The eight worst protest songs

The question I’ve been asked most often while promoting the book (apart from “Why have you left out [insert pet favourite song here], you bastard?”) is, “What’s the worst protest song?” While I mentioned a fair few duds in the text, I generally held my snark in check because I wanted to focus on music I actually liked, but it might be time to redress the balance. I’ve deliberately avoided right-wing songs because I don’t want just to pick on songs whose politics I disagree with. Some of these songs are by bands I like, which probably helps me see their flaws more clearly. On the other hand, some are by bands who stink. Your further suggestions are welcome.

8. It’s All About Me

Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, “Teach Your Children” (1970)

In the divided America of 1970, with Nixon in the White House, fatal shootings on college campuses and no end in sight to the bloodbath in Vietnam, I like to think that at least some scared and angry teenagers took comfort from the news that David Crosby had not, despite thinking about it quite hard, cut his hair. What stayed his hand? Well he felt like “letting my freak flag fly” and he felt like “I owe it to someone”. And sure, he’s sick of getting hassled by the pigs just for smoking a little grass now and then but he’s “not giving in an inch to fear”. There’s courage for you. This isn’t atrocious — it has the same kind of pleasantly ambling Californian ambience Crosby parlayed into the following year’s wonderful solo album If I Could Only Remember My Name, and in his defence he was clearly making the lyric up as he went along — but it epitomises affluent hippie narcissism at its worst, while on the same album Graham Nash’s Teach Your Children provides the sanctimonious flipside. Neil Young’s Ohio, which was recorded two months later after the Kent State shootings, blasts both to dust.

See also: Madonna, “American Life” (2003)

7. Soft Targets

Back to the Planet, “Teenage Turtles” (1993)

There were many topics deserving of a left-leaning songwriter’s ire in the early 90s: John Major, George Bush senior, the first Gulf War, the rise of the BNP, the crackdown on travellers’ rights and, perhaps most pernicious of all, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. God knows what Leonardo and co had done to offend South London crusties Back to the Planet (some of whom I vaguely knew at the time and were lovely, by the way) but by the time the live favourite Teenage Turtles was officially released the film was already three years old and their malevolent influence on the western world’s youth was surely on the wane. “Have you got a brain?” singer Fil rather harshly asks the turtles’ 10-year-old fanbase, as if were it not for this distraction they might be reading Chomsky and Fanon instead. The song is so ceaselessly annoying, from the finger-wagging tone to the bizarre backwards syntax (“Blame the telly with adverts cool… blame the turtles, an influence bad”) that it actually makes Partners in Kryme’s Turtle Power seem resonant by comparison.

See also: Karel Fialka, “Hey Matthew” (1987)

6. Armchair Revolutionaries

Primal Scream, “Beautiful Future” (2008)

First let it be said that I bow to nobody in my love of Screamadelica, and that I consider XTRMNTR one of the most thrilling political albums ever recorded, but it was as if Bobby Gillespie were saving up all his least appealing qualities for this one terrible, terrible song. The juxtaposition of jaunty music and one-note sneer reflects the clanging irony of the title, as Gillespie taunts brain-dead bourgeois listeners who have a “sexy wife” and “beautiful children” (the fuckers) without realising that they live “in the dead heart of the control machine”. He might just about have gotten away with it had he been living in some kind of anarchist compound but he promoted Beautiful Future with interviews about how much he was enjoying fatherhood (beautiful children) and marriage to fashion stylist Katy England (sexy wife), which made his urban guerrilla schtick actively galling. When he sings “Take a ride around your city/Tell me what do you see?/Empty houses, burning cars/Naked bodies hanging from the trees” I immediately think of Alexis Petridis’s evisceration of the album in the Guardian: “Where have you seen this exactly? In Islington, where you live? No wonder property prices in N1 have levelled off.”

5. Rock Against Bad Things

Michael Jackson, “Earth Song” (1995)

Watch here (embedding disabled)

Phil Ochs once defined a protest song as “a song so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit”. The definition proved too narrow, but Earth Song is a song so general that you cannot mistake it for anything other than bullshit. Having whetted his appetite for broad-brush protest by co-writing USA For Africa’s We Are the World, and reduced a century of human suffering to wallpaper in the video for Man in the Mirror, Jacko was ready for the full-blown Messiah complex of Earth Song, in which a man so divorced from reality that he was now basically a Pop Art version of Shelley’s Ozymandias set about solving all the problems in the world. The increasingly hysterical lyric has all the geopolitical acumen of a five-year-old asking “Why does God let bad things happen, mummy?” — a shopping list of global problems which reaches an absurd peak with the line, “What about elephants? Have we lost their trust?” Jackson proved his commitment to the environment by filming the video in four continents. In Britain Earth Song will forever be associated with Jarvis Cocker’s waggling bottom, which is exactly what it deserves.

See also: Billy Joel, “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (1989)

4. Potential International incident

John & Yoko/Plastic Ono Band, “The Luck of the Irish” (1972)

It seemed like a good idea at the time: one of the world’s biggest rock stars, in his first flush of radicalism, embarking on a whole album of angry topical songs. But Some Time in New York City was a disaster, equivalent to putting police tape around the protest song for the next few years, reading DO NOT ENTER. Rolling Stone deemed it “so embarrassingly puerile as to constitute an advertisement against itself”. While the album’s not a complete washout (some of Yoko’s ahead-of-the-curve feminist compositions were OK), it’s hard to disagree, especially when faced with the head-in-hands horror of The Luck of the Irish. The Lennons set about the Troubles with twin sledgehammers: John bludgeoned it with melodrama (“Aye! Aye! Genocide!”) and hamhanded sarcasm (say, wait a minute, the Irish aren’t lucky at all!), while Yoko finished the job with a degree of ersatz Oirish whimsy that would shame an O’Neill’s pub. “Let’s walk over rainbows like leprechauns,” she sings as Uilleann pipes trill. “The world would be one big Blarney stone.” At the least the heat was off Macca: Give Ireland Back to the Irish was no longer the crassest song about Northern Ireland by a solo Beatle.

