Pop music has been going through a long, continuous drought of protest songs. This dearth of message music goes back the 1980’s. This, not coincidentally, coincides with the advent of hip-hop to the top of the charts. While this is no surprise to millennials, this is counter-intuitive to Gen Xers who grew up on old-school hip-hop and rap, whose roots and early history was almost exclusively built on critical commentary of modern urban life.
It’s understandable to argue that as the U.S. (and the West) transitioned from the Reagan Cold War 80’s to the post-Communism prosperity of the Clinton 90’s, the impetus of the top pop bands to write activist albums diminished (e.g.: compare U2’s “War” and “The Unforgettable Fire” to “Zooropa” and “Pop.” Or R.E.M.’s “Document” to “New Adventures In Hi-Fi.”) But that would lead us to an inevitable post 9/11, War on Terror, next wave of political songs to dominate the ‘aughts. But all we got was Green Day’s “American Idiot” album – the spoken word bridge of “Holiday” to be specific. Sadly, hip-hop dropped the ball completely, and the teenie-bop stars of the 90’s never developed a critical voice. (e.g. Justin Timberlake). Instead many of these stars chose to celebrate their adulthood independence from Disney, or boy band management by overindulging in decadence (e.g. Brittney Spears).
If the George W. Bush-era didn’t produce any activism in the pop charts, there was zero chance the Obama era could. Now one could argue that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan didn’t move the needle on the home front, and didn’t register with the hip-hop artists here. Surely, the most polarizing President ever should be the muse for many up-and-coming artists. I say up-and-coming, because the biggest acts are a lot closer to the 1% than to their fans that are being subjugated and disenfranchised by the President’s political party. But do I expect a new era (or new Golden or Silver Age) of political protest pop songs? I hope so… but I doubt it.
So if we can’t look forward, we must look back. And thank our lucky stars that not only are there songs that stand the test of time, there are songs that seem to be ahead of their time. If you’re getting a feeling of deja vu, it’s because we’ve gone down this road before. So it’s time for one last encore, as I, Omnibus presents:
Nine (more) songs that were ahead of their time
(in no particular order)
“Subdivisions” by Rush
Any escape might help to smooth the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth
I can’t believe I forgot this song… again! The entire point of this (now trilogy) was to talk about this particular song. As a city boy, I grew up in a neighborhood. It was not until I was an adult until I knew and saw what a subdivision was. The official music video doesn’t hold up, but I’m obviously referring to the lyrics.
“Pop Goes the Weasel” by 3rd Bass
I guess it’s the fact that you can’t be artistic
Intricate raps, becomin’ so simplistic
What was originally a diss track against one Vanilla Ice, has become an indictment and foreshadowing of the demise of their entire musical genre. It’s also funny how rappers MC Serch and Pete Nice look a lot like Jonah Hill and James Franco, respectively. I also love the fact that old-school rap was sampling from classic rock riffs. The era of DJs having an extensive record collection and intricate knowledge of rock, R&B, and soul music has been long gone.
“It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” by R.E.M.
You vitriolic, patriotic, slam, fight, bright light
Feeling pretty psyched.
Sure, there have been plenty of songs before 1987 that warned us about mankind’s impending doom. But they were all dour, downbeat, and pessimistic. Rightfully so, I should say. What Michael Stipe and R.E.M. did in this instance was to combine the happy-go-lucky upbeat style of the Reagan era 80’s with the blasé nihilism, apathy, and me-first egotism that has defined 21st century pop culture.
“On The Turning Away” by Pink Floyd
On the turning away
From the pale and downtrodden
And the words they say
Which we won’t understand
I feel the post-Waters discography of Pink Floyd has gone underappreciated. This could be interpreted as a critique of the conservative economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan. But as George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It now seems to describe the proposed economic blueprint of the Mean Tangerine that currently occupies the
White Trump House.
“Tweeter And The Monkey Man” by The Traveling Wilburys
The TV set was blown up, every bit of it is gone
Ever since the nightly news show that the Monkey Man was on
We didn’t need the Nobel Prize committee to tell us that Bob Dylan is one of the greatest writers of our time… but it doesn’t hurt. In his younger days, fans called Dylan a “prophet.” But did anyone ever think that he would predict social media? I’m kidding, of course. But one could easily imagine that if the events in this song actually occurred today, the character called “Tweeter” would be broadcasting his life on all platforms – Instagram, YouTube, Vine, Reddit, and… naturally, Twitter.
“Resistance” by Queensryche
Protests in New York.
Listen to the call of the wild.
Brother, sisters carrying signs.
Liberal opposition crying violation.
Stop the madness.
Take a wild guess what date this song was added to the list? Originally a song about environmentalism, it got a second life and second meaning the day after The Great Pumpkin’s younger brother with Special Needs was inaugurated. There is also one line that references health care, which makes this one of the earliest songs to target that issue. More meaning was added to the chorus’ lyrics with the advent of social media.
“The Sound Of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel
And the sign said “The words of the prophets
Are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whispered in the sounds of silence”
As I stated in my 2016 music year in review post, I always felt that this song was a heavy metal song, trapped in the body of a 1960’s folk song. And for evidence, I presented Disturbed’s cover of this classic. This song was released in 1966. The only contemporary pop song that is remotely comparable in terms of its dark, downbeat theme is “Eve of Destruction.”
“Your Racist Friend” by They Might Be Giants
I know politics bore you
But I feel like a hypocrite talking to you
And your racist friend
Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding
There is a reason I’ve avoided politics on this site until now. And while I can not compete with such websites as breitbart or infowars, I can call out their followers, and the Teabaggers that voted for the Ugly Ugli and his party. TMBG always had a timeless feel to their music, partially due to their irreverent lyrics, and DIY sound (before they got famous enough to hire a backup band to play real instruments). But congratulations CINOs (Christians In Name Only) – you made one of the world’s most politically neutral bands into liberal meme generator!
“Cult of Personality” by Living Colour
I exploit you, still you love me
I tell you one and one makes three
A bit of a cheat here, but just slightly. Heavy metal lyrics have always had political protest lyrics, since they have been the go-to scapegoat for every politician and elected official since the genre hit the musical scene. But even the band’s makeup – an all African-American hard rock / heavy metal band was (and still is) groundbreaking and ahead of its time. The song was overshadowed at the time by another pop hit with a ton of political references and name drops, Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start The Fire.” And while most concur that President Reagan had charisma, the rest of the DC political scene of 1988 had little to no charisma to spare. Does anyone believe that this song was about George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle, or Michael Dukakis? Even the contemporary demagogues, Jesse Jackson and Pat Buchanan, lacked the gravitas to motivate the masses.