Bob Dylan – Hurricane

American middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was wrongly convicted of murder in the 1960s, but spent two decades in jail. He died this past week.

The role of the judicial system is to adjudicate disputes between people, between people and their governments, and between different levels of government in a country. This is done to mete out justice equally to all. This equality is supposed to be accomplished by a judicial level being independent from political interference, with efficiency to make sure that lives aren’t ruined by delays, and through consistency in rulings. This does not always occur and great philosophical and legal debates remain about whether justice is truly blind.

Dylan’s 1975 song, which looks at racism, suggests the justice system failed the Hurricane.

Eagles – The Last Resort

The final song from the 1976 Hotel California record posits an elegiac tone, dismissive of how modern progress forever harms the natural beauty of the world. Writers Don Henley and Glen Frey link replacing natural surroundings with neon signs and nondescript dwellings to the colonialist zeal of Christian missionaries. It is not an optimistic song, concluding that we have to now sleep in the beds we made, and that we are left with kissing goodbye forever all that once was. The 1970s were a depressing time?

A song reviewed here with a similar theme is Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

Bob Seger – U.M.C. (Upper Middle Class)

The trouble with songs satirizing the wealthy is the listing of their material possessions might still sound appealing and worth striving to acquire, even to those that won’t get to. But Bob Seger was referring, in 1974, to luxury vehicles and yachts and fine spirits, perhaps as a critique of capitalism and its inequality among classes in society.

Class analysis divides citizens into different layers. Its most known explanations come from Karl Marx (1818-1883), who wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848) that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” The upper class (bourgeoisie) own the means of production and exploit the lower class (proletariats).

German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) maintained that people that have stuff we need, have power over us. He also identified Seger’s upper middle class as well-educated, high-earning professionals. A synonym may be “white collar” workers, which are not the super-rich 1%ers in the Occupy movement sense.

Janis Joplin – Mercedes Benz

Who wanted instruments to get in the way of a voice like hers?

The song is considered a rejection or critique of consumerism, which was in part the credo of 1960s hippies. Consumerism can mean being aware of and getting informed to make good decisions when spending money. But the definition here is about mindlessly buying more and more stuff, that isn’t really necessary to live a fulfilled life.

This is for debate, but in this song, Janis may have been feeling unable to keep up with the Joneses, who all had better things than her. And so she asks God to provide shiny, expensive luxuries. Of course, God doesn’t do that; God wants you to give it all away! And thus is Janis dismissing the vain accumulation of those around her in an ultimate manner?

Wyclef Jean – Million Voices

Hopefully Rwanda isn’t repetitively sung  as a refrain only because it rolls of the tongue!

Wyclef Jean cites various passages from the Bible to rap about the importance of a united, and peaceful Africa. Of course, even before colonization, Africa was not one political unit but many, based not just on country but ethnic, tribal and other divisions. The singer is speaking more metaphorically, to be united for peace.

The song is from the soundtrack to the 2004 film, Hotel Rwanda, which was about the violence between the Hutus and Tutsis. A kind of African Schindler’s List, the story is of a hotel owner sheltering people from genocide.

In 1994, something approaching one million Tutsi and moderate Hutu peoples were killed – about one-fifth of the total population – by the Hutu majority.  The conflict is said to have stemmed from failures to find ways for these two ethnic groups to share power and govern together. While causes of genocide are contested and it is a mistake to write too simplistically, it is widely accepted that the Hutus were driven to wipe out the Tutsis, who they felt would wish to do the same to them.

Chris Rea – Road to Hell

This 1989 song is widely interpreted to be about the M25 motorway (Greater London, England) that during rush hour can be more like a parking lot than a travel route. However, the lyrics draw a larger picture of economic and social decay. This includes the environment (polluted rivers), crime and, perhaps, overspending and debt.

Now, given traffic gridlock, is in fact the road to hell going to take some time to get to?

Jackson Browne – Redneck Friend

Perhaps it is too “on the nose” to use slide guitar and a Southern rock boogie beat, for a song possibly about rednecks.

The term ‘redneck’ comes from farmers getting sunburned. It has come to mean, more pejoratively, a put-down way to describe people with certain political views. These political views tend to be, in the USA, to be small ‘l’ liberalism (classical liberalism, sometimes annoying just called conservatism). Redneck good old boys believe in the ways things have been done in the past, and aren’t open to new ideas. Thus the term is a slander: it paints the redneck as being racist, sexist, homophobic… you name it! Maybe even against dancing suggestively. Browne sings how a redneck has a list of things of which they do not approve.

Or is he not being literal? This 1973 song has been widely interpreted as a double entendre – that the redneck friend is Jackson’s penis. Umm, now this post has become awkward.