Politics and Popular Music

Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture. Editor: Brian Cogan & Tony Kelso. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Politics and popular music have been tied together for thousands of years and American music has often been resolutely political. From the time of the American Revolution, songs, slogans, and musical chants have been used to ridicule and parody opposition candidates. While we assume that the most virulent songs in opposition to politicians come from recent times, actually the tradition of vicious attacks and of lionizing one’s own candidate in song and chants goes back to almost the start of American politics. A classic example occurred during the election campaign of Grover Cleveland—when it was alleged that he had fathered an illegitimate child, his opponents were all ready for his campaign stops with chants/sing-alongs of “Ma Ma, Where’s my Pa, gone to the Whitehouse, Haw Haw Haw!” Not the most subtle of attacks, but very memorable. Chants, songs, and music were always a staple of American politics and appear to be valuable parts of the political process for the foreseeable future.

Most campaigns since the earliest years of the presidency used music as a way of highlighting issues and gaining attention for their candidates. While many of the songs used by candidates and about political movements were fairly uninspired, many were quite astute and were used to great effect in campaigns where many Americans, especially in the nineteenth century, were only functionally literate and had to rely on slogans, songs, chants, and alliteration to remember important details in a vestige of an earlier oral culture. Political songs helped make campaign themes memorable, and therefore were highly effective ways of rallying the troops.

Although there were numerous songs about George Washington, some treating him with almost fatherly reverence, others merely deifying him, the first true campaign song was most likely from the election of 1800 where the song “Jefferson and Liberty” written by Robert Treat Pain Jr. served as a rallying cry of Jefferson’s supporters versus his opponent John Adams (strangely enough, Pain had also previously written songs in support of Adams, but switched allegiances by the 1800 election). Andrew Jackson used the song “Hunters of Kentucky” to great success, but it was not until the election of 1840 that a song truly caught the popular imagination. According to Stuart Schimmler, the song “Tip and Ty,” which was based on the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” became a nationally popular song. It was written by Alexander Coffman Ross and put to the tune of “Little Pigs,” a popular song of the day. According to Irwin Silber, the American Review called it, “in the political canvas of 1840 what the ‘Marseillaise’ was to the French Revolution. It sang Harrison into the presidency” (Schimmler 2002). The election of 1860 and the bitterly fought contest between Lincoln and Douglas led to a plethora of songs attacking or praising both politicians. Lincoln used the haunting “Lincoln and Liberty,” written by Jesse Hutchison, based on the old Irish standard “Rosin the Beau.” Douglas relied on the explicitly political “Dandy Jim of Caroline,” which boldly said:

We’ll raise our glorious banner high, “Douglas and Johnson,” live or die;
We’ll vindicate our glorious cause, the constitution, and its laws:
Aristocrats we do despise, for they the poor would disfranchise.
The constitution is our plan, that gives to all the rights of man.

