Americans who witnessed the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 surely reacted in a variety of ways. Some applauded the violence. Others abhorred it. But you can be sure that none of them turned to their neighbor and said, “That would be a sick dance song.”
In the end, strangely, he did. “Zoot Suit Riot” was an abominably catchy hit for the Cherry Poppin’ Daddies in 1998; he elevated the group to retro-swing stardom and supports them to this day. And to think: it all started conceptually when a mob of American servicemen beat overdressed Mexican children to death. Funny world.
It wasn’t the first or the last time that a shameful and/or tragic chapter in history turned into a rowdy single. Here are a few other notable National Tragedy Pop specimens, minus any Alan Jackson 9/11 song, any Green Day George W. Bush song, or any song from Obama’s health care initiative blocked by anyone. that is. It’s just too soon.
“Glad I’m Not a Kennedy” by Shona Laing: In 1985, New Zealand synth-jazz siren Laing scored a heavy spin on alt-rock radio with this danceable ode to America’s most famous family. Between flippant sequencing and sardonic Catholic imagery, it endures as one of pop’s “funniest” political murder songs.
“Beer for My Horses” by Toby Keith: According to liberal commentator Max Blumenthal, Keith’s 2003 stunt isn’t just a brazen defense of capital punishment – it’s a brazenly racist tribute to the height of lynching in the South. Quoting lyrics like “Hang them high in the street / For all people to see,” Blumenthal’s theory seems, you know, not without merit.
“Hiroshima Mon Amour” from Alcatrazz: Who knew post-war remorse could moan so loudly? With vocalist Graham Bonnet slapping high notes of hard rock like a castrated ape, this anti-war cult favorite enjoyed brief popularity on MTV in 1983. It was an even bigger hit in Japan – you guessed it.
“Vacation in Cambodia” by The Dead Kennedys: Is no national tragedy sacred? When it comes to these punk pioneers, the answer is simply and emphatically “shit no”. You can place any number of tongue-in-cheek Vietnam-themed counterculture songs alongside this 1980 classic, including The Clash’s “Charlie Don’t Surf” or REM’s “Orange Crush.”
“Exhuming McCarthy” by REM: If Senator Joseph McCarthy went on a witch-hunt in today’s world, you can bet every activist group, from Rage to Rise Against, would take turns flaying his skin in hateful commies. But in the stylish and complacent 1950s? Not really. That’s why this lesser-known REM single from Document is one of the few mainstream rock songs to biopsy this unsightly pox on the American body politic.
“Kings of the Wild Frontier” by Adam Ant: While few reputable scholars apply the word “genocide” to the reduction of Native American populations in the United States, it wasn’t exactly our most Nobel-worthy moment. Don’t tell that to Adam Ant. For the British neo-punker, Indian history is best honored through feathered concepts, kitschy tribalism and powwow drