5 On-Point International Political Songs About the World Today

Music’s long played a pivotal role in galvanizing support around ideas, not the least of which being protesting the status quo. America has a long history of rousing political anthems from revolutionary ode, “Free America,” through “John Brown’s Body” and “Go Down, Moses” to “This Land is Your Land” and a decade later, “Ohio.”

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Songs are a great viral vehicle for a message, and hence a terrific way to spread a perspective. While at times they may be exceptionally topical, the best songs convey a spirit that transcends simple topicality, such as X’s song, “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” which is less about a particular political stance than the need to patiently await change that always takes longer than you expect. 

The following songs are truly international, from Australia, Ireland, Scotland, and America, about living in the world today, even though they’re at least two decades old. None are about politics per se, though just living can often feel like a political act.

1. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Gil-Scott Heron (1971)

Gil-Scott Heron is arguably as important as DJ Kool Herc in the origination of rap. Not only did his spoken word poems encourage storytelling more than vocalizing, but his earnest street-level tone would quickly become the coin of the rap narrative realm, especially the heavy use of contemporary slang. Yet the triumph of the track goes beyond how others imitated it. 

At its core, Heron’s track is about mounting passivity (echoed both in style and content by Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy’s 1992 hit, “Television, Drug of a Nation”). It implies—without exhorting—that change will happen only through an engaged populace and makes case that so long as we sit around watching shows like “Green Acres” and “Beverly Hillbillies,” where rural caricatures dispense stale homespun wisdom nothing will change. 

The song’s title initially enjoyed popularity in the Black power movement before Heron seized upon it. Though it became an iconic track nearly immediately, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was never a radio hit. “The revolution takes place in your mind,” Heron explained. “Once you change your mind and decide that there’s something wrong that you want to effect, that’s when the revolution takes place.”

2. “Suspect Device,” Stiff Little Fingers (1978)

Journalists Gordon Oglivie and Colin McClelland saw an early performance of the Northern Ireland band Stiff Little Fingers and wound up managing them. This was during the sectarian violence between the Irish Republican Army and the British, and their new managers encouraged the band to write about their experiences. Oglivie had some lyrics, and singer/guitarist Jake Burns fashioned them into the band’s first single, “Suspect Device,” which became an immediate sensation.

The beauty of the song lies in couplet where the band tells listener to make their own decisions and question everything. Over the course of the song the meaning of “Suspect Device” changes from something the cops might suspect of being a bomb, to the spot between your ears where you begin to evaluate the worthiness of the assertions you’re told. It concludes with the suggestion the real bomb is thinking for yourself, which could “blow up in their face.”

3. “Know Your Product,” The Saints (1978)

Despite failing to chart at the time, this tune from Australia’s answer to The Clash became a punk rock standard over the years. Singer/songwriter Chris Bailey and guitarist/songwriter Ed Kuepper, who met as 14-year-olds in detention, forged a powerhouse combo and this lead track from classic second album Eternally Yours adds horns to the Stones-like rumble for a joyous swing. However, at the time the horns were not well-received due to suddenly strong opinions about how punk should sound.

While by now critiques of crass commercialism might seem old hat, in the late ’70s it was pretty prescient. The Clash were still a year away from getting “Lost in the Supermarket.” The brash directness of the sentiment—Cheap advertising, you’re lying / You’re never going to give me what I want—also feels unusually forthright given how subsequent acts have pursued more clever/artistic ways to express the sentiment. 

4. “Five Corporations,” Fugazi (1998)

The best song ever written about corporate oligarchy and the inherent economic incentive to destroy your rivals. 

Like their subjects, Fugazi cornered the market. Let’s just say it’s easier to write a catchy slogan than it is to deliver a “Schoolhouse Rock”-style introduction to modern monopoly and antitrust concerns. Faced with such competition, songwriters almost inevitably return to that song about their ex-girlfriend. 

It’s been a quarter century since singer/guitarist Ian MacKaye warned “every town will be the same,” and it’s hard not to see the project as having made great progress.

5. “Hate is All You Need,” Delgados (2002)

What might have been viewed as simply puckish contrarianism—turning one of the world’s greatest paean’s to love on its head, and taking passing shots at “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” theme and the ’60s pop nugget, “Everlasting Love” along the way—has taken a prescient turn as angry, aggrieved people have become common in daily life. It makes the line, “this is how I won the west,” creepily prophetic. 

The track takes perhaps an even starker turn in the last stanza as singer Alan Woodward implores, “Come on hate yourself / Everyone here does / So just enjoy yourself,” which seems to pick at the very scab underlying this festering societal sore. Or as Homer once put it, “Sometimes the only way to make yourself feel better is to make someone else feel worse,” expressing the contagious nature of bad attitudes.

To Woodward, it’s all in good fun, telling the Sunday Herald in 2003, “I find that song quite funny. It’s a real pop song, but contains the line ‘We kicked and punched and stabbed to death.’”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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