Speaking Out: A 1988-93 Protest Playlist

Bob Gendron

1 Min Read

It was only a matter of time before the repressive policies and indulgent practices of the Greed Decade came to a head, stoking the anger of artists who would no longer remain silent. While ‘80s protest music existed before Ronald Reagan prepared to transfer power to his right-hand man, George H.W. Bush, it primarily functioned as a footnote to the era’s capitalist excesses or remained cloistered in underground punk domains.

In the mainstream, Bruce Springsteen scaled the charts with “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984). But its messages were lost on a majority who misinterpreted the song as a jingoistic statement of American pride and ignored the lyrics between the choruses — a practice that still holds today. Don Henley criticized American ignorance and indifference on global affairs in the Top 10 hit “All She Wants to Do Is Dance” (1984), yet the work’s feel-good polish blunted the effectiveness of the words. 

Songs placing Reagan, Reaganomics, the Iran-Contra affair and conservatism in the crosshairs weren’t scarce; bands such as the Ramones, Minutemen, Dead Kennedys, Naked Raygun, Reagan Youth, Sacred Reich, D.O.A. and D.R.I. took aim with regularity. They just existed left of the dial  — confined to college radio stations, dingy clubs and indie record stores that functioned as hubs for progressive listeners, misfits, deejays and those seeking refuge from the era’s onslaught of vapid pop. 

All that changed by the late ‘80s as agit-rap and rock gained a commercial foothold and connected communities previously shut out of the mainstream culture. Protest music spiked in quality and quantity from 1988-93. Here’s an introduction to some of the period’s vital protest songs.

“Vote with a Bullet” by Corrosion of Conformity (1991)

What happens when the desperate are bled dry and get spurned by the leaders elected to represent them? Do the ignored forgive and forget? These thrashers suggest alternative options.

Bob Gendron has been obsessing over music, albums and audio ever since he landed a job at an indie record store at age 13. A longtime contributor to the Chicago Tribune and the first Associate Editorial Director at The Coda Collection, he was also the longtime Music Editor at The Absolute Sound and performed the same role at TONEAudio. Gendron is the author of “Gentlemen” (Bloomsbury) and a coauthor of “Nirvana: The Complete Illustrated History” (Voyageur). His writing has also appeared in DownBeat, Rolling Stone, Revolver and other outlets.

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