Last month, not long after the Occupy Wall Street movement celebrated its first anniversary, Tom Morello and System of a Down's Serj Tankian rolled out their hard-rocking protest anthem "We Are the 99%."
With its mosh-friendly riffs and chant-friendly chorus, it's a long-awaited return to form by the once (and future?) guitarist of Rage Against the Machine.
Of course, it's also a reminder that in the dozen years since Rage disbanded, no artist has been quite as politically angry despite the one-two punch of the War on Terror and Great Recession. But we apparently remembered wrong, because despite a relatively lower level of outrage, a surprising number of great political songs have indeed emerged from this messy new millennium.
With the U.S. election heading into the home stretch and the debates in full swing, we thought it high time to take a look back at the 12 best examples of politics-infused popular music from the past dozen years. (It's not all abut you, Boomers!)
"Testify" Rage Against the Machine (2000)
Though Rage Against the Machine's album <em>The Battle of Los Angeles</em> came out in the tail end of '99, "Testify" was released as a single during the subsequent summer where it became embroiled in the U.S. election. The Michael Moore-directed music video hammered home the similarities between Bush and Gore while ending on a Ralph Nader quote: "If you're not turned on to politics, politics will turn on you." But it's the song's lyrics about Baghdad burning, legless boys and "Mass graves for the pump" that prove most disquieting considering the then-coming Iraq War. "Testify," Zach de la Rocha presciently chanted, "It's right outside your door."
"Let's Roll" Neil Young (2001)
In the wake of 9/11, many songs were released that fed on the country's wounded patriotism, but few expected one to come from the same well as "Ohio" and "Rockin' in the Free World." Neil Young's ode to the doomed heroes of Flight 93, and titled after passenger Todd Beamer's final words, was considered by some to be a rallying cry for the retaliatory War on Terror. Young has denied that interpretation and if his intentions were fuzzy then, they were clarified by 2006 when he released the subtle song, "Let's Impeach the President."
"Succexxy" Metric (2003)
As the Iraq War got underway, anyone who criticized it, like, say, the Dixie Chicks, was quickly taken to task -- and though the indie rock scene certainly offered a more open-mind than the closed-ranks around Nashville, few bands sang about the situation at first. But after fleeing their lower Manhattan loft when the towers fell and returning Toronto, Metric used the Terror Era to infuse their electro-pop with weight. "Let's Drink to the military," snarked singer Emily Haines, though most of her ire was directed at the apathetic masses who simply "talk, sit, switch screens/As the homeland plans enemies."
"Mosh" Eminem (2004)
The least likely candidate to follow in Public Enemy's fight-the-power footsteps did exactly that in the final run-up to the 2004 election. Eminem unleashed the strongest anti-Iraq War song by any major artist, even taking up the "no more blood for oil" mantra. Calling Bush "this monster, this coward/that we have empowered," he then suggest we "strap him with an Ak-47, let him go, fight his own war/Let him impress daddy that way." The video proved equally powerful as an animated Eminem gathered up an army, leading them to the ballot box "to disarm this Weapon of Mass Destruction that we call our President."
"American Idiot" Green Day (2004)
Before becoming a bloodless Broadway musical, the title track of the '90s pop-punk trio Green Day's comeback album was a proper rallying cry for young people around the world who felt frightened and disenfranchised by the excesses of the Terror Era. Rather decrying the war, or even the president directly, Billie Joe Armstrong pushed back against the post-9/11 government- and media-fuelled hysteria and paranoia that tried to shutter dissent while uniting everyone who didn't want to be "part of the redneck agenda." Plus, unlike Eminem's entry, you could actually mosh to this.
"Sunshowers" M.I.A (2004)
This song allegedly got Maya Arulpragasm, the British-Tamil refugee daughter of a "freedom-fighting dad," banned from America. It definitely got the video banned from MTV thanks to her refusal to remove the "Like PLO, I don't surrend-o" line. Though less famous (and, yes, a little less catchy) than "Paper Planes," M.I.A.'s tribal beat-based "Sunshowers" has far more political punch as her rhymes touch everything from terrorism and gun culture to Islamaphobia and sweatshops.
"Here's Your Future" The Thermals (2006)
In this lead off track to the Portland punk's best-of-the-2000s concept album <em>The Body, the Blood, the Machine</em>, The Thermals take the Bush administration to its theological conclusion. The album imagines a near-future America turned into a fundamentalist dystopia and as this song attests, amidst much biblical (and Nazi) imagery, it doesn't imagine it ending well: "God said here's your future/It's going to rain."
"My President" Young Jeezy ft Nas (2008)
The most celebratory song on this list comes courtesy of New York rapper Young Jeezy whose uber-capitalist aesthetic generally embodies conservative core values (except for the whole drug-dealing thing). Even here he takes time to boast that as well as his president being black, his Lamborghini is blue. Obama's victory is a triumph, even for trap-rappers, but Jeezy and Nas, his partner-in-rhyme here, do remind us that one big battle doesn't win the war as they also rhyme about issues like poverty, crime and broken homes that will continue impacting the black community despite Barack's new job.
"Somalia" K'Naan (2009)
We hear a lot about Somalia -- the violence, the protests, the pirates -- but it's almost always from the point-of-view of outsiders gobsmacked at the country's seemingly never-ending chaos. Which is why this anthem by Somali-Canadian rapper K'Naan, who escaped to Toronto as a refugee, hits so hard. Simply by describing the daily horrors which he grew up amongst, and juxtaposing it against the supposedly hardcore upbringings that mainstream MCs rap about, K'Naan not only takes us behind the news reports, but puts hip-hop and Somalia itself into perspective.
"Uprising" Muse (2009)
No song on this list is an anthemic as this monster track from Muse, which builds tension to spectacular explosion and calls for us to "rise up and take the power back, it's time that/The fat cats had a heart attack, you know that/Their time is coming to an end/We have to unify and watch our flag ascend." The lyrics are vague enough that everyone from the Tea Party to Occupy can claim it as their own. Muse singer Matt Bellamy recently described himself as "a left-leaning libertarian -- more in the realm of Noam Chomsky," rejecting "crazy right-wingers" like Glenn Beck. He's also appeared on Alex Jones' conspiracy-laden talk radio show and, at the time, shared the host's politically paranoid worldview. Last month, however, Bellamy retracted his infamous statement that 9/11 was an "inside job," though their new album still lashes out against the "corporatocracy."
"I Need a Dollar" Aloe Blacc (2010)
Perhaps in another era, this hard-luck tale might not make this list, but the Great Recession has erased the line between economics and politics. Even more powerful for not attacking any particular party, Aloe Blacc's throwback track about a man who got laid off and is desperately "looking for somebody come and help me carry this load" does much to humanize the people who make up what Mitt Romney now dismisses as the 47 percent. But "Dollar" reminds us that the unemployed aren't there by choice -- as Blacc sings, "bad times are comin' and I reap what I don't sow."
"We Take Care of Our Own" Bruce Springsteen (2012)
The Boss may be an ironic nickname, considering Bruce Springsteen's current great recessionary subject matter, but this lead single from <em>Wrecking Ball</em> is an Obama anthem for a reason. Though as potentially easily misunderstood as "Born in the USA" -- thanks to that "wherever this flag's flown" and the titular chorus -- it's not calling for a jingoistic circling of wagons, but declaring that all Americans need to support each other, be their percentages 1, 99, 53 or 47. Other songs on the album go after "the fat cats on banker's hill," but this simple plea for unity and selflessness is perhaps its most revolutionary.