TCS Daily

Freedom Rock!

By Radley Balko - October 17, 2002 12:00 AM

The conservative writer and economist Bruce Bartlett recently discussed what he called the top forty conservative pop songs. I started thinking about compiling a list of my own - the libertarian's list.

To be honest, I've never been much on letting politics inhibit my enjoyment of a particular artist. Let's face it; if a good libertarian were to limit his choice in music to songs by other good libertarians, he'd probably get tired of music pretty darned quick. A guy can only handle so much Rush and Oingo Boingo.

But it is comforting to occasionally stumble upon a song or an artist that articulates some of the principles I believe in - even if that wasn't the artist's intention. Actually, especially if that wasn't the artist's intention. There's nothing better than finding a publicly leftist pop star who accidentally pens a line or two scolding excessive government, promoting individual freedom, or, God forbid, lamenting the onset of tax season.

First, a few caveats. There are actually quite a few libertarians in pop music. But most of them are humble enough to understand that they are pop stars, and not lawmakers or public policy scholars. Unlike their leftist colleagues, they tend to keep their mouths shut when it comes to politics. They also tend to keep ideology out of their music.

Dwight Yoakam, for example, told the New York Post a few years ago that he's intrigued by the "Jeffersonian ideal of liberty . . .that we're responsible for our own actions." But, Yoakam added, "I don't know that, as a performer, I have the right to impose my views on other people." If only Barbara Streisand were so unassuming.

Alt-country's rising star Robbie Fulks is also a libertarian, as is Blues Traveler's John Popper, and cult rocker Mojo Nixon. In Britain, tax rates approaching 90% at the highest brackets have made libertarians - or at least American residents - of some of rock's biggest acts, including the Rolling Stones (Mick Jagger was actually a student at the London School of Economics for a time), the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and the Kinks.

Lots of other artists share the libertarian tenets of drug decriminalization, or a general aversion to military engagement, but part ways with libertarians on most other issues. That list is too long to tackle here.

Finally, let me add that my list below is an attempt to mix a message of freedom with popular, accessible music. There are certainly more purist liberty-loving songs out there - Rush's Ayn Rand opus "2112," and Oingo Boingo's "Capitalism" come to mind. But obscure 20-year old new wave tunes and 20-minute epics aren't going to win many converts.

That said, here's my twelve-song mix tape of liberty:

Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise

Robert Bradley is a blind bluesman who was discovered when a few producers heard his gravelly, fishgut voice through an open window in downtown Detroit. He was singing for spare change. He's since toured with the HORDE festival, and has opened for a variety of household names in the jam-band genre. "Governor" is a slow-rolling tome about taxes and the workin' man.

"I wish the governor...would just leave ...the poor man alone," Bradley wails, "He's messin' up my home . . . You know my taxes are getting' too high./I can't pay the rent./How can I make it by?/My woman wants to leave./They cut off the phone./Now I gotta' spend ... all my nights alone." He takes some shots at D.C., too. "All y'all on Capitol Hill . . . I know you're getting' your thrill./I just want you to leave me alone."

Blues at its finest, with a capitalist twist.

"What's Left of the Flag"
Flogging Molly

Flogging Molly is an up-and-coming Irish band mixing the poetry and melody of traditional Irish folk music with a raucous punk attitude. They call their tunes "bar room lullabies."

"What's Left of the Flag" is a complicated plea for Irish independence, and at the same time, a warning against jingoism and blind patriotism. It's both an anti-war hymn and a call to arms - a battle cry for freedom fighting, but a stern warning to be cautious that the regime you're fighting for isn't every bit as dangerous as the one you're fighting against.

The chorus: "Walk away me boy, walk away me boy, and by mornin' we'll be free/Wipe that golden tear from your mother dear/And raise what's left of the flag for me."

"Get Off This"

Thanks to blogger Jim Henley for this suggestion. "Get Off This" ridicules the bratty college kids who rail against the evils of money and success - the kinds of kids who stop by Abercrombie & Fitch en route to the anti-capitalism rally. The song's also a repudiation of idea that musicians ought to "stand for something," and that wanting fame and fortune and success - for their own sakes - is something to apologize for.

The band touched on this theme in another hit song "Teen Angst," when lead singer David Lowery declared, "What the world needs now/Is another folk singer/Like I need a hole in my head." On "Get Off This," he sings: "Petty little Ayatollahs/come around to judge and stone ya'./All we're trying to do is make a fortune./Yeah, we ain't got no government loans./And no one sends a check from home./But get this: we're just doin' what we wanna'."

"20th Century Man"
The Kinks

Kinks front man and lyricist Ray Davies isn't really a libertarian. Rather, he fancies himself an advocate for the working class. Consequently, he's mistrustful of the state, but also of corporations - both of whom he feels left blue collar Britain behind. Still, even Davies lamented Britain's high tax rates later in his career. The song "Sunny Afternoon" touches a bit on the taxman's tyranny, but given its early release (1966), it's probably more Davies doing some tongue-in-cheek role-playing ("The taxman's taken all my dough/And left me in my stately home") than an accurate reflection of his politics at the time.

"20th Century Man," on the other hand, couldn't be clearer. It's a scathing - and fortuitous - indictment of the state's intrusion into our private lives. The best lines come at the bridge: "I was born in a welfare state./Ruled by bureaucracy./ Controlled by civil servants./And people dressed in grey./Got no privacy, got no liberty./Cos' the twentieth century people./Took it all away from me."

"The Unforgiven"

The song's title would be an apt description of the band's attitude toward its fans of late. Napster issues notwithstanding, Metallica's James Hettfield has flirted with libertarianism from time to time in interviews. The band's song "Don't Tread on Me" is almost a dead-on endorsement. But I'm going with "The Unforgiven" because I think it's a better song, though the themes are subtler. It's the story of an anonymous man struggling to find his identity in a society of rules and rulers, where he's robbed of decisions, of choice, and of self-determination. He has no sense of himself, no identity, and so he fumbles through life, following the mandates society has laid out for him, never fully realizing himself. In the end he dies, with a heart full of regret and unmet potential. I'd quote lyrics, but no passage does the song justice when pulled out of context. Read the whole thing here.

"Cult of Personality"
Living Colour

Vernon Reid's furious guitar riff makes this song a keeper regardless of message. But add lyrics advocating a healthy mistrust of power, propaganda and the ignorance of the masses, and we've got a fine addition to our collection. Lead singer Corey Glover invokes Kennedy, Mussolini, Gandhi, and Stalin in warning against putting too much trust and power into one man. Speaking collectively on behalf of all these men from their graves, Glover instructs us to listen to our own consciences and not those of anointed "leaders:" "You don't have to follow me./Only you can set you free." Another nice passage: "You gave me fortune./You gave me fame./You gave me power in your God's name./I'm everything/you need to be./I'm the cult of personality." An admonition to us to think for ourselves, and avoid the pitfalls of cultish fidelity.

"Support Your Local Emperor."
Blues Traveler

Blues Travelers' lead singer and lyricist John Popper is an avowed libertarian and gun nut. I'll just quote verbatim from this one: "Support your local emperor./Pay him tribute every time/Let it be known he holds your fate./From his fingertips shall flow the wine./Tell him when he speaks the air is sweet./Wherever he walks rosebeds be laid./So that he may always feel secure./In the vast empire that he's made./But could you tell me what he's ever done for you?/I'm not the one that needed an army./I'm not the one that needed respect./I'm not the one that hopes they'll remember./I'm not the one they'll likely forget."

"Won't Get Fooled Again"
The Who

I'll opt for this anthem by just a nose over The Who's other classic "Going Mobile," a ditty about packing up and hitting the road in order to avoid the taxing and monitoring that comes with citizenship.

"Won't Get Fooled Again" reminds me of Thomas Jefferson's warning that a revolution every generation or so is probably what's necessary to preserve liberty - because inevitably, liberty will again give ground to government, and the whole process will need to repeat itself. Pete Townshend's lyrics clearly call for a revolution of sorts, but I think this song is commonly misinterpreted. It's actually fairly cynical. In truth, Townshend laments that despite the wide-eyed idealism of the 1960's and calls for a counterculture "revolution," sooner or later things are bound to return to the way they always were.

