Songs about electoral campaign and political movements go back far in American history. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” is a campaign song from 1840 that most of us have likely heard of even if we can’t hum it. The songs of the Civil Rights era, such as “Ain’t Gonna’ Let Nobody Turn Me Round,” fueled the determination of those fighting for equal rights and were central to the movement’s success. They’re still powerful songs of struggle. We asked Evelyn McDonnell, who writes about music and politics, to zoom in specifically on songs about voting and tell us about some of her favorites.—The Editor
Willie Nelson, “Vote ’Em Out”
The original country outlaw wrote this song for a Beto O’Rourke senate campaign, but Nelson has been adopted by Biden: There is an official campaign Willie shirt, sillily enough. Sung in his ineffable clear, warm voice, it’s a straight-shooting song about the simple solution to bad politicians: “The biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box.”
Patti Smith, “People Have the Power”
The franchise has always been implicit in this glorious anthem of democracy from 1988, and lyrics like “People have the power/ to redeem the work of fools” have never been more timely (though granted, always pretty timely). In the version the punk populist poet recorded with Toronto’s crowd-sourced Choir! Choir! Choir!, she makes the mandate explicit: “People have the power, to vote!” she shouts, backed by a chorus of 250. In case we missed the message the first time, Smith performed the song twice in March at the Disney Concert Hall — the last show I saw before the coronavirus locked us down.
Vivien Goldman, “I Have a Voice”
Another call to action from another OG (Original Grrrl) punk feminist icon, “I Have a Voice” marks Goldman’s return to recording after decades of being the coolest music critic ever. (Admittedly, she’s a pal, so I’m biased.) The “Launderette” lady wrote the track in London in response to Brexit and reworked the title just in time for the American election. Haunting and elegiac, the cry of the oppressed was released by producer Youth Friday.
The fourth track on Radiohead’s masterpiece “OK Computer” (arguably the best album of the 1990s), “Electioneering” is the agitated reply of disillusioned youth to mainstream politics and neoliberal global capitalism. The lads attack empty slogans (“I trust I can rely on your vote”), the IMF and voodoo economics. It may be the first song inspired by reading Noam Chomsky, but it probably wasn’t the last.
Jhené Aiko, “Vote”
The former B2K singer offers a Solange-esque plaint about the dilemma workers face when they have to choose between taking a day off to wait in long lines at the polls or exercising what is supposed to be their “American right.” “I just want to get to the ballot” she grumbles over stuttering beats. Don’t we all.
Wreckless Eric and Amy Rigby, “Vote That F_____ Out”
The coolest couple on the left of the dial (since Kim and Thurston split, that is) don’t mince words in this contemporary release. As the title indicates, the transatlantic duo are not subtle in their sentiment. Eric almost died from COVID-19 last spring, so forgive them their profane sincerity. “You’re fired!”
Yeah, I know it’s a party anthem from the “Crazy Rich Asians” soundtrack that name-checks tequila and sativa, not a protest song. But when you pull that lever, or mail that ballot, you are, in essence, voting “for a good time.” Miguel makes exercising our essential democratic right sound like a party and an orgasm, as it should be.
“Hamilton” Soundtrack, “The Election of 1800”
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece musical is all about the birth of the American democracy. This song describes the political horse-trading that has been part and parcel of politics from Day One, albeit a game motivated by a serious agenda: Hamilton is forced to choose the lesser of two evils, ultimately deciding, “Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none.” Sound familiar?
Ella Fitzgerald, “Vote for Mr. Rhythm”
Unfortunately, I don’t think he’s on the ballot.
Dolly Parton, “19thAmendment”
The Dolly Lama salutes women’s right to vote on this track from a Radiolab album about all the constitutional amendments (yes, you read that right). From podcasts to Netflix to The New Yorker, Parton has become a national hero. Here, she reminds us that we owe our liberation to the suffragettes of a century ago.
Evelyn McDonnell, a frequent contributor to LMU Magazine, is a professor of journalism and new media and the director of the Journalism Program in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. A longtime journalist, she was a senior editor of The Village Voice and has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Billboard and other publications. McDonnell is the author of several books, including “Queens of Noise: The Real Story of the Runaways,” and she is the editor of “Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyonce. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl,” a book she discussed in an episode of LMU Magazine’s Off Press podcast. Follow her @EvelynMcDonnell.