Dost Thou Protest Too Much? Depoliticizing Political Music

Garrett Hartman

 

No one pays attention to lyrics, or so the adage says. There may be some truth to that, but vocals often establish the defining melody for a song. 

 

If you were to think of a popular song, often the vocal melody is what comes to mind -- likely a handful of lyrics from the chorus. There’s a sort of oxymoron in the way lyrics are a primary focus, yet often overlooked.

 

There are countless famously misunderstood songs. From misheard lyrics like “kiss the sky” as “kiss this guy” in Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze" to songs like “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen and “Pumped up Kicks” by Foster the People, which have somber and critical themes that are often missed by casual listeners. 
 

The messaging in these songs isn’t exactly subtle, but not so obvious that confusion is unforgivable. More bizarre is the way in which more overtly political music has been co-opted or confused.

 

The most recent example that comes to mind is the tirade of  Elon Musk and Fox News anchors against Green Day when they altered the lyrics to their hit “American Idiot” to criticize Donald J. Trump during their New Year’s Eve performance.

 

 

Even if you ignore the context of the American Idiot album as a critique of the Bush administration, and Green Day’s outspoken left-wing political views, the song requires little analysis to see its overall criticism of conservatism.

 

With lines like “The subliminal mind-f**k of America” and the one wherein they altered “I’m not a part of a redneck agenda,” the song is clearly derogatory towards more rural areas and thus stereotypically more conservative ideologies.

 

It brings to mind a video that circulated during protests against the election results in 2020, in which Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” was  the dance song of choice for protestors -- another song that offers no ambiguity as to the leftist ideology of its lyrics.

 

In “Killing in the Name,” four lines refer to racism in the criminal justice system and make up the verse and chorus. 

 

Often, as in the video in question, this song is defined by the lines in its pre-chorus, “And now you do what they told ya,” and its iconic outro, “F**k you, I won’t do what you tell me.” This lens reduces the song to a catchall for rebellion and unrest and scraps the commentary on racial inequality in America.

 

 

The danger in reducing the commentary in music is exemplified by Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. Until recently, I didn’t realize this was a protest song, as the version many of us learn during grade school cuts out the remarks that criticize land ownership.

 

In this way, the song has largely been recontextualized as a patriotic anthem, a celebration of America as a nation. While the song isn’t contrarian per se, the omission of the critical verses takes away from the song's purpose as a celebration of America’s natural beauty and the freedom of its people.

 

Politics, however, are not only overlooked in leftist music. Another song whose meaning is often confused is “Sweet Home Alabama” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s largely recognized as a party song, and regarded as celebrating Southern pride. This is true, however it also serves as a response to Neil Young’s “Southern Man," a song which targeted the South’s racism and history of slavery. “Sweet Home Alabama” responds to this not just in its direct reference to Young, but in its rebuttal to criticism.

 

It says, “In Birmingham, they loved the governor, boo boo boo, now we all did what we could do,” and “Now Watergate does not bother me, does your conscience bother you?” These lines refer to then-Governor George Wallace, a staunch segregationist, and the infamous Watergate scandal.

 

 

The line regarding Wallace is contentious. Members of Skynyrd claim that “boo boo boo” is expressing their disapproval of Wallace. I would argue that it is a line that doesn’t approve of, but trivializes, the prominence of segregationist ideas, but I digress. 

 

Regardless of interpretation, both lines serve the song's argument that it isn't fair to define a region and its people solely by its negatives. Despite a problematic history and the presence of bad actors, there is still much to celebrate about Alabama. This argument is fairly reasonable and signifies why political and cultural discourse in art is so important. 

 

If relatively simple songs are being underanalyzed, we also lose the power in more complicated expressions of protest in songs like Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” The song’s triumphant chorus, which chants “Born in the U.S.A.,” often overshadows its darker verses -- which highlight the wastefulness of the Vietnam War and the mistreatment of veterans upon their return home.

 

The cynicism is clear in verses like “Come back home to the refinery, Hirin’ man says, ‘Son if it was up to me,” and “Went down to see my V.A. man, He said ‘Son you don’t understand,’ now.”

 

 

However, a cynical commentary of the war isn’t what Springsteen intended either. As highlighted in this NPR article, the sense of pride and hope in the chorus is apparent and deliberate. The song has a dual nature of showing pride in our nation and our people, but also expressing disappointment in the way men were sent to die and then mistreated if they made it home.

 

It's not just an anti-war song or a patriotic anthem, it's both. The way in which those two themes intersect and contrast is what is so engaging about examining music lyrics.

 

Analyzing and reflecting on art, even pieces we disagree with, encourages more critical thought and discussion of important issues. People have become too distracted with who is providing the message. It's easy to see why listeners may become annoyed with millionaire musicians lecturing them on politics. 

 

Analysis is not about the artist, but the conversation and introspection it spurs. By focusing too much on artists and their right to express opinions, we miss out on one of the most interesting parts of art: what we learn from it.

 

Author Bio:

Garrett Hartman is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

Photo Credits: Depositphotos.com; Wikipedia Commons.

 

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