Someone just told me there's a Presidential Election going on. Wow, they really kept quiet on this one. Unless you watch television, read the papers or surf the Internet, you would have no idea why so many people have signs on their lawn. I just assumed everyone was selling their home! With either Obama-Biden or McCain-Palin Realty. Huh!
Anyhow, it sent me over to the Yahoo! Politico-Counternumerator to find out what I could about politics. Turns out it's a dastardly game, filled with quirky twists and turns that no one can anticipate. And the winner gets a $400,000 a year, which is considerably more than I make and even more than the winners of Hell's Kitchen or The Apprentice, where you also have to work with Donald Trump. Gads. Who would want to win that?
Anyhow, there are tons of protest songs out there, from Barry McGuire's "Eve Of Destruction" to Outkast's "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)." The Dixie Chicks opened their mouths in concert and went from being a pleasant country trio to political mavericks (I love that word, but even more so when it represented that wonderful show with James Garner and was also a car!).
But the list I wanted to compile had to represent performers who even if they don't always sing about politics, generally make people feel like they are taking part in a political act. Cutting it down to only 25 became the hard part. Sometimes a performer got cut because their league already had a team on the list. And then you get into world politics and realize there's an entire world out there and we're going to have let Fela represent them all. Because there's just so much room.
Feel free to list who I left out. I'm sure your favorites are all deserving. Unless you're going to try and convince me that the Wiggles are a political statement. You kidders! (And for those wondering: The Alarm, U2, Body Count, Spearhead and David Peel all just missed the list.) And we'll always love Country Joe and the Fish.
Ani DiFranco: Even if she sings nothing but love songs, Ani has come to represent a personal politic, much like Minor Threat and Fugazi, where personal independence represents all. No one's going to tell her she can't cut her hair! No sir!
24) Ministry: Remember "N.W.O." These guys went from being synth-happy dance party faves to angry young men with distortion and "industrial" ideas. I liked the guy's cowboy hat.
N.W.A.: How many bands get letters from the F.B.I.? My band sure didn't. But we were a miserable Rolling Stones cover band called "Neighbors." We did "Street Fightin' Man." Then again, we also did "Gomper." Anyhow, N.W.A. sang about not liking the police and used what are known as "expletives" which though used by many people most of the time are still considered "off limits" in polite company. So go easy on your grandmother.
22) Steve Earle: "John Walker's Blues" was a brave statement, considering how many people are unwilling to even think about why someone would do something so strange as to leave America and join the Taliban. I mean, I sure wouldn't. First off, I don't like sand. And the desert air does nothing for me. And, generally, while I complain about a few things here in the U.S., it's not enough to want to leave. Yet, Earle sees it as an opportunity to grow, to understand, to maybe look at an issue and realize that in order to ensure it doesn't happen we need to know why it happened. He's not even a pointy-headed intellectual and he figured this out. What next?
Public Enemy: First, they had all those S1-Ws posted around the stage in camouflage toting UZIs and then they had that tough baritone of Chuck D complaining about anything he could find. "Fight The Power," which if you don't listen closely sounds like he's yelling "Frank DiPaula" who sounds like a guy who might lead a labor union, or be a really cranky downstairs neighbor. God, I hate that guy.
20) Marvin Gaye: By recording What's Goin' On, Marvin forever made himself over into someone who cares. Sure, most of his other songs were about getting it on and landing the lady, but he managed for a moment there to see past his own personal pleasures and realize that all the people who worked for him were going home at night not to mansions on the hill but to little run down shacks that were without cable television. The indignity! Hell no, life without HBO!
Joan Baez: Her voice either entrances or sends you running to the snack bar. You know she's one of those "cause" people. Always seems to have something where you can sign a petition or drop some money in a can. Does it work?
18) Bruce Springsteen: I never really thought about Bruce as a political guy until I realized that he does quite a few gigs for Presidential Hopefuls. And like that Mellencamp guy and even Willie Nelson with his Farm Aid, Bruce seems to care about the people even more than the issues. Will he one day run for Governor of New Jersey? He probably wouldn't even have to campaign. All he'd have to do is play the Meadowlands for a month straight. Who would run against him? Bon Jovi? Sebastian Bach?
Neil Young: "Let's Impeach The President" was a catchy little ditty, even if it didn't have quite the same effect as "Ohio" with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, the greatest law office to ever make music. All of his cohorts should be counted here as well. I can't listen to Graham Nash without thinking it might be time to watch some sports, but I know his heart is in the right place. Whereas Young can sing about anything and I figure, "yeah, these 'ludes are kicking in."
16) John Lennon: "Imagine" aside, which is a beautiful utopian anthem, most of Lennon's "political" music is among his worst. "Power To The People," "Give Peace A Chance," anything off of Sometime In New York City, just not the stuff I want to listen to when I think of John Lennon. I prefer when he complains about his parents. But the U.S. Government didn't want to deport him for that.
Jackson Browne: Jackson Browne practically single-handedly killed his career with his decision to sing about U.S. foreign policy. Somehow it just doesn't capture the imagination of youth quite the same way as songs about love and loneliness and even being "on the road." Not everyone thinks The Great Wealth of Nations should be set to music. Personally, I'm shocked that nothing by Milton Friedman has ever been set to music. Townshend? What are you waiting for?
