Interscope Records/Pussy Riot
For as long as music has been around, there have been musicians who’ve used it to express their political beliefs. Since the advent of the music video, artists have been able to further their message, crystalizing their positions by their matching politically-charged lyrics with striking visual images. As the U.S. Presidential campaign finally (finally!) approaches its end, here’s a look at some of the most powerful politically-themed music videos which focus on issues that are still quite relevant. From protest songs to no-holds-barred commentary on the state of our society, these are the videos that stay with you long after they end.
Just a heads up: many of these videos are NSFW.
Jeremy — Pearl Jam
The titular Jeremy in this Mark Pellington-directed Pearl Jam video is a tragic figure out of time whose issues with emotional isolation, bubbling anger, and self-harm are recognizable and, to some, relatable now more than ever. As are the dizzying headlines at the start of the video about children getting shot, tortured, and preyed upon sexually. Credit Pellington and then-child actor Trevor Wilson with amplifying a powerful song and solidifying a message that, sadly, still isn’t getting through to some parents and educators.
Eddie Vedder’s expressive facial contortions and back-and-forth rocking while howling is also present and unforgettable, there’s just no lesson to be learned from them. — Jason
Money And Run — U.N.K.L.E. featuring Nick Cave
When the British trip-hop group U.N.K.L.E. joined forces with Nick Cave, music’s reigning prince of darkness, no one expected a feel-good pop song. What resulted from their collaboration, however, was a damning takedown of classism, specifically how the elite ruling class gleefully preys on society’s less fortunate. Naturally, the accompanying video, directed by Tom Haines, services the song’s message loud and clear, as a handful of affluent men act as boorish and barbaric on the golf course as they do in their dining room. Things get much worse, however, when we see the wanton disdain they have toward those they view as inferior as they utterly dehumanize the lower for their own cathartic amusement. An unflinching, scathing portrayal of how the majority often feel they are treated by society’s ruling elites. — Christian
Nobody Speaks — DJ Shadow Featuring Big Mike
You can balm the burn wounds caused by the rage fire of our political system by lying to yourself about both sides merely acting like feral raccoons in a no-rules dumpster fight because they care — so deeply, you guys — for the country if you want to, but in truth, it’s majorly about selfishness and beating the other guy. This DJ Shadow/Run The Jewels collaboration from director Sam Pilling gets it and posits that fisticuffs and using the flag as a literal weapon are the natural evolutionary step down from candidates barely containing their rage stares and talking about locking up their opponents. Let’s face it: 2020 is when the UFC and the commission on Presidential debates align. — Jason
No Guns Allowed — Snoop Lion
After taking a step back from his Snoop Dogg persona, the artist reimagined himself as Snoop Lion, and with his name-change completely changed his approach to making music. His video for “No More Guns” begins with a sobering memorial delivered by President Barack Obama, and is interspersed with news clips from several of our nation’s countless mass shootings. Fittingly, as Snoop collaborated on the song with his teenage daughter, Cori B., the black-and-white video relies heavily on the juxtaposition of young children and firearms, yet the song’s message about the possibility of peace resonates throughout. — Christian
Close Your Eyes (And Count To F*ck) — Run The Jewels Featuring Zach de la Rocha
Similarly presented in black-and-white, this video shows a cop and a young black man locked in an ugly and seemingly endless fight in the middle of the street. It’s like a f*cked up dance in a busted music box because they keep at it over and over again as the song plays. The whole thing ends, after the exhaustion becomes clearer and clearer, with both men sitting in bed together, because we are, of course, human beings that are bound to each other no matter the injustices, biases, tragedies, and hatred that impact us. A notion that seems to make it clear that this cycle of animosity and violence is as pointless as it is destructive. “Close Your Eyes (And Count To F*ck)” isn’t a subtle effort by director AG Rojas, but it’ll stick with you, as will the deployment of Rage Against The Machine’s Zach de la Rocha on a Big Mike and EL P track. — Jason
Alright — Kendrick Lamar
Bookmarked by a deeply personal monologue, Kendrick Lamar’s breakthrough video for “Alright” is a jarring montage of urban images put to film by director Colin Tilley. While Lamar literally floats throughout the city, he’s likened to a beacon of hope and empowerment, embodying the profound influence that a single person can have on the world around them. Also shot in black-and-white, the images manage to capture both beauty and barrenness in a visual culmination illustrating the kind of frustration that’s felt in cities throughout the country. Ending with Lamar perched on a streetlamp high above the ground, it’s his climactic, too-close-to-the-sun moment as he’s shot down by a police officer, but nonetheless ends with him smiling at the camera. An uplifting reminder in an otherwise grim ending that the most powerful ideas don’t have to die with an individual. — Christian
The Suburbs — Arcade Fire
Like Red Dawn but with a dreamy picnic lunch soundtrack and a police state instituted by a wholly domestic force with poorly constructed walls and late night raids, this Spike Jonze video shows youth in revolt against oppression. But only slightly. Really, it’s just a bunch of kids riding their bikes in the dystopian nightmarescape that the suburbs have become after some kind of massive takeover. And it’s that sense of normalcy (and concerns about the future in a world guided more by anger and hate than sense) that makes this video truly off-putting. — Jason
Born Free — M.I.A
When it begins, the video for M.I.A’s “Born Free,” a nine-minute short film directed by Roman Gavras, looks to be another bleak, desaturated portrayal of a police state gone mad with power. And while it is that, it’s soon revealed to be a blatant critique on the nature of divisive rhetoric, and the kind of world we can make for ourselves when we let that kind of thinking get the better of us. — Christian
Allentown — Billy Joel
It may be hard to see this as a political video, because of the choreographed dancing/giant wheel turning and union lad shower tush. And it’s even harder to accept that it’s still relevant since it’s about thirty five years old. But while the fade from industrial stronghold to retail hub in Allentown, Pennsylvania happened a long time ago, we’re still seeing the aching echoes of that transition playing out in the less catchy screams of displaced workers and people who feel like they haven’t had “a pretty good shot to get as far as their old man got” because their job got outsourced and now they work at McDonalds. It’s so easy to forget about the legitimacy of those gripes because some of these people alternate their concerns with tantrums and babbles about feckless uprisings, Hillary Clinton devil worship, and blatant racism and sexism, but that legitimate pain remains underneath that distracting and disconcerting haze. In this slice of cheese from the past, Billy Joel reminds us of that and a kind of American wistfulness that has been growing, like a cancer, for the last 40 or 50 years. And he does it with uncommon skill while mounting what looks like a high school musical about a sing-songy wartime tramp because he’s one of our greatest storytellers. Basically, I’m saying Billy Joel can truly “make America great again.” He can take the “Pressure” and he can guide us down “The River of Dreams.” “Vienna” is also a song! — Jason
“Make America Great Again” — Pussy Riot
We’ve talked about this video from musical collective Pussy Riot before, but this entry from director Jonas Akerlund imagines the early days of Donald Trump presidency from the perspective of a band that had two of its members imprisoned by their country’s leader, Vladimir Putin. A brutal imagining of life where muscle-bound thugs kidnap and torture those who don’t conform to Trump’s skewered vision of America, its brutal imagery clashes with the jaunty, whimsical acoustic guitar chords that accompany the whisper-quiet vocals of Nadya Tolokonnikova. While the contrast between the two is readily apparent, both the music and the video work seamlessly together as a dire warning about the possible future of this country. — Christian