Category Archives: Protest/Socially Conscious Songs

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – The Way it Is by Bruce Hornsby and the Range

“The Way it Is” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range

by Robert Mishou

There are several songs in this list that I could have easily put at the top, but this one gets that spot. I saw Bruce Hornsby and the Range in November of 1986 when the band opened for Huey Lewis and News; this was the only song that I knew by them, but their performance blew me away. They ended their set with this song and it sounded as good as it does recorded (with a little longer piano solo). In this song Hornsby present situations and prejudices in American society. The first is:

Standing in line marking time–
Waiting for the welfare dime
‘Cause they can’t buy a job
The man in the silk suit hurries by
As he catches the poor old ladies’ eyes
Just for fun he says “Get a job”

Today, I am still extremely upset at this rich guy who has the audacity to say this to the unfortunates just trying to get by. Wait, it’s not done yet:

They say hey little boy you can’t go
Where the others go
‘Cause you don’t look like they do

Now, in addition to economic biases, we add racial prejudice – lovely. Now check out how Hornsby combines the two situations:

Well they passed a law in ’64
To give those who ain’t got a little more
But it only goes so far
Because the law another’s mind
When all it sees at the hiring time
Is the line on the color bar

All of these verses are framed with an answer, no a cope out, really. Unfortunately, these situations and occurrences exist – and the answer lies in the chorus. The way many people excuse these deplorable situations is simply with the excuse, “That’s just the way it is.” As Hornsby recognizes, this is not an answer and we should not settle for such a response. Things do not have to be this way and we do not have to accept it. If we continue to accept these things because it has always been that way – if we settle for this, then nothing will even change, nothing will ever improve, we will never truly be equal.

There it is, my first list in a series of list. These are my top ten favorite ‘80s songs that have a social conscience. It is a reminder that in the ‘80s, just like today, we need to slow down and look out for others in the world. Not everyone is living in a great situation and these songs remind me that I am very lucky. I grew up lucky and still lead a life that is fortunate. I play these songs for my children so they can see that not everyone is like them or as fortunate as they are.

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – All She Wants to Do is Dance by Don Henley

All She Wants to Do is Dance by Don Henley

by Robert Mishou

As promised earlier, Don Henley is back. I put this song higher on this list not because I like it better than End of the Innocence, rather it is more clearly a protest song. The most memorable part of this song is the chorus and that rhythm guitar. It is that simple chorus “All she wants to do is dance” that is repeated many, many times. I think that this serves to get the song’s message across in a strong manner. With all of the things going on around us like:

They’re pickin’ up the prisoners
And puttin ’em in a pen . . .
Crazy people walkin’ round with blood in their eyes . . .
Wild-eyed pistols wavers who ain’t afraid to die . . .
Well the government bugged the men’s room
In the local disco lounge

We still have the inclination to do nothing. We know there are problems out there, that shady dealings go on and on, that we are in danger even, but too many of us say nothing or do nothing; we are content with just letting things go on so we can stay absorbed in our own little worlds, oblivious to danger or violations to human rights. Henley exudes a sense frustration that so many of us are willing to remain silent and not do anything unless it affects us directly. The song ends with this unbelievable lack of concern:

‘Cause all she wants to do is dance
And make romance
Never mind the heat
Comin’ off the street
She wants to party
She wants to get down
All she wants to do is
All she wants to do is dance
And make romance
All she wants to do is dance

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – Lives in the Balance by Jackson Browne

Lives in the Balance by Jackson Browne

by Robert Mishou

I did not know much about Jackson Browne other than his song “Somebody’s Baby” from the Fast Times at Ridgemont High soundtrack. Then a friend talked me going to Denver to see Browne. I was skeptical, but fell in love with his music. He is a great songwriter and this song is the most biting on this list so far. Browne does not pull any punches:

You might ask what it takes to remember
When you know that you’ve seen it before
Where a government lies to a people
And a country is drifting to war
There’s a shadow on the faces
Of the men who send the guns
To the wars that are fought in places
Where their business interests run

I do not think much explanation is needed here. Many times these protest songs carry plenty of weight with the lyrics, but the chorus is seen as less important and does not have that typical catchy chorus feel. This, though has both meaning and a catchy sound:

And there are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

Simple, yet effective. This type of in your face protest song bothers some people. While I understand why this is, I like to think that we need these type of songs to get us to reexamine our beliefs and policies. Things might not change, but they might if change is needed.

