As adults across the U.S. line up in polling stations and make their call on who should direct the next four years of the American symphony, we’ve put together an hour of (nonpartisan) songs that we hope will implore and inspire Americans to fulfill their patriotic duty, cast their votes and help shape their nation.
1. The Radiants, “Voice Your Choice”
Whether selecting a President or a soul mate, what matters is that you choose for yourself. Chicago R&B vocal group the Radiants made that clear in 1964 in this who-do-you-love plea, whose title was later used by Jay-Z in his 2004 get-out-the-vote campaign.
2. Janelle Monáe, “Mr. President”
A number of supplications to the Commander in Chief have dotted the popular-music landscape, from Randy Newman’s recessionary “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)” to Pink’s decidedly angrier “Dear Mr. President.” But this track from the indefatigable Janelle Monáe offers a closer to comprehensive laundry list of the matters facing today’s voters, from education to the economy to unpaid-for wars.
3. Marvin Gaye, “You’re the Man”
“Politics and hypocrites/ Is turning us all into lunatics,” Marvin Gaye declared with exasperation in this extended, funky groove penned in the wake of What’s Going On’s consciousness raising. Not that his urging of political awareness helped Americans in 1972, in which Richard Nixon had a master plan all right — but for the election, not the nation.
4. James Brown, “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”
The Minister of New New Super Heavy Funk suggested additional roles for himself in 1974: besides the titular office, he declared, “I need to be the mayor! I need to be the governor!” He ran for the office of Funky President on a platform of self-sufficiency: “Let’s get together, get some land/ Raise our food like the Man/ Save our money like the Mob/ Put up a fight down on the job.”
5. Arcadia, “Election Day”
Less politically pointed than the previous entries in this set — indeed, not politically pointed at all — this single from a side project for wayward Durannies made it to the Top 10 in 1985 even though, as with most Duran Duran songs, no one really knew quite what Simon Le Bon was going on about.
6. Radiohead, “Electioneering”
Promises made, with no intention of keeping them; words proffered merely as means to an end: that’s the kind of electioneering Radiohead sing of in this standout track from 1997’s OK Computer. A reminder that cynicism has its place when it gives one a clearer eye.
7. The Clash, “Know Your Rights”
Angry, vituperative, insistent in their plainspoken rightness and righteousness: such were the idealist punks of the Clash, and such was their message in this “public-service announcement — with guitars!” The words take on even greater weight in light of present concerns about disenfranchisement in Florida and elsewhere.
8. Alice Cooper, “Elected”
We’re all gonna rock to the rules that Alice makes. Nuff said.
9. Van Halen, “Ballot or the Bullet”
From Van Halen’s failed Gary Cherone period came this take on the little bits of history repeating and the choices people make in retaining their freedom. It’s Eddie by numbers, like the rest of the Van Halen III album, but worth this quick revisit.
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10. Michelle Shocked, “The Ballad of the Battle of the Ballot and the Bullet Part I: Ugly Americans”
Continuing with that ballot-bullet theme, and with a more inspired song title, we offer an unrepentant folkie’s assertions of the right to dissent and the dangers of consent. It’s a shame Spotify didn’t have “Sufferin’ ’Til Suffrage” from Schoolhouse Rock available to pair with this song.
11. James Brown and the J.B.’s, “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved”
The Godfather of Soul warrants a second entry in this set because when he was at his commercial and creative peak, he was also active in myriad social issues, particularly the urging of African Americans to stay in school, assert their self-worth and be productive members of their community. The “Sex Machine” rewrite “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved” brought the point home in a direct — and, needless to say, funky — manner.
12. Leonard Cohen, “Democracy”
The final word in this tribute to the U.S. Presidential election goes to Leonard Cohen, a Canadian. “I love the country,” the poet sings of America with both deep concern and deep reverence in this 1992 standout track, “but I can’t stand the scene/ And I’m neither left or right … But I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet: Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.”