Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”
One of several seven-minute epics anchoring Cohen’s 1992 record, The Future, “Democracy” has a line between snark and sincerity that can be hard to parse. On paper, “Democracy” is a hymn to, well, democracy: an ode to the reformers who imagine a better world “on a visionary flood of alcohol” as well as to democracy in the abstract, sweeping across the United States like some liberating spirit. Harboring a Canadian’s healthy suspicion toward all things American, Cohen describes the U.S.A., more than a little insincerely, first as “O mighty Ship of State,” then “O mighty Ship of Steel,” suggesting America’s transformation from City on the Hill to lumbering, rusty beast. While Cohen ducks any specific references to political parties, candidates, and elections, “Democracy” still seems to come out (however hesitantly) in favor of America’s capacity for political change and the spirit of capital-d Democracy. As he croons in the last verse, from the point of view of the U.S.A./Democracy, “I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay / I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet.”
R.E.M. never shied away from political topics, particularly as a band whose first dozen years coincided with the 12-year Republican control of the White House. The band seethed under the Reagan administration, but its anger boiled over on “Ignoreland,” an aggressive anomaly on R.E.M.’s otherwise contemplative classic, 1992’s Automatic For The People. As if references to “the capital” and “trickle-down” weren’t enough, singer Michael Stipe snarls, “The information nation / Took their clues from all the sound-bite gluttons / 1980, ’84, ’88, ’92, too,” removing any doubt about the subject. But Stipe had obviously tapped into something, as less than a month after Automatic’s release, Bill Clinton became the first Democratic president since Jimmy Carter.
Buried in the middle of Radiohead’s 1997 album, between singles “Karma Police” and “No Surprises,” the rock-oriented “Electioneering” almost seems out of place in OK Computer’s experimental landscape. But its apparent simplicity masks a sneering skepticism typical of Radiohead, with the lyrics attacking on-the-take politicians, eagerly campaigning while simultaneously squashing democracy with “cattle prods” and “voodoo economics.”
Patti Smith, “People Have The Power”
The lead single from Smith’s 1988 album, Dream Of Life, is an uplifting anthem that had a second life when Smith performed it on the pro-John Kerry “Vote For Change” tour in 2004. “The people have the power / To redeem the work of fools / Upon the meek the graces shower / It’s decreed the people rule.” The song is surprisingly idealistic and presumes active participation by people in democracies—though the year of its release had the lowest voter turnout since 1924.
Nine Inch Nails, “Capital G”
The run-up to election night can be tedious, but what really grates is watching the subsequently elected officials sell out, waffle, and not get a whole lot accomplished. Trent Reznor speaks to that in “Capital G,” from 2007’s dystopian Year Zero, where he bemoans the sway greed (“with a capital G”) has on those in power. “I pushed a button and elected him to office / He pushed a button and it dropped a bomb,” he sings, later assuming the role of the political fat cat who dismisses the concerns of the populace: “Don’t try to tell me how some power can corrupt a person / You haven’t had enough to know what it’s like / You’re only angry ’cause you wish you were in my position / Now nod your head because you know that I’m right.”
Woody Guthrie, Billy Bragg & Wilco, “Christ For President”
Only Woody Guthrie could mix a utopian vision of Jesus as president with political irony. Lest anyone take his endorsement of Christ for president as straight religion, Guthrie suggests His election is “The only way we can ever beat / these crooked politician men.” Later, Guthrie underscores his populist political underpinnings, singing, “Every year we waste enough / to feed the ones who starve / We build our civilization up / and we shoot it down with wars.” Though Guthrie never put the song to record, Wilco and Billy Bragg gave the tune a properly twangy, folky twist when they recorded it for their first Mermaid Avenue collection in 1998.
The Replacements, “Election Day”
The Replacements were never much of a political band, and that’s clear from “Election Day.” The loose, bluesy song is slovenly and slapdash, even by The Replacements’ standards—and frontman Paul Westerberg can barely muster enough interest to express his lack of interest in voting. “I don’t care who gets elected / I don’t care who gets to find out,” he mutters around what sounds like the mouth of a whiskey bottle. Then he just kind of mumbles for a while.
Arcadia, “Election Day”
Duran Duran took a little break in the mid-’80s, prompting Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes, and Roger Taylor to form the artier spin-off project Arcadia, whose biggest hit was democracy-themed “Election Day.” “All over you as they say rumors or rivals yell at the strike force / Hi guys, by the way, are you aware you’re being illegal,” Le Bon sings. What does it mean? Who knows? But it sounds meaningful, maybe even political. Grace Jones contributes a vocal, but it’s William S. Burroughs’ cameo in the video that provides the best clue to untangling the lyric. Duran Duran once planned to record songs for a film adaptation of Burroughs’ The Wild Boys (hence the group’s song of the same name). The movie didn’t work out, but Le Bon and company had apparently picked up a few tricks from Burroughs, who knew how to combine words into arrangements that sounded dangerous, even if they didn’t make that much sense.
