Insane greed frightens. Unchecked power armed with an appalling ignorance of the world—its history and people—frightens. Indifference to human rights frightens too. To watch Donald Trump speak about anything is to watch a stroke victim half-aware; he's masking with bluster what little command he has of his words and their meanings. It's almost funny how the fear piles up. If only he was just one more depressing celebrity douchebag.
Any generalized comfort we felt before Donald Trump's arrival in office has been converted into painful awareness of everything around us. It's as if we have surrendered to every detail of his intolerance and emotional turmoil and are suffocating in his endless feedback loops of narcissism, desperation and pathological deceit. I'm even scared sitting in my benign little Tucson neighborhood, and it's pure working-class. Feels more like home than any home ever could, filled as it is with front-porch La-Z-Boys and low expectations. Shouldn't really be scared here.
So where are the public protests? Where are the protest songs?
Pop music, once ripe for social change, is now about "content generation and branding"—backed by corporate cooze for survival. As soon as Nike kyped the Beatles' "Revolution" in 1989 to sell sneakers, and then secretly settled out of court, the long, slow death of the protest song was set in motion. Suckling tit for coin is nothing new and there's long been dubious support in place to sustain artists in their work. Renaissance-era churches subsidized painters, wealthy benefactors in 19th century French parlors dangled the promise of patronage before street artists and musicians, gay sugar-daddies in post-Warhol Manhattan backed rising artists, and these days there's no shortage of journalism nonprofits on bended knee begging handouts from billionaires.
Pop stars no longer wait a generation to collect paychecks from Pepsi and Apple and myriad others. It's livelihood because, basically, albums and singles no longer sell. Stars don't want to piss anyone off, so corporate tones color modern pop.
John Fogerty was 24 when he penned "Fortunate Son," Sam Cooke had Martin Luther King to inspire "A Change is Gonna Come," and Marvin Gaye had Detroit for "What's Going On?" Record companies, however reluctantly, still backed them. That was then.
While this playlist is by no means some compilation of best-ever protest songs, these are the ones that've been on my brain lately, some childhood leftovers, some from before that, some recent. They've each developed in my head an anti-Trump feel, and may bring catharsis if not reassurance that revolution is still possible. But that's unlikely. Anyway, you can make your own list.
Parliament - "The Silent Boatman"
This relative obscuro closed off Parliament's overlooked '69 debut album. Osmium is a sonic anomaly among the mostly funked-up R&B sides, an aching epistle to tolerance driven by acoustic guitars, a folk-pop melody and droning bagpipes (playing the Scottish folk standard "Skye Boat Song"). Even with the frighteningly taut Funkadelic rhythm section, it's more Laurel Canyon or Fairport Convention than post-riot Woodward Avenue. Its anti-racist theme hums beneath a journey-to-death metaphor, featuring poetic turns like "When you reach Jordan's bank/There's no money, power or fame/No third or second class/The fare is all the same." It's so gentle, so stirringly tender. No wonder it was penned by English folkster Beth Copeland, who'd been working with Parliament (and Funkadelic) in Detroit. It's also featured on her own, entirely ignored 1970 debut album.
The Skids - "Working for the Yankee Dollar"
Pre-Big Country guitarist Stuart Adamson and big-lunged singer Richard Jobson advance notions of how Yankee war bucks fatten the super-rich, and how the same lucre can hold Europeans down ... or something. This indomitable mix of beauty and muscle rises on sad-punk anthem guitar, dance-y tommy-gun drums and strains of the Celtic folk the band grew up on. Jobson's vowel-swallowing diction assured words were mostly indecipherable (he may have also fancied himself a teenaged James Joyce) but when the sentiments were on, there was no escape. This Bill Nelson-produced boot-stomper might be the only rock 'n' roll song ever in which the doomed protagonist fights in WWII and Viet Nam. Really, it's the sound of Scottish kids mocking American obsessions with war-mongering and world domination. And it's danceable. The ditty hit the U.K. Top 20 in November '79. The Eagles' "Heartache Tonight" topped the American chart that same week. There you go.
Rickie Lee Jones - "Ugly Man"
This brass-stoked piano-tinkler from '03 is a George W. jab. But it's downright mesmeric if you think of it in Trump time. Inside four minutes of jazz-hep beauty, simple lines land suckerpunches: "He's an ugly man/He always was an ugly man ... Revolution, now it's finally going to come ... Now we take the country back." Rickie Lee Jones is going down in history as one of the most overlooked of the great singer-songwriters.
Kap G - "(Fuck) La Policia"
Kap G gets under the skin, and this 2014 tune is truth for the borderlands and beyond. Between the slurs and unfortunate Auto-Tune croons, Kap sports an almost indecipherable, strangely laidback, bilingual robotic flow. What wins is the humor, which goes lengths to make his too-often corny gangsta persona likeable (it'd work better as parody), but at the same time Kap shows how rap continues to be a potent pop force, parody or no. Here he's just "rolling with (his) Miggers" when he gets pulled over for too-dark window tint. The rest of the tune's a killer callout on racial profiling and works in the grim reality of Trump's anti-Mexican sentiment: "And I know what you're thinkin'—I ain't got my green card."
