Top 6 Classic Rock Songs About Freedom and Rebellion

The classic rock genre has been fueled by stellar songwriters and powerful bands who have managed to tap into the hopes and desires of their listening audience. One popular topic for these songwriters and performers over the years has been the need to rebel against society’s strictures and forge some sort of personal freedom. Many artists have tackled this subject matter through the lens of something specific, like a current event or issue. Others have been more circumspect, hinting at these themes through very personal stories. In any case, here are six famous classic rock songs that have been fueled by those complimentary tendencies.

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1. Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan

Many listeners hear Dylan’s breakthrough rock single as a song of venom against someone who wronged him, and there’s certainly some of that in there. But there’s also a little bit of wonder, even envy perhaps, in the questions the narrator poses. What if, To be on your own / With no direction home / A complete unknown, is actually a positive outcome? What if you were able to break completely free and have no one to whom you’d have to answer? Certainly, listening to Dylan’s most fearless record is a cathartic experience, since it eliminated any boundaries about what a rock and roll song could be.

2. “Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones

If you listen closely to the lyrics of this classic Stones rocker, there are some clever contradictions being pointed out by writers Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. With all the bad stuff going on around you, what’s the best course of action? Should you just wring your hands over it? Or should you get up off the couch and throw yourself into the streets in a revolutionary fervor? Even Jagger isn’t so sure, admitting that his sleepy London town will tolerate nothing more than for him to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band about the troubles of the world. But the furious music suggests action instead of words.

3. “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival

CCR weren’t necessarily known as rabble-rousers when John Fogerty penned this song for release in 1969. Yet Fogerty couldn’t help but notice, and be angry about, the fact that the privileged often avoided the combat in Vietnam, while poor citizens were sent to the thick of the battle. There’s a fury in his voice as he powers through the song that seemed to summon up the roiling feelings of so many folks around that time. What’s been fascinating (and discouraging) is to see how “Fortunate Son” hasn’t really lost any of its relevance, even as the event that inspired it has long since left the news cycle.

[RELATED: Behind the Band Name: Creedence Clearwater Revival]

4. “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen’s early songs were often written from the perspective of young romantics caught in dead-end situations who were trying to figure out ways of escaping. Nowhere was he more eloquent in depicting this plight than in the lyrics to “Thunder Road.” The narrator is trying to summon up the courage to get out and start a new life, but first he tries to convince his beloved Mary to make the move with him. Ultimately, he makes it clear that he has no choice but to go with her or without her, as his final words make clear: It’s a town full of losers / And I’m pulling out of here to win.

5. “Heroes” by David Bowie

David Bowie already had the backing track to “Heroes” pretty much figured out as he and his band prepared to record the song in West Berlin. He still needed lyrics, but found inspiration when he looked out the studio window and saw his producer Tony Visconti kissing his girlfriend not far from the Berlin Wall. Bowie’s lyrics, when coupled with the soaring music, showed how love can be used as a path to freedom, even if circumstances would seem to deny that opportunity. The way his voice breaks as he tears through the song captures both the urgency to rebel and the exhilaration such freedom entails.

6. “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Petty was living in Los Angeles as a fledgling rock star when he heard cars going by on the nearby freeway. The sound reminded him of ocean waves. Hence, “American Girl” was born. It was never a hit single, and yet it’s become perhaps his most enduring song. Why? Perhaps because there’s something indomitable about the song, from the relentless thrust of the music to the spirit of the heroine. Give credit to Petty for writing so winningly about a female character not just as a romantic object, but as a complex individual with a rich inner life. We don’t know if she escapes her circumstances, but Petty’s song about her gave likely others the inspiration to escape theirs.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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