Signals, Calls, and marches

A column about protest music.

I'm not really here to condemn John Lennon, or to praise him much either. He is already buried. Doing any of those things seems like words wasted on what's already been done by thousands of other writers. I think I prefer to grapple with Lennon as a songwriter and public figure, especially in the era of the 1970's where he released several explicitly political songs, often to profoundly mixed results.

The opener on Sorry to Bother You, “The Magic Clap,” is in keeping with that sense of needing to party even when you're mad as hell and not gonna take it anymore. The whole album is a soundtrack to a big punky anti-capitalist party in Oakland, everybody getting down and then getting ready to burn the oppressive structures around you.

Summer's (nearly) here, and the time is right to talk about summer songs. Songs that implant themselves in your heart, that seem to describe with just a melody or a vocal hook nights of drinking, heat, lust, and simple joy that only really happen a few times a year. They range from the iconic (“Get Lucky”) to the secretive and neglected (“Radiation Vibe”). “Parties in the USA” by Jonathan Richman is one of those secretive...

The use of “Straight to Hell” in “Paper Planes” is a perfect example of how pop music, like oral storytelling, endures through its retelling, the ways elements and ideas change yet “the song remains the same,” both coming to a bleak end point on the West and immigration, two roads that diverge but meet at the same intersection.

“Born in the U.S.A.” is not just a song, but specifically a story. A story that was both willfully and unintentionally misinterpreted by politicians, op-ed columnists, and listeners of its artist Bruce Springsteen.

Their first single is now 25 years old, but 1992's “Killing in the Name” is still a powerhouse of a rock song. The second track on their self-titled album is an anthem of blistering, well, rage towards the racism of the cops, the military industrial complex, and American authority itself.

“Do They Owe Us a Living?” being their “hit” makes a lot of sense in the context of a post-Sex Pistols punk scene. The song is fun, easy to shout along with, and most importantly the lyrics are directly about the experience of the working class, not the atom bomb or about being banned from an obscure punk club.

Simone wrote the tune in about an hour, and “Mississippi Goddam” indeed feels like the passionate and improvised rant of someone who just can't take this shit anymore and doesn’t know how anyone else can.

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