Since its inception, rock & roll music has been inextricably linked to political undertones of rebellion. From the days of Elvis and The Beatles, which prompted teens worldwide to reject the “square” sentiments of their forebears, through Woodstock, to the modern day, rock & roll has echoed the political and civil unrest in American culture. One particular song that springs to mind as a prime specimen of this back in the 60’s is the late Richie Haven’s "Freedom", but he and many of his contemporaries were influenced by the social and political revolutions of the 1960s – from Vietnam to Civil Rights movements. So what does this mean for us in the modern day?
That sentiment is still alive and well in postmodern rock music, although not as obviously apparent at times. Three bands that project this sense of social consciousness and political revolution that are active today are, in my view, Thrice, Five Finger Death Punch, and of course, Rise Against (whose logo, a raised fist over a heart, elicits rebellious imagery in the mind’s eye).
Acts like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Doors – all the poster children of the late 60’s rock heyday represent this. The sentiment fizzled out, with a couple outliers along the way, but disco took hold in the seventies, as the Civil Rights and Vietnam conflicts de-escalated. But then came along Punk Rock – which completely rejected all the mainstream, and brought that taste of revolution back in the late 70’s and 80’s. While Nuwave and Disco were on the Top 40 charts, bands like Black Flag, Dead Kennedys (a name political in itself), The Clash, Bad Religion subverted the mainstream, and challenged political and religious ideology. Several current bands took the groundwork of these previous acts, and ran with them. And I’m not talking about bubblegum pop punk like Blink 182, New Found Glory, or Fallout Boy – but acts like Rise Against.
With album names like The Unraveling (2001), Siren Songs of the Counterculture (2004), The Sufferer and The Witness (2006), frontman Tim McIlrath consistently wrote incisive lyrics through the post 9/11 lens. Rage Against The Machine predated Rise Against, but is now inactive, and covered much of the same content. Just listen to lyrics like “Bulls On Parade” or “Kill A Man.” They ooze with disdain for the establishment, and are still valid. What’s more, Rage Against The Machine even predicted the rise of Donald Trump – it may have been tongue in cheek then – but as we can see, it has come to pass - in their video for “Sleep Now In The Fire.”
Rise Against’s song “Drones” is a prime example of political undertones and anti-militaristic sentiments, echoing the music of the late 60s when very similar political issues were fizzling under the social surface (Wars in 3rd world countries, civil rights issues, political instability, scandal with political figures…sound familiar?)
Five Finger Death Punch formed in 2005, with a much heavier sound, more metal than punk. Their song and album titles have a military undertone, but "Got Your Six", "The Wrong Side of Heaven", "American Capitalist", and "War Is The Answer" use wartime imagery to get the point across. While their stance on such topics is debatable, they obviously do support veterans and those afflicted with PTSD. “Wrong Side of Heaven” is about that very topic, and their music video depicts homeless veterans dealing with PTSD and depression after serving their country. Pretty politically charged no matter how you slice it, and even if the content is juxtaposed with driving riffs and guitar solos it’s still thoughtful and valid.
The most recent release from Thrice is probably the most overtly political. Their debut single “Black Honey” off of their most recent release after a 3 year hiatus To Be Everywhere Is To Be Nowhere. In my view, the album title itself is a commentary on social media, the connectedness of us all, and despite the fact that we are connected virtually, we’re extremely disconnected physically and spiritually. Ironically, this album mainly started from file sharing ideas over the internet with the band.
Just listening to the lyrics to “Black Honey” one can infer that black honey is oil, and the band is making a social and political commentary on the 1st world insatiable thirst for petroleum. “I keep swinging my hand through a swarm of bees / I can’t understand why they’re stinging me / But I’ll do what I want, I’ll do what I please / I’ll do it again 'til I got what I need….So I’m cutting the branch off the cherry tree / I’m singing this will be my victory then I / See them coming after me / And they’re following me across the sea / Now they’re stinging my friends and my family and I / Don’t know why this is happening.” This pretty accurately describes the current state of affairs of U.S. policy in the Middle East.
More on the nose, “Death From Above” is written from the point of view of a drone pilot, worlds away, killing people on a screen. It opens with
“I always thought, always thought, that there was something different, setting us apart/ That I was led, I was led by men with sober minds and sympathetic hearts / I swore an oath, swore an oath, but never knew just what it was to take a life/To play at God, play at God across such distances and from so great a height.”
These are just a handful of rock bands and postmodern artists that take a political and socially conscientious stance in their art form, and obviously there are loads of them. It echoes back to when rock & roll started, “sticking it to the man” by playing Elvis loud and dancing “in a provocative fashion.” From there it leapt into the siren songs of social movements like antiwar and civil rights demonstrations. Well people, it never went away. When top 40 sat atop the Billboard charts, rock, punk, and postmodern rock bands were chipping away at the political and social establishment under the surface. It’s back with a bang, and not going anywhere.