12 Powerful Songs that Inspired Social Progress (2023)

12 Powerful Songs that Inspired Social Progress (1)

Music can still uplift the world—here are our favorite anthems of change

By Steve Baltin and Monica Molinaro

Narrowing down a list of songs about social change is a tremendous privilege, but also a challenging one, especially given the immediacy of artists’ responses to the state of the world today. It brings to mind so many songs written over the years that have been instrumental in inspiring awareness and social change, bringing honor to music and voice. To narrow this list down was almost overwhelming; there are countless songs that have profoundly defined the eras in which they were written, some of which have greatly inspired change.

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The mid-1980s, for example, saw artists such as U2, Peter Gabriel, and Little Steven Van Zandt speak out against apartheid in South Africa. They eventually helped end the pervasive segregation policy by drawing public attention to the crisis, hitting the government economically as musicians heeded the cries of protest songs and refused to tour in South Africa.

We could have discussed Gabriel’s enduring “Biko” or U2’s angry “Silver & Gold,” but neither made this list that we enjoyably agonized over. We even played a game of fantasy to see: if you put several of the greatest protest singers — Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, John Lennon, and Bob Marley — on the same bill, what song would be the all-star finale? The winner could possibly be the greatest protest song of all time. It could be Marley’s “Redemption Song,” Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Lennon’s “Imagine,” or a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Yet, we did not include any of these because ultimately we didn’t want to write about songs that are often considered “the best” or “most iconic.” Our goal was to include songs that had uplifting messages or weren’t obvious or that, admittedly, we just really loved. Lists like these are designed to be fun, to get readers thinking and to spark debate. Hopefully this does all of that. Again, these are not the twelve greatest songs of social change. These are, however, twelve thoughtful, powerful, and meaningful songs you need to know or revisit.

•“Day After Tomorrow” by Tom Waits (2004)
Waits proved as far back as 1978’s “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” that he was a songwriting chameleon who could inhabit any character. So it wasn’t surprising when he channeled that empathetic ability into becoming a 21-year-old soldier questioning his role via letter in the Iraqi and Afghan wars before he is set to come home to his loved ones. It created one of the most moving and thought-provoking anti-war songs ever written.

•“People Have The Power” by Patti Smith (1988)
Nearly 30 years after its release, Smith’s anthem of political freedom and revolution remains so powerful that U2 and Eagles Of Death Metal played the song together when EODM returned to a Paris stage last December following the November 15 attacks at the Bataclan. The song’s compelling and lasting power is supported in the ideology by which it was inspired. Smith and her late husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith, wrote “People Have The Power” based on the unwavering idealism that people can indeed make a difference. It’s a worldview that never ages.

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•“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” by Marvin Gaye (1971)
You could pick any song for this list from Gaye’s seminal What’s Going On album. But this sprawling, epic look at poverty and its effects—from crime to panic—remains the definitive look at how impoverishment and social inequity leads to despair. Sadly, Gaye’s take has remained so relevant over the last 45 years that artists as wide-ranging as John Mayer, Sevendust, Grover Washington Jr., and Gil Scott-Heron have covered the track to ensure its message is never forgotten.

•“Where Do The Children Play?” by Cat Stevens (1970)
Stevens originally wrote this as an environmental plea, lamenting the rise of technology at the cost of nature. Remarkably, more than four decades after Stevens questioned how skyscrapers and jumbo planes would impact the world, the song feels even more pertinent as one can plug in social media and video games as we wonder the exact same question, “Where Do The Children Play?”

•“Before The Deluge” by Jackson Browne (1974)
Like Gaye, you could go with a variety of songs from the prolific and insightful Browne, one of the greatest chroniclers of social change. But this tale of the rise and fall of the 70s and all of its dreams under the intimidating auspices of the impending apocalypse, both real and metaphorical, is such a massive statement, it is impossible to leave off this list. In covering it, singer/songwriter Eliza Gilykson told the Guardian, “I don’t think anyone has ever told the story of our generation — our ideals, illusions, and spectacular fall from grace — better than Browne does in ‘Before the Deluge.’”

•“America (My Country ’Tis Of Thee)” sung by Marian Anderson (1939)
In the 20th century and beyond, contralto Anderson made tidal waves as the first African American to be invited to sing at the White House in 1936 and the first ever to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in 1955. Her popularity and respect as an artist was often met with racism, but the rejection she faced wasn’t all for naught. Nearly 77 years ago, it led to one of the most chilling and gracefully in-your-face renditions of “America.” The Daughters of the American Revolution had denied her a concert in Constitution Hall, but Eleanor Roosevelt helped arrange an even larger stage for Anderson at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on Easter Sunday in 1939. There, musical and social history was made amongst a desegregated crowd of 75,000 people, and for the millions tuning in on national radio. The patriotism of the song was a chilling way to inaugurate the free open-air concert, given the circumstances. The awareness it brought to racism and discrimination in America will always be remembered.

