In conjunction with I Want To Make This Perfectly Clear, the exhibition of political protest posters from the 1960s, the WAM Collective is proud to present a selection of songs arranged to accompany the exhibition. (Listen to the playlist here)
Just as the posters presented are each deeply and uniquely political in their call to action, these songs, from Edwin Starr’s War to This Is America by Childish Gambino, present a myriad of complex viewpoints. In the future, the Collective (a group of UMN students who learn about museology and community engagement) will be producing more themed playlists to accompany exhibitions.
Ranging in time from the 1960s to 2018, these provocative, radical songs of protest transcend genres, from seemingly mellow folk-style songs like Buffalo Springfield’s For What It’s Worth to the Black Eyed Peas’ Where Is The Love?, with its memorable hip-hop beat.
A small dive into the histories of these songs may inspire your listening, so buckle up!
- For What It’s Worth
While For What It’s Worth is usually thought of as a protest against the Kent State shooting, it actually came out three years prior, and is actually a protest against curfew imposed on music venues in Hollywood, California. One of the band members, Neil Young, would in fact go on to write Ohio, later in the playlist, as a response to the Kent State shootings.
Neil Young wrote the song Ohio for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young after seeing the photos of the Kent State shooting in Life Magazine. After its release, it was banned on some AM stations, but continued to play on urban FM ones.
The famous War, by Edwin Starr, became a #1 hit, with its Motown style. It was originally written for the Temptations, who turned it down because it might alienate their war-supporting fans, this song became one of the most popular protest songs of all time.
- American Idiot
American Idiot is a punk-rock anthem from the early ‘00s that satirized political leaders and political culture.
- Universal Soldier
Originally written by Buffy Sainte-Marie, Universal Soldier became famous when recorded by Donovan, a folk singer from Scotland. When asked about the meaning, Sainte-Marie said,”it’s about individual responsibility for war and how the old feudal thinking kills us all.”
- Born in the U.S.A.
While Born in the U.S.A. may be played at the 4th of July, it is actually a trenchant anthem against the treatment of Vietnam War veterans, crooning that his friends, if they returned from the war, were forgotten and mistreated– “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary / Out by the gas fires of the refinery / I’m ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”
- Where Is the Love?
This hip-hop anthem from the Black Eyed Peas and Justin Timberlake calls out terrorism, the American government, racism, gang crime, pollution, war, and intolerance.
- Big Yellow Taxi
This song’s most famous refrain– “They paved paradise, to put up a parking lot” is a loud and clear call for environmental justice and reform.
- What’s Going On
By Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On was originally written by Obie Benson after witnessing an incident of police brutality in Berkeley, California, in 1971. The song would go on to sell 2 million copies, with Benson proclaiming that it was not a “protest song” but rather a “love song.”
Alright is an anthem of the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. Its subtle lyrics (All my life I has to fight) allude to the continued fight for civil rights and equity, to the eponymous word “alright,” which seems to perhaps ironically imply that no matter the violence leveled against black and brown communities, they will be okay.
- Going To A Town
Made in 2007, this song from Canadian-American Rufus Wainwright is rich with symbolism. Its meaning, he said in 2007, was “very plain, mainly that I’m having problems with the United States at the moment, as we all are.”
- This is America
The incredibly popular Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) released this video to critical acclaim in May 2018. The four-minute, single-take music video is laden with metaphors about race and gun violence in America.
We hope that these songs, accompanied by the exhibit, push the listeners and the lookers into deeper conversation around the importance of politics in both the visual arts and music. And with that, happy listening!