-shoulders above most of the classic Camaro rock on the FM dial and made Young one of the godfathers of the ‘90s grunge movement. The lyrics paint a sad picture of domestic affairs just as relevant today as in 1989, mocking how the U.S. high-fives itself in being the self-appointed leader of the “free world.” – Wil Lewellyn

top 50 protest songs Elvis Costello11. Elvis Costello – “Radio Radio”
(1978; Columbia)

A protest song doesn’t necessarily have to be political in nature to be poignant, though the politics of the music business certainly counts as political in a unique sense. On “Radio, Radio,” Costello laments the sad state that popular music had taken in 1977. Hindsight might be 20/20 here, because the Pro-tooled and Auto-tuned fluff clogging up the airwaves now seems to have only gotten more vapid, which makes this song ahead of its time. It’s funny because despite the song’s New Wave flavor it strikes me as being poppier than “Watching the Detectives” or anything post-Spike. “The radio is in the hands of such a lot of fools/Tryin’ to anesthetize the way that we feel.” As true today as it was when it was written. – Wil Lewellyn

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