Political Songs -- Do They Suck or Not?

I have written very few overtly political songs, most of these after my son Chance was born. The May 2004 release by Mission of Burma, ONoffON, contains my song "Wounded World." This song was written during the FIRST Gulf War (1991, when my son was 2).

"I'm a puppet, you're a puppet too.
A dancing fool, jiggle me at my joints.
Once you were on my side,
But I will make you wish that I had died."

"Another Year, another friend or foe
Burn their cities, scorch the earth below.
The times have changed and so too have our needs
This time it's you on which the fire feeds."

While I was obviously writing about the first War in Iraq (easily applicable to our leveling of Afghanistan or the current war in Iraq), I felt that I had managed to avoid some of the problems of certain "protest songs" of the '60s. Such as SuperBird by Country Joe and the Fish, that was utterly inseparable from the time ("Lady-Bird" Johnson), or "Motor City's Burning" by the MC5, about the Detroit riots. But in one review of our CD, the song was criticized as being "too specific/preachy," and the reviewer much preferred the earlier Mission of Burma song "This is not a Photograph," which had more of the "personal politics" kind of thing:

"This is not a photograph
And these are not the Elysian Fields
This is not a bigot's head
This is not a photograph."

"This is just a perpendicular line to the grain
This wants to be outside the cage of the age
This is not a bigot's leg
This is not a photograph."

While I retain a certain fondness for both songs, I consider the overt political aspect of Wounded World to be important.

I took a different approach for the song "Pretender to the Throne" (written spring 2001) for another of my bands, The Binary System. This song is, without a doubt, super-specific:

"Do you remember the McCarthy Era?
American Inquisition, Right Wing Terror?
Well if you don't leave George alone -
He'll send you to the First Amendment Zone.
Do nothing, did nothing, nothing to say, George Bush."

This song was designed as a "Party!" song -- something to cheer everyone up as we leveled Bush's sorry ass to the ground. The song's release date was to be Sept. 15, 2001. Unfortunately, Sept. 11, 2001 happened instead. (You may recall that the week of 9/11 both TIME and Newsweek had cover stories about how Bush had, essentially, stolen the election). So the cheery "let's trash the man with low IQ" vibe of the song was no longer tenable. So we did not release it.

While some political songs become dreary and preachy, some of the most extreme (The Revolution will not be Televised) still give me chills. I was asked to perform at a political rally a few years back, and I performed Phil Ochs' gem "Cops of the World." Here is a song that was pretty specific, but also general -- most of the lines can be applied today. It's the ability of a political song to be "general/universal" that gives it a long life (both Bob Marley and Bob Dylan could do that). Even so, I was not able to deliver "Cops of the World" in the sincere "I CARE!" manner of the '60s. The delivery had to be drenched in irony and sarcasm for me to feel right singing Mr. Ochs' rather amazingly good lines (ah, that post-post-modern dilemma).

Working the fine line between "preachy" and "ironic", Mission of Burma often performs with a banner next to the drum kit which reads: "No New McCarthy Era." The point is relentlessly made as the audience watches the stage, and yet we don't have to say a damn thing.

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