Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Stand up and Sing

with 20 comments

by Nemo
During the past week, Andrew Sullivan has launched a contest called “Shut up and Sing.” For this contest, Sullivan has called on readers to submit the “worst pop song designed to reflect a profound moral conscience, a political cause, or a general form of celebrity-as-intellectual-activist.” Now, let me be the first to admit that there’s nothing wrong with mocking the political pretensions of folks like Sting, Bono, and the Black-Eyed Peas—even if they make for easy targets. Moreover, Sullivan’s readers have succeeded in finding plenty of examples of smug, self-indulgent, and vacuous pop music. These songs succeed in evoking gag reflexes much more readily than their stated goals of eliminating racism, achieving world peace, or saving the rain forest.

What do we stand for again?


Still, the contest got on my nerves a little. While I realize that Sullivan probably makes a distinction between air-headed posturing and compelling protest songs, the whole tenor of the “Shut up and Sing” contest seemed to suggest that pop musicians have little business mixing with politics at all. One of Sullivan’s correspondents cites Dennis Leary’s comment on Sting, “Save the world? Try saving your fucking hair!”

Now, I know this wasn’t the point of the contest, but it’s too often the case that musicians (and celebrities more broadly) who dare to tread into political waters earn what many consider deserved mockery for their naïve and hypocritical, “limousine liberalism.” From this view, pop stars should stick to what they know best; they should “shut up and sing.” As my fellow blogger Wiz noted about the character attacks endured by M.I.A because of her politically-charged lyrics, if she was “was singing about the stuff that Britney Spears or Taylor Swift sings about– which is to say, nothing at all– then no one would care. If she was simply a walking ad-campaign, all consumerism and plasticity like those popstars, [the media] would have no problem with her. But because she dares to try to express political thoughts, she makes herself a target.”

So, with all due respect to Andrew Sullivan (who I greatly admire), I would like to start our own little contest here at PhD Octopus. It’s entitled “Stand up and Sing.” It’s a chance for our readers and my fellow bloggers to submit the best pop songs (broadly defined) that deliver a political message (again, broadly defined). These are songs that provide pointed social commentary without falling over into smugness. It should go without saying that the entries should also be good songs. Here at PhD Octopus we’re all about quality and content.

I’m going to get the contest going with three songs, which share little in common except that they remain relevant and come out of the 1980s—a period too often eclipsed by the 1960s in discussions of protest music.

I actually heard the first song on my list, “Smalltown Boy,” by Bronski Beat four years ago through Andrew Sullivan’s website, which shows that he does have an appreciation for strong socially conscious music. Sullivan called the video “the record of the beginning of a revolution.” It’s a powerful song; there should be more like them on the radio today:

My second selection comes from hip-hop group Public Enemy. While everybody knows their famous anthems about fighting the power and not believing the hype, I wanted to highlight their tale about one man taking on the prison-industrial complex in “Black Steel in an Hour of Chaos.” As the United States continues to hold the dubious record for the highest incarceration rate in the world and with a hugely disproportionate number of them being black males, the anger Chuck D expresses at his government and the prison system remains sadly pertinent over two decades later:

Finally, I thought I would include a track that, on the surface at least, seems to confirm to some of the worst stereotypes about politicized pop music. The song includes a man making adolescent facial poses while smearing himself with what appears to be ketchup; it includes another man rapping about Nostradumus in a vampire costume; and it takes its courageous stand against the controversial issues of “world destruction.” Still, Sex Pistols front man John Lydon and hip-hop legend Afrika Bambaataa teamed up in 1984 for what turns out to be an oddly compelling, politically-charged single on the threat of nuclear war.  Note how Bambaataa also seems to prophecy the threat of Islamic terrorism eclipsing that of communism way before most of the pundits got around to doing so. I include this song to show that even vague, seemingly self-indulgent pleas on behalf of “humanity” can also make for some pretty good music too:


That’s it for now. Please include your suggestions for the “Stand up and Sing” contest in the comments section or email to


Written by Julian Nemeth

November 30, 2010 at 01:46

20 Responses

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  1. Rockin the Casah by the Clash
    and Bodies by the Sex Pistols.

    Herein we have the great Islamic Caliphate song and the great anti-Abortion song. (BTW, I am pro-choice. I just love it that the Sex Pistols being pro-life is so anti-Left).