Sure, he "gets on his knees and prays" that "we won't get fooled again." But he's pretty sure that we probably will. In the second verse, he sings: "The change, it had to come./We knew it all along./We were liberated from the fold, that's all./And the world looks just the same./And history ain't changed./'Cause the banners, they are flown in the next war." Sooner or later, we'll get complacent again. The world will look the same again. And the same banners will need to be trotted out again. "Meet the new boss," Roger Daltrey concludes, "same as the old boss."

"We're Not Gonna' Take It"
Twisted Sister

When it was first released, "We're Not Gonna' Take It" seemed little more than the teenage metal rebellion song typical of the early 1980s. Of course, we found out a little later in the Tipper Gore obscenity hearings that Dee Snyder is actually a pretty articulate defender of civil liberties.

"We've got the right to choose and/there ain't no way we'll lose it./This is our life, this is our song./We'll fight the powers that be./Just don't pick our destiny." There's more in a later verse about the "gall" and "condescension" of the powers that be. "We're right, we're free. We'll fight. You'll see!"

"Get Up, Stand Up"
Bob Marley

Despite its adaptation by Amnesty International, there are themes in this song that would make Ayn Rand proud. Marley warns against religious extremism, and even advocates - in most un-Marleylike fashion - a rational self-interest that approaches materialism: "Most people think,/Great God will come from the skies,/Take away everything./And make everybody feel high./But if you know what life is worth,/You will look for yours on earth:/And now you see the light,/You stand up for your rights. Jah!"


I'm choosing "Freewill" from the many worthy Rush candidates because it's the most accessible, and because it's one of Rush's more successful singles. The album, Permanent Waves, launched Rush as a world-renown, arena-filling rock act. As usual, Neil Peart and Geddy Lee infuse lyrics critical of religion and state power with Lee's striking falsetto and hard rock's most talented rhythm section. Note the nice jab at humanitarianism with the line, "kindness that can kill." The well-known refrain: "You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice./If you choose not to decide, you still haven't made a choice./You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill;/I will choose a path that's clear - I will choose Free Will."

The Beatles

The obvious choice to anchor our collection. When the most influential band in the history of rock makes a song critical of big government, how can it not top a list like this? And while the song was written by George Harrison - a thinking man who blended the hands-off mysticism of Eastern religion with a hands-off approach to government and power - it should be pointed out that even Lennon and McCartney wrote a number of songs advocating more liberty, and less state. "Back in the USSR" was a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the Soviet Union's drab culture, though, predictably, rabid anti-communists at the time completely missed the point, and used the song to taint the Beatle's rise with communist influence. "Revolution" was a parody - and not an endorsement - of leftist insurrection. And John Lennon's trippy "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," believe it or not, was written after he'd flipped through the pages of a magazine for gun enthusiasts (the song also holds some sexual connotations about a gun that's just been fired that I'll let you figure out for yourselves).

But "Taxman" is the crown jewel. Simple, well-stated, elegant. The more you cherish it - your car, your comfort, your warmth - the more likely the government is to tax it - the street, your seat, the heat. And certainly, never question the value of taxes: "Don't ask me what I want it for,/If you don't want to pay some more." There's even a plea to end the "death tax:" "Now my advice to those who die/Declare the pennies on your eyes."

An April 15 anthem if ever there was one.

Honorable Mentions:

"The Authority Song," John Mellencamp; "The Band Played Waltzing Matilda," The Pogues; "My Prerogative," Bobby Brown; "1%," Jane's Addiction, "My Life," Billy Joel; "People Want to Be Free," The Rascals; "Liberty," the Grateful Dead; "Freedom of Speech," Above the Law; "Freedom of Speech," Ice-T; "Fight the Power," Public Enemy; "Acadian Driftwood," The Band; "Long Haired Country Boy," Charlie Daniels' Band.

Radley Balko is a freelance writer living in Arlington, VA. He publishes the website



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