Childish Gambino’s “This is America” has debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The significance of this song – which vaulted to popularity on the strength of a controversial video that was viewed more than 87 million times – hitting No. 1 can’t be overstated. Protest songs generally don’t do well on the charts, with many becoming popular only years after they are released. Here are 10 notable protest songs.
Although most protest songs are about the government establishment – whether it’s police, the war machine, or political parties – we would be remiss if we didn’t note the very long history of the patriarchy putting women down. At first glance, a 17-year old Lesley Gore seemed an odd bearer of that message, singing a song written by two men. However, her defiant take on “You Don’t Own Me” proved to be a lasting hit. The song, on the back of lyrics like “You don’t own me/ Don’t try to change me in any way / You don’t own me / Don’t tie me down ’cause I’d never stay” soon became a rallying cry of Second Wave Feminists. Gore also had a No. 1 hit with “It’s My Party” when she was just 16. This was the same era when the Beatles were singing “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” so in context, the strength of the song as a female statement becomes more clear. By age 20, Gore realized she was a lesbian and she soon became an LGBT activist. The song has now been covered by dozens of performers who relate to its support for personal autonomy and freedom.
Country Joe and the Fish was a Berkeley psychedelic rock band that showed up in the mid-1960’s, just as the free-love counterculture was gaining steam. The band became immortalized because of their anti-Vietnam War song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” Despite the song’s ubiquity in movies and documentaries which explore that time, the song itself did not even chart. The song was released in 1967, but it gained new life in 1969 after the band performed a rousing rendition at Woodstock. The song is a deeply cynical exploration of fighting in Vietnam: And it’s one, two, three
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn
Next stop is Vietnam
Donald Glover’s “This is America” (performed by his alter ego Childish Gambino) is an odd duck to become No. 1. The song, which suggests a critique of American violence and culture, wasn’t necessarily considered radio-friendly. It lacks a typical song structure. On the other hand, it seems to contain several hooks, and viewers were mesmerized by the visually arresting video. Glover hasn’t spoken on the meaning of the video and song, much less whether it is a protest against Trump-era government. In truth, the song would be just as powerful under the Obama administration, since it’s attacking some cultural norms, like racism and violence.
In 1965, Barry McGuire released a cover of P.F. Sloan’s “Eve of Destruction.” Sloan wrote a slew of top 20 hits in the 1960’s including “Secret Agent Man” and Herman’s Hermits’ 1966 “A Must to Avoid.” “Eve of Destruction” was originally meant for the Byrds, who rejected it. The Turtles recorded it first and hit it #100. But shortly thereafter, McGuire recorded the song, with Sloan on guitar, and it became a Number One hit. Vietnam was already ongoing, but the protest culture had yet to fully rev up. The Cuban Missile Crisis had happened just two years earlier, sparking fears of nuclear annihilation. As a protest song, “Eve of Destruction” is relatively mild, giving voice mostly to fears that everyone is about to die in a nuclear holocaust. As a single, it was a powerhouse, reaching No. 1 in the U.S.
Odds are, if you think 1960’s – and you are a filmmaker with little imagination – your go-to song will be the opening guitar sounds of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” The song has featured in every documentary and popular film about the era, from Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” to Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump.” The song launched the careers of Stephen Stills and Neil Young. Although neither man has ever shied away from a protest song, “For What It’s Worth” is ironically, not about the Vietnam War. Stills wrote the song in 1966 when the police were harassing hippies on the Sunset Strip over a curfew. But the song picked up on a general feeling that was sweeping through the country at the time, giving voice to the disaffected youth culture. It peaked at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart.
For the Top Five Establishment-Smashing Protest songs, see Part II of our list!