Listen to this track by irreplaceable Queen of soul Aretha Franklin. It’s “Respect”, a huge hit for her as taken from her 1967 album I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You. This song, actually a cover version, helped to solidify her status as a giant of modern song.
When people think of this song today, it’s Aretha’s version that immediately leaps to mind, with the signature push-pull between her lead voice and those of her sisters backing her up. That’s a musical dynamic familiar to even the most casual listener by now. Even its writer Otis Redding, who was and is also a giant of popular song, agreed that Aretha Franklin took this song to another place. At his historic appearance at the Monterrey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, he affectionately described it as “a song a girl took away from me”. It certainly captures the vernacular of the time with it’s “sock it to me!” and “take care of TCB!” exclamations being a real high point that helped to make this song what it is. Since, it’s become interwoven into pop culture with references to it being too many to count.
Culturally speaking, Franklin’s take on this song goes even further still even by virtue of the fact that she’s the one singing it. This is not only down to her identity as a woman, but specifically as a black woman. In an era full of conflict and in a society that was coming to a head where all kinds of social structures were concerned, this song is more than just a catchy hit single. It was, and still is, culturally resonant and downright important.
Listen to this track by New York-based hard rock paragons Living Colour. It’s “Cult of Personality”, their biggest hit to date and most recognizable track taken from their 1988 album Vivid. The song was a top twenty song on Billboard’s Top 100, winning the band a Grammy for best hard rock performance, and with a smattering of other awards besides. Since its release, the song has been used across multiple media for many years, from use in video games to (rather ironically considering its subject matter) WWE entrance music.
Despite its sheer scale, the writing of “Cult of Personality” came out of a simple jam during a rehearsal when guitarist and bandleader Vernon Reid played the central riff while playing an entirely different song. From there, a signature hit was born, with central themes spanning the course of a tumultuous twentieth century. It namechecks world leaders with jarring contrast. Joseph Stalin and Gandhi are lined up right next to each other. The voice of Malcolm X starts the song, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt closes it (with a brief interjection from JFK). That’s a pretty broad cultural spectrum.
In an increasingly polarized political landscape all over the world by the end of the eighties, where did this song place on that spectrum? Besides the immense central riff that’s been mentioned, I think this is the song’s central strength; that it doesn’t choose sides along any political lines. That’s not really the point of it. Instead, it tackles a bigger subject, which is all about human perception, our tendency toward myth-making, and other tendencies that make it easy for the right person to use them to influence our judgement when it comes to the facts, pushing us in certain directions for good or ill. How relevant is that today? All too much. Read more
Listen to this track by rotating cast of musical characters in orbit around one-time Rotten singer John Lydon; Public Image, Ltd. It’s “Rise”, a single and top twenty record as taken from the imaginatively titled 1986 LP, Album (or Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on format…). The album was the fifth released under the name Public Image, Ltd. since forming in 1978. By this period, it was more like a John Lydon solo record with some very notable, and very unexpected players featured on it.
The musicians on this song alone are a fair distance away from the musical world with which Lydon was generally associated. Stylistically, they’re even pretty far from each other in terms of genre, coming in from parallel stylistic universes to make a (perhaps) surprisingly complementary set of noises together while still retaining their own signature styles. This internal cohesion is largely down to the involvement of producer, bassist, musical director, and co-writer of this song Bill Laswell, well known for his knack for finding common threads between genres and musician’s styles to create something seamless out of them.
What does singer John Lydon himself bring to this song in the middle of all of that, a charting hit that reached #11 on the UK pop charts? Well, perhaps unexpectedly from the guy who wailed “no future for you!” at one point in his career, I think this song is about hope for the future itself. But, it’s hope with a cost. Read more
Listen to this track by soul music master architect and supernaturally gifted vocalist and songwriter Sam Cooke. It’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”, a B-side to his single “Shake” that would also become a celebrated civil rights anthem. The song would also appear on the 1964 album, Ain’t That Good News, his last album during his lifetime. The song would also appear posthumously on 1965’s Shake.
The sheer magnitude of this song is almost impossible to measure, with countless cultural associations, cover versions, samples, and all around influence attached to it. It’s almost impossible too to decide which aspect of that influence is the most significant. Maybe the most obvious one is the sheer rawness of expression it represents, written by a black man celebrated as a peerless artist in one context, from the perspective of one regarded as an object to be reviled in another; at a movie and going downtown, where someone keeps telling him not to hang around, knocked to his knees when he asks for help. Nineteen sixty-four is still not so far away from today, even if the rules have changed on the surface. People of colour are still treated as members of a mass, not as individual representatives of their own experience.
Coming from a pop singer like Cooke, this multilayered song was unexpected even by Cooke himself who purportedly received it fully formed and not sure what to do with it. Full of complexity, it did more than just call out a culture for its prejudice and cruelty. It had a pretty big hand in changing pop music itself, too. Read more
Listen to this track by eclectic London punk rock folk heroes The Clash. It’s “Guns Of Brixton”, a key track as taken from their landmark 1979 album London Calling. The song was the product of a songwriting and vocal effort of bassist Paul Simonon, shown on the front cover of the album giving his bass guitar an introduction to the ground in what looks like an uncontrolled act of rage. Yet on this song, that bass is used very productively indeed, even if the rage is still boiling under the surface.
