I was talking to some folks at a party this weekend when a subject that’s been on my mind came up: the perception that “they just don’t write protest songs like they used to.” I maintained that there have been several powerful protest songs written in the last decade, and, in fact, I had been working on assembling a playlist of a few choice examples.
“You just have to dig a little deeper for them,” I said, “since they haven’t quite penetrated the mainstream consciousness the way they did back in the Vietnam era.” (Or, at least, this is the sort of insightful observation I would have made if I hadn’t been a few glasses of wine into the evening.)
Even if this generation hasn’t quite found its “Give Peace a Chance” yet, a couple of the songs that follow were made by platinum-selling artists at the peak of their popularity. They are joined by a few old-guard songwriters who were singing protest songs back in the ’60s and ’70s and the occasional indie whippersnapper.
Lord knows there’s been no shortage of things to protest in the last decade. So on this day in which we honor America’s greatest advocate for nonviolent protest—and in honor of the recent withdrawal of troops from Iraq—I present 14 Anti-War Songs for the 21st Century for your listening enjoyment/outrage. In addition to the videos with commentary posted below, you can play (most of) them via this Spotify playlist.
“Travelin’ Soldier,” Dixie Chicks (2002)
The Dixie Chicks famously got in trouble for daring to speak out during the run-up to the war in Iraq, but the country superstars had made their views on the subject clear months before by cutting a version of Bruce Robison‘s sad ballad for the return-to-roots album Home. Set during the Vietnam war, the song is a heartbreaking portrait of the loss a community experiences by sending its best and brightest off to die.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Crying all alone under the stands / was a piccolo player in the marching band / and one name read but nobody really cared / but a pretty little girl with a bow in her hair.”
“Boom!,” System of a Down (2002)
Nu-metal wasn’t all about breaking suff. The Armenian-American band—never one to shy away from progressive politics—unleashed this riff-heavy polemic just in time for the rallies and marches protesting the inevitable invasion of Iraq.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Four thousand hungry children leave us per hour from starvation / while billions are spent on bombs creating death showers.”
“Rich Man’s War,” Steve Earle (2004)
The country rebel spent the first half of the 2000s making boldly political albums. This song from The Revolution Starts Now presents two portraits of American soldiers doing the war hawks’ dirty work to pay the bills, then shockingly switches gears to draw parallels to a Palestinian suicide bomber.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Meanwhile back at home the finance company took his car / just another poor boy off to fight a rich man’s war.”
“Mosh,” Eminem (2004)
Eminem’s vitriol against Bush reached the point that the Detroit rapper was actually under investigation by the Secret Service for threatening the president. This song, after some obligatory self-aggrandizing, is a call-to-arms urging fans to follow him in registering their disgust.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Let the president answer a higher anarchy / strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war.”
“When the President Talks to God,” Bright Eyes (2005)
Back in 2005, you couldn’t read about Connor Oberst without seeing the indie singer-songwriter being compared to a young Bob Dylan, so it’s only fitting that he penned an acoustic protest song, one directed squarely at George W. Bush and his religious convictions.
Peacemongering lyrics: “When the president talks to God / do they drink near beer and go play golf / while they pick which countries to invade / which Muslim souls still can be saved?”
“Devils and Dust,” Bruce Springsteen (2005)
When the songs on this list aren’t expressing anger at the president, they’re expressing sympathy for the troops. The Boss’ lyrics are oblique and poetic, but they hint towards the idea of a soldier out in the desert who has lost his faith, no longer certain of the line between good and evil.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Fear’s a powerful thing / it can turn your heart black you can trust / it’ll take your God filled soul / fill it with devils and dust.”
“The W.A.N.D.,” The Flaming Lips (2006)
Leave it to the fearless freaks from Oklahoma to address the vanity of military power via a song that’s technically about space wizards. That acronym in the title stands for “The Will Always Negates Defeat,” by the way.
Peacemongering lyrics: “They got their weapons to solve all their questions / they don’t know what they’re for / why can’t they see that’s not power that’s greed / to just want more and more?”
“Let’s Impeach the President,” Neil Young (2006)
Neil Young doesn’t beat around the Bush.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Let’s impeach the President for lying and misleading our country into war / abusing all the power that we gave him and shipping all our money out the door.”
“Take a Bow,” Muse (2006)
In its typically over-the-top fashion, the English rock band declares that some unnamed, corrupt leader will “burn in hell for your sins.” Yowza. You’d better hope their not talking about you, Tony Blair.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Our freedom’s consuming itself / what we’ve become / is contrary to what we want.”
“George W. Told the Nation,” Tom Paxton (2007)
Updating his classic 1965 song “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation,” the veteran folksinger bemoaned The Surge and its promise to “save Iraq from Iraqis.”
Peacemongering lyrics: “I got a letter from old George W. / it said, ‘Son, I hate to trouble ya / but this war of mine is going bad / it’s time for me to roll the dice/ I know you’ve already been there twice / but I am sending you back to Baghdad.’”
“I Can’t Take It No More,” John Fogerty (2007)
The Creedence Clearwater Revival singer is no stranger to protest songs, but it sounds like he’s unleashing years of frustration at the ultimate Fortunate Son with this two-chord punk tune. And he’s finished in less than 2 minutes.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Stop talking about staying the course / you keep a-beating that old, dead horse / you know you lied about how we went to war / I can’t take it no more.”
“That Man I Shot,” Drive-By Truckers (2008)
Patterson Hood pulled off quite the balancing act, penning a song that is anti-war, pro-military and apolitical. It was inspired by a backstage conversation the singer had with a fan who had served in Iraq and was haunted by what he’d had to do, even though “there’s no denying it was in self-defense.”
Peacemongering lyrics: “That man I shot / I was in his homeland / I was there to help him / but he didn’t want me there.”
“Harry Patch (In Memory Of),” Radiohead (2009)
There’s a fine tradition in anti-war songs of using past conflicts to comment on present ones. The subject of this somber, orchestral requiem was the last surviving English soldier to have served in the trenches of World War I. Thom Yorke sings from his perspective, even adapting comments Patch made in a 2005 interview.
Peacemongering lyrics: “Give your leaders each a gun and then let them fight it out themselves.”
“Hell Broke Luce,” Tom Waits (2010)
In a twisted parody of a military cadence, Waits barks about the horrors of war in his gravely, apocalyptic voice. The peculiar spelling of “loose” in the title is evidently a reference to Jeffrey Lucey, a 23-year-old marine with post-traumatic stress disorder who commited suicide in 2005.
Peacemongering lyrics: “How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess / got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?”