Today, the long national nightmare that is the 2016 general election finally comes to an end. And the worst thing is, we can’t just stay in bed and wait for it to be over; no, this election, more than any other in our lifetime, we actually have to care. So here we are: one more day of reading inane social media opinions while resisting the urge to reach through the computer screen and throttle the person on the other end. One more day of listening to the commercial news media alternately clutch their pearls and wallow in the reality-TV nightmare they created. One more day of gazing upon Donald Trump’s pumpkin-like visage and realizing that, holy shit, this repulsive troll of a man might actually be our next president. Whatever happens after the polls close this evening, we can at least take solace in this: it will all be over tomorrow. And hopefully, when we wake up on the morning of November 9, the events of the past year-plus will all feel like one long, bad dream. In the meantime, here are 16 democracy-minded songs to help get you through the final stretch. Hang in there, America. And for fuck’s sake, please vote.
1. Alice Cooper: “Elected!”
(from Billion Dollar Babies, 1973)
Look, we know: voting is a vital civic duty, and in order for democracy to work we all need to participate, no matter how much we despise the people at the top of the tickets. But let’s also be real: for the candidates, a political campaign is less about noble, self-sacrificing public service than it is about ego-stroking on a national scale. That’s why Alice Cooper’s “Elected!,” released as a single in time for the 1972 general election, is still relevant 44 years later. Cooper’s mock candidacy is transparently all about him, “your Yankee doodle dandy in a gold Rolls Royce,” whose megalomania can only be quelled with the validation of millions of voters. Even the incessant refrain, “I wanna be elected,” is telling in itself: Cooper’s goal isn’t to help America–or even to “make it great again”–but simply to get himself in the Oval Office; his election is an end unto itself. If only all candidates for public office were as honest about their motivations.
2. Deee-Lite: “Vote, Baby, Vote”
(from Infinity Within, 1992)
Another election-year release, the sophomore effort by New York City pop-house trio Deee-Lite was unabashedly political: from the cover art, which included the prominent disclaimer “Let’s face it! It’s a pro-choice album!,” to this succinct get-out-the-vote anthem. Bill Clinton, of course, ended up winning the 1992 election–probably a coincidence. But I think Lady Miss Kier would agree, fingers crossed that history repeats itself.
3. Ty Dolla $ign featuring Future: “Campaign”
(from Campaign, 2016)
Just to be clear, neither Ty Dolla $ign nor Future are actually running for public office in 2016. But maybe they should consider it, because the credentials they reveal on their collaborative track “Campaign” are at least as impressive as Trump’s: “I brought them bottles on bottles / I fuck with models on models / I’ll take that molly with molly / I got the racks on racks.” Maybe not very presidential by previous elections’ standards, but what the hell; if they actually fleshed out their platform and released their tax returns, a Dolla $ign/Hendrix ticket would be looking mighty tempting right about now.
4. William Bootsy Collins: “#1 Funkateer”
(from The One Giveth, the Count Taketh Away, 1982)
Is “#1 Funkateer” an elected title or an appointed one? Are there term limits, or do you get it for life like a Supreme Court justice? Does this have anything to do with the National Funk Congress? I’m tempted to think the “#1 Funkateer” is voted into office–funk is nothing if not a democracy–but Bootsy seems to be wearing a crown on his album cover; is it a monarchy, then? And if it is an appointed role, will Clinton finally issue an executive order making Bootsy the “#1 Funkateer?” In these troubled times more than ever, we need funk representation in the federal government. Hillary, if you’re reading this: this is your chance to be cooler than Obama. Make Bootsy the #1 Funkateer!