Today, the D.A.R. has a statement on their website saying, in part, “The National Society Daughters of the American Revolution deeply regrets that Marian Anderson was not given the opportunity to perform her 1939 Easter concert in Constitution Hall, but today we join all Americans in grateful recognition that her historic performance on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial was a pivotal point in the struggle for racial equality. Ms. Anderson’s legendary concert will always be remembered as a milestone in the Civil Rights movement… It sparked change not just in the D.A.R. but in all of America.”

•“West Memphis” by Lucinda Williams (2014)
Williams’ relaxed, soulful southern blues number is a testament to the power of music and the creative arts and their heavy influence in drawing attention to corruption and “gross injustice,” as Williams once referred to it in an interview with Rolling Stone. The case against the West Memphis Three wrongly convicted three teenagers of murder and used their musical tastes as evidence in the state’s case against them. Williams and other rock icons from Nick Cave to Bob Dylan to Patti Smith to Johnny Depp, and more, helped bring light to the case with a collaborative album, West of Memphis: Voices For Justice. Released in 2013, the album contained music used in the soundtrack of the West of Memphis documentary, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson. Some of the proceeds were gifted to the West Memphis Three, who were later freed after having served 18 years in prison. That’s the way we do things in rock & roll.

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•“Sad Statue” by System Of A Down (2005)
System Of A Down is unquestionably a band with a deeply political and social message to tell. In 1998, their song “P.L.U.C.K.,” still one of their most political to date, set the stage for “Sad Statue” and other tracks in their plea for “restitution, recognition, restoration, reparation, and revolution” in the aftermath of the Armenian genocide. Just over 100 years ago, up to 1.5 million Armenians were massacred by the Ottoman government in a holocaust that took place in their own homeland within the present-day Republic of Turkey. Seven years after the debut of “P.L.U.C.K.,” a modern-day song that grapples with the evil of genocide, “Sad Statue” followed with lyrics that call forgiveness the “ultimate sacrifice,” and may be encouraging its listeners to lead us in a generation that devotedly heeds cries of human suffering, rather than ignoring them. Frontman Serj Tankian seems to have hope in what the future of the world has to embrace and recognize as historical truth, including global formal recognition of the genocide as a true, historical event.

•“Behind The Wall” by Tracy Chapman (1988)
Twenty-eight years have passed, and still, Chapman’s understated-yet-haunting “Behind The Wall” finds relevance in domestic violence and in the all-too-human response to want to shut one’s eyes and wish problems away. The stage Chapman sets here is unsettling — the screaming, the fearful wife, the ambulance that came to take her away, and the jaded neighbor who didn’t do anything about it. Chapman calls everyone to stand up for someone or something good, and against wrongdoing; even if done behind closed doors.

12 Powerful Songs that Inspired Social Progress (2)

•“We Gotta Pray” by Alicia Keys (2014)
Keys is clearly an artist who is passionately dedicated to social justice and human rights. “We Gotta Pray” is a response to the controversial deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, but it’s also largely a call for all people to be strong and to engage in peaceful protests over life’s injustices. Keys’ riposte is interesting, especially in the context of the 21st century and in contrast to other recent militant or even despairing responses from artists. Her sentiments here echo the urgings of a non-violent MLK, deeply rooted in hope and love.

•“Blood On The Sand” by Thrice (2016)
The members of Thrice call out the debilitating effects of fear and hate in an emblazoned urging for change. Their new works have been colored by the political and social happenings of 2015 — impending violence, war, racism, and more, and honestly, they’re “sick of it.” There are “heavy, sobering, politically-minded” elements to the song and album, according to frontman Dustin Kensrue, but also “very personal, vulnerable stuff that’s in the same space.” It brings to question, how often we as individuals let these vices infiltrate our daily lives. Perhaps a collective focus on being more present, loving, and empathetic is enough to overthrow the fear and hate that we can sometimes feel. For, after all, as Seneca the Younger said centuries ago and as Thrice reminds us (with their new album title) today, “to be everywhere is to be nowhere.”

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•“Pulse” by Melissa Etheridge (2016)
Written by Etheridge as an instantaneous response to the tragic shooting at the Orlando, Florida club that left 50 dead, the heartfelt song explores the roots of where these unspeakable evils originate. “How can I hate them when everybody’s got a pulse?” she sings. She told Rolling Stone upon unveiling the track last week, “I’m dealing with it the way I deal, which is, I wrote a song… we’ve been the town criers for hundreds of years. We’re mirrors of society.” She has effectively done her job, creating a song of healing that has immediately spoken to many trying to understand how something as awful as the Pulse shooting happens.

What are your all-time favorite “songs of change”? Please tell us below.

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