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21 Songs of 21st Century Politics

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Americans live with a soundtrack: the relentless chatter of media, the clash and clatter of daily life, collisions with history, voices in our hearts and heads, sounds we love and noises we can't escape. Out of that roar comes our culture and our politics.

These 21 songs pulled from the musical soundtrack of our 21st Century aren't necessarily the artistically best songs so far -- or even in the year they were written. They aren't songs we all know: our soundtrack comes at us through so many technologies with so many niches of "aural art" that we barely have a common songbook. As Politics Daily reporter David Wood informed me, even our soldiers carry their own individualized music instead of relying on some Good Morning, Vietnam broadcast.

Some songs in this soundtrack are controversial and – WARNING – may contain objectionable lyrics, some were monster hits, some barely got heard. But this soundtrack tells us something about the complexities of who we are and how we got here, echoes our time, and traces the politics of we, the people.

2001: Brooks & Dunn, "Only in America"

Click here to watch the music video on YouTube

Released before 9/11, seldom has one song been attached to more politics. "Only In America" served as "theme music" for George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, John McCain and Barack Obama -- a Country & Western hit that captures an American essence: "Sun coming up over New York City/ School bus driver in a traffic jam/ Starin' at the faces in her rearview mirror/ Looking at the promise of the Promised Land/ One kid dreams of fame and fortune/ One kid helps pay the rent/ One could end up going to prison/ One just might be president."


2001: Neil Young, "Let's Roll"

Neil Young put us with the heroic passengers of hijacked United 93: "You've got to turn on evil/ when it's coming after you...You've gotta go in after it/ and never be denied. Time is running out/ let's roll." Neil's song catalog tracks an ironic arc of politics. He wrote the anti-Vietnam war "Ohio" after the Kent State shootings in 1970. Performed John Lennon's "Imagine" in the TV benefit concert for 9/11 victims. Released "Let's Roll" 3 months after 9/11. His 2006 CD Living With War is a strident criticism of post-9/11 American policies.


2002: Alan Jackson, "Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)"

From "just a singer of simple songs," a Country & Western query Americans will ask each other for decades: "Where were you when the world stopped turning that September day...Did you stand there in shock at the site of/ That black smoke rising against that blue sky...Did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer/ And look at yourself to what really matters."


2002: Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising"

Bruce Springsteen is the great American author of his generation. His work resonates political and cultural importance. In this century alone, songs like American Skin (41 Shots) and Radio Nowhere are only two examples of his artistic conscience. The Rising transcends the terrors of our time with a summons from 9/11's rubble toward Abraham Lincoln's "better angels of our nature" -- "Come on up for the rising." Springsteen puts us in the hearts of ordinary Americans as they respond to a shattered world: "Left the house this morning, bells ringing filled the air." Without a word about vengeance, this artistic triumph calls for us to "dream of life" and rise from the rubble. Springsteen became active in electoral politics in 2004 and in 2008, campaigning enthusiastically for the Democrats' presidential nominees. Yet his music has always transcended partisan politics, and stirs Americans as ideologically diverse as the current occupant of the Oval Office, who this week dubbed him "the rock 'n roll laureate of a generation" and The New York Times in-house conservative, David Brooks, who recently wrote of Springsteen's spellbinding effect on a member of a new generation -- Brooks' own 15-year-old daughter. In a powerful globally televised moment, "The Boss" opened the 2009 concert on the Mall for Obama's Inauguration with The Rising.


2002: Toby Keith, "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)"

Click here to watch the music video on YouTube

Country & Western star Toby Keith only sang this for concert audiences until – so the legend goes -- then-Commandant of the Marine Corps and now-President Obama's National Security Adviser General James L. Jones told Keith it was his patriotic duty to record what became a monster hit. "Justice will be served/ And the battle will rage/ This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/ And you'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A./ 'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass/ It's the American way."


2002: Talib Kweli, "The Proud"

Click here to watch the music video on YouTube

With hip hop's beat, profanity bullets and well-honed anger, "The Proud" has the density of a 5-minute Russian novel that opens with the execution of Oklahoma City terrorist bomber Timothy McVeigh, AIDS, and anti-cop screeds -- then pivots to 9/11 outrage and honors cops and firemen as the "best examples of humanity in the face of the worst..." while decrying poverty, drugs, gangs, violence and spotlighting fathers teaching their sons, calling on everyone to "fight for our truth and freedom and ride for the dead."