Weirdos - "We Got the Neutron Bomb"
Pretty much as potent at anything by the Sex Pistols, yet it rose from So. Cal! This tongue-in-cheek power chorder sounds like it could've jumpstarted the apocalypse, a band festering to implosion, like a proper punk-rock song. Its right-wing slant is sarcasm, a negative as a positive, because if you listen close, the lyric sports a real anti-bomb, anti-war message—a total damnation of nuclear weapons—yet it's as far away from any hippies as you could get at the corner of Western and Hollywood Blvd. in 1978, despite whatever impulse to destruction is suggested in the gnarled Dangerhouse grooves.
YG and Nipsey Hussle - "FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)"
Over a sweaty hypnotic beat featuring lazy bass and occasional Al Green horn samples, this 2016 side (released before Trump actually won the election) is an unsubtle street brawler that'd do any true patriot proud. The chorus is a bangin' graffiti splash: "Fuck Donald Trump!" One soundbite features Trump announcing he'll build a "great great wall" on the Mexican border, and make Mexicans pay for it. The ensuing verse: "Hold up, Nip, tell the world how you fuck with Mexicans/It wouldn't be the USA without Mexicans/And if it's time to team up, shit let's begin/Black love brown pride ... White people feel the same as my next of kin/If we let this nigga win/God bless the kids." A remix features Trump's racist blather about banning Muslims too.
Staples Singers - "We The People"
If ever there's a tune everybody should hear weekly, like some aural manifest, it's this 1972 Booker T-penned sleeper from The Staples Singers' biggest-selling album, Be Altitude: Respect Yourself (released nearly seven years after their civil rights barnburner Freedom Highway). This brass-and-organ groover (The Memphis horns!) lifts on pure gospel soul-pop and some Sly and the Family Stone slink. Mavis Staples is an absolute force, equal parts graceful and sassy as she guides us through a we-gotta-come-together anthem that's deviously meticulous on tight harmonies and singsong lines like, "We the people/Got to make the world go around." It's protest through positivism that didn't, in its day, appeal to any specific black, white or brown upheaval or umbrage. Still doesn't. It almost feels manipulative, but there's waaaaay too much emotional heft and swagger for that.
Randy Newman - "I'm Dreaming"
This sardonic monster relies on a character who's "dreaming of a white president/Just like the ones we've always had," (yes, it's purposely "White Christmas" sideways) someone who knows "where we're coming from." Written when Obama was in, the song's really a deceptively literate tribute to the man. But just like right-wing idiots misinterpreted Bruce's "Born in the USA," so it is that this gentle workout—with Newman's now cool-y aged vocals—was hilariously misread by old rich white guys. Newman was even mocking himself. Now this 2012 single mocks Trump: "Whiter than this?" Newman sings repeatedly over the piano ostinato in the song's finale. It's one of those songs whose power and humor can't be muted with overplay.
The Byrds - "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)"
An overlooked Ballad of Easy Rider gem of the often-covered Woody Guthrie song (you should also hunt down the Dylan/Joan Baez version on Youtube.) This version's remarkable as it was recorded with a loose, country-rock grace and a vulnerable Roger McGuinn vocal, in 1969, precisely when (literally the same month) the hippie utopian peace-and-love dreams were killed off by Charlie Manson (album producer Terry Melcher was, it was widely speculated, Manson's target at the Tate house murders.) Its waltz-time jangle and pedal steel upholds the hair-raising sadness in the lyrics, which were inspired by the tragic 1948 plane crash that killed 28 undocumented immigrants on a flight from California to Mexico: "Who are all these friends scattered like dried leaves/The radio said they were just 'deportees.'" The tune might be more relevant in 2017 than it was the year Guthrie penned the lyrics, and the year this version came out. The Byrds helped solidify this song in the American musical canon.
Junior Murvin - "Police and Thieves"
It's a toss-up which is better, this or the beautiful genre-crossing turn by The Clash. This stunning Lee Scratch Perry-produced original (with Sly Dunbar on drums) probably has more heart. Junior Murvin's vocal betrays real ache and warmth, and features a kind of sexual groove that might've stopped Marvin Gaye in his tracks. It's deceptively tender, despite the unflappable Jamaican soul conceit built upon the idea of social unrest, and fear, in the politically charged, near-riot zone that was Kingston, Jamaica in the mid-'70s. Its relevance never wanes; it's about police in the streets and the corporate thieves in charge. The song transcends suffocating confines of pop—it's reggae evergreen; a sort of call for peace that will forever resonate as long as rich, white and bloated Trumpster mooks roam this earth.