I. “Zombie” (1994) by The Cranberries
This song was written as a response to the then ongoing violence knowing as the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. In particular, the song commemorates the victims of the Warrington bombing that happened in 1993 when two children aged 3 and 12 (Johnathan Ball and Tim Parry) were tragically killed and 54 others were injured. The song, written by Dolores O’Riordan (1971 – 2018), talks about the personal devastation caused by the terrorist attacks, criticising how desensitised the public and media have become to them and calling for sympathy.
II. “Orange Crush” (1988) by R.E.M.
This song features a play on words. Orange Crush is a soft drink, but, in this case, it refers to Agent Orange, a substance much of which contained a dangerous chemical contaminant used indiscriminately by the US in the Vietnam War. The US used some 80 million litres of it on Vietnam’s forested areas, affecting some 3-4 million Vietnamese, killing approximately 400.000 and causing half a million children to be born with severe defects. Surviving veterans back at home also showed an increased risk of cancer and nerve disorders. Singer Michael Stipe’s father had served in the helicopter corps in Vietnam, and the band’s reference to “agents (of the free)” and “spine” is also not coincidental. Spina bifida is at birth defect affecting the spines of foetuses and infants. Agent Orange is a very likely culprit of this birth defect, causing people nerve damage and a range of neurological conditions.
III. “Another Day in Paradise” (1989) by Phil Collins
This song addresses homelessness, and is also about appreciating the things we have in life, no matter how small. Phil Collins was much criticised for this song, with most branding him as a “hypocrite”. Collins might not have had first-hand experience of homelessness, but when most celebrities sing about their wild parties, big mansions and lavish lifestyles, I think there could be something wrong with an idea of witch-hunting a famous person who has simply decided to sing about one important social issue. Collins’s fame undoubtedly drew wider attention to the issue than would have been the case. He supports 17 different charities, and, at the time of the song’s release, collected money from his concerts for charities that deal with homelessness, donating all and then doubling the amount.
IV. “Changes” (1992/1998) by Tupac Shakur
“Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers“. Released posthumously after Tupac Shakur’s death in 1996, Changes is a song about poverty, racism, the treatment of black people by the police, as well as about other social issues, including drug-dealing on streets and the situation of children living in ghettos. The song also talks about the hypocrisy of authorities and the disproportionate incarceration of black people. The Vatican once included this song in their Myspace play-list of songs to consider and, given George Floyd’s death in 2020, the song sounds more topical than ever. Whether you like rap or not, no one can deny the powerful message in this song, including the call to reconcile the black and white people of the US.
V. “Not Now John” (1983) by Pink Floyd
This is probably the most controversial song on this list. Roger Waters wrote a song criticising the British government’s foreign policy (the Falklands War) and its response to social problems in the country, including its prioritising trade/competition, including with Russia and Japan, and capitalism and not the people (working-class)’s actual well-being. The song is clearly sarcastic in nature, commenting on many issues, including corruption and Hollywood’s glamorisation of war.
Honourable mentions: “Killing in the Name” (1992) by Rage Against the Machine and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” (1983) by U2.