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City by United Artists Against Apartheid

I Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City by United Artists Against Apartheid

by Robert Mishou

I caught this video Frankfurt, Germany one night while I was waiting for a live football game to begin. American Forces Network (AFN) was the only TV station Americans living overseas in the ‘80s had to watch. We got one football game every week and when there was a delay in picking up the satellite feed, AFN filled the time with music videos. This one caught my eye because, like USA for Africa’s “We Are the World”, I wanted to identify all of the artists. This song has vocals from, to name a few, Run DMC, Hall and Oates, Kool Moe Dee, Kurtis Blow, Lou Reed, Pat Benatar, Bono, and Bruce Springsteen. The song was used to raise money to fight Apartheid in South Africa. In short, Apartheid was legal racism against the native South Africans endorsed and practiced by the white Europeans who ran the country. It was during this time that Nelson Mandela was kept in prison for trying to end the horrific policies of Apartheid. Sun City was a luxury resort and casino that was visited by celebrities from around the world. It gave a major, consistent boost the South Africa’s economy, so it was seen by those who felt apartheid was a violation of human rights as to hurt the South African government and put pressure on them to end Apartheid. The lyrics are pure protest:

Relocation to phony homelands
Separation of families
I can’t understand
23 million can’t vote
Because they’re black
We’re stabbing our brothers
And sisters in the back

No, this is not great, earth shattering writing, but it did help raise awareness in Americans who did not know much of what was happening in South Africa. Side note: if you have any interest in Apartheid in South Africa I recommend two books – Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane (non fiction) and The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay (fiction).

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – The End of the Innocence by Don Henley

The End of the Innocence by Don Henley

by Robert Mishou

I really like Don Henley’s solo work (he will show up twice on this list). I think he is an excellent songwriter and has been since his days with the Eagles. So saying, I was first caught by Bruce Hornsby’s piano playing (Hornsby will also show up on this list) on this song. Once the listener gets through the piano, Henley’s lyrics hit like a punch to the gut. This song revisits the classic struggle of Innocence vs. Experience (expertly set up by British poet William Blake in the Romantic era). This struggle depicts the change we all have to go through as we age – the innocence of youth and how it clashes with experience of adulthood. Henley sets up this conflict by first looking at childhood:

Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world
With mommy and daddy standing by

This idealistic youth quickly takes a turn for the worse:

When happily ever after fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly

While we all have different experiences, we all grow and learn that the world is not as nice and beautiful as we thought it was. These are tough lessons to experience, but they are unavoidable. There is no real protest yet, until Henley writes:

O’ beautiful, for spacious skies
But now those skies are threatening
They’re beating plowshares into swords
For this tired old man that we elected king
Armchair warriors often fail

This is a direct criticism of Ronald Reagan and his policies that damaged the Heartland and farmers of America. Henley wants to go back to a time when life was simpler and all of these issues and problems did not matter. Unfortunately, Henley knows that this is impossible and ends this song with:

Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

This is the tragedy of life. For most of us it begins carefree, but policy and politicians get in the way and ruin it.