    And, of course, “We won’t get fooled again” by the Who!

    By the way, I love Geldof’s, Band-Aid “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” No they are Muslims. They don’t celebrate Christmas.

    BUT THIS IS THE BEST EVER !! CULTURCIDE. They aren’t the world. Tell me you don’t love this !!!!!

    Fun stuff! I love your website.

    John Press, NYU PHD

    November 30, 2010 at 02:04

    • A. It’s “Rock the Casbah”
      B. According to Wikipedia “Joe Strummer wept when he heard that the phrase “Rock the Casbah” was written on an American bomb that was to be detonated on Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War.”
      C. The Sex Pistols are neither right nor left. They are pretty openly nihilist.


      November 30, 2010 at 17:37

  2. Arrested Developments “People Everyday” (Metamorphosis Mix). Here’s a link with bad sound (not enough bass here in relation to the original): – TL

    Tim Lacy

    November 30, 2010 at 10:14

  3. Oh I have alot of thoughts about this… But for now let me cast my vote for Street Fighting Man by the Stones. “Hey, think the time is right for a palace revolution!”
    Also Gimme Some Truth by John Lennon.


    November 30, 2010 at 17:27

  4. strummer was mad because the name of the song was being written on bombs falling on people.

    how about, pretty much any legitimate piece of art made amidst empire, is good politic. since, you know, empire doesn’t create art…the idea of “shut up and sing” is just fucking dumb.


    December 1, 2010 at 00:03

  5. only somebody like andrew sullivan could come up with the idea to “shut up and sing.” it’s elitist to the core.


    December 1, 2010 at 00:06

  6. …unless it’s contrived, but that’s another topic.


    December 1, 2010 at 00:06

  7. numerous tupac songs.


    December 1, 2010 at 00:07

  8. it’s just a weird question, because you link to that M.I.A. post which celebrates her political conviction, so, like, the question is kinda negated…?


    December 1, 2010 at 00:10

  9. I think “Stand up & Sing” is basically just the rebuttal to “Shut up and sing.”


    December 1, 2010 at 00:12

  10. forget, oops, that makes me a hipster.


    December 1, 2010 at 00:13

  11. […] for all great political music suggestions. Keep them coming! We’ll be posting some of our favorites throughout the […]

  12. John: Thanks for the recommendations! Glad you like the blog too.

    Wiz: Just posted Street Fighting Man. Love that Tariq Ali helped inspire it.

    Tim: Thanks for the suggestion. That’s a great album.

    Steve: I agree that Sullivan’s contest comes across as elitist, which is what inspired me to write the post. As for your comments making you a hipster, that’s okay, because I apparently write posts defending them!


    December 1, 2010 at 10:40

  13. I don’t think artists writings about domestic abuse, sexuality, gender identity receive quite the same critique as those trying to address what appear to be more big-p Political issues like Sri Lanka or America’s incarceration of African-American males, because they seem personalized, but obviously these things are just as political/structural as the others, so here are some of my favorites:

    Antony and the Johnsons “For Today I’m a Boy” (

    He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss), originally written by Carole King, but Grizzly Bear does a great cover


    December 1, 2010 at 11:10

  14. Luce: Great points and great songs! I’d love to see a post where you include them in the “Stand up and Sing” contest!


    December 1, 2010 at 14:15

  15. […] a comment » As I mentioned in my comment on Nemo’s original post, I think songs that seem to address more personalized themes, like gender identity, sexual […]

  16. […] recent selections in our “Stand up and Sing” contest, which showcase some of the manifold ways politics fruitfully intersects with music, see […]

  17. […] a comment » As some of the other entries in our “Stand Up and Sing” contest have already established, great political music does not have to promote a specific party or […]

  18. Anyone read Joshua Clover’s “1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t have This to Sing About”? Might cover a lot of ground for this blog.


    January 17, 2011 at 15:13

  19. Here’s my pic: The Style Council, Walls Come Tumbling Down. It’s not necessarily “bad” pop music, but compared to Weller’s previous outfit, The Jam, it’s pretty trite. They did this one at Live Aid too, which I think doubles its attempts at creating a political message about grassroots activism during the Second Cold War. Weller would later participate in Red Wedge with Billy Bragg; now, compare Bragg’s 80s output to this saccharine call for unity and you’ve got a “bad” political pop song.


    January 17, 2011 at 15:18

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