The 10 Best Political Protest Songs of the '90s
Was There a Protest Movement in the 1990s?
Some say that the 1990s was relatively devoid of political and social upheaval and that the music of the '90s was similarly self-absorbed. I say you just have to listen a little harder to hear between the lines.
True, during the early 1990s, the golden age of socially conscious hip hop started to come to a close while alternative rock turned away from broad social issues toward personal angst. But despite this shift, the '90s still produced a fair share of protest anthems, songs that were often reminiscent of more traditional forms, with UK folksinger Billy Bragg covering Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen writing an album composed of traditional folk tunes.
Here are the 10 best protest songs of the '90s. If you think that the '90s were apolitical, I challenge you to listen and think again (and let me know in the comments section below which songs you feel were unjustly omitted).
10: Mr. Wendal--Arrested Development
"Mr. Wendal" is from Arrested Development's 1992 classic alternative hip hop album, 3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life Of...
There have been a few songs on my lists of protest songs that were judgment calls. There is a thin line between social consciousness and outright protest. This was the debate that I faced with this song but because it promotes treating the homeless with respect and dignity (in other words, protests the ill treatment of the homeless), I decided it was not a stretch to include Mr. Wendal here. It is a socially conscious hip hop classic which deserves its place within the 90s protest movement.
Mr. Wendal by Arrested Development (Video)
9: Excuse Me Mr.--Ben Harper
This is from Ben Harper's 1995 album, Fight For Your Mind. Because Harper's music is extremely eclectic, he's not the easiest to market and his music never fully received the mainstream attention it deserves (although he has sold fairly well in my native Canada). But throughout his career he has written and recorded some great socially conscious gems: "Excuse Me Mr." is an outstanding example.
"Excuse Me Mr." covers a broad range of subjects, including environmental ("Excuse me Mr., is that oil in the sea/Pollution in the air, Mr. what could that be?"), poverty ("Excuse me Mr., can't you see the children dying/You say that you can help them; you're not even trying"), and other political concerns. It also protests how a commerce driven society contributes to the numerous social ills that we face:
An excellent cover version of this song was also recorded by the influential John Martyn on his 1998 cover album, The Church With One Bell.
Excuse Me Mr. by Ben Harper (Video)
8: Eisler on the Go--Billy Bragg & Wilco
"Eisler On The Go" is from the 1998 Billy Bragg & Wilco collaboration, Mermaid Avenue. The project was organized by Nora Guthrie, daughter of one of the founding fathers of socially conscious music, Woody Guthrie. At the time of Woody's death, he had a number of incomplete songs written with lyrics, but no music. So Nora approached Billy Bragg about completing these songs and Bragg in turn recruited alt-country pioneers, Wilco.
"Eisler On The Go" is a song that protests Hanns Eisler's deportation during the Cold War. Hanns Eisler was a German composer who sought refuge in the US because his music was considered anti-Nazism. But he ended up being one of the first artists placed on the blacklist and eventually deported during the hysteria of the Cold War period.
Even though the cold war has passed, the song's message about political hysteria and racial profiling is still relevant.
Eisler On The Go by Billy Bragg & Wilco (Video)
7: Youth Against Fascism--Sonic Youth
"Youth Against Fascism" is from Sonic Youth's 1992 album Dirty. Sonic Youth was one of the most influential indie and alternative bands of all time. Even though they may not have been as overtly political as other underground bands, they did record their share of socially conscious songs.
"Youth Against Fascism" has a powerful anti-fascist and anti-racist message, while also protesting religious hypocrisy ("Another cross on fire/By a Christian liar/Black attack on fire").
Youth Against Fascism by Sonic Youth (Video)
6: The Big Three Killed My Baby--The White Stripes
This is from The White Stripes' 1999 self titled debut. Due to Jack White's feelings that music isn't an effective platform for politicizing, "The Big Three Killed My Baby" is one of the few socially conscious songs that Jack White has written.
The big three refer to the three major American car manufacturers of the 50s & 60s: General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. This song attacks the fall of labor unions and the negative effect it had on the American economy. In recent years the band has modified the lyrics during live performances to address the war in Iraq: "Bush's hands are red, and I found out your baby is dead."
