Protest music is often too literal. Music relies on emotion, on gestalt, on grey areas where art does it duty. You want black and white, check out math. Humans are fallible beings (except for the Pope, of course). The shadows are where the most interesting things occur.
This list is weird. It was decided often by how much a given song actually moved me. Other songs might work better in crowds. But slogans make for bad songs. "Give Peace a Chance"? Sure, but don't make me listen to it.
Joseph Arthur, a modern artist of interest, has just released a song for the Occupy Wall Street movement called "We Stand As One." It serves its purpose. It unites people in their cause. Whether or not it will sound as rewarding coming out of the car stereo or on the iPod as one bops down the street remains to be seen. I'm glad he did it.
The following are songs that are enjoyable as music. Throw in some Curtis Mayfield and we've got a deal. If you want to stand around holding hands singing "We Shall Overcome," that's nice, too.
25) We Can't Make It Here Anymore — James McMurtry: McMurtry has a deadpan delivery that makes the words even more biting. Not everyone can make lyrics about CEOs and global economics sing, but here every punchline hurts. Made even better by a melody that builds over seven minutes.
24) World Wide Suicide — Pearl Jam: Eddie Vedder and Co. have written a number of tunes that have addressed the ugly side of humanity. But this one nails it down in three minutes. "Inside Job" takes seven.
23) War Pigs — Black Sabbath: First, people blame kids for being apathetic. Then when they stand up to be counted, people call them naïve, self-interested. As if it's only OK when the rich and powerful prove to be self-interested.
22) Masters of War — Bob Dylan: Picking a Bob Dylan song is difficult. "A Hard Rain's-A Gonna-Fall" might be more "fun." "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" less timely. But I think everyone gets off a little singing "Let me ask you one question, is your money that good"? Taken alone, it's pretty good. Add in the way Dylan chews the line and it's something more.
21) In The Heat of the Summer — Phil Ochs: "So wrong, so wrong, but we've been down too long and we had to make somebody listen." Or as the Dead Kennedys cynically observed, "Tomorrow you're homeless, tonight it's a blast." Riots are likely to take place where the dispossessed reside. Getting into gated communities is difficult. On purpose.
20) London Calling — The Clash: No idea what this song is actually about and don't tell me. I could look it up or listen closer. But I don't want to. I want the magic of the swooping bass, the marching guitars and that ominous beep to last forever.
19) Won't Get Fooled Again — The Who: There is more revolutionary power in Roger Daltrey's scream than in the acres of lyrics written by folksingers through the ages. And when you get to "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss," you've come full circle without leaving your chair.
18) Fight For Your Right To Party — The Beastie Boys: Never discount the importance that some people accord partying. I don't have the figures, but surely people have died for this right.
16) The Fightin' Side 0f Me — Merle Haggard: Here we go. Here's that grey area. The song rocks. Especially the live version where the guitars drive it to the edge. Use of the word "hoss" makes it even better. It's not like I just posted a song by Skrewdriver, folks.
15) Dear Mr. President — Pink: Interesting how when Pink decides to turn political, she gets out the folky guitar and contacts the Indigo Girls. She's the perfect chameleon, who knows you need to speak the language of the people.
14) Rednecks — Randy Newman: As Randy himself asked when approached about how potentially offensive this song could be to those who don't get the irony. Would it have been better if he had sung, "Racism is bad"?
13) Born In the U.S.A. — Bruce Springsteen: I like this one because it's tricky, because it irritates. The riff is monotonous and Bruce had it both ways in 1984 when he snagged the Reagan Democrats (and the Reagan Republicans, for that matter) with a fist-pump, a big ol' flag and a physique that had people mistaking him for Rambo. Of course, when you listen to the verses — the footnotes, if you will — you hear a more detailed story. Song is terrible when done without the patriotic pump. So go figure.
12) Pills and Soap — Elvis Costello: The lyrically dexterous Elvis Costello turns some great phrases here that could easily be misread by his American fans, but the real joy of this tune is in the arrangement that sounds like a John Cale song on ice.
11) F*** Tha Police — N.W.A.: Maybe it's me and my general sense of disconnect, but I have trouble seeing how anyone, even the F.B.I., could get that upset about this tune. Sure, the language is stronger than the usual protest, but people have been using music to stand up to authority since the first caveman not included in a GEICO commercial began pounding his drum-like thing. Personally, I like cursing.
10) Five to One — The Doors: "You see, I gotta go out in this car with these people…" I have a friend, we'll call him Zoraxx, and after over twenty years of playing the guitar he realized that every guitar solo he's ever played is basically a rewrite of the five notes he plays in the solo for "Five To One." Being a more limited musician, I have always stuck to the two notes that make up the basic riff. Ain't protest grand?
9) Strawman — Lou Reed: Having been nicely surprised that Lulu isn't nearly as terrible as I was warned, I now pause to reflect on a song that actually asks some pretty good questions. Though my answers are mixed. "Does anyone need another million dollar movie?" That sounds cheap by today's standards and I say YES. "Does anyone need another racist preacher?" To that, I say NO. Hey, this is fun!
8) Eve Of Destruction — Barry McGuire: Sure, it's a Dylan ripoff. Folk rock for the people. The lyrics sound like they shouldn't be there. Who puts "coagulatin'" into a song and gets away with it? These days more odd is just how raw this tune sounds. Today, it would be remixed and smoothed over. You can hear Barry McGuire spittin' into the mic, popping 'P's. Music that is technically worse is often better. Ain't that a kick?
7) Revolution — The Beatles: The album version on The Beatles is sleepy, dreamy and more appropriate for an album where everything needs to flow together, but the single version, with the wild electric attack, is everything a single is supposed to be. It stops time.
6) God Save The Queen — The Sex Pistols: While everyone knows "We Mean It Man" and, of course, "No Future," there's also the disturbing truth that "all crimes are paid." The more things change, the more things stay the same. In the end, we got Johnny Rotten and a screaming wall of guitars out of the deal.
4) Going Underground — The Jam: "You'll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns" is snuck inside this rapid-fire missive that I've never listened to close enough to realize just how great and layered it is. I always loved the sound of it. I can't figure out if it's mocking me or agreeing with me. Sign me up.
3) Fight the Power — Public Enemy: I'll take the Isley Brothers tune of the same name while we're at it. Before I ever heard this tune, it was described to me as sounding like two people having an argument while a stereo blasts in the background. Which to my reasoning was about the highest endorsement possible. Who wouldn't want to hear that?
2) Rockin' In The Free World — Neil Young: After being dazzled by cowboy Ronnie, Young woke up when the rhetoric came from a Yale man. The thousand points of light illuminated the homeless man. Has there ever been a song more fun to jam out? Has Neil's voice ever been better served? "Let's Impeach The President" and the entire Living With War album doesn't even exist compared to this.
1) Gimme Shelter — The Rolling Stones: If you've never had the hairs on the back of your neck raise at the sound of the guitars on this tune, I have to question what gets you off? Merry Clayton may own half this track with her gravity-defying vocal, but the other half is right there bleeding out of the amps.