5. Blowfly: “Blowfly for President”
(from Blowfly for President, 1988)
Speaking of Obama, the idea of the “First Black President” has been a trope in popular culture since long before our current chief executive broke that particular glass ceiling. And while I don’t know for certain what was the first song to imagine a Black person in the Oval Office, I’m pretty sure Blowfly (R.I.P.) takes the cake for the most wildly offensive. Effectively an extended rewrite of his 1983 single “The First Black President,” 1988’s “Blowfly for President” imagines the day after Clarence Reid‘s diabolical alter-ego somehow wins the presidential election. The result is basically a racist fantasy straight out of the Reconstruction era: the “first Black President” sexually harasses his assistant, promises abortions to the nation’s “bitches” (and weed to smoke while waiting in line at the clinic), and proposes to solve the Middle East conflict with “one big orgy.” Basically, he makes Dave Chappelle‘s “Black Bush” look like Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact. But history, it seems, has the last laugh: our real first Black President served with unimpeachable dignity, while President Blowfly is only slightly more sexist and racist than one imagines President Trump would be. And that just might be the secret brilliance of Reid’s political satire: by casting himself as the raging stereotype of every racist’s nightmares, Blowfly demonstrates just how ridiculous those fears were in the first place.
6. James Brown: “Funky President (People It’s Bad)”
(from Reality, 1974)
For a less willfully offensive take on the African American Presidency, however, one need look no further than the Godfather himself, James Brown. Now to be fair, nowhere in the song does Brown explicitly state that the “Funky President” is Black; indeed, he claimed in his 1986 autobiography that the song was inspired by then-new President Gerald Ford, who may actually have been the whitest man to ever live. But come on; the real “Funky President” is undoubtedly Brother James himself, who even ends the song with a declaration of his political ambitions: “I need to be the mayor / So I can change some things around here.” And now that it’s been sampled by everyone from Eric B. & Rakim and Public Enemy to Kanye West and Run the Jewels, I’m pretty sure “Funky President” has a more substantial political legacy than Ford’s.
7. Stevie Wonder: “You Haven’t Done Nothin'”
(from Fulfillingness’ First Finale, 1974)
When it comes to mid-1970s songs about the presidency, however, this scathing Stevie Wonder track is much more indicative of the national mood. Aimed at the disgraced President Richard Nixon–who resigned, probably coincidentally, just two days after its release as a single–“You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is more widely applicable to any politician who turns a blind eye to the people after being elected…so, most of them. And hey, in case Trump gets elected, worry not: there’s already a remix for that.
8. N * E * R * D featuring Lee Harvey and Vita: “Lapdance”
(from In Search of…, 2002)
The conceit at the heart of NER*D‘s rap-rock protest song “Lapdance” is actually kind of brilliant: comparing politicians to strippers, two careers based largely on making enticing promises and not following through. The main difference is that when a stripper offers you a free lapdance, you might actually get it; the promises of elected officials are somehow both less exciting and more frustrating.
9. Neil Young: “Campaigner”
(1976 recording, available on Decade)
But with all this demonizing of politicians, it’s easy to forget that they’re human beings, too: emotionally stunted human beings who use power to try in vain to fill the endless voids inside them, but human beings nevertheless. That’s the revelation at the heart of this understated folk-rock ballad by Neil Young, whose 1970 song “Ohio” had been one of the counterculture’s bitterest musical condemnations of Richard Nixon. Six years later, the story goes, Young happened to catch a news report that the former President Nixon’s wife Pat had suffered a stroke. He wrote another song, originally titled “Requiem for a President,” that painted Nixon as a pathetic, even tragic figure who “came too late to cause a stir” but “campaigned all [his] life toward that goal.” The song’s kicker line, “even Richard Nixon has got soul,” is a stunning about-face from Young’s earlier imagery of jackbooted “tin soldiers and Nixon coming.” It’s a fitting epilogue to the righteous dream of the ’60s: a former hippie looking at his generation’s most hated figure and actually seeing a little of his own humanity reflected back. Maybe in six years, we’ll come to feel the same way about Trump.
10. Cream: “Politician”
(from Wheels of Fire, 1968)
Now that we’ve got that moment of introspection out of the way, it’s time to go right back to demonizing politicians with this Jack Bruce composition by British blues-rock supergroup Cream. Bruce and lyricist Pete Brown paint a picture of the “political man” as a sleazy side-talker with no real ideology of his own: “I support the left, though I’m leaning, leaning to the right / But I’m not there when it’s coming to a fight.” A surprisingly trenchant work of political satire from the inventors of the 20-minute rock drum solo.