2003: Darryl Worley, "Have You Forgotten?"

Click here to watch the music video on YouTube

Worley, a supporter of President George W. Bush, headlined `support the troops' rallies and filled the Country & Western airwaves with this song: "I hear people saying we don't need this war/ But I say there's some things worth fighting for...They say we don't realize the mess we're getting in/ Before you start your preaching let me ask you this my friend/ Have you forgotten how it felt that day?...Some say this country's just out looking for a fight/ Well after 9/11, man I'd have to say that's right..."


2003: Steve Earle, "John Walker's Blues"

By casting the infamous captured-in-Afghanistan and now imprisoned "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh as the song's narrator, country-rock icon Steve Earle projected Americans' alienation from their own culture and inspirations for fundamentalist terrorists: "I'm just an American Boy/ raised on MTV/ And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/ But none of 'em look like me/ So I started looking around/ for the light out of the dim..."


2004: Green Day, "American Idiot"

Stadium-filling band Green Day scored a major hit with this "punk rock opera" screed that choruses similar rants from both left and right wing pundits: "Don't want to be an American idiot/ One nation controlled by the media/ Information age of hysteria/ It's calling out to idiot America/ Welcome to a new kind of tension/ All across the alien nation."


2005: James McMurtry, "We Can't Make It Here Anymore"

McMurtry's ballads ride some border between rock and country and ride it to the bone. This tough ode with a honky-tonk twang reports: "I'm stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store/ Just like the ones we made before/ 'Cept this one came from Singapore/ I guess we can't make it here anymore..." Along with abandoned schools, swimming pools and factories, McMurtry sees: "Dust devils dance in the noonday heat/ There's rats in the alley/ And trash in the street/ Gang graffiti on a boxcar door/ We can't make it here anymore."


2006: John Mayer, "Waiting on the World to Change"

A beguiling song of disaffected political consciousness two years before the last presidential election: "Me and all my friends/ We're all misunderstood/ They say we stand for nothing and/ There's no way we ever could/ Now we see everything that's wrong/ With the world and those who lead it/ We just feel like we don't have the means/ To rise above and beat it/ So we keep waiting/ Waiting on the world to change." But the song is a sly wink from the "Millennial generation," an anthem about where they were starting, not where they were staying: young voters were more important, involved, and influential in the last national election than at any time since the voting age was lowered to 18.


2006: Michael Frante and Spearhead, "Yell Fire"

Set in the dark side of Mayer's "Waiting" and informed by trips to the Middle East (including wartime Baghdad), Frante scored radio play with the rhythmic beat of "Yell Fire" -- "Everyone addicted to the same nicotine/ Everyone addicted to the same gasoline/ Everyone addicted to a Technicolor scream/ Everybody trying to get their hands on the same green...A revolution never comes with a warnin'/ A revolution never sends you an omen/ A revolution just arrives like the mornin'/ Ring the alarm, we come to wake up the snorin'"


2006: Green Day and U2, "The Saints Are Coming"

Watch this medley's live performance at an NFL halftime in New Orleans' Superdome 13 months after Hurricane Katrina. The four songs blend starts with Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" -- "Here comes the rain again/ Falling from the stars." Moves to the New Orleans classic "House Of The Rising Sun" -- "and it's been the ruin of many a poor boy." That segues to The Skids song "The Saints Are Coming" -- "A drowning sorrow floods the deepest grief/ How long now/ Until the weather change condemns belief/ How long now/ When the night watchman lets in the thief/ What's wrong now" Then, with shout-outs to New Orleans and its musicians, Bono delivers U2's "Beautiful Day" -- "Take me to that other place...You know I'm not a hopeless case." Michael Gerson, George W. Bush's top speechwriter, was moved to tears by "The Saints Are Coming," which he invoked while telling Politics Daily deputy editor Carl M. Cannon of his losing battle to get Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to dispatch airborne U.S. soldiers to New Orleans while Americans waited vainly on rooftops.


