Somewhere in the gray area between Bob Dylan writing “Masters of War” and the 2004 presidential elections, singing songs about the things that matter got very uncool. Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, and Bob Marley were the hip, countercultural voices of their generation, but, up until recently, protest music has been the reserve of crusty punk rockers and be-dreaded folk singers – the kind you’d never want to end up to talking to across a non-vegan buffet table at a party.
However, the past decade has seen a revival of the modern protest song in pop and alternative music, spurred on by mounting disillusion with U.S. foreign policy, the Iraq War, and the increasing interest in politics among America’s youth. Everyone from Godspeed! You Black Emperor to Kanye West is doing it – heck, even Pink had a go with her cheese-layered ballad “Dear Mr. President.”
Of course, the meaning of “‘protest song” is broad – Godspeed! linked major record labels to arms dealers on Yanqui U.X.O.; Kanye rapped about child labor in “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” – and there’s always the danger of wading into clichéd, self-righteous and, worse, Bono-tastic territory. But, so far, we think that this century’s politically-charged fodder has been rather good and, better still, has reignited the interest in this dodgy area of music. Here are our picks for the ten 21st-century protest songs least likely to make your stomach churn.
1. The Gossip – “Standing in the Way of Control” (2006)
Protesting: anti-same sex marriage laws.
There was no standing in the way of Beth Ditto’s Portland-based trio when they released this hammering slice of disco-punk. Not only is the track an infectious, diva-sized smasher, but it emphasizes gender-bending and highlights Ditto’s anger at her country’s discrimination against same-sex couples, after the Bush administration’s Federal Marriage Amendment attempted to outlaw gay marriage. “Standing in the Way of Control” signified a different kind of matrimony, too, between electro and rock. Consequently, juddering remixes from Erol Alkan and Soulwax helped propel its politics onto the dance floor, and its adoption by teen TV series “Skins” and its riotous “house-party-gone-wrong” advertising campaign reaffirmed it as an anthem for rebellious young boys and girls everywhere.