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5 Favourite Protest Songs of the 80s

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published July 13th 2018
Because sometimes a good protest is all we have
5 Favourite Protest Songs of the 80s

When we hear the term 'protest song', the most common image to come to mind is that of the peace-loving hippy at Woodstock smoking dope and singing along to 'Eve Of Destruction'.

However, it may come as something of a surprise to learn that protest songs actually stayed with us. Punk was a protest movement, for example. And I'm pretty sure Abba's 'Waterloo' was protesting the Napoleonic Wars (note to self: check before putting this in).

But then came the 1980s…

1980s, man, mullet, tracksuit, fashion
Oh, God, my teenage years… they're back! (

Surprisingly enough, the 1980s not only continued the art of the protest song, but came up with some amazingly excellent variations of the theme. So, here are some to hopefully send you back to that time…

By the way, one of the greatest protest songs is not here, because the NSFW lyrics and title probably don't suit this site, but it is by NWA and involves the police… Sorry. Great protest song, just not for here.

So, here's 5 of my favourites! Enjoy!

Born in the USA – Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Bruce Springsteen, Born In The USA

Despite Ronald Reagan having absolutely no idea when he used it as a flag-waving anthem to American patriotism, this is a song that is essentially about how poorly Americans treated the returned soldiers from the Vietnam War.


It's jaunty, power-rock structure really did hide its true meaning really well, and you have to look at the lyrics. But, really, its meaning is not that hidden – one of the lines is about going to "kill the yellow man". If this is American patriotism… yikes! There is a more stripped back version available on the 18 Tracks and Tracks albums, which almost fits the lyrical content better, but which child of the 80s hasn't punched the air with his or her fist while yelling 'Boooorn in the USA"?

Or was that just me?

Here's the video!

Two Tribes – Frankie Goes to Hollywood (1984)

Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Two Tribes

Something about the 1980s that quite a few people seem to forget is that we all thought the world was going to be blown up by a nuclear war because the USA and Russia were acting like petulant schoolboys fighting over the prettiest girl in the school, when she really wanted to date New Zealand anyway and ignore these two massive egos. We had a genuine fear that they were going to enact Rocky IV on the world stage, but without the feel-good everyone roots for the American ending.

And thus Frankie Goes To Hollywood, after telling us all to 'Relax', decided to tell us all that when these two fight, we all lose. As subtle as a brick through a window, but that was what we needed at the time, to get the jaded MTV generation to actually take notice of world events.

You can see the video here...

The Message – Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five (1982)

Grand Master Flash And The Furious Five, The Message

The first hip-hop/rap song to make a mainstream impression across the world, the song tells of life on the streets of America for a typical Afro-American family. Its imagery is brilliantly put forward and depressing as all out. Something a lot of middle-class white kids would have no idea how to relate to, and yet the way the song was produced and put forward, we actually did feel we could understand where they were coming from. From the "man with the tow-truck repossessed my car" to "junkies in the alley with the baseball bats", a brother who doesn't "want to go to school" to the park being "crazy after dark"… bleak but alive in the song.

And it scared us witless.

You can see the video right here.

Enola Gay – Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (1980)

OMD, Enola Gay

It might seem odd that a song released in 1980 is about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, but it was also a warning about the nuclear destruction we all thought was coming in the 1980s. It asks if the bombing was necessary, essentially; sure, nice in theory, but 35 years later? Well, at this time Margaret Thatcher was going through the motions of allowing the USA to have its nuclear weapons stored in Britain at various secret locations. The juxtaposition of the past with the present would not have been lost on listeners of the time, especially those in the UK. A cheery sounding song with a deep, depressing meaning.

Look here for the video.

99 Luftballons (99 Red Balloons) – Nena (1983)

nena, 99 luftballons, 99 red balloons

Ah, yes, a German song (or its English translation) about a bunch of pilots being morons and shooting down a bunch of kids' balloons leading to a stupid war that goes on for too long. Such a cheery, jaunty, happy tune! It was designed as a protest against some NATO and Warsaw Pact war-games shenanigans which, of course, divided Germany copped the brunt of. And those of us in the 80s who studied German at high school weren't forced to translate the lyrics as some sort of cruel punishment, because the English lyric version is not the same as the German one? How many got caught out? Okay, just me again, huh?

Click here for the video.

So, what did I miss? Beds Are Burning by Midnight Oil?
Sun City by Artists United Against Apartheid?
Any others? Discuss in the comments section!

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