2007: Richard Thompson, "Dad's Gonna Kill Me"

"Dad" is "Baghdad" -- though the Freudian pun delivers an extra layer in folk/rock genius Thompson's heart-pounding tale of American soldiers, a song infused with and inspired by our troops' slang: "I'm dead meat in my HumV Frankenstein/ I hit the road block, somehow I never hit the mine/ The dice rolled and I got lucky this time/ Dad's gonna kill me...I've got a wife, a kid, another on the way/ I might get home if I can live through today...Nobody loves me here/ Nobody loves me here/ Dad's gonna kill me."


2008: Lil Wayne (featuring Robin Thicke), "Tie My Hands"

Plucked guitars hip hop, soft spoken to edgy rage, explicit anger spun around Katrina from a son of New Orleans. "We are at war with the universe, the sky is fallin'/ and the only thing that can save us/ is sensitivity and compassion...First came the hurricane, then came the morning sun...My whole city underwater, some people still floating."


2008: Beyonce, "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)"

It may not be Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," but Beyonce put her own stamp on "family value" issues with a challenge supporting marriage: "If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it...If you don't, you'll be alone/ And like a ghost I'll be gone." The first time I heard Single Ladies was on a reporting assignment riding in a dented van with four male ex-cons. When this song blared out of the radio, they all sang along -- and knew every word. And Single Ladies scored a huge cultural impact: beyond its sales and radio play, its YouTube video racked up more than 8.5 million views.


2008: Sheryl Crow, "Gasoline"

Like a visionary science fiction author, Sheryl Crow sets this scathing song "Way back in the year of 2017/ The sun was growing hotter/ And oil was way beyond its peak." The sarcasm of the chorus "Gasoline will be free, will be free" juxtaposed with surreal images of violence, politics and greed lead to an unflinching analysis of American politics: "You got the bastards in Washington/ Afraid of popping the greed vein/ 'Cause the money's in the pipeline/ And pipeline's running dry." In live performances, she sometimes blends "Gasoline" with the eerie Rolling Stones anthem "Gimme Shelter," linking "Gasoline will be free" to "It's just a shot away."


2008: Drive By Truckers, "That Man I Shot"

With crashing electric guitars and raw emotion, the Drive By Truckers deliver an intense song on a growing issue in America -- our vets' post-traumatic stress: "That man I shot, he was trying to kill me...I didn't know him/ I was just doing my job, maybe so was he/ That man I shot, I was in his homeland/ I was there to help him but he didn't want me there...He was trying to kill me and I had to take him down...There's no denying it was in self-defense/ But when I close my eyes, I still can see him...And I am not crazy or at least I never was/ But there's this big thing I can't get rid of..."


2008: John Legend, "If You're Out There"

Known for his intelligence and being one of People magazine's "sexiest men alive," John Legend's chart-toppers often touch the core of our American experience. "If You're Out There" resonates as `the times they are changing' challenge to Mayer's "Waiting" from two (non-presidential election) years earlier. Says Legend: "We've been looking for a song to sing/ Searched for a melody, searched for somebody to lead/ We've been looking for the world to change...We don't have to wait for destiny/ We should be the change that we want to see/ If you're out there...Calling every woman, calling every man/ We're the generation, we can't afford to wait/ The future started yesterday and we're already late."


2009: Beyonce, "At Last"

Call this a classic American song of transition. From its restricted by segregation Etta James' original hit in 1961 when on Mothers' Day, more than 100 Ku Klux Klan members attacked and beat a busload of Freedom Riders...to 2009's Inaugural Day when beyond any barriers Beyonce sang it for the first Presidential dance of America's first Black president. In documentaries about America yet to be made, that film clip will roll as evidence of our political progress: "I found a dream/ that I could speak to/ A dream that I/ can call my own."


2009: John Rich, "Shuttin' Detroit Down"

John Rich campaigned hard for GOP Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain. This song of anger and betrayal came out after those get-out-the-vote days, and he's performed it at "tea party" political rallies: "While the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets out of town/And D.C.'s bailin' out the bankers as the farmers auction ground/Yeah while they're living it up on Wall Street in that New York City town/Here in the real world they're shuttin' Detroit down."
Filed Under: Culture

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