With the 2012 presidential-election debates kicking off this week, we’ve all got a lot of Big Issues on our minds: what’s next for our economy, the state of healthcare, same-sex marriage, and countless others. To help prepare, we decided to take a look at how issues like environmental protection, education and war have been fought out in pop songs over the years. We think you’ll find the arguments illuminating.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood, “Two Tribes” vs. Beastie Boys, “Fight For Your Right”
When it comes to violent combat, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Beastie Boys agree it’s a necessary evil. But to the former, fighting is futile, because nobody wins (“When two tribes go to war, a point is all that they can score”). In the eyes of the latter, however, war is good for something: dealing with bogus parental rules and hypocritical behavior, as well as unfulfilling educational experiences.
Winner: Beastie Boys. When you’re fighting tooth and nail for the ability to kick back and obliterate your unsatisfying life via a righteous party, war is absolutely okay. – Annie Zaleski
Sleater-Kinney, “What’s Mine Is Yours” vs. Eric Carmen, “All By Myself”
Healthcare is a battleground for both Sleater-Kinney and Eric Carmen. But to the defunct trio, imperfect people – say, those with pre-existing conditions – are in this together, refusing to be shunned by all of the judgmental people (insurance companies, perhaps) who think they’re broken. The solo crooner’s take is a little harsher; being unhappy and alone is your sad lot in life, because you’re no longer a spring chicken. Implied: Because of your age and depression, you’re also an insurance liability.
Winner: Sleater-Kinney. Defying the establishment is always more fun than wallowing. – Annie Zaleski
Buzzcocks, “What Do I Get?” vs. Flying Lizards, “(Money) That’s What I Want”
Nothing ever goes right for the narrator of Buzzcocks’ “What Do I Get?”: He can’t sleep, he gets “nothing nice” and life is meaningless because he’s a romantic failure. The taxes he has to pay? Don’t even get him started. Flying Lizards, meanwhile, have the theme of the 1 percent: Cold, hard cash is the only thing that matters. Hot bedroom action or intangible things of beauty? Sorry – it’s all about the Benjamins.
Winner: Buzzcocks. Better to be temporarily unhappy (you’ll find someone!) than morally bankrupt. – Annie Zaleski
Nellie McKay, “Mother of Pearl” vs. Eddie Kendricks, “Girl You Need a Change of Mind”
Nellie McKay proudly embraces feminism while employing her theatrical background to enliven her political message. In the jaunty cabaret number “Mother of Pearl,” she sweetly and sarcastically croons, “Feminists don’t have a sense of humorâ€¦They say child molestation isn’t funnyâ€¦Can’t these chicks do anything but whine?” Eddie Kendricks’s 1972 song “Girl You Need a Change of Mind,” one of disco’s earliest milestones, has been remade by D’Angelo for the soundtrack to Get on the Bus, and Kindness no doubt named his acclaimed 2012 neo-disco album, World, You Need a Change of Mind, after it. Lyrically, though, it’s much less progressive: the ex-Tempations singer tries to persuade his feminist friend to give up the picket lines and give his emancipating love a try: “I won’t chain you up, just fill your lovin’ cup.”
Winner: A draw. McKay lyrically outwits Kendricks, but his soulful groove can’t be beat. – Barry Walters
Jamey Johnson, “Can’t Cash My Checks” vs. AnaÃ¯s Mitchell, “Why We Build the Wall”
AnaÃ¯s Mitchell’s 2010 album Hadestown is a folk opera based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but it’s also a testament to the country’s recession and the ever-widening economic gap. Mitchell’s “Why We Build the Wall” is sung mostly by the gravelly-voiced folkie Greg Brown, portraying Hades, king of the Underworld, who is building a wall to keep out the poor. In “Can’t Cash My Checks,” country singer Jamey Johnson is on the other side of Hades’s wall; he might be poor, but he’s also honest and works hard, so he won’t let The Man bring him down.
Winner: Jamey Johnson. Integrity and hard work will pay off, even if it doesn’t make you rich. – Laura Leebove
Daft Punk, “Face to Face” vs. Nina Simone, “Be My Husband”
In “Face to Face,” Daft Punk’s blipped, garage-sampling melody rewinds and restarts as a revelation settles in: Fear is blinding; face-to-face interaction, illuminating. (As he’s made clear, President Obama now agrees.) However, “Be My Husband” asserts that marriage alone doesn’t lead to a happily-ever-after. As Nina Simone repeats her most plaintive pleas – be hers, be hers alone – she coaxes new, pained inflections that add years to the song’s three minutes, singing as if asking, “Why bother?”
Winner: Nina Simone. Compared to her realization, Daft Punk’s reconsideration feels like naÃ¯vetÃ©. – Christina Lee
Boogie Down Productions, “You Must Learn” vs. The Replacements, “Fuck School”
Both KRS-One and Paul Westerberg agree that there is something fundamentally broken about the American educational system, but their approaches to reform are diametrically opposed. BDP focuses on specialized curriculum, based on an Afrocentric approach to history that serves to benefit students who need pioneering role models (“Lewis Latimer improved on Edison/ Charles Drew did a lot for medicine”). The ‘Mats, meanwhile, promise little beyond repetition of catchy laissez-faire-friendly soundbites (“fuck school, fuck school, fuck my school”) and vague allusions to post-secondary careers in vocational arts (“futures in wood shop, right”).
Winner: Boogie Down Productions, based off clear citations, a well-researched position, and a video where the Ten Commandments are transformed into a pair of 12″s.” – Nate Patrin
Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” vs. Nelly, “Hot in Herre”
In her best known song, Joni Mitchell argues against the use of DDT and ruining wildlife for commercial development: “Give me spots on my apples/ but leave me the birds and bees,” she sings. Nelly, on the other hand, also recognizes environmental change (“It’s gettin’ hot in here”), but his solution in “Hot in Herre” is simple: everyone should just take off their clothes.
Winner: Joni Mitchell. Both sides acknowledge the importance of the birds and the bees, but it’s probably not necessary to be without clothes all the time. – Laura Leebove
Georgia Satellites, “Keep Your Hands To Yourself” vs. Warren G/Nate Dogg, “Regulate”
Bluesy, boozy rockers Georgia Satellites are defiant in their rallying cry, because they’re tired of having their personal lives legislated: “Don’t hand me no lines, and keep your hands to yourself.” Cali rappers Warren G and the late Nate Dogg, however, know you have to throw around your weight and show people who’s boss to protect the status quo and keep the fine ladies (er, constituents) happy.
Winner: Warren G and Nate Dogg. Butting into someone else’s business never sounded so smooth. – Annie Zaleski
John Cale, “Gun” vs. Killer Mike, “Burn”
In “Gun,” John Cale paces from a crime scene to the doctor’s office (he’s lost his hand), backed by Phil Manzanera and Brian Eno’s woozy spell of a guitar solo. It’s a disorienting story of gun violence’s potential repercussions. “Burn,” however, is a chaotic march through a hostile socioeconomic climate. To Killer Mike, soon-to-be-foreclosed homes are property that must be properly defended.
Winner: Killer Mike. In “Burn,” his calm suggestion to bear arms – “… so when they come to evict, you can make them run” – sounds like sage advice. – Christina Lee