Sometimes a political anthem is just a political anthem. But there have been many instances over the years where the songwriter’s intentions have gotten lost in translation, no matter how hard he tries to emphasize them. Anti-war songs are mistaken for pro-war songs, and protests are mistaken for flag bearers. You could call it the “Born In The USA” effect, since Springsteen’s song is probably the most famous example of many misunderstood political songs.
Here, we’ve selected ten of the most misunderstood political songs. Which ones did we miss? Let us know in the comments section below.
Listen to the best political songs on Spotify and scroll down for our pick of the most misunderstood political songs of all time.
10: U2: Bloody Sunday (War1983)
This one was so misunderstood that Bono declared famous, on the Under a blood red sky version, that it was “not a rebel song”. Sure, it sounds like one, though, as the band’s playing had never been so fierce before, and it leads to an album titled War. With the addition of Steve Wickham’s fiddle, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” also marked one of the first times that Irish folk elements were used in U2is the music. Yet the song truly rejects the violence on both sides of the Irish conflict. It is primarily a cry for peace and the first truly effective statement of the group’s Christian beliefs, with “the battle that Jesus won” as the reason for their pacifism.
9: Temptations: Cloud Nine (Cloud1969)
Here’s one of those cases where you have to decide if you really believe the band – and even the songwriter. To all appearances, “Cloud” is a powerful song about a ghetto dweller who turns to hard drugs because his life offers no better possibilities, and his claim that he’s “alright on cloud nine” becomes more ominous as the song progresses. Yet most of temptations, and even writer/producer Norman Whitfield, denied that the song had anything to do with drugs, saying it was really about high spirits. The problem is that the song is much more effective if you believe in the drug angle.
8: Prince: Ronnie, talk to Russia (Controversialnineteen eighty one)
At this stage of his career, Prince did not write too many political songs – indeed, in a contemporary review of Controversial, Yam The magazine observed that you were more likely to encounter “the penis” as “a political tool in his worldview” — not to mention misunderstood political songs. On this boppy New Wave number, however, it looks like Prince is laughing off people’s concerns about a Russian invasion, given the track’s upbeat sound. But no: it seems he really meant it and genuinely feared the world was about to explode. More of that was to come on “1999.”
7: The Guess Who: American Woman (American woman1970)
You would think there would be no room for misunderstanding this one, since Burton Cummings and guess who were clearly biting the hand that had just started feeding them. You can’t even write “American Woman” as a song about a specific woman, since the obvious protest line, “I don’t need your war machines, I don’t need ghetto scenes” , comes towards the end. . Yet over the years it has been misinterpreted as a feminist empowerment songwhen the band meant no such thing.
6: Elvis Costello: Less Than Zero (my aim is true1977)
It was the famous song that Elvis Costello cut after a verse on Saturday Night Live, saying “There’s no reason to do that here.” This is because of its English-only background story, which references a television program where British fascist leader Oswald Mosley was interviewed; the song’s sense of nihilism stems from outrage that someone like “Mr. Oswald” could work his way back into society. Most American listeners did not know the reference (less than zero author Bret Easton Ellis certainly didn’t) but Costello has a habit of saying what needs to be said. Speaking of what…
5: Neil Young: Rockin’ in the Free World (Freedom1989)
Favorite of presidential candidates in the electoral campaign, Neil YoungThe Gulf War-era rah-rah anthem is less patriotic than the title suggests. Written in response to George HW Bush’s call for “a kinder, gentler nation,” Young paints an ironic picture of American pride, one where “we have a kinder, gentler machine gun hand.” The tune may celebrate the collapse of communism, but it also finds fault with the alternative.
4: Phil Ochs: Outside of a small circle of friends (Port Pleasures1967)
Although he was one of greatest activist songwriters in his day, people tend to forget that Phil Ochs had as many harsh words for armchair liberals as anyone else. After the heartbreaking “Love me, I’m a liberal,” this one twists the knife further, ridiculing the stoned apathy of its fan base. But because it was funny (and included the line “Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer”), it was his only song to get FM airplay in the ’60s, entering the annals of misunderstood political songs.
3: The Monkeys: Last Train to Clarksville (Monkeys1966)
This is perhaps one of the snarliest political songs of the 60s. Although it seems obvious now, hardly anyone at the time understood that it was about a soldier who goes to Vietnam. And none of the impressionable Monkees fans understood that his girlfriend was coming to Clarksville to spend the night (it was the last train, after all). The song doesn’t take a stand for or against war, but the central line, “I don’t know if I’ll ever come back,” highlights the harsh reality of soldiers going to war. Strong stuff for a song that was only meant (and, easily, did) turn The Monkees into an instant teen idols.
2: Creedence Clearwater Revival: Lucky Sons (Willy and the poor boys1969)
Confusing government criticism with anti-veteran sentiment is one of America’s favorite pastimes, and Splashback Clearwater RevivalThe iconic Vietnamese-era song, “Fortunate Son,” has been both hailed as a working-class patriotic anthem and flagged as an anti-military rant. Besides being the official Vietnam War theme song, “Fortunate Son” has always been about “class injustice more than the war itself,” John Fogerty said. As a former veteran, Fogerty spoke out against the exploitative nature of the system project rather than the military. “That’s not me, that’s not me / I’m not a senator’s son,” sings Fogerty, referring to President Eisenhower’s grandson, who after becoming President Nixon’s son-in-law , was discharged from the army. Like “Born In The USA”, “Fortunate Son” was used to sell everything from pickup trucks to Wrangler jeans, cutting off the lyrics just before they got to “Ooh, they’re pointing the gun at you”.
1: Bruce Springsteen: born in the United States (Born in USA1984)
It remains the king of all misunderstood political songs. Even if you think Bruce Springsteen hedged his bets by making it sound so anthemic (and putting the Stars’n’Stripes on the album cover), his underlying fury at the way America treated its Vietnam vets is impossible to be missed. It took Ronald Reagan to make him rethink it: when Reagan chose it as a simple flag-waving song, Springsteen recast it as a blues in which the lyrics are at the forefront. He’s generally played it that way ever since.
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For the latest music news and exclusive features, check out uDiscover music. uDiscover Music is operated by Universal Music Group (UMG). Some recording artists included in uDiscover Music articles are affiliated with UMG.