Political Music 101

9 Mins read

If you’re anything like myself, politics and music are at opposite ends of the ‘things that interest me’ scale.

Three guesses which is at which end – I know that it probably makes me the poster child for the disengaged youth, but I can’t pretend I ever try keep up with politics.

Once in a while, however, music and politics overlap and I find myself paying attention to what’s going on in the world outside of my happy little bubble.

Here’s my run down of ten of the best politically charged songs since the 1950s:

1. Beyoncé – Formation

Queen B may have become the face of 21st century feminism, but her political jams don’t start and end with Run The World (Girls).

The recently-released Formation and it’s accompanying five minute masterpiece video is a strong statement against police brutality in America. Wearing her politics on her sleeve, Beyoncé stands up for black lives, black issues and black history.

Cleverly released slap bang in the middle of Black History Month, Formation is an unabashedly Southern track, with lines such as “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana, you mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama” and “Earned all this money but they never take the country out me, I got a hot sauce in my bag, swag.”

The instant-classic video has images of post-Katrina New Orleans, and the massively symbolic scene of one of the cities police cars sinking below the flood waters, Bey herself sprawled on its hood.

With the recent unrest across the USA after the deaths of Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and other young black men and women at the hands of the US police force, the release of this track and it’s performance at the 50th Super Bowl half time show has certainly made waves.


2. UB40 – One in Ten

Without naming her directly, UB40’s One in Ten was a voice for those struggling for survival at the hands of Margaret Thatcher and the harsh policies of 1980s conservative Britain.

The name of the Birmingham band’s hit comes from the number of people in the West Midlands claiming benefits during the summer of 1981 – 9.8 per cent or one in ten.

The song is a protest statement against mass unemployment as is the bands name, which was the reference number of the benefit attendance card used to sign onto the dole.

The song calls up a number of issues that arose due to such high unemployment levels, such as malnutrition, drug abuse, and homelessness.

The line “a statistical reminder of a world that doesn’t care”  hits home about the huge numbers of Brits who, due to Thatcherism, were pretty much forgotten about as people and reduced nothing more than a statistic.

3. The Jam – The Eton Rifles

Mod revival legends The Jam managed to fit a full scale class war into a three minute song with their single The Eton Rifles.

The song was sparked by a 1978 incident, in which socialist workers on a Right to Work march from Liverpool to London were jeered and mocked by the rich kids behind the gates of posh boy playground Eton College.

In typical Paul Weller style, it’s a sarcastic rally against social inequality and class division. David Cameron rubbed Weller up the wrong way a couple of years ago, when he said on national radio that The Eton Rifles was one of his favourite songs.

With lines such as “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” that could easily have come from Cameron’s Eton alumni, silver spoon fed mouth, it really riled up The Jam’s front man.

Speaking to Mojo, Weller asked “Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps. I’ll play that tomorrow night with as much passion as when it was written nearly 30 years ago. It’s never been more appropriate, man.”

4. The Gossip – Standing in the Way of Control

For most British twenty-somethings, this song will forever be synonymous with our weekly dose of Cook, Effy and Freddie, as the unofficial theme song of Skins (interestingly enough, the song was used in the seminal television program without the band’s permission).

But the meaning behind it runs a little deeper than getting high in a suburban park with too much eyeliner on circa 2009.

Never one to fade into the wallpaper, loudmouth front woman Beth Ditto penned the punky Standing in the Way of Control as a direct response to President Bush’s proposed Federal Marriage Amendment – a bill that, if passed, would have constitutionally outlawed same-sex marriage in all fifty states of America.

With chorus lyrics as brave and brash as “Standing in the way of control, you live your life, survive the only way that you know”, it doesn’t take a lot of digging to see that this is a song fighting for civil rights in the face of adversity.

Speaking publicly about the track and the meaning behind it, Arkansas-born Ditto said “Nobody in the States was that surprised or shocked by what Bush did, but it made everyone I know feel helpless and cheated. I wrote the chorus to try and encourage people not to give up. It’s a scary time for civil rights, but I really believe the only way to survive is to stick together and keep fighting.”

5. The Specials – Ghost Town

In the same year and facing the same struggles that UB40 were rallied against in One in Ten, Ska legends The Specials were whipping up Ghost Town, often heralded as the song that defined the era.

In the 1981 summer of discontent, the Coventry two-toners reached number one in the charts – Ghost Town’s eerie siren wails and obvious message was echoing up and down the country.

As the single was climbing the charts to the top, anguish grew across Britain, and the song became a portrait of a country in unrest.

The Thatcherite cuts meant that “all the clubs have been closed down”, as indeed had all the shops and opportunities, shown in the highly credited video with a road trip through scenes of an empty, almost post-apocalyptic town.

Ominously muttered over the sparse reggae beat is the lyrics “No job to be found in this country, can’t go on no more, the people getting angry”, which is spookily accurate in hindsight, as the country erupted into riots the day before Ghost Town hit number one.

6. Labi Siffre – Something Inside So Strong

It’s not often that documentary footage can be so moving it leads a person to create a song that becomes so infamous it serves as a voice for those in a great humanitarian crisis, but London born Labi Siffre made himself the exception.

He wrote the classic Something Inside So Strong in 1984, after seeing footage of the apartheid system in South Africa, in which a group of young black kids were shot at with no rhyme or reason by white policemen.

