Stephen M. Walt

“Where Have All the Political Songs Gone?” (with apologies to Pete Seeger)

I’m spending some time this month rehearsing for an annual charity show (playing keyboards in the pit band), so my thoughts have turned back to music. Here’s my question: where have all the political songs gone, and especially songs about war and peace? I’m not saying there aren’t any (see below), but this genre doesn’t ...

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I’m spending some time this month rehearsing for an annual charity show (playing keyboards in the pit band), so my thoughts have turned back to music. Here’s my question: where have all the political songs gone, and especially songs about war and peace? I’m not saying there aren’t any (see below), but this genre doesn’t seem to cast the same shadow it once did.

Back in the folk era (for younger readers, that means the late 50s/early-to-mid 60s), songs about war and injustice were staples of popular culture here in the United States. Think of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All The Flowers Gone?” or Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” or Phil Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” At about the same time, the all-time genius of political musical satire, Tom Lehrer, was writing scathingly funny songs about a range of foreign policy topics, including nuclear proliferation (“Who’s Next?”), NATO’s multilateral force (“The MLF Lullaby”), liberal interventionism (“Send the Marines!”) and even nuclear Armageddon (“So Long, Mom!”). And don’t forget Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction” (written by P.F. Sloan), an apocalyptic jeremiad that hit #1 on the Billboard charts in 1965 and contains references to nuclear war, Red China, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and congressional fecklessness.

By the late 1960s, fueled by Vietnam, songs about war were legion. Off the top of my head, there’s Donovan’s “Universal Soldier,” the Animals’ “Sky Pilot,” CSNY’s “Ohio,” and “Wooden Ships,” John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” and “Imagine,” Edwin Starr’s “War,” and Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Even Glenn Campbell’s pop hit “Galveston” (written by Jimmy Webb) has a Vietnam theme. There were a few songs on the other side too, most famously Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets.”

My main point is that some of these songs were big hits, selling lots of copies and getting lots of airplay. And satire wasn’t entirely gone either, with Country Joe and the Fish’s “Feelin’ Like I’m Fixin to Die Rag,” and Randy Newman’s brilliant “Political Science,” which dates from the early 1970s but could have been written for George W. Bush. Excerpt:

No one likes us, I don’t know why
We may not be perfect, but heaven knows we try
But all around the world, even our old friends put us down,
Let’s drop the big one, and see what happens…

We give them money, but are they grateful?
No, they’re spiteful, and they’re hateful,
They don’t respect us, so let’s surprise them,
We’ll drop the big one and pulverize them.

I’d be remiss not to mention one of my all-time favorites, Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love and Understanding?” (first recorded in the early 1970s but made famous by Elvis Costello and the Attractions in 1979 and later voted 284th best rock song by Rolling Stone). Then in 1985, right on cue, came the pop anthem to globalization (and foreign aid): “We are the World” (written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and recorded by an all-star group to raise money for famine relief in Africa).

Given the foreign policy problems we have faced in recent years, including 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s somewhat surprising that we haven’t seen a resurgence of popular music exploring these themes. There are some obvious exceptions, to be sure, such as Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust,” Pink’s “Dear Mr. President,” or Neil Young’s album “Living with War,” and alt-country singer/guitarist/songwriter Buddy Miller has a terrific anti-landmines tune on his album Poison Love entitled “100 Million Little Bombs.” (Salon.com has a list of other anti-war songs here, and I found this list of top 10 political rock songs here.) On the pro-war side, you’ve got Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” and “American Soldier,” among others. But unless I’ve missed something (and that’s perfectly possible, because I’m not nearly as plugged in as I once was), none of these songs is commanding the sort of mass audience that earlier songs about war (or foreign policy, broadly defined) did. Some of them are powerful and evocative and musically sophisticated, but I haven’t heard one that seems likely to become a standard anthem.

Why? My hypothesis: there’s no draft. So long as military service is voluntary, and thus something that young people can opt out of, the costs of war will seem far away to many of them and their attention will tend to focus elsewhere. And when that happens, there won’t be big money in political songs and they’ll stay on the fringes of popular culture. Seems to be true of antiwar movies too.

But as I said, I’m not as plugged in as I used to be, and maybe I’ve just missed the good stuff. So the floor is open for comments: are there terrific songs about war or foreign policy being recorded these days? If so, are any of them attracting mass interest? If not, why not? The floor is open.

MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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