Music has been a medium for talking about social change and political protest for all of history. Here, we’ll take a look at anthems of civic engagement from each decade from the 1940s until now.
1940s: This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie
This song was originally considered a radical song about the income inequality of the masses in the time of the Great Depression. It was considered very risky to record such a song at this time, but became a classic song for the United States in years to come.
1950s: Atomic Sermon by Billy Hughes and His Buckaroos
The Manhattan Project was launched in 1942 to attempt to build nuclear weapons in the United States in response to the threat of Nazi Germany using nuclear weapons in World War II. The fear over this increasingly destructive weaponry spurred the creation of “Atomic Sermon” which claims that this research has gone too far and nuclear weapons are too dangerous.
1960s: The Times They Are A Changin’ by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan had a reputation as somewhat of a protest singer, and that is true to an extent. Many of his most popular songs were singing against injustice, primarily in the African American community at the time of the booming Civil Rights Movement.
1970s: Imagine by John Lennon
Imagine by Beatles singer John Lennon is widely claimed to be one of the best songs ever written. The message is clear: the world would do better to unite as one, free from the confines of religion, politics and class. Some responses to the song called it contradictory or said that it had a Communist message, but the song rose to the top of the charts and became an international anthem of peace.
1980s: Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen
The general population of the United States largely disapproved of the Vietnam War, and this included Bruce Springsteen. As a reaction to the war and the many of his friends that experienced the war firsthand, “Born in the USA” paints a difficult narrative of the soldiers shipped off to fight.
1990s: Fight the Power by Public Enemy
The song “Fight the Power” not only raps about racial inequality, but the music video opens with footage from Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington. The song is considered a call to action for the African American community, dissatisfied with the power structure of society.
2000s: When the President Talks to God by Bright Eyes
Some have called “When the President Talks to God” the most powerful protest song of the century so far in 2005 when it was released. The artist uses the song to criticize President George W. Bush on issues such as women’s rights, war, voter fraud, and economic disparity shortly after his re-election in 2004. The alternative track stands out as a highly controversial song.
2010s: Same Love (feat. Mary Lambert) by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
Modern rapper Macklemore released “Same Love” in 2012 to promote rights for LGBTQ+ Americans. On the track, Macklemore and Mary Lambert sing about the freedom for all to love who they choose to love, and only three years later, the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage legal in all 50 states.