By the time the band recorded this, their third album, they’d strayed away from the straight-ahead punk rock on their first album. Reggae was only one musical style to be found on London Calling, although “Guns Of Brixton” is where they get to the heart of that style more so than ever before. Simonon in particular was inspired by the cult film The Harder They Come and its main character actually referenced by name on this song. All of the violent imagery and paranoia found here comes from that same mythology found in the movie.
Having said that, it also sprang directly from the experiences and sensibilities of its writer, born and raised in Brixton and very aware of the tensions that were growing there by the end of the seventies. In this, the song was very prescient in what would happen in that very neighbourhood not long after this song was released. Read more
Listen to this track by New York-based, twenty-first century funk-soul standard-bearers The Dap Kings as led by vocal powerhouse Sharon Jones. It’s “This Land Is Your Land”, an American folk anthem as written by fascism-fighting songwriter Woody Guthrie, re-positioned here as a sweaty soul jam in a minor key. The track is featured on their 2005 album Naturally, their second.
Guthrie wrote this song in 1940 in response to a certain strain of American jingoism that papered over the disenfranchisement experienced by many during the years of the Great Depression. Despite it’s jaunty feel and kid-friendly reputation, by the late forties and early 1950s in the McCarthy era, Guthrie’s song was considered dangerous due to some redacted verses that criticized American life directly. This song was about claiming a birthright, and being blocked while trying to do so. It revealed cracks in the facade.
When multi-racial soul band Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings recorded it in the mid-2000s, their version wasn’t entirely removed from the intent of its author during an era of ever-widening gaps between rich and poor, and a second term for George W. Bush. How has the politically charged relevance of this song changed since then, stylistic textures aside? Given that it was written by one who stood openly opposed to fascism, the answer is a very discouraging “not very much”. Read more
Listen to this track by Americana and alt-country rock outliers The Long Ryders. It’s “Looking For Lewis And Clark”, a high point in their 1985 album The State Of Our Union. That album had the band on a major label and seeking a wider audience for their unique brand of punked-up Americana tinged with the brown-sound Woodstock vibe of their influences.
In this, they were ahead of their time, anticipating the alt-country movement that would gain in popularity by the mid-nineties and a full decade after they’d laid this record down. Despite the musical wells they were drawing from that tied them to the songwriting traditions of the past and the sound they foresaw that we’d see as a movement by the next decade, The Long Ryders had a lot to say about the political trajectory of America in the present. They weren’t kidding around with that album title.
There’s a real sense of betrayal to be found on this album and certainly on this song, with the direction of the American narrative taking a turn for the worst. We can all relate to that by now. But this was a particularly heinous thing to this particular band of musicians and songwriters given how important mythic visions of America were to them.
Listen to this track by Akron Ohio-bred cult heroes Devo. It’s “Beautiful World”, a single as taken from their 1981 album New Traditionalists. That release followed up what many consider to be their breakthrough in 1980’s Freedom of Choice which featured their ginormous hit “Whip It”.
This song follows the template set by that release in that it’s full of synthesizer and vocoder textures matched with twangy surf-guitar. Along with that, this song reflects a more pop-oriented approach and a much toned-down experimental side. The lyrics don’t reflect the high-mindedness of some of their earlier work either, full as it was of theories about the devolution of society from which the band get their name.
Even if this is true, this song is no ball of pop cotton candy. As accessible as this song is, and as in line as it is with the new wave sound that was very marketable by 1981, it still has an edge to it that works against its cheery title. Read more
Listen to this track by social commentary-oriented hip hop and spoken word crew The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy. It’s “Television, The Drug Of The Nation”, a notable track that was released as a single and taken from their 1992 debut record, Hypocrisy Is The Greatest Luxury.
Musician, poet, and rapper Michael Franti envisioned a style of hip hop that more directly confronted the social issues of the day, while also combining original grooves with sampled material. As for the latter aspect of the music, drummer and percussionist Rono Tsu was on hand to serve as the crew’s DJ. In addition to incorporating spoken raps in a style previously laid down by hip hop forebear Gil Scott-Heron, Franti also referenced the lingual rhythms of Beat poetry, eventually cutting a record with Beat movement elder William S. Burroughs.
But what of this song, so popular as a soundtrack commonly heard winding its way up and down university dorms in 1992, a time when the Internet wasn’t even a gleam in the eye of mass media outlets? Well, to me, I think this song is less about media, and more about us as consumers of it. Read more
Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-satirist with a highly developed social conscience matched by a sense of humour, Jill Sobule. It’s “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”, a single as taken from her involvement in the recent My Song Is My Weapon project, and its accompanying album Monster Protest Jams, Vol. 1. The album is a compilation of new protest songs that includes the work of artists like Tom Morello, Todd Rundgren, Amanda Palmer, Wayne Kramer, Wendy & Lisa, and many others.
The project, co-founded by Sobule, is based around the idea that the grand tradition of artistic protest in America needs an online forum. Through Pledge Music, we can help make that a reality particularly during a time when it is very difficult to tell satirical headlines from the actual news. More to the point, it’s a time when also-ran politicians and would-be world leaders seem to deal mostly in ambiguity and emotional button pushing instead of real data, specifically around the nebulous concept of the good ol’ days when America Was Great. No one can quite remember this era in exact detail, but many feel as though they need to replicate it in our modern age by electing repressive and out and out dangerous demagogues.
So, what is the role of the protest song in a socio-political environment such as ours? Does is have the same effect as it once did in the idealistic sixties or even in the jaded seventies? In this age of technological networks, maybe the answer is less about the song, and more about the listeners. Read more