The Big Three Killed My Baby by The White Stripes (Video)
5: Black Boys On Mopeds--Sinéad O'Connor
"Black Boys On Mopeds" is from Sinéad O'Connor's 1990 landmark album I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got. O'Connor was one of the most political and controversial musical artists of the 90s. This was due partly to the notorious incident of her ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II to protest the way the Roman Catholic Church handles cases of child abuse during an October 3, 1992 episode of Saturday Night Live.
"Black Boys on Mopeds" was an anti-Margret Thatcher protest song with strong anti-racist sentiments. It made reference to a 1989 incident involving Nicholas Bramble, a black youth who was killed while trying to evade police who wrongly suspected him of stealing the moped he was riding.
The problems that occur due to negative stereotyping are sadly still prevalent.
Black Boys on Mopeds by Sinéad O'Connor (Video)
4: Burn Hollywood Burn--Public Enemy
Here is another urban folk classic from the legendary socially conscious hip hop group Public Enemy, from their 1990 classic album, Fear of a Black Planet. The song also features contributions from NWA rapper Ice Cube and one of the founding fathers of hip hop, Big Daddy Kane.
"Burn Hollywood Burn" is a scathing exposé of the stereotypical portrayal of blacks in movies. This thought provoking song is another example of why Public Enemy is the most important rap group of the 80s & 90s.
Public Enemy was inducted into the 2013 class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Even though there are critics who argue that rap has no place in the Rock Hall, such a view is shortsighted, especially in the case of Public Enemy, who helped blur the lines between rock and rap and were a true cultural force with their brand of socially conscious hip hop.
Burn Hollywood Burn by Public Enemy (Video)
3: To the Teeth--Ani DiFranco
"To the Teeth" is the title track from DiFranco's 1999 album. Ani DiFranco, who has established herself has a feminist icon, was one of the most compelling socially conscious singers to emerge from the 90s.
"To the Teeth" serves as a mournful indictment of American gun culture in the wake of the Columbine High School shooting massacre. I can't help but get choked up every time I hear this song.
To the Teeth by Ani DiFranco (Video)
2: The Ghost of Tom Joad--Bruce Springsteen
Tom Joad is a character from John Steinbeck's 1939 classic novel The Grapes of Wrath who has become a symbol of social activism. He's named in the title track of Springsteen's 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad; Springsteen's song was inspired by Woody Guthrie's "Ballad of Tom Joad."
"Ghost of Tom Joad" gives the social backdrop of The Great Depression a modern reading ("Now Tom said 'Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy/Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air/Look for me Mom I'll be there'" ).
A heavier and more aggressive version of the song was also recorded by Rage Against the Machine. Rage's guitarist Tom Morello has performed this song with Bruce Springsteen on a few occasions as well and re-recorded version with Morello appears on Springsteen's 2014 album High Hopes.
This is definitely an important protest song which links the past with the present.
Ghost of Tom Joad by Bruce Springsteen (Video)
Tom Morello at Occupy Wall Street
1: Killing in the Name--Rage Against the Machine
"Killing In the Name" is from RATM's 1992 self titled debut. RATM is known for their fiercely political music and "Killing In The Name" is a prime example.
"Killing In the Name" is an angry protest against racist cops ("Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses"). The song builds up to the point that it becomes an expletive filled tirade ("F- you I won't do what you tell me"). Because of my upbringing I generally avoid profanity, and I generally feel a bit uneasy about listening to it, but in this particular situation the expletives are well suited to the righteous indignation of the subject matter. If anything, the edited version does lack the dramatic impact.
During live performances, Zack de la Rocha sometimes changes the words "Some of those that work forces, are the same that burn crosses" to "Some of those that burn crosses are the same that hold office." In 2009 there was a UK Facebook campaign to encourage people to download the song so it will become the #1 song during the Christmas week (instead of the X-Factor winner) and it became the first UK number one based solely on downloads. Rage Against the Machine played a free thank you gig for over 40,000 fans and presented the proceeds of the downloads to charity. It was definitely a way that the band could subvert the system from within.
As a fair warning, the video posted is the unedited version.
Killing in the Name by Rage Against the Machine (Video)
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© 2012 CJ Baker