See also: The Cranberries, “Zombie” (1994)

3. Worse Than Nuclear War

Sting, “Russians” (1985)

Sting’s protest songs are a cautionary tale about the collision of good intentions and weapons-grade pomposity. This is a man, after all, who couldn’t sing about a Lolitaesque scenario without citing “that book by Nabokov”, so he sure as hell wasn’t going to go easy on the subject of nuclear armageddon. It’s written in the style of a weary schoolmaster composing a letter of complaint to the local paper about the building of a new car park. Quoting some bellicose rhetoric from Khrushchev (who died in 1971), he responds, “I don’t subscribe to this point of view/It would be such an ignorant thing to do.” He then ventures the hope that “the Russians love their children too,” as if they might not, or might need reminding by the guy from The Police. And it’s all rendered in language that enjoys the same fluidity and zing as a speech to the Politburo. It’s said that the Russians recalibrated their missiles so that in the event of war the first strike would target Sting’s house. Just because.

See also: Culture Club, “The War Song” (1984)

2. When Bad Things Happen to Good Songs

Artists Against AIDS worldwide, “What’s Going On” (2001)

After the attacks of September 11, a stunned and wounded nation looked for eloquent voices who could put into words the horror of this black day in American history. Cometh the hour, cometh Fred Durst. A platoon of stars had already teamed up, Band Aid-style, to emote the hell out of Marvin Gaye’s 1971 classic in the name of AIDS prevention when Al Qaeda struck. Rather than carry on regardless they invited the famously sensitive frontman of Limp Bizkit (known for such searching disquisitions into human nature as Break Stuff and Nookie) to add a final topical verse, thus turning a still-raw national tragedy into a tossed-off afterthought and pushing an otherwise blandly well-intentioned charity single off a cliff. “Somebody tell me what’s going on,” yaps Durst, sounding suitably confused. “We got human beings using humans for a bomb/But everybody wanna live/Don’t nobody really wanna die.” Except, one might counter, suicide bombers who fly planes into buildings in anticipation of glorious martyrdom. They probably do wanna die.

See also: The Thompson Twins feat. Madonna and Nile Rodgers, “Revolution” (Live at Live Aid) (1985)

1. Problem Mistakes Self for Solution

4 Non Blondes, “What’s Up” (1993)

Every now and then a band offers up a version of the counterculture so bogus and repellent that you suspect them of being of CIA plants employed to persuade listeners to reject rebellion for a nice career in arms dealing. 4 Non Blondes were such a band. Needless to say, anyone who suggests that having brown hair is sticking it to the man should be regarded with suspicion. When the singer then claims “I pray every day for revolution” you know you’re probably not dealing with a member of the Weather Underground. What Linda Perry is protesting against is never clear but she’s certainly going to try to yodel it to death with a voice roughly as mellifluous as an air raid siren. The video’s cynical melange of grunge tropes, throughout which Perry gurns like an evil clown, makes the Matt Dillon movie Singles look like a verite documentary.

See also: Sandi Thom, “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With Flowers in My Hair)” (2005)

UPDATE, 11/3: Further suggestions from people on Twitter, all of which make me think I owe David Crosby an apology. The last one has to be seen to be believed. And then seen again just to be sure.

9 Comments

  1. Does the infamous ‘Rap against Rape’ count? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kF_uyxAvYsM

  2. One of my favourites would be Paul McCartney’s ‘Freedom (Is Worth Fighting For)’. A pro-war protest song from the famously peace and love advocating, animal-adoring McCartney? Oh yes.

  3. If we are going to be mentioning Armchair Revolutionaries we must tip our hats to the marvellous Terry and Gerry – The Armchair Terrorist Song

  4. Not that it’s as truly dreadful but I get a bit queasy about Dylan’s ‘Neighbourhood Bully’. I also squirmed with embarrassment when he made his graceless observations on Live Aid about US farmers.

  5. […] his account of the worst protest songs ever. Including the embarrassement that is Michael Jackson’s Earth Song and the bemusement of 4 Non […]

  6. Must disagree about your inclusion of the Sting song “Russians”. Sure, it lacks the lyrical punch of Dylan’s “Masters of War” or the timelessness of “We Shall Overcome”. But I was a college student in the US in the 80s when the song came out, and it had a great deal of meaning for many that I knew. Amidst the Reagan Cold War against the “evil empire” and very palpable fear of a nuclear war, it was a timely reminder that the Russians were human, too, and not some malevolent force which only understood the language of power. The song and accompanying video suggested it was possible to engage with the Enemy, in a way that served the best interests of all parties, on the basis of our mutual humanity.

    • That’s a pretty eloquent defence, even if I’m not swayed. When I was writing this piece I noticed that even the most derided protest songs had had a positive effect on some listeners, at least judging by YouTube comments. It’s easily forgotten that even a very flawed protest song does more good than harm.

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