I Won't Do What You Tell Me: A Collection of Heavy Protest Songs

In my time at Bowling Green State University, I took a course on cultural pluralism in the United States. To mark down a couple of hundred-dollar words, the content focused on the development of American culture. As such, one project required us to look at something that was typically American. Some presentations were on theme parks, others were on the Second Amendment.

There are two kinds of people.

As for me, I looked at protest songs. I included many of the classics, from tunes like “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen to “Fuck tha Police” by N.W.A, with a healthy dose of Rage Against the Machine and System of a Down thrown in for good measure. Looking at the handful of tracks I included in this project, I realize that I hit many of the repeat offenders for songs that, literally or otherwise, scream “fuck the system.”

In the interest of the protests against police brutality and racially-charged violence, as well as for Pride Month - the latter of which some have dubbed “Wrath Month” to highlight the outrage of the broken systems present in America for virtually every minority - I bring to you all a collection of underappreciated, underrated, and understated songs of protest and outrage. Whether you are out on the streets taking part in the numerous demonstrations, or you are staying indoors and doing your part from the sidelines, may the following anthems of rebellion inspire your fight.

By no means is this an exhaustive list. Music inspires and music saves. But if the fucked-up state of affairs has you lost, consider this a starting point for a sonic revolution, if you’re looking for deeper cuts and timely tunes. There isn’t a damn thing wrong with Rage Against the Machine or N.W.A., but if you’re looking for more, may this help.

“Figure It Out” by Serj Tankian

The System of a Down frontman has done anything but lie low in the last decade and a half since the band’s double album Hypnotize / Mezmerize. His solo work, with such tunes as “Empty Walls” and “Honking Antelope” carry the same surrealism and tongue-in-cheek attitude as his band’s work does, while getting across messages of anti-capitalism, anti-war, and anti-fascism. With this tune from his third solo album Harakiri, a three-minute energetic rock tune gets talk-singing about capitalism and corporate greed, with the refrain of “why pretend that we don’t know? / CEOs are the disease.” One could be forgiven if they mistake this tune for an unreleased SOAD track, with the urgent sound and Serj’s unmistakable voice. As far as Serj’s solo work, “Figure It Out” serves as one of his finest.

“They Say” by Scars on Broadway

Keeping with side projects from members of System of a Down, guitarist/vocalist Daron Malakian and drummer John Dolmayan formed Scars on Broadway in 2006, after the former said that he had “tons of material lying around” for potential solo work. In 2008, the band’s eponymous debut album was released, with the sub-three minute “They Say” being the first single, releasing some four months before the album’s street date. A more accessible track than the bulk of System’s catalog, “They Say” is a straightforward song, with a four-chord progression for the verse and two chords for the chorus. The lyrics, which talk about the media’s love of tragedy and how the singer “watched the President fuck society,” somehow ring more true now than when the song first premiered, during the second term of George W. Bush.

“Free” by Powerman 5000

Typically known for their nu metal and industrial metal sound, this song from their album Transform certainly did as much. “Free” sees a more straightforward rock sound with limited electronics. The music video marked a move from the space-age, science fiction styling of the band to denim-clad punks playing against graffiti-laden backdrops. The lyrics stoke the fires of uprising, with lines such as “everybody needs a riot of their own” and “living so free is a tragedy, when you can’t be what you wanna be.” It’s accessible with a universal message, and it’s a great track to boot.

“Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails

The second single of Trent Reznor’s brainchild Nine Inch Nails, “Head Like A Hole” deals with betrayal and angst, with a healthy dose of wishing for karma thrown in. Rivaling “Closer” for their best-known song, the lyrics deal out lines like “Bow down before the one you serve / You’re going to get what you deserve” and “God money’s not looking for the cure / God money’s not concerned about the sick among the poor.”

And we thought The Simpsons predicted things well.

Honorable mention to the version used in the Netflix hit Black Mirror, titled “On A Roll” by Ashley O, a pop sensation portrayed by singer Miley Cyrus. It is the closest we get to the biting commentary of the original, and for a shock-a-minute series like Black Mirror, few songs are as fitting to rework into an original storyline.

“All I Want” by A Day to Remember

The self-proclaimed heaviest pop-punk band put out this song in 2010, from their album What Separates Me From You. The chorus alone is an anthem for the disenfranchised:

“All I want is a place to call my own,

To mend the hearts of everyone who feels alone

Whoa, you know to keep your hopes up high and your head down low.”

Adopting a more pop-punk sound as opposed to their previous album’s more metalcore and post-hardcore feel, the song is about “taking chances, and doing what you think is right regardless of what people might think,” according to singer Jeremy McKinnon. Uplifting, hopeful, and energetic, this track is a popular one in the band’s catalog, and in today’s climate deserves a revisiting some ten years after the fact.

“Rise, Rebel, Resist” by Otep

In all fairness, I could have listed damn near any Otep song on this list. The band’s lyrics deal with injustice, LGBTQ rights, and feminism, and if that isn’t enough, their entire 2018 disc Kult 45 is a diatribe against the current administration, namely the 45th President of the United States.

What sets “Rise, Rebel, Resist” apart from the bulk of the nu metal act’s manifestos is the energy and urgency. Having seen this track played live, it is a battle cry unlike most, especially with the pre-chorus: “I’m one of the freaks, the faggots, the geeks, the savages / Rogues, rebels, dissident devils, artists, martyrs, infidels.” It opens the album Smash the Control Machine, and what better way to do so than this gut punch of a track.

“America” by Motionless in White

For their Infamous album, the Scranton-based metalcore act added industrial and gothic overtones, invoking feelings of golden-era Marilyn Manson and Korn. Another radio-ready, yet radio-unfriendly song, “America” spells out the shortcomings and dirty deeds of the supposed greatest country in the world. The music video, a freakshow joint directed by Shawn Crahan (Slipknot, Officer Downe), is worth a watch as well, especially given the director’s pedigree.

“As I Am” by Dream Theater

Though the song was partially written after an incident involving guitarist John Petrucci and Queensryche guitarist Mike Stone, this heavy as hell track is all about individuality. Opening the Train of Thought album with the outro to their monolithic Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence, the tone turns to dark, crushing metal that demands attention. The only single from the album, it features one of the handful of times singer James LaBrie swears in any of Dream Theater’s catalog, so take that for what it is.

“Kick Out the Jams” by MC5

The progenitors of punk, the Motor City 5, came out swinging with this rocking track from their debut album. Best known for featuring one of the best uses of “motherfucker” this side of Samuel L. Jackson, MC5 were about as punk as you can get, and it is a shame that the band and their activism has gone largely under the radar in recent years. Inspired by the Black Panther Party of the Sixties and anti-establishment politics, the band lived their mantra of “rock n roll, dope, sex in the streets, and the abolishment of capitalism. If you’ve ever played a punk record in your life, it is a guarantee that that act owes their existence to the MC5.

“Kool Thing” by Sonic Youth

Inspired by singer/bassist Kim Gordon’s interview with LL Cool J for Spin, “Kool Thing” centers around a fascination with radicalism. Bolstered by a spoken word back-and-forth by Gordon and Chuck D of Public Enemy, in which the former speaks the instantly iconic line of “fear of a female planet.” Blending noise rock, punk, and alternative rock, the song is an underrated one, somewhat overshadowed by the grunge era going on at the time. More recently, the song has seen features in series like Mr. Robot, and was included on the setlist for Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock.

“Lights Out” by 3TEETH and Ho99o9

3TEETH’s music centers around what they call Operation Mindfuck, and to spread awareness to it, they teamed up with heavy hip-hoppers Ho99o9 (pronounced like “horror”) for a two-song EP. Both tracks are absolutely killer, but this one earns a spot on the list after a certain wannabe dictator hid out in a bunker and turned out the lights to the White House. Between two bands’ catalogues full of confrontational, “fuck you” lyrics, this one goes directly for the jugular, a methodical and brutal song of disdain and rage.

“There Goes the Neighborhood” by Body Count

Another case of “not even their best-known song from the same album,” this cut from the band’s 1992 debut album may have been overshadowed by “Cop Killer,” but the impact is still worth a mention. Written from the perspective of a racist white guy doing racist white guy things, Ice-T looks at the impact of an all-black rock act, something that you don’t hear of outside of Living Color or A Tribe Called Quest. Not without a sense of humor, the last line of the first verse reads: “that n**** plays so good, he took my motherfuckin’ girl / There goes the neighborhood.”

Now if only he would do something about that dude from Trapt...

“Zombie” by The Cranberries

Though the version by Bad Wolves has given this Nineties alt-rock classic new life, the original version by Irish rockers The Cranberries is a quintessential anti-war anthem. Written to honor the victims of the 1993 IRA bombings, the song is a literal cry for peace, as singer Dolores O’Riordan uses a yodel and vocal breaking to punctuate the pain behind her words. It is equal parts fierce and feeble, getting across that O’Riordan doesn’t want to be angry, but she is, and damn it, things need to change. And now, as our so-called president insists on turning our military against Americans, this call for change hasn’t rung more true, even as it comes from the Emerald Isle.

“Vision 2020 Vision” by Die Krupps

The German godfathers of industrial metal put out a hell of an album at the end of last year, and who would have guessed that its title track would turn into an anthem for the year it was about? The marching, cataclysmic rhythms and doubling keyboard riffing creates a backdrop for messages of the end times, as “we’re in the year of discontent.” The music video has a heavy They Live influence, as members of the band don sunglasses to see mushroom cloud scenery and images of doom.

“Destroy Everything” by Hatebreed

Things are unironically, literally on fire right now, and what better soundtrack for the destruction of the status quo than this? Kicking off with a bellowing of “A new life begins,” this blistering haymaker of a song comes from one of the most confrontational and no-bullshit metalcore acts of the Naughties. This unbridled aggression is what a revolution like what we’re seeing needs, and leave it to the outspoken Jamey Jasta to unleash it.

“Natural Born Sinner” by In This Moment

Hot take: metal needs more overtly queer anthems. This track from the 2014 album Black Widow flew somewhat under the radar, and while sonically it may be a bit one-dimensional, the message behind the number needs amplified. Invoking the Book of John in its intro, the song calls out the hypocrisy of homophobia, specifically that of the evangelical variety. The chorus is proper fist-pumping fare, with the chant spelling out “sinner” a particular highlight.

Happy Pride, or Wrath if you prefer, and remember: #BlackLivesMatter.

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