14) The Dead Kennedys: With a name like that you have to figure these boys are Republicans! But, alas, I don't think so, since Ronald Reagan doesn't seem to be much liked by these folks--though they do advocate killing the poor, which seems like a radical political move to me. And they sing about "The Stars And Stripes Of Corruption" and the separation of church and state. It's not nearly as boring as it sounds.
The Last Poets: The Last Poets ended up on a lot of "lists" if you know what I mean. As rabble-rousers for the Black Nationalists Movement, you get a lot of attention, both wanted and unwanted. They even had a brief commercial breakthrough. Then, I guess, the man stopped them. They became a noted influence on hip-hop. But the man was watching. Who the heck is this man, by the way? And is he watching me, too? I'm pretty boring.
12) Curtis Mayfield: Mayfield worked more the personal politics, bringing musical beauty to society's ills with a voice that defied gravity. Superfly is stunning, not to mention his work with the Impressions (which you'll note, I just mentioned). I'd buy a car from this guy.
The Clash: The Clash were always a little corny, looking more like a "gang" than a band. I'm told their songs are brilliantly political but I still can't figure out what they're arguing about. I like "London Calling" for its ominous bass swoops and its choppy rhythm guitars and the fact that Joe Strummer sounds really peeved. But I still don't know what the song is about. And I like the video game sounds on "Ivan Meets G.I. Joe." I think that's neat.
10) Gang Of Four: Another band where I don't know much about the songs, except I like the sound of the guitars and the messed-up rhythms. But I'm told these guys are Marxists, which means they want to take the cars out of our garages and put them in other people's garages. Not sure how that works. But apparently really rich people don't like the idea.
Rage Against The Machine: I know people will complain that I left off System Of A Down. It was a last minute deletion. So, they get an honorable mention here next to their soul brothers in Rage Against The Machine, who also contribute to the loudness of the movement. Very important because while speaking quietly and carrying a big stick might be nice in theory, it doesn't really work if no one knows you have the big stick in the first place.
8) MC5: This bunch of Detroit radicals were all for the revolution. Not sure what revolution it was, but I think it had something to do with girls going naked, drugs getting legalized and rock n' roll become the official music of the land. Not sure what their economic policy was. But it probably wasn't very good. Otherwise, these fellows would've been rich!
Gil Scott Heron: I've got this album by Heron where he really gives it to Frank Rizzo. I don't even know who Frank Rizzo is. Union dude? Politician? The guy with the corner pizza stand who keeps raising the prices per slice? I could look it up, but this was 30 years ago. It doesn't really matter at this point. (Actually, someone just told me he was Philadelphia's Police Commissioner, but they could be lying.) And yet there's something very endearing about Heron's delivery, his passion, his hatred for Richard Nixon, that's so genuine that it almost makes me wish I was back there on those hot, sweaty streets sucking down a Mello Yello.
6) Billy Bragg: Anybody who writes a song called "Ideology" and then sings it has definitely got his issues. And anyone who sings "Marriage is when we admit our parents were right" is kinda oversimplifying things, don't you think? Is this what gay couples are thinking? "Yeah, let's get married to show our parents they're right!" Somehow, I think it has to do with legal matters far more complex, like who's going to inherit what--tax-free. (This blog should not be taken as offering tax advice. You should consult with your tax advisor before making any sudden moves, including marriage.)
Bob Dylan: "The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll," "The Death Of Emmett Till," "Ballad Of Hollis Brown," Bob Dylan wrote plenty of songs and as you see named names. He quickly realized that he would be better off if he became more vague and "Queen Jane Approximately," "Sad Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands" and "Ballad Of A Thin Man" proceeded from his pen. He realized his songs couldn't stop a war. They couldn't even get his income tax lowered. For that he would have to devise "tax shelters" as opposed to "bomb shelters." That's when all the meetings with accountants started and suddenly Bob wasn't in the mood to write much anymore, except stuff like "Dear Landlord," where he argued against unfair rent increases.
4) Bob Marley: I'm never sure how political these Rasta guys are. I always figure they don't like being hassled by cops. (Who does?) And that if marijuana was legalized, they'd suddenly have no real causes to champion. Or if they did, they'd be too stoned to care. Then again, it doesn't seem like there was ever any shortage of pot as far as they were concerned.
Phil Ochs: When it comes to people who wrote about politics and then managed to sing about it, they don't come much more literal than Phil Ochs, who was practically a singing newspaper. Before he got weird, too. His heart was always in the right place. He wanted poor people to be less poor and he wanted the races to get along. Boy, would he be excited to see how things are turning out!
2) Fela: Fela Kuti formed his own political party, was jailed, was considered by some to be absolutely crazy. But no one debates that the man was a force of nature and a musical wunderkind.
Woody Guthrie: I don't think you could have someone like Woody Guthrie today. Somehow the magic of YouTube would just ruin the mystique of having this vagabond folksinger roll into your town, singing in a nasal whine about dust bowls and not taking it any more. I mean, even when Springsteen tries it, it doesn't have the same effect. And somehow I'm just not sure about the idea of Woody Guthrie eventually going into the studio with Rick Rubin. What songs would he cover?