11. David Bowie: “Candidate”
(from Diamond Dogs, 1974)
Along similar lines, this surreal vignette from David Bowie‘s 1974 dystopian concept album/loose adaptation of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts the titular “Candidate” as a silver-tongued devil making a distinctly Faustian pitch to his constituents. Or at least, that’s what Bowie’s fragmentary lyrics evoke to me, with their vaguely sinister cut-up imagery of false soundstage streets and papier-mâché masks. In this apocalyptic vision, the politician’s hollow promises don’t even try to pass themselves off as truth: it’s just one simulacrum after another, with annihilation as the only possible escape. And to be honest, after this election cycle, it doesn’t even feel all that far-fetched: “We’ll buy some drugs and watch a band / Then jump in the river holding hands” is about as hopeful as it gets these days.
12. Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends: “One for You Baby”
(from Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, 1970)
So far, we’ve seen a number of tracks from artists imagining themselves as candidates for public office, but none from artists who actually were candidates for public office. Enter Lord David Sutch: who, in addition to being an actual member of the House of Lords and a pioneer of pre-Beatles British rock ‘n’ roll, was also a frequent independent candidate in U.K. parliamentary elections, and the founder of Britain’s “Official Monster Raving Loony Party.” And while none of this has anything to do with his infamous 1970 album Lord Sutch and Heavy Friends, I humbly submit that “One for You Baby” would have made a great campaign song: not just for its obvious lyrical significance, but because the “Heavy Friends” themselves were an astonishingly qualified crew, including (on this track) ex-Steppenwolf guitarist Kent Henry and bassist Noel Redding (formerly of the Jimi Hendrix Experience). Who said independents can’t build effective coalitions?
13. Black Sabbath: “Who Are You?”
(from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, 1973)
Yes, I know, I just wrote about this song last month; but it’s such an effective bit of political commentary from such an unexpected source, I couldn’t resist bringing it up again. Over a stark, sinister Moog synthesizer arrangement, original Black Sabbath vocalist Ozzy Osbourne takes an unnamed politician to task for their duplicity: “Yes, I know the secret / That’s within your mind / You think all the people / Who worship you are blind / You’re just like Big Brother / Giving us your trust / And when you have played enough / You’ll just cast our souls / Into the dust.” It’s as excoriating a protest song as Stevie’s, with the added benefit of sounding like it’s directed at an evil wizard rather than an elected official.
14. Mac Dre: “Dreganomics”
(from Ronald Dregan: Dreganomics, 2004)
Another election-year bid for candidacy from a rapper, this 2004 track by hyphy artist Mac Dre (or his political alter-ego, “Ronald Dregan”) presents at least as coherent a philosophy as, say, this year’s Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson: “Smoke blunts, get high off only the real / Want more than a meal, boy, I want a Manwich / A seven-figure-digit money sandwich.” Tragically, Dre passed away before he could put any of his policies into practice; he was shot and killed by an unknown assailant after a 2004 performance in Kansas City, Missouri. So yes, Ronald Reagan survived his assassination attempt, but Ronald Dregan did not; if you ever needed proof that the world is an unfair place, there you have it.
15. Kinky Friedman featuring the Texas Jewboys: “Rock and Roll Across the USA”
(1979 recording, available on From One Good American to Another)
Another real-life musician turned political candidate, Jewish American outlaw country artist Kinky Friedman actually managed to net 12.6% of the votes in his half-serious bid to become Governor of Texas in 2006. He later finished second in the Democratic primary for the title of Texas Agriculture Commissioner. Since then, things have been kind of quiet from Kinky on the political front, and that’s a shame. I’d actually like to have seen him in the national primaries this year; his particular brand of tongue-in-cheek lunacy would have been a solid antidote for the deathly earnest lunacy of the other candidates. And a song like “Rock and Roll Across the USA” is just dying to be blared at a campaign rally. So how ’bout it: Kinky 2020?
16. Young Thug featuring Duke: “Webbie”
(from No, My Name is JEFFERY, 2016)
Few artists embody apathy as poetically as self-styled Atlanta trap weirdo Young Thug, which makes him an aspirational figure for an election cycle in which apathy feels like a precious luxury. On “Webbie” from his recent (excellent!) mixtape No, My Name is JEFFERY, he gives voice to our precise feelings about the current political climate: “This politician is so fake / They politickin’ ’bout these cases / I told her roll me up a blunt and I’mma face it.” Like we said: just one more day.