When I was growing up, protest music meant Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and—for some few Americans and very many Brits—Billy Bragg: an artist “at home with both socialist politics and heartbreak,” writes Allmusic, “styled on the solo attack of early Dylan and the passion of the Clash.” Known for his pro-labor, anti-Thatcher, anti-war, pro “Sexuality” stances, Bragg has been a stalwart campaigner for peace and justice since the 1980s.
A veteran activist who made appearances at Occupy Wall Street and the recent Women’s March in London, Bragg lately lamented the state of protest music. “Look at what’s happening in the world,” he told The Guardian in 2011, “When I was first plying my trade, people were willing to talk about these issues. Now they’d rather write about getting blasted than changing the world.”
Much has changed since 2011, I don’t need to tell you. And the protest song has returned, from Anohni’s beautiful, haunting 2016 album Hopeless (see “Drone Bomb Me” above) to Pussy Riot’s frighteningly prescient “Make America Great Again,” released just before the election. We’ve heard it said that “protest songs are pointless,” but they’ve carried many a movement through many a seemingly hopeless moment. Bragg himself, still plying his trade, rewrote the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s classic “The Times They Are A-Changing” as “The Times They Are A-Changing Back” (at the top), just thirty minutes after the inaugural speech, and “with apologies” to Dylan.
Bragg clearly has deep roots in the genre, but are Anohni and Pussy Riot’s melodic provocations protest music? What about the empowering anthems of Beyoncé or the poetic ruminations of Solange? Just what makes a protest song? Every generation will have their own criteria, and their own pantheon of political artists. Whether you look back to the wry folk songs of Woody Guthrie, to the Golden Age of Dylan, Odetta, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger; to the Beatles or Neil Young; or to punk rock, hip-hop, reggae, or the funk soul of Marvin Gaye, you will find a few favorites on the Spotify playlist above. It features 58 tracks and runs about 4 hours and 15 minutes. If you want a direct link to the playlist, click here. If you need Spotify’s software, please download it here.
To produce the playlist, we culled through best-of lists from Radio X, Rolling Stone, Amnesty International, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Council on Foreign Relations, and the blog Music to Die For, who in 2007 created some strict definitions of a protest song:
– A piece of music that is a great song in its own right. Good words and fine sentiments are not enough. The music must move us.
– A song that has a purpose. A song that doesn’t confine itself to commenting on or bemoaning the ills of the world, but seeks in some small way to change things. It may do this by calling directly for something to happen – “free Nelson Mandela”, by informing us, by appealing to our hearts and our emotions, or by challenging commonly held ideas.
– It follows from this that a true protest song should address a specific issue or issues that are current. Songs about wars and revolutions in days long gone are not included here.
– Finally the song should provoke the listener : shock us, unsettle us, amaze us, inspire us, make us angry, make us sad or make us optimistic. If it doesn’t do any of these things, it hardly deserves to be called a protest song. So be warned : there’s a lot of anger and a lot of emotion in these songs.
I’ll admit, I take issue with some of these criteria—I’d argue, for example, that Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” is a timeless protest song that doesn’t reference any specific event or offer a solution (except “judgment day”). But you are free to disagree. Some of the songs on our playlist came from reader suggestions. We’d love to hear some others. What would you add to the list? And how do you define a “protest song”? Feel free to add your thoughts and suggestions in the comments section below.