Let's be honest, the music of the 80s is quite often maligned. There are accusations of cheesiness, accusations of over production, and accusations of way too big hair. And while there are certainly examples of all of those complaints (especially the hair thing) the decade also produced some astounding music. The decade also saw the birth of Indie Music. That alone should score some points for the 80s.
In this article we will take a look at some of the music that bucked the shallowness of "totally awesome" as we look into political and social music of the 80s.
As one of the pioneering rap groups, Public Enemy was also one of the first to combine the relatively new genre with political lyrics and social commentary. One of the most powerful songs of the decade, Fight the Power, from 1989 was featured prominently in what was arguably the best film of the 80s, Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing.
If anyone in the 80s deserves the title of "iconoclast," it would be Billy Bragg, who built his entire career around diving into social issues in his music. From 1988 "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward" contains the great line wherein Bragg is describing an interview situation, "Mixing pop and politics, he asks me what the use is. I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses."
As an Irish band, U2 had a distinctly personal view of "the Troubles" in the area in the 70s and 80s. In 1983 the young band released their song of the 1972 incident which was seen as the flashpoint of the conflict.
A simple and short song which gets right directly to the point. When Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra noticed that for some reason white supremacists were beginning to show up in the crowds of his punk band's concerts, he wanted to make it known that he wanted none of that, and did so quite plainly with this song from 1981.
In 1987 the Australian band Midnight Oil had their first international hit with a song whose lyrics concerned an Australian issue: the treatment of the country's aboriginal people.
The Clash were certainly no strangers to politically themed music, in fact it was their entire mission. And in 1982 the band demonstrated just how effectively pop and politics can be mixed. Joe Strummer wrote intelligent and topical lyrics to go with Topper Headon's bouncing beat and playful piano. The result was something danceable that you can think to. What a concept!
Though of course racism is a problem which is still with us today, the notion of institutional racial segregation had been gone from pretty much all of the world for quite a while by the 1980s -- except for in the country of South Africa where the laws known as apartheid kept the country's black citizens as second-class citizens. Yet despite this situation, the country saw a good deal of tourism from Europe and the US. This song from 1985 features many of the top musicians of the era proclaiming that they would not play concerts at Sun City, a poplar luxury resort in the country.
Bob Marley has, of course, written some of the greatest political songs around, and we certainly have to wonder what else he might have written had he not succumbed to cancer at the age of 36. Buffalo Soldier, released posthumously in 1983, tells the story of African American soldiers during the Civil War and relates that to the current state of people of color in the US and beyond.
Peter Gabriel has never been one to shy away from political material. In 1980 apartheid was still the law of the land in South Africa (and would be for several more years to come). One of its victims was Stephen Biko, a black activist who died while in police custody. In this song Gabriel creates one of the most stirring memorials ever put to music.
The Police were one of those bands which during its early days toured relentlessly in countries and cities throughout the world. With so much exposure to so many different ways of life it was pretty much inevitable that the band would record a political song or two. 1980's One World (Not Three) makes a very strong statement about the differences between rich and poor countries.
In interviews, REM's Micheal Stipe has credited Natalie Merchant with inspiring the change toward more political lyrics during the late 80s. From 1986, Fall on Me is the band's first great stretch in that direction, with the beautiful and haunting contemplation on the issue of acid rain.
One of those songs that take on different meanings to different people -- from poverty and homelessness to war to sexual identity -- Queen and David Bowie's Under Pressure is a classic no matter which way you look at it. And features arguably the most recognizable bass line in the history of music.
A nice little ditty about nuclear war from the band who brought primal scream therapy via synthesizers into the world.
Though Ozzy is, well Ozzy, known for screaming along to loud guitars and biting the heads off of bats and birds, the lyrics to Crazy Train are an incredibly insightful comment on the Cold War.
Technically this is a song from the late 70's, but Elvis Costello's cover of Nick Lowe's What's So Funny? really picked up steam in the early 80s during the fast and furious infancy of MTV.