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – Allentown by Billy Joel

Allentown by Billy Joel

by Robert Mishou

Billy Joel is another excellent song writer from the ‘80s who hit with songs like Uptown Girl, Tell Her About It, and later in the decade We Didn’t Start the Fire. In 1982 he released Allentown, and while it only reached #17 on the Billboard weekly charts (but #47 on the year end charts), this song packs an enormous punch. Joel describes life in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a typical coal mining town whose residents are dependent upon that coal and working in those mines for a living. The young people in Allentown are becoming restless because the life that they were promised is not coming to fruition. Their parents and teachers all promised them a comfortable life working with coal, but it is not happening:

Well we’re living here in Allentown
And they’re closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem they’re killing time
Filling out forms
Standing in line

It is becoming harder and harder for these young people to stay in a town that is economically dying. This now becomes a metaphor for the working class in the Northeastern United States. This area once had an industry that was booming and could easily support those who were willing to work for it. Now, times are changing and, while the will to work is still there, the money is not.

Well we’re waiting here in Allentown
For the Pennsylvania we never found
For the promises our teachers gave . . .
So the graduations hang on the wall
But they never really helped us at all
No they never taught us what was real

Ever since the first time I heard this song, these lyrics have stick with me and still stand out today:

Every child has a pretty good shot
To get at least as far as their old man got
But something happened on the way to that place
They threw an American flag in our face

Billy Joel is trying to draw attention to a part of the country that is dying. An industry that was once vital to American life is now being left behind; those who are being left behind are suffering, caught in a situation not of their own making and not knowing what to do, caught in a trap of, as they see it, lies.

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – 99 Luftballoons by Nena

99 Luftballoons by Nena

by Robert Mishou

There are not many hits in the ’80s that were not in the English language, but there are two pretty big hits that were in German. Falco’s Rock Me Amadeus hit #1 in March of 1986 (the only song in German to hit this height). A bit earlier, in 1984, a German song hit #2 (it was kept out of the #1 spot by Van Halen’s Jump) entitled 99 Luftballoons by the band Nena. This song was a clear protest against war and our over eagerness to use weapons to solve problems. The English translation of this song did not chart in the Billboard charts at all and it did change the song’s basic situation, so, having lived in Germany for six years and being married to a lovely woman who teaches German in high school, I am going to use lyrics here from the original version, translated by that beautiful teacher.

The conflict in this song centers around the sighting of ninety-nine balloons flying through the air that are mistaken for UFOs. In a panic, the leader of the military sends out fighter jets and raises the alarm. The song continues:

Neunundneunzig Düsenflieger (Ninety-nine jet aircraft)
Jeder war ein großer Krieger (Everyone was a great warrior)
Hielten sich für Captain Kirk (Thought they were Captain Kirk)
Das gab ein großes Feuerwerk (That sent big fireworks)
Die Nachbarn haben nichts gerafft (the Neighbours did not understand this)
Und fühlten sich gleich angemacht (And felt immediately)
Dabei schoss man am Horizont (They shot at the horizon)
Auf neunundneunzig Luftballons (At ninety nine balloons)

Clearly, the government has overreacted and started a war over a complete misinterpretation of what was seen in the sky. Those government officials thought they were smart and, supposedly in the best interest of the people, aggressively attacked those ninety-nine balloons. The warning comes in the last, somber verse:

Neunundneunzig Luftballons (Ninety nine balloons)
Neunundneunzig jahre Krieg (Ninety-nine years of war)
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger (There was no room for winners)
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr (There is no more war minister)
Und auch keine Düsenflieger (And also no jet airplanes)
Heute zieh ich meine Runden (Today I make my rounds)
Seh die Welt in Trümmern liegen (See the world in ruins)
Hab ‘n Luftballon gefunden (Found a balloon)
Denk an dich und lass ihn fliegen (Think of you and let it fly)

Like Russians by Sting coming later, this song expounds on the dangers of nuclear war. In Neunundneunzig Luftballons the destruction comes from a mistake, a misinterpretation – of seeing a danger where there is none and reacting in a fatalistic manner.

