If you’re anything like me, you’re nervously frittering away the hours today until results (precious, precious results!) come in, telling you that our long national nightmare has either begun or ended, depending on your political leanings.
So waste some time on this: a list of the best political songs I think of at this particular moment (and one of the worst), in no particular order:
Leadbelly, “Bourgeois Blues”: First off, let’s get this outta the way quick – if you don’t know who Leadbelly was, you need to listen to him right now. Leadbelly inspired everyone from Tom Waits to CCR to Aerosmith to Nirvana and Mark Lanegan. Yes, Nirvana. “Bourgeois Blues” is a tune Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter by birth) co-wrote with Alan Lomax about how Leadbelly and his girl could only eat in certain restaurants when they were with the very white Mr. Lomax and his wife. If that’s not enticing enough, consider how hardcore Leadbelly was – three trips to jail in his life, shot down at least two dudes who crossed him. What I’m saying, so we’re clear, is there is not a single (studio)gangsta rapper out there who could last two minutes in a scrap with Huddie Ledbetter.
R.E.M., “Exhuming McCarthy”: If you listen to R.E.M.’s 80s output (and you should), one thing is crystal clear: R.E.M. fucking hated Ronald Reagan and his fuck-the-poor (aka “trickle down”) economic policies. “Exhuming McCarthy” nails Reagan to the Christian Right morality police who came to power during his administration with lines like “Vested interest, united ties/ landed gentry rationalize/ look who bought the myth/ By jingo, buy America”. This song also features Mike Mills’ best-ever backing vocal: he sings (with a poppy bounce) “Meet me at the book burning” as the song fades out. Not only is “Exhuming McCarthy” a killer pop song but, like many of R.E.M.’s 80s songs, it has enjoyed a frightening return to relevance in the last eight years.
The Clash, “Clampdown”: I could’ve populated this list with Clash tunes: “White Riot,” “Spanish Bombs,” “Rock the Casbah,” etc. But “Clampdown”, off of London Calling (best album ever), pretty much exemplifies the Clash’s political theory: “Kick over the wall/ cause governments to fall/ how can you refuse it?/ Let fury have the hour/ anger can be power/ do you know that you can use it?” This so perfectly encapsulated Joe Strummer’s poltics that Let Fury Have the Hour became the name of a book about (surprise) Joe Strummer’s politics. “Clampdown” is also a great political song because it’s timeless – it’s a general fuck-off to the daily grind and to the guys who profit off the sweat of your brow (“it’s the best years of your life they want to steal”). And of course, it has to be a good song which is guaranteed by the fact that it’s performed by The Clash at the absolute peak of their power.
Non-Prophets, “Hey Bobby” – I think Sage Francis eventually released this tune on one of his compilations before A Healthy Distrust came out and signaled the officially dropping of the ball that he would follow with the unwieldy Human the Death Dance. But Non-Prophets were definitely Sage Francis’s finest hour and this song was theirs: “It’s not a love it or leave it/ it’s a change it or lose it” is still one of the most powerful lines a person can write. “Hey Bobby” captures a man’s frustration with his country, a frustration ultimately born of love – why fight to change a nation you hate? You’d just let it rot, but “Hey Bobby” is Sage Francis saying that’s not gonna happen on his watch.
Ani DiFranco, “‘Tis of Thee” – Ah, Ani DiFranco. If you want a polarizing figure in American music, you can’t do much better than Ani. Ferociously independent and wonderfully opinionated, she has courageously refused to ever cave in to the desire to sell records (like, say, Liz Phair did) and she’s been rewarded by a loyal fanbase that scarfs up her albums and concert tickets like it’s their civic duty. “‘Tis of Thee” is not the loudest, most strident Ani song (like The Clash, she has plenty of political stuff to choose from); it’s soft, mournful, and yet still aggressive: “They caught the last poor man today… and they dragged his black ass down to the station” is followed later by “we’ll never live long enough/ to undo everything they’ve done to you”. Love her or hate her, you can never accuse DiFranco of having lost her will to fight, but “‘Tis of Thee” is her with her hope at rock bottom, a mournful anti-anthem.
Tom Waits, “Road to Peace” – Tom Waits usually eschews the directly political, but sometime in 2005, he got really really really pissed off about worldly affairs and spat out this masterpiece about the conflict between Israel and Palestine (with a healthy dose of vitriol reserved for W. and his utter lack of competence). The song welds Waits’ gift for storytelling to that little ticker that scrolls along the bottom of your screen on CNN. Not many singer/songwriters could get away with something like this, but Waits uses his unique voice and ear for percussive arrangements to deliver lines like, “The last thing he said on earth/ was ‘God is great and God is good’/ Then them all to kingdom come/ out along the road to peace”. Where’s your roadmap now, GWB?
Pulp, “Common People” – First off, I (dis)respectfully dedicate this song today to Sarah Palin, who talks a lot about the common man but clearly is not of his ilk, nor does she care much about him. The GOP nominee’s policies would not help Joe the fucking Plumber, but he doesn’t seem to know that. Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. You probably missed Pulp among the Britpop heyday of the late 90s because Blur (cool) and Oasis (less cool, but usually tolerable) were the big names on the scene. So go to the YouTubes right now and look up “Common People.” Jarvis Cocker, a true hero, narrates a tale of a wealthy daddy’s girl out slumming it among the common people (“I want to sleep with common people like you”, the most backhanded compliment ever). He takes her to the super market and says, “Now pretend you’ve got no money.” She laughs but Jarvis can’t see anyone else laughing in there. Best lines: “You’ll never fail like common people/ never watch your life slide out of view/ and dance/ and drink/ and screw/ ’cause there’s nothing else to do,” and, of course, “If you called your dad, he could stop it all.” Which brings us to another reason to fucking love Jarvis Cocker:
Jarvis Cocker, “Running the World” – Years after writing “Common People,” and years after Pulp broke up, Jarvis released his first solo album, simply called Jarvis. It’s a dark, contrarian masterpiece that wraps up with “Running the World,” Cocker’s reflection on the state of things in 2007: “cunts are still running the world.” It’s worth quoting at length: “Did you hear there’s a natural order/ those most deserving will end up with the most/ that the cream cannot help/ but always rise up to the top/ well, I say:/ shit floats”. All this delivered with Cocker’s unmatched pop sensibilities. If today doesn’t go your way, kids, put this song on. It’ll help you laugh away those bitter tears.
Also worth mentioning: Uncle Tupelo: “We’ve Been Had”; Mac Lethal: “Pass the Ammo”; Ted Leo and the Pharmacists: “Army Bound”; anything by Public Enemy (pre 2000) and Billy Bragg; Black Sabbath: “War Pigs,” and The Flaming Lips’ entire At War with the Mystics album. Now get the fuck out there and vote!
Oh – and the worst political song ever: “Civil War” by Guns ‘n’ Roses: Seriously, this song only proves that Axl Rose doesn’t know shit about shit. What civil war is he talking about? The American one? He kinda did need it or his country wouldn’t exist as he knew it when he penned this shitpile of a song. Is he talking about goings-on in eastern Europe at the time? Doubtful. It’s more likely that he thought it’d be cool to be all political and try to sound smart. So he coughed up this chunk of epic failure and proved himself a fool by opening his mouth. As if we ever doubted him.