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Top Five Modern Protest Songs

Top Five Modern Protest Songs

by Tom Baker, 04 September 2012

Image by Evgeny Parfenov

There's a hell of a lot to be angry about nowadays. The result of the last general election, the London riots, political and economic unrest around the globe, the rising price of Tesco Value Noodles (I swear they used to cost, like, 9p) - and where did the loudest, righteous outcries come from in the past? Music! From Bob Dylan through to Billy Bragg to Kathleen Hanna and taking in select punk bands on the way (because most were pretty basic, even as sloganeering politics goes), there's a rich tradition in modern music of the protest song.

Can you name a good one from, say, the last five or even ten years, though? All we've got now is the Sex Pistols aesthetic filtered down to Donny Tourette, or Frank Turner sounding like uh Donny Tourette. Whatever happened to the protest song?

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1. Thom Yorke - Harrowdown Hill

Option one: It got a little more subtle. The stand-out track from the Radiohead frontman's debut (and thus far only) solo album, Thom Yorke described 'Harrowdown Hill' as "the most angry song [he'd] ever written in [his] life," not that you'd get that impression from listening to it. Rather than write a fiery, angry rant about the shady circumstances surrounding the supposed suicide of weapons expert Dr David Kelly, following revelations concerning his leaking of government information about WMDs in Iraq, Yorke chose to sing from the perspective of Kelly himself, to great effect. With a low-key, foreboding backing, Yorke sings hauntingly "Did I fall or was I pushed? And where's the blood?," and directs listeners elsewhere for answers: "Don't ask me, ask the Ministry."

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2. Pussy Riot - Punk Prayer

Option two: It's still happening overseas. As fun as Police Academy 7: Mission to Moscow was, Russia does not seem like a great place to live. Did you know they recently renewed a ban on Gay Pride marches for another hundred years? And this from a president who releases photos of himself like this. Pussy Riot are a stunning, brave, and truly vital revitalisation of the riot grrl movement. This is the song that landed the group in hot water (to put it mildly) when they performed it in a Russian church, the chorus being "Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish Putin, banish Putin / Virgin Mary, Mother of God, banish him, we pray thee!...Virgin Mary, Mother of God / Be a feminist, we pray thee." Three of the members are now serving prison sentences for the performance, which only goes further to highlight the power of the protest song, as well as just how messed up Russia is.

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3. Bloc Party - Hunting For Witches

Option three: There's a right way (and a wrong way) to do it. On their forthcoming new album, Four, Bloc Party have a song about the London riots called 'Kettling'. And it's awful. It's shallow, it's cheesy - sung from the perspective of some oh-so-rebellious rioters - and generally a bit crap. 'Hunting For Witches', from second LP A Weekend In The City, meanwhile, is a triumph. Directly attacking right-wing media and their reactionary, fear-mongering response to the 7/7 London bombings, Kele and co. manage to be funny in a gallows humour sort of way - "The Daily Mail says the enemy's among us / Taking our women and taking our jobs" - whilst maintaining a feel of fear, desperation and anger with the glitchy, anxious guitars and samples.

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4. Kate Nash - Mansion Song

Option four: It's not where you expect to find it. Everyone through a shit fit when they heard that the singer of 'Foundations' had gone all weird and arty and distortion-friendly on a recent new demo; where were they when My Best Friend Is You came out? Nash's second album includes this little curio, another riot grrrl-influenced track, a nakedly feminist spoken word poem about sexism in the music industry, and society more generally, ending with her own rejection of her expected role as a sex object/mother. Raw, and a little uncomfortable (as anything so confrontational should be), with nary a mention of her face, covered in freckles.

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5. The Legendary K.O. - George Bush Doesn't Care About Black People

Option five: It never went away. The natural descendant of the punk protest song was hip-hop, from the "black CNN" of Public Enemy and KRS-One through to even early Kanye West tracks like 'Crack Music'. Whilst the mainstream of hip-hop is leaning further towards the materialistic and the pop-friendly, there's still a rich vein of rebel yells. Taking inspiration from Kanye's rant on live TV about then-President Bush's slow response to the devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked on New Orleans - and sampling 'Gold Digga' - The Legendary K.O.'s track spread across the Internet, taking their message with it. Catchy, too.

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