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – Sign o’the Times by Prince

Sign o’the Times by Prince

by Robert Mishou

I love me some Prince! Return to the ‘80s has done a podcast on him and he has been written about on this very blog. In December I will be in Minneapolis for a few days and I am going to make a side trip to see Paisley Park. Prince has so many great songs, but on this one he leaves the fun behind and confronts more serious issues. What issues, you ask. These:

In France, a skinny guy died of a big disease with a little name
By chance his girlfriend came by a needle and soon she did the same
At home there are seventeen year old boys and their idea of fun
Is being in a gang called the Disciples
High on crack, totin’ a machine gun

Pretty weighty issues for the same guy who recommended that we all go crazy. Prince has definitely revealed his more serious side before this, though, in songs like the classic Purple Rain. This song continues it’s serious look at societal problems:

Hurricane Annie ripped the ceiling of a church and killed everyone inside
You turn on the telly and every other story is telling you somebody died
A sister killed her baby ’cause she couldn’t afford to feed it
And yet we’re sending people to the moon
In September, my cousin tried reefer for the very first time
Now he’s doing horse, it’s June, unh

Drugs. Violence. Hypocrisy. Prince gives us a rather scathing look at the world we live in. Not wanting to be a complete pessimist, Prince does offer us a suggestion of hope, “Let’s fall in love, get married, have a baby / We’ll call him Nate, if it’s a boy.” Prince is an excellent songwriter and Sign o’the Times is yet another example of how his songs influenced, represented, and ruled the decade.

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s – Born in the U.S.A.

Top 10 Protest or Socially Conscious Songs from the ‘80s

by Robert Mishou

I recently finished a wonderful Young Adult (YA) novel by Todd Hasak-Lowy entitled
Me Being Me is Exactly the Same as You Being You. What I liked about this book wasn’t the story – it was fine, not outstanding, but fine. What I was captured with was the format of the narrative – it was told completely in a series of list. This very inventive story had characterization, setting, climax – everything, but it all had to be put together by the reader through lists! I loved it and found it a groundbreaking way to tell a story. More importantly, it has rekindled my love for lists. So, coming at you for the rest of 2016 will be a series of lists of my favorites from the ‘80s. This first list will be my top 10 favorite protest or socially conscious songs from the decade that does not get enough credit for being serious when times called for it.

There are those who find protest song tedious and there are those who seek protest songs and work to ‘feel’ the issue. I fall somewhere in between. I like protest songs and I use them as a springboard to learn more about the issue that the song is focused on. I do not seek out protest songs, but I do love the insight that most of them give on human life and the struggles we face. I have always loved looking for and understanding songs that have a clear socially conscious message. So as not to cull protests from you, ‘80s fans, here is my list.

Born in the U.S.A. by Bruce Springsteen

We all have our pet peeves. I am no different, so here is mine: it drives me absolutely bonkers when there is a patriotic celebration, like 4th of July fireworks, and I hear this song blasting from the speakers. Are we really that ignorant of lyrics and their meaning? Can the general public not understand tone? Born in the U.S.A is nowhere near a song that celebrates America’s heritage. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In this song, Springsteen sings about the poor treatment of America’s fighting men who have returned home from Vietnam. Despite the recent Veteran’s Day celebrations, we should not forget that not that long ago, many of those veterans returned home to very poor treatment. Springsteen writes:

Came back home to the refinery

Hiring man says, “Son, if it was up to me”

Went down to see my V.A. man

He said, “Son, don’t you understand”

No, they did not understand why the country they risked their lives to defend was not treating them in such an unwarranted way. Yes, despite being just a baby during this time, I do know of the public perception of the war in Vietnam, but Springsteen sees them all as excuses and his tone suggests that they are completely ridiculous. The Vietnam vet, who is the speaker in this song, ends by revealing his desperate situation:

Down in the shadow of the penitentiary

Out by the gas fires of the refinery

I’m ten years burning down the road

Got nowhere to run, ain’t go nowhere to go

All of this is framed with the sarcastic chorus, “Born in the U.S.A” – in essence, how can a man who fought for his country, who lost his brother in the same war, now not get a job now that the war is over? Please, for me, the next time you hear this song played for a patriotic celebration, turn to the person next to you and explain what the song is about.