Joy Division, “Candidate”
There’s definitely some morbid, twisted metaphors going on in Joy Division’s “Candidate”—it is Ian Curtis singing, after all—but the song’s lyrics skirt around some feeling of dread in the face of so-called democracy. “I campaigned for nothing / I worked hard for this,” Curtis croons as the ghosts of instruments shuffle and float around him. “I tried to get to you, you treat me like this.” Nothing like a depressing meditation on power, corruption, and lies to give you cold comfort as you head to the polls.
Deee-Lite, “Vote, Baby, Vote”
What do you do once you’ve gotten the world dancing? If you’re Deee-Lite, you get political. Infinity Within, the follow-up to its 1990 breakthrough, World Clique, featured songs about safe sex, the environment, and other topics. (For the record, the group supported both.) Though the album lacked a huge hit on the order of “Groove Is In The Heart,” it did feature one widely heard song: The PSA-length “Vote, Baby, Vote,” which was featured in a Rock The Vote spot MTV viewers couldn’t avoid in the months leading up to the ’92 election. The group’s stance on voting? Also pro.
Burning Airlines, “Election Night Special”
There may be no better descriptor for a populace held hostage by election-year gamesmanship than “game-show purgatory,” from the first line of Burning Airlines’ searing, bitter takedown of pay-to-play politics. At the end of the night, the real winner isn’t a Republican or a Democrat: “Mother money, your dreams came true today,” sings frontman J. Robbins. All the rest is pageantry (“united we stand for unity”) with self-interest ensuring nothing gets done besides patronage: “What’s darker, streets or airwaves pregnant with rumors of rewards?”
Alice Cooper, “Elected”
Essentially a rewrite of previous, non-charting single, “Reflected,” Alice Cooper’s “Elected” asks the listener to imagine the charismatic, controversial frontman as an all-American boy, a “Yankee Doodle Dandy in a gold Rolls Royce.” It also asks the listener to imagine, in true Third Way fashion, a whole new political party, neither Republican nor Democrat, headed by Cooper: the Wild Party! (It’s a play on the idea that “party” can, in fact, mean two things.) Yet as silly as “Elected” is, it’s also packed with that biting Alice Cooper wit, with the hopeful Wild Party prospect invoking all the problems sweeping America only to boldly assert, “Personally, I don’t care.”
Steve Goodman, “Election Year Rag”
To voters disaffected by the amount of inefficacy and posturing done by politicians during election years, Steve Goodman’s brief, satirical ragtime tune “Election Year Rag”—released as a bonus track on the 1999 reissue of his self-titled 1972 debut, and purportedly featuring Bob Dylan on piano—suggests to swallow those fears, follow politicians’ lead, and bust out some deceptively easy dance moves: “You take two steps to the left, you take two steps to the right / Then just land in the middle and you hang on tight.” After all, if the outcome is inevitable regardless of political party (“You know the winner’s always somebody else / And the loser is always us”), why not join the dance?
Killing Joke, “Another Bloody Election”
As if the title of Killing Joke’s 1996 album, Democracy, wasn’t enough of a clue, the song “Another Bloody Election” drives the point home: The group’s mastermind, Jaz Coleman, has a bone to pick with government. The pioneering post-punk band has always trafficked in unrest and unease of all kinds, but “Another Bloody Election” puts a finer point on it. “False gestures, too much makeup,” howls Coleman over a fit of industrial-grunge riffage, “I love your cheesy smile / Please will you kiss my baby?”
Kevin Devine, “No Time Flat”
Kevin Devine’s jaunty, Tin Pan Alley-esque song from 2005’s Split The Country, Split The Street concerns a man unable to concentrate on having sex because of his own anxieties. In the first verse, he’s mostly just worried about how he’s wasted his life, but the second finds him fretting about the 2004 election, concerned that the only thing John Kerry has over George W. Bush is that he’s in favor of abortion rights. “I’m not sure why I vote,” he laments, adding, “it seems to me we get the same shit from them both / Reform don’t work; I think it’s time we tried revolt,” he ultimately concludes.
Paint It Black, “Election Day”
Hardcore band Paint It Black wastes no time getting to the point in this 69-second blast of righteous anger, announcing that all “bloodsuckers, heaters, and parasites” have been “relieved of duty, so let’s call it a night.” It’s the kind of fantasy both sides of every election have, people rising up to stop “backdoor deals” and “glad-handing bullshit.” And whoever comes next won’t have it any easier: “When those promises are broken, we’ll be scratching at your door.” Whoever gets sworn in on January 20 should keep that in mind.