Updated: Nov 7, 2020
With the presidential election dominating the news, we take a closer look at six timeless tracks about American politics, from misunderstood anthems to political protest songs. Featuring Bruce Springsteen, Eminem, Green Day, The National and more.
It's election season in America and the debate has been divisive. It's caused much strife, arguments and debates, and, for that reason alone, there's many an artist who steer clear of the topic altogether. But not everyone, thankfully.
There's a certain bravery to writing a song about politics knowing fine well you'll undoubtedly annoy those on the other side of the fence. Though, as you'll discover, many political songs have taken a life of their own, some of which are used as patriotic chest-beaters, a far cry from their original intention!
Here are six great songs which deal with American politics.
1. Bruce Springsteen - Born in the USA (1984)
Springsteen's 1984 hit 'Born in the U.S.A.' is probably the most misunderstood song of all time. The backdrop of the 'Born in the U.S.A.' album cover sees a denim-clad Bruce facing the American flag and together with a seemingly pro-American chorus you'd be forgiven for thinking it's a nationalistic anthem (it's not...).
Following its release, President Ronald Reagan quickly adopted the song as part of his 1984 Presidential re-election campaign anthem (though Springsteen would later deny him permission). Today, it's become a favourite of Donald Trump supporters, used at rallies and even reportedly played outside the Walter Reed Medical Centre in Washington D.C. last month where Trump was being treated for coronavirus.
Now here's the twist. 'Born in the U.S.A.' isn't the patriotic anthem many think it is, but instead one about the mistreatment of veterans after the Vietnam War. To say The Boss is an outspoken critic of Trump would be an understatement, but it was back in 1984 where he first began to let his political allegiances be shown. On 31st October, Springsteen narrated Joe Biden's 'Hometown' Scranton ad, nailing his colours again to the Democrat mast.
2. Green Day - Holiday (2004)
A song definitely less ambiguous is 'Holiday', from Green Day's 2004 punk rock opera American Idiot. The third single released from their seventh studio album is one of two overtly political tracks on the album (along with the title track), taking aim at the Bush administration. Frontman Billy Joe Armstrong once described 'Holiday' as a "a big F*** YOU to George W. Bush" for dragging America into the Iraq War and the needless deaths that resulted.
In the song, Armstrong criticises conservatives taken in by the "hollow lies" of the government and conformists on 'holiday' from taking a viewpoint against the war. Perhaps the most controversial line is found in the song's bridge, the singer comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler: "Seig Heil to the president Gasman/Bombs away is your punishment" Strong words indeed!
3. Neil Young - Rockin' in the Free World (1989)
Neil Young's 1989 hit 'Rockin' in the Free World' is another that's been used by both Democratic and Republican candidates over the years. In June 2015, Donald Trump played it for his grand entrance onto the platform to declare he was running for president. This move did not go down well at all.
Neil Young declared the use of the song as unauthorised, pointing out he was, in fact, a long time supporter of Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. Clearly not taking the hint, Donald Trump again used it at a pre-Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore on 3rd July 2020. This led Neil Young no choice but to take out a lawsuit against Trump from playing the song.
Often mistaken as a patriotic anthem, 'Rockin' in the Free World' is a protest song against George W. H. Bush's Republican administration and the state he'd led the country into ("People shuffling their feet / People sleeping in their shoes/ There’s a warning sign on the road ahead / There’s a lot of people saying we’d be better off dead"). A very strange choice for Trump to play considering it criticises the very party Trump is now representing!
4. Lee Greenwood - God Bless the U.S.A. (1984)
Finding a famous Republican song (which wasn't a misunderstood protest song!) was a challenge. Then I remembered there was one particular song that was constantly on the news anytime a Donald Trump rally was covered. 'God Bless the U.S.A.' is, perhaps, the most famous patriotic song in American politics, written and performed by Californian country music artist Lee Greenwood.
Paying homage to veterans, God and America itself, it was adopted as a conservative anthem by President Reagan at the Republic National convention in 1984. Over the years, its place in American society would only ever grow, soundtracking 1991 Gulf War parades and homecomings and again finding prominence in the aftermath of 9/11.
Speaking in 2018 to NPR, Eastwood said that when he wrote the song he wanted it to unite people: "The goal was always to unite people...gather arms and let's love each other". It's been covered by Beyonce, Dolly Parton and contestants on American Idol, but today it's more likely to be associated with Donald Trump and the Republican Party. And - judging from Eastwood's Twitter account - it looks like Greenwood (unlike Springsteen and Neil Young!) has fully endorsed this. Hardly a surprise considering he performed at Trump's 2017 inauguration.
5. The National - Mr November (2005)
If you're a regular to this website - or the Blinding by the Floodlights Twitter feed - you'll know by now I'm a massive fan of Cincinnati indie-rockers, The National. So obviously I was always going to give them a mention!
The National are card carrying Democrats who allowed their 2008 song 'Fake Empire' to be played in Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign video 'Signs of Hope and Change'. However, it's another song of theirs which deals directly with politics, 2005's 'Mr November'.
The song deals with a wealthy "blue blood" white man, full of self-doubt and put forward as a presidential candidate for the Democrat Party ("I'm the great white hope"). According to frontman Matt Berninger: "that song was actually written about (2004 Democrat candidate) John Kerry and how uncomfortable it must be to run for president. It must be so stressful and annoying to constantly play that role". It's one of the heaviest songs they've done and a different take on politics altogether.
6. Eminem - Mosh (2004)
In the early 2000s, the idea that the king of controversy - Slim Shady - would release a song about politics was just unthinkable. In November 2004, Eminem released 'Mosh' and it's still, to date, one of most powerful songs he's ever recorded. Like Green Day's 'Holiday', the song heavily criticises the Bush administration and the nationalistic indoctrination of the American people in the wake of the Iraq War.
The drama of the song builds throughout, the lyrics encouraging people to stand up to the injustices of the president ("Look in his eyes, it's all lies/ the stars and stripes have been swiped, washed out, and wiped/ and replaced with his own face, mosh now or die/ if I get sniped tonight, you'll know why/ 'cause I told you to fight").
The animated video focuses on a soldier returning home only to be told he must go back, leaving his family facing eviction and poverty due to the country not looking after them. It's dark stuff from Em who, today, is a big critic of Donald Trump and - for the first time - has authorised Democrat candidate Joe Biden use of one of his songs (2002's 'Lose Yourself') in a campaign video.
Have I missed a great song out? Let us know what your favourite song about American politics on Twitter at @Bfloodlights.