10 Songs to Turn Up the Bern

Music Lists

As recently as a few months ago, it was hard to imagine Bernie Sanders as a serious contender for the Democratic nomination. With his “I just escaped a wind tunnel” hair, bleak (and true) assessments of the state of national affairs and a campaign announcement that gave the impression he would have much rather been getting a cavity filled, skepticism came easily. But ever since, Sanders has lit a fire under liberal America’s collective ass, and given Hillary Clinton a serious, and unexpected, run for the nomination.

Bernie has made it crystal-clear that he’s got way more energy than your run-of-the-mill cantankerous 73-year-old Socialist, waving his arms in reckless abandon and even swearing on TV during the first debate. But, seriously, the addition of some killer campaign songs could really turn up the Bern to 11 (note: Sanders’ own spoken-word folk-reggae album from the ‘80s not included) and keep Sanders’ passionate fan base growing.

So here’s a list of 10 songs, some recent, and others written way before Sanders was even mayor of Burlington, we think would totally bring down the house at Sanders’ campaign events; both the record-setting rallies and the smaller house parties he has begun attending. While they all have big hooks and big beats, these songs also reflect some of the sobering issues central to Sanders’ campaign, including income inequality, racial injustice and climate change. And unlike his Republican counterparts, Sanders probably won’t piss off every musician on the planet by using their tunes.

1. “The Weight,” The Band
“Take a load off, Fanny, and put the load right on me,” goes the chorus to one of the Band’s biggest hits, from their 1968 album Music From Big Pink. It’s not too much of a stretch to see that sentiment as a stand-in for Sanders’ aspirations of bringing a bit of Scandinavian society to America. “In [Scandinavian] countries,” Sanders has said, “health care is the right of all people. And in those countries, college education, graduate school is free.” While journalists have recently critiqued Sanders’ analogy, arguing that that model is outdated, the message is still clear.

Pro: Everyone knows the words.
Con: A stadium full of fanatic supporters might try to nail the harmonies in the chorus.

Added Pro: Sanders might be able to get Mavis Staples to sing it at a campaign event. Added Con: Sanders might try to sing it with her.

2. “Christ for President,” Wilco and Billy Bragg
Woody Guthrie penned the lyrics to this biting track, which appears on Mermaid Avenue Vol. 1, a collection of Guthrie’s words set to music by Wilco and British folk singer Billy Bragg. A direct attack on the “crooked politician men” and “moneychangers,” (who don’t seem to have changed that much since Guthrie’s day) the song depicts Jesus Christ as President of the United States, spreading compassion throughout the land, providing a pension and a job for everyone and ending all wars. One couplet in particular echoes Sanders’ staunch opposition to income inequality: “Every year we waste enough / to feed the ones who starve.” Don’t worry, Bernie, we’re not saying you’re Jesus (you really couldn’t pull off the hair), just that you and the Carpenter seem to see eye to eye on this one.

3. “Zombie,” Fela Kuti
The Nigerian trumpeter Fela Kuti released the anti-military record Zombie in 1976; at first glance the title track appears playful and joyous, full of snappy guitars, booming bass and an exuberant horn section, but its lyrics allude to the senseless violence perpetrated by the Nigerian military. Only confirming Kuti’s descriptions of thoughtless soldiers who “Go and kill!” at the whim of their masters, those same soldiers stormed Kuti’s home following the record’s release, beating him severely and throwing his elderly mother from a window.
While Bernie Sanders doesn’t make such sweeping accusations about those soldiers’ American counterparts, he has been outspoken on issues of police brutality. Following the death of Sandra Bland in police custody earlier this year, for example, Sanders denounced what he saw as “totally outrageous police behavior” recorded in the video of Bland’s arrest, and cited it as proof of “why we need real police reform.”