He later revealed that the song held a second, more personal meaning, that it represented the oppression he experienced growing up gay.

The drum beats in the track are just as powerful as the lyrics, that show that adversity and struggle only make a person stronger and more willing to fight for their rights “the higher you build your barriers the taller I become. The farther you take my rights away the faster I will run.”

It seems eerily relevant to the #BlackLivesMatter struggle in America at the moment, and almost like society has taken a step back in the wrong direction.

The protest song has taken on multiple meanings for different groups of people in trying circumstances, but with lyrics as universally empowering as “my light will shine so brightly, it will blind you, ’cause there’s something inside so strong, I know that I can make it”, it comes as no great surprise.

For example a Birmingham choir made up entirely of homeless singers called The Choir With No Name have adopted it as their signature tune, and feel it restores their dignity and pride when performing it.

7. Hozier – Take Me To Church

At a first listen, Take Me To Church sounds so accessible and waving-your-lighter worthy, it’s easy to assume it’s just a great song with some edgy religious analogies thrown in for good measure. But it only takes a step into the haunting four minute video to see that it runs a lot deeper than that.

The video, directed by Brendan Canty, features powerful footage of a young gay Russian couple and the adversity they face towards their sexuality in their home country. This is a clear outcry against the horrendous violent repression of LGBT people in Russia.

The most heart wrenching thing about the scenes of the young lovers being followed and tortured by a masked mob is that this story doesn’t just exist in the black and white world of the video, this a real fear and harsh reality for most homosexual Russians.

Hozier likens it to his childhood in Ireland in an interview with Billboard magazine. “Growing up in Ireland, the church is always there – the hypocrisy, the political cowardice. The video has the same theme – an organisation that undermines humanity.”

The religious undertones aren’t only in the video and lyrics, the sound of the dull piano notes against Hozier’s beautiful voice wouldn’t sound lost in a church and are almost hymn-like at times.

The song has become the unofficial anthem for the struggle in Russia, and is a huge triumph in the on-going battle against bigotry.


8. Bob Marley – Redemption Song

In what some (including myself) would argue was his most important and defining song, the father of reggae explores the history of slavery, in a way that only he can.

In his Jamaican patois, using “I” for “me”, he speaks of the estimated 9-12 million Africans that were robbed of their freedom by “old pirates” (Americans), and sold and forced into slavery.

With the horrific conditions they were subjected to, and the fact that 15% of the people kidnapped died on slave ships en route to their awful fate, all they had was their faith “but my hand was made strong by the hand of the Almighty” and their music “won’t you help to sing these songs of freedom?”

The calm protest jam was recorded in just one take of Bob Marley and his guitar in his own Tuff Gong studio.

It’s been likened to the protest songs of Bob Dylan, rather than the happy go-lucky bouncy reggae that  is unmistakably ‘Marley.’

The relentless activism of both members of parliament and of the public is what eventually abolished slavery, and the song serves as a reminder in the context of today that good old fashioned Redemption Songs and human spirit are sometimes the most effective ways to combat moral injustice.

The song goes on to discuss the mental slavery of the public at the hands of those in power, and how we have often allowed ourselves to be told what to think, feel, and do. It was the final track on his final album, before his untimely death in 1981, and almost serves as his signing-off song with a reminder of his beliefs and vision for the future.

9. Green Day – Wake Me Up When September Ends

Released the years after the largest modern attack on Western society, September 11, 2001, this song conveys the heartache of the families who lost innocent loved ones in the terrorist tragedy – “the innocent can never last.”

The song title is apparently what ten year old front man in the making Billie-Joe said to his mother when he learnt of his fathers death, in the month of September.

This was the song’s original meaning when it was penned, but after the release of the accompanying video, showing a young American couple separated by the post-9/11 Iraq war, it was clear what the lyrics had come to mean.

Poignantly placed as the 11th track on the punk rockers’ seventh studio album, it served as a soother to those whose mourning feelings were as raw as they were three years previous.

It deals with accepting the loss of loved ones through tragedy, trying to be a peace with it, but always keeping their memory alive – “as my memory rests, but never forgets what I lost.”

When Hurricane Katrina struck the deep South of America the day before September 2005, Green Day’s theatrical front man dedicated the emotionally-loaded song to the victims of the storm, and acknowledged what was set to be a period of struggle for those in Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi.

10. John Lennon – Imagine

To end our list we have what is possibly the most well-known political song of all time, the timeless Imagine by Beatle John Lennon.

The political message is un-ignorable in this gentle tune, and is cleverly written to such a soft melody that it is universally enjoyable.

Written not about any specific human struggle, but about greed and wars in general, the Liverpudlian was begging the world to imagine a place where there were no materialism or religious feuds to divide the human race.

The song was essentially the promotion for Lennon’s perfect world, and is just as appealing today as it was in it’s day. The video features Lennon and hippy wife Yoko Ono dressed as a Native American and a cowboy – a clear message that this track was urging all cultures to come together rather than murdering each other.

After the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York, Neil Young and Yolanda Adams both gave poignant performances of the song, proving it’s continuing relevance.

More recently, after the heartbreaking November 2015 Paris attacks, German musician Davide Martello performed the song at each of the locations innocent people were killed at on a grand piano, while mourners gathered to listen.



Featured image by Scottlum via Flickr CC

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