Face Up and Sing
Five songs of 2007 help put politics back in our playlists
By Marisa Demarco
Religion and politics—the two topics you're not supposed to bring up in mixed company or, until pretty recently, in your songs. Of course, there are plenty of both in conversation and in music, but it wasn't all that long ago—pre-wartime, perhaps—that it was once again passé to put your political views into your pop tunes.
Even after "Wake Me Up When September Ends," mainstream rock/alternative musicians seem to pen only shitty love songs, or in the case of Nickelback, soft rape rock. Above-ground hip-hop wants you to think about booty and getting yours. It's almost as though someone somewhere wants to keep us distracted with sex and buying products that relate to sex. Huh.
With city elections just around the corner (Oct. 2, see this week's Election Guide) and presidential elections just down the block, now is the time to take in ideas about the way our world is working. Artists, mainstream and otherwise, smell something on the air. This year alone, I've reviewed three discs that surprised me with a direct political track. Björk? Tori Amos? Rufus Wainwright? Yes, yes and yes. As longtime political songstress Ani DiFranco once penned, "They took it seriously / The second job of citizenry."
If I were an aerobics bunny and you were in a leotard and this were a soundtrack called "DanceFury II: Rock You Some Politiks, Grrrl" then I might be shouting things like, "And one! And stretch! And sweat! And vote!" Luckily, neither of us are likely to find ourselves in that situation. But as you warm up your soon-to-be-busy voting fingers, perhaps by lifting a couple cold ones, try these political songs of 2007 for inspiration.
Brother Ali, "Letter from the Government" off The Undisputed Truth (April 10, 2007)
Listen I'm in no position to judge a young stud
Trying to use the military to come the fuck up
Cause self-preservation is the first law of nature
Play your cards smart
Remember what the fuck's up
It's really no different from crack peddling
When it comes to dying and killing for a dream you were given
Last thing in your mind is how you're seen by the system
As usual, Ali shoots straight from the brain, not forgetting to include in his discourse on our military action the knowledge that some people feel they need to be soldiers to move up in the world. But the morality trade he perceives is clear. "I got a letter from the government the other day" opens the track's chorus. Ali follows Massive Attack in echoing the famous line from Public Enemy's 1988 "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos."
Tori Amos, "Yo George" off American Doll Posse (May 1, 2007)
I salute to you Commander
And I sneeze
'Cause I have now
to your policies it seems ...
Is this just the madness of King George
Well you have the whole nation
on all fours
This track really came as a surprise to me. Amos is known for making statements, as she did with 2001's Strange Little Girls, a concept album of 12 tracks written by men but reinterpreted from a woman's perspective. But unless she's doing a cover, I've known her lyrics to be opaque at best and impenetrable at worst. Of course, I'm not the kind of listener who spends hours deciphering something, either. But there's no Amos-code here. In plain English, she calls out our president, and even uses the name of the newest Albuquerque strip club (All Fours). Bonus!
Björk, "Earth Intruders" off Volta (May 8, 2007)
Here come the earth intruders
We are the paratroopers
Stampede of sharpshooters
Come straight from voodoo
With our feet thumping
With our feet marching
Grinding skeptics into the soil
It's a rare treat to find space pixie Björk talking war and independence the way she did on Volta. "Forgive this tribe!" she shouts on this, the most accessible track on the album. And who can forget "Declare Independence" with its wild Björkian cries of "Raise your flag!" and "Start your own currency / Make your own stamp." It pleases me to no end to conjure little coins with Björk's face on them or postage stamps of Björk possibly wearing that dress made of little bells.
Rufus Wainwright, "Going to a Town" off Release the Stars (May 15, 2007)
I'm going to a town that has already been burned down
I'm going to a place that has already been disgraced
I'm gonna see some folks who have already been let down
I'm so tired of America ...
I may never see you again or might as well
You took advantage of a world that loved you well
Once again, you know things are bad when the self-obsessed Rufus Wainwright releases his orchestral and choral flourishes on his home country. Usually Wainwright voices wry lyrics about infatuation, falling in love, falling out of love, sex, etc. It's a gentle song, of course, of piano and plucked strings and disillusionment. Though not as ballsy as Tori's "Yo George," it captures well a general mood of disappointment.
Public Enemy, "The Enemy Battle Hymn of the Public" off How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul? (Aug. 7, 2007)
What good is a goddamn bomb
I know they been lying about Bin Ladin
Fight the power
You don't know who hit them towers
And they don't care
Ask the axis of hate
is the U.K. the 51st state? ...
From this new whirl odor
Stressin' peoples of color
Across the water and the borders
It's almost lazy to go to Public Enemy for political lyrics, because that's where this crew's made its home for about 21 years. With the voice of a truth-seeking rebel leader, Chuck D's straight-ahead style would ring out at any political rally as easily as it rides a beat. Still-working legend since 1986, it's good P.E. stays in the game, reminding younger emcess of the power hip-hop has to create political change.
I wish I had the space to write 15 more of these little blurbs. As it is, why don't you post your own favorite political song lyrics on this story at alibi.com?
Maxwell • singer-