4. “Comment (If All Men Are Truly Brothers),” Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band
Doo-wop and soul singer Charles Wright recorded this piercing song for his 1969 album In the Jungle, Babe. Twinkling bells and a sparse bass provide a foil for Wright’s mournful account of racial disconnect and distrust, building to a brutal, pleading question in its chorus: “If all men are truly brothers,” Wright asks, “why can’t we love one another?” Sanders may be the only candidate running who can escape Wright’s most pointed accusation: “Society, how can you teach if you don’t practice what you preach?”

5. “Water Fountain,” tUnE-yArDs
The lead single from tUnE-yArDs’ 2014 album Nikki Nack, “Water Fountain” isn’t just an insanely catchy pop tune, but also unforgiving commentary on disturbing water shortages and draughts, spurred by climate change. Last year, Garbus launched the Water Fountain Fund to help raise money and awareness for water-related issues around the world. “I was having a lot of anxiety about water in my own community [in California], where there has been a huge drought,” Garbus told Billboard. “Water is going to be a big source of conflict in the world.” Like Sanders’ campaign, Garbus’ efforts are both supported by a grassroots movement and reflect the urgency of battling climate change. “We must transform our energy system away from polluting fossil fuels, and towards energy efficiency and sustainability,” Sanders wrote on his website, “… and we need to greatly accelerate technological progress in wind and solar power generation.”

6. and 7. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” Marvin Gaye – and “Living for the City,” Stevie Wonder
Taken together, these two tracks form a poignant indictment of the ghettoization of America. “No, no, baby, this ain’t livin,’” Marvin Gaye cries, and Stevie Wonder spins a tale of a young man who moves from Mississippi to New York, gets tricked into selling drugs and ends up serving a 10-year prison sentence. During his campaign, Sanders has bluntly pointed out that “African Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.” Furthermore, he readily acknowledges the lack of economic opportunity in inner cities across America. As “Living for the City” reaches its conclusion, Stevie sings, “I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow / And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow.” If there’s any candidate who can commit to that better tomorrow, it’s probably…you know.

8. “Anything Could Happen,” Ellie Goulding
It’s sort of the theme of this election: anything could happen. A real estate mogul gains legions of adoring fans by being a racist xenophobe, a neuroscientist gets away with telling survivors of a mass shooting that he would have been braver than them, a grumpy socialist from Vermont appears out of the woodwork and wins the hearts of lefties everywhere with only one pair of underwear to his name. While Goulding’s electro-pop hit really isn’t directly about any of those things (“Stripped to the waist / We fall into the river” definitely doesn’t apply), its over-the-top synths and giddy hook celebrate the magical possibilities of finding love, or, you know, electing a President who doesn’t bow to the whims of the plutocracy.

9. “I’m Coming Out,” Diana Ross
Ross’ collaborator Nile Rodgers (also of the hit disco group Chic) was inspired to write “I’m Coming Out” after meeting a trio of drag queens, all dressed as Ross, at New York’s famed GG Barnum Room, a rowdy bar that looked and felt more like a circus, including a bona fide trapeze artist at work. The song has gone on to become one of Ross’ biggest hits, and an unofficial gay rights anthem. Sanders has championed LGBT rights throughout his career (unlike a certain opponent of his who has changed her opinion on the matter), and could totally use this song as epic entrance music.

Pro: He could really get the crowd dancing.
Con: He might get glitter-bombed.

10. “The Underdog,” Spoon
Let’s be real, even some of Bernie’s staunchest supporters probably didn’t think he’d make it this far. So, in celebration of underdogs everywhere, we wanted to include this Spoon track in the mix. Blasting the horn riff alone at a campaign rally will likely give Sanders a point in the polls. In the verse, front man Britt Daniel advises the listener to “cut out the middle man,” not necessarily a reference to the shadow figures and Super PACs rigging elections, but a line that definitely goes hand in hand with Sanders’ no-bullshit attitude, and his refusal to accept donations from corporations (or America’s Asshole of the Year, Martin Shkreli). “You got no fear of the underdog,” Daniel howls in the chorus, “that’s why you will not survive!” Godspeed, sir.

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