Later presidential candidates did not always rely upon songs adapted from popular songs, but used popular music of the time that they felt applied to their campaigns. Theodore Roosevelt used the ragtime classic “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight” as his theme song, demonstrating that popular tunes of the day could be adapted for campaign use. Even popular singers could be used to further the campaign theme, as demonstrated when Warren Harding employed Al Jolson to sing “Harding You’re the Man for Us” (Schimmler 2002). Franklin Roosevelt used a variety of theme songs, such as “On the Right Road with Roosevelt” by Robert Sterling and “We Want a Man like Roosevelt” by Kenneth Wardell, both of which optimistically claimed that Roosevelt would fix America’s crushing unemployment. However, Roosevelt took up the challenge explicitly with his main campaign song, the uber-optimistic “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Naturally politicians found that songs that identified with the candidates, not necessarily with their themes, were also powerful tools for invigorating the voter base, as Harry Truman found out when he naturally chose “I’m Just Wild About Harry” as the theme song to his 1948 election campaign. Dwight Eisenhower employed veteran Broadway songwriter Irving Berlin for his “I Like Ike” song, which was also later the title of a popular calypso song from Trinidad celebrating the president’s accomplishments. John F. Kennedy also took a song by Broadway pros, “High Hopes” by James Van Heusen, with a rewrite by Sammy Cahn to update the lyrics. After the 1960s, as politicians started to choose rock songs for their campaign theme songs, the quality went down noticeably. Although songs like “Go Go Goldwater,” “Nixon’s the One,” and even Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking ‘bout Tomorrow” were adequate songs, most candidates from the 1970s onwards did not stick to one song for that long. In the 2008 race for president, Hillary Clinton held an online vote to see which campaign song would best fit her campaign. The winner was a treacley ballad from Canadian singer Celine Dion, “You and I,” first used in a commercial, which demonstrated why it might be wise to have several good songs on tap in case a real clinker is chosen by the electorate. One reason for the change was that many songwriters objected to specific politicians using their material (as in Bruce Springsteen objecting to Ronald Reagan using his song “Born in the USA” as a campaign song) as well as the fact that many songwriters, especially rock musicians, were writing songs for other purposes, not to support candidates and politics but to oppose them. This does not mean that candidates will stop using theme songs, only that in a televisual age, the purpose of the campaign song may be less useful in an age of YouTube mash-ups than in previous decades.

Musicians and Protest Songs

By the time of the twentieth century, advances in the production of sheet music, as well as the advent of the phonograph, had increased the ubiquity of protest music or music made for political aims. As long as there have been politics, there have been protest songs against the dominant ruling class. From English political songs and Irish protest songs, the American version grew from songs that satirized first America’s colonial British masters, and later American political figures as well. While protest songs and campaign songs and chants were always effective tools, the use of music to protest political problems grew, evolved, and saw a renaissance in the 1960s with the rise of the modern protest movement.

In the 1960s folk music and rock and roll reestablished the importance of the folk song. Some early examples of political musicians include the contributions of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, Leadbelly, and others in the embryonic folk scene, especially Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs. Numerous other folk and rock groups in the 1960s became politicized, and protest songs performed by rock musicians became ubiquitous in the 1960s, including songs by artists such as Neil Young, The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, Jefferson Airplane, and numerous others. From the 1970s to the present punk rock has also served as a source of protest, particularly in the subgenre known as hardcore where bands such as Minor Threat, Dead Kennedys, Bad Religion, Reagan Youth, Youth of Today, NOFX, Green Day, Anti-Flag, Against Me, Nation of Ulysses, and many others have railed against the political status quo. The D.C. punk scene in the 1980s was particularly politically oriented, with Jeff Nelson from the D.C. punk band Minor Threat organizing a series of protest posters that proclaimed “Meese is a pig,” in reference to Attorney General Ed Meese in the Reagan administration, and others in what was called “Revolution Summer” in 1985 also organizing protests and demonstrations and trying to arouse the youth of America (or at least the punk contingent in the D.C. and Arlington, Virginia, areas) to take on the system and advocate noisily for social change.

While the heavy metal scene was traditionally not as politicized in America until recently, some players in the heavy metal scene were politically active, such as singer Dee Snider from the band Twisted Sister, who, although he wrote protest anthems that were unclear about what they were protesting (“We’re not gonna take it”), nonetheless turned out to be an eloquent and well-prepared opponent of music censorship when he appeared before the senate committee investigating obscenity and violence in rock lyrics (at the behest of the Parents Resource Music Center). Nonetheless, most of the metal bands of the 1970s and 1980s were not politically active (although one could argue that many heavy metal songs were anti-mainstream religion and were therefore political in their own way). Many modern bands were more politically active, in particular Rage Against the Machine, who were prominent as a political band in the 1990s, noisily assailing the American political machine during their prime and after their reunion in 2007.

Numerous rap groups were also politically active, including Public Enemy, Paris, Ice Cube, and N.W.A., who also attacked mainstream culture. Some, such as Paris, were extremely specific in their political satire. On his 1992 record Sleeping with the Enemy, Paris rallied against then President George H. Bush and had a cover illustrated of the rapper taking aim in a rifle site at the president, eventually leading Paris to be dropped from his label, Tommy Boy. (Paris returned to the headlines when his 2003 record, Sonic Jihad, depicted a plane flying toward the White House in a deliberate echo of 9/11.) While other rappers were more political, an actual agenda other than noting the problems of the world was hard to make out. Public Enemy put out several amazing protest records, but their lack of political focus and comments in interviews bordering on the anti-Semitic (leading to the eventual ouster of Professor Griff, who astoundingly asked in an interview, “why do you think they call it Jewelry?”). Flavor Flav’s later buffoonish antics on several VHl reality programs further undermined the group’s message. Some politicians also tried to pick fights with rappers, which includes President Bill Clinton’s public fight with Sister Souljah in 1992, or the repudiation of rapper Ice-T for his punk project Body Count, which featured the song “Cop Killer” (before the record label removed the song on subsequent versions of the album), and the list goes on to this day.

Other musicians were also active in politics from a right-wing perspective, although this was rare outside of country music. Aside from the Dixie Chicks there were not that many mainstream country acts who were outspoken politically from a left-wing perspective. Numerous patriotic country songs were released, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, including songs by The Charlie Daniels Band, such as his answer to 9/11, “The Last Fallen Hero,” and Clint Black performed pro-war songs. Toby Keith recorded the pro-war “Angry American.” Political country songs are nothing new, but country music has always had its provocateurs. Johnny Cash did a few anti-Vietnam songs. Merle Haggard did the antihippie classics “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me,” but he also performed a pro-union song around the same time, angering many. More recently, Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris, and Kris Kristofferson all did anti-Iraq War and George W. Bush songs.

Some notable politically right-wing rock stars include the always outspoken Ted Nugent, the late Johnny Ramone, Michael Graves from the second version of the Misfits, and Dave Smalley from Down by Law. Some musicians were more active in politics than others, such as Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys, who ran for mayor of San Francisco in 1979 and finished with a respectable 3.5 percent of the vote, and Fat Mike from NOFX, who organized the grassroots activist movement, http://punkvoter.com , in an attempt to aid voter registration efforts at punk concerts, particularly in the punk package Warped Tour. Recently John Hall from the band Orleans (known for their hit song “Still the One”) was elected to a term as a congressman from upstate New York in 2006.

Political Themes in Rock Music

There had been much written about the politicization of rock music during the 1960s, but it should be remarked from the start that music had been involved in politics for centuries beforehand. Folk songs, madrigals, satirical lyrics, and campaign songs were well known in Europe and across American well before the twentieth century. However, with the advent of rock and roll in the late 1940s to early 1950s, it can be argued that music was inherently politicized as rock and roll music was itself an inherently political act. (Although many dispute when the first real rock and roll song was written or when the genre came into being, many scholars locate the origins as a developing merger of blues, rhythm and blues, and other forms of music that coalesced in the late 1940s and early 1950s.) This is not to say that all rock and roll songs or indeed most early rock songs were political in nature. Some genres by themselves were more suited to political topics, such as folk music and punk rock, but if rock and roll is looked upon as an expression of transgressive impulses, it can be seen in and of itself as a form of rebellion against the dominant social mores of the time. Rock and roll’s relationship to race, as most early rock and roll was made by African Americans and was in many cases appropriated by white teens (and record companies) for their own needs, is also complex and can be looked at as a political act. In an era when segregation was the norm in America, for white teens to listen and dance to African American music can be seen as a political act. While we are not arguing that rock and roll was responsible for the end of segregation in America, it was a major political force in the 1960s, and therefore the focus of this chapter will primarily be the examination of the role of rock music from the 1960s to the present in terms of how it influenced and was influenced by American politics.

During the 1960s many musicians were politicized by their opposition to the growing conflict in Vietnam, and groups, such as Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Country Joe Macdonald and the Fish, sang eloquent protest songs. Some groups in the 1960s were outright radical in their demands for social change. Detroit’s angriest proto-punk band, the MC5, angrily denounced mainstream culture. With their spiritual guru John Sinclair demanding a new era of “dope, guns and fucking in the streets” and the MC5 telling the kids that it was time to “Kick out the Jams, Motherfuckers!” it was no wonder that people looked for an artist with a cohesive political agenda; one man to whom many looked with optimism was legendary chameleon Bob Dylan.

Although Bob Dylan was always seen as one of the most eloquent political writers of the 1960s, much of his work does not denounce particular events or people, but comments more obliquely on world problems or involves looking at the persona in a political sense. In a way, many of Dylan’s lyrics (outside of songs such as “Masters of War” are so oblique as to invite the listener to try and interpret them in any way they can, with multiple interpretations being the norm as much as Dylan playing radically different versions of the same song on subsequent tours. Noted media expert and Bob Dylan scholar Sal Fallica summed up Dylan’s attitude toward politics by noting that

The best analysis of Dylan’s politics comes from Dave von Ronk who describes Dylan generally as being on the left, but with little interest in the rudiments of politics; he’s obviously sympathetic to the downtrodden, hence his use of Woody Guthrie as a role model but von Ronk describes Dylan as having the sensitivities of a left leaning troubadour but certainly not in any way ideological; there is a very famous incident where Dylan in 1963 was being given an award by this leftist group, and in his acceptance speech Dylan sort of said that he saw a little of himself in Lee Harvey Oswald—and this was anathema to the left and caused a great uproar. (Fallica 2007)

Throughout the 1960s, Dylan loved playing the provocateur, needling critics who dared to question the meaning behind his obtuse lyrics, and deliberately trying to obscure the meaning of his music in a political context. Dylan’s political stance then may have simply an impulsive anti-authoritarian streak.

If the 1960s folk and rock movements were key elements in the American counterculture and protest movements, in the 1970s the punk movement was the center of protest, although many of the bands that are best remembered for their political commentary are the British punk bands such as the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Crass, Subhumans, Conflict, and others fighting the good fight for anarchy (even if some of them had no idea what it meant) and protesting the Thatcher administration. One of the most political punk bands from North America, D.O.A. (who released the classic track “Fucked up Ronnie” about President Ronald Reagan), were Canadian, but were equally involved in punk’s tradition of protest. Although many early American punk bands such as the Ramones (who only released a politically partisan song in the 1980s when they recorded the anti-Reagan “Bonzo Goes to Bitburg”) were not political, they and early bands such as Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The New York Dolls, and Suicide were all anti-conformist and anti-establishment. While most punks were saddened by what they saw as the sad but benign Jimmy Carter as president, most punks did not become as politically active until after the Reagan election. Even the Dead Kennedys, one of the most politically astute of the Californian punk movement, initially wrote a protest song against Governor Jerry Brown, an old school leftist, and later had to update the song to refer to what they saw as the real danger.

In the 1980s many musicians began working to actively change social and political conditions, and projects such as USA for Africa, Live Aid, Band Aid, and 20 years later Live Eight. While many of these concerts and compilations had the best intentions, such as feeding the starving in Ethiopia and freeing South African leader Nelson Mandela, the records themselves were almost always allowed to stand as statements on their own; with the exception of notables such as Bob Geldof and later Bono, few rock stars actually followed up to see if the situations had improved. This can be seen as the epitome of the 1980s “protest” movement. Some of the most pivotal moments in the intersection of politics pop culture and music were tied to specific moments in time. For instance, the late 1960s saw a plethora of anti-Vietnam songs such as the Jefferson Airplanes’ “Volunteers,” Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feel like I’m Fixing’ to Die Rag,” and even Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on an electric guitar at Woodstock. However, during the 1980s, little that could be classified as mainstream rock and roll from a commercial viewpoint could also be called protest music. When rocker Bruce Springsteen put out his album Born in the USA, many took it for a patriotic anthem, as opposed to the sad song it really was beneath all the bombast. The 1990s saw the resurgence of punk rock (which had never truly died, but was just ignored by mainstream media for most of the past several decades) and many newer punk bands began to become as politicized as the punk bands of the early 1980s who had a vested interest in protesting the administration at the time.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, many musicians became politically active, especially during the ongoing war in Iraq. Bands such as NOFX organized sites such as http://punkvoter.com to mobilize the supposedly apolitical youth voter, and they organized tours and records to combat the Bush administration’s policies.

Political Themes in Punk

While it has been argued that almost any kind of music can be considered political under the right theoretical lenses, some genres of music are more political by their nature. Punk rock since the mid-1970s has had some of the most politically volatile music and messages, from all ends of the political spectrum.

While many of the punk bands mentioned above are anarchist or left wing, many members of the punk community were right wing politically as well. Most skinheads, whether racist skins or anti-racist skins, were usually very pro-American and often sported American flag patches sewn into their jackets. Dave Smalley (DYS, Dag Nasty, All, Down By Law) is well known for his centrist views and is an eloquent spokesman for moderate political positions in punk rock. Most famously of all, Ramones guitarist Johnny Ramone (John Cummings) was well known for his right-wing ties and used his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to praise President Bush onstage. Still today, many punks are divided on issues such as the war in Iraq, although certainly there are more punks on the left side of the spectrum than the right.

However, punk by its nature had several left-leaning tendencies, and the lip service paid to the political philosophy of anarchism (mostly inspired by British anarchists such as Crass and even the Sex Pistols) led to an ideological aspect of the early British revolution that America did not initially have. The most famous and influential in terms of punk look and spreading the appeal of anarchy (albeit, not on a serious ideological manner) were Britain’s the Sex Pistols.

While the Sex Pistols were an English band, they were one of the most influential bands in not only spreading punk music to the United States in the late 1970s but also, although sometimes unintentionally, spreading the inherent anti-establishment message of punk rock. While it is debatable as to how much the Sex Pistols believed in some of the messages they were encoding in their songs (parts of their image were created by manager Malcolm McLaren and artist Jamie Reid, both influenced by Guy Debord and the Situationist International), the Sex Pistols arrived in America in January 1978 and avoided playing the major venues in large cities such as New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, relying instead on playing in small concert halls across the South before ending the tour at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on January 14, 1978. Lead singer Johnny Rotten ended the chaotic show by taunting the audience with the now classic line “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Although numerous other British and American bands were both more explicitly political and more articulate, much of the interest from the American media at the time of the Sex Pistols was not about American punk (despite the vibrant scenes in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco during that time period, which had actually greatly influenced the Sex Pistols, as opposed to the other way around), but concentrated on the antics and presumed debauchery of the British punks. As the punk movement spread, many American punks introduction was the Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, which, through songs such as “Anarchy in the UK” and “God Save the Queen,” inspired many American punk bands, as well as the growing punk audience in the United States, to question authority and, much more importantly, to form their own bands and question the structures of American music. While many British bands such as Crass (true anarchists who lived in a collective and shared their royalties among other bands on their DIY record label) were more politically organized and dedicated to political change, the Sex Pistols, albeit somewhat by accident, were among the most influential bands in spreading the ideology of the punk movement across America.

The initial punk bands from England and America influenced the second wave of American punk rock called hardcore, which was a more politicized and working-class version of punk rock. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, bands assailed consumer culture, capitalism, and the presumed wasteful American way of life, and political targets were chosen from both the left and the right. A prime example of this is the legendary San Francisco-based punk band the Dead Kennedys (the name itself, a darkly humorous joke at the expense of the American political dynasty), who attacked both the hypocrisy of the religious right, as well as the left-wing governor of California Jerry Brown as a proto-hippy/fascist in their song “California Über Alles.” As mentioned previously, punk took some of the best potshots against authority, as by its nature punk was supposed to be anti-authoritarian. The Reagan administration was a particular target, and numerous punk bands united in various compilations for wider dissemination of their protest. Biafra, through his label Alternative Tentacles, also released the classic anti-Reagan compilation Let Them Eat Jellybeans, which featured tracks from the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, and others who were also militant in their opposition to authority and freedom of expression. Other early bands that attacked the Reagan administration included Reagan Youth, The Misfits, and especially MDC (Millions of Dead Cops) who railed against huge corporations and what they considered to be the police state in songs such as “Born to Die,” which started with the furiously chanted “No War, No KKK, No Fascist USA.”

The band Toxic Reasons notoriously wrote in their song “White Noise,” “standing in the streets of El Salvador/the last son of freedom won’t fight no more/ the Vietnam era and Khrushchev have died/but the war goes on and I’m asking why.” While some assailed U.S. foreign policy, others simply assailed the United States. Black Flag wrote in their classic “Police Story” that regarding the police, “they hate us, we hate them/we can’t win, no way!” while other bands such as Suicidal Tendencies simply sang about shooting Reagan in their song “I Shot Reagan.” While some of the aforementioned songs were done tongue in cheek, other punks were more serious in their political opposition.

Particularly active were the D.C. punks in the mid-1980s who organized massive protests, campaigns of active graffiti writing, health clinics, and funding for enterprises that feed the hungry such as Food Not Bombs. During the “Revolution Summer” of 1985, the D.C. punks became more daring, starting to mix the political back with the personal, realizing that to save the world they would have to save themselves, leading away from explicit protest songs and more toward a politics that embraced individual freedom and self-expression.

As the punk scene fragmented (not for the first or last time) during the mid to late 1980s, some bands remained active and spread the message. One of the most intelligent and most compelling was the band Bad Religion, originally based in California, who started out with broader pronouncements such as “Fuck Armageddon, this is Hell!” but soon began to become more diligent in crafting their lyrics, writing lengthy polysyllabic songs that expressed disappointment with the way the world worked and the way in which the forces of authority drained the creative potential and real authority of the people as in “You Are the Government.” While few punk bands with a political message toured as relentlessly in the late 1980s to early 1990s, other punk bands soon became embraced, such as Green Day, who were only to become political later in their career. Still others such as the relentlessly entertaining Canadian band Propaghandi frequently crossed the border to agitate for a variety of causes. New American bands, such as Anti-Flag, Rise Against, and Against Me!, provided a positive punk message for a new generation of punks who desired to know what all the fuss was about. While the modern punk bands may not be as well known as some of the bigger names in protest music today, some bands such as NOFX, whose lead singer Fat Mike organized a serious of compilations against the Bush administration, as well as founding http://punkvoter.com, proved that punk music will continue to take an anti-authoritarian stance into the next decade at the very least.

Many have complained recently that the political climate post-9/11 has led to fewer overt signs of protest in mainstream music, as it would be considered unpatriotic in a time of war. Pearl Jam has always been a politicized band, but has been more vocal recently about their opposition to President Bush and his policies. At the Lollapalooza festival in August 2007, a live broadcast of Pearl Jam was censored during an Internet simulcast by AT&T’s blue room Web site when lead singer Eddie Vedder began chanting “George Bush, leave this world alone!” For 16 seconds, the Web site mysteriously went silent. AT&T later had to publicly apologize for the censorship and blamed it on a subcontractor, Davie Brown Entertainment. The band responded angrily, with guitarist Mike McCready writing in a statement that “When one person or company decides what others can hear, that is totalitarian thinking” (Scagg 2007, 30). Although the censorship may have been inadvertent, many critics of the Bush administration such as the Dixie Chicks found themselves the subjects of boycotts and harsh criticism when lead singer Natalie Maines denounced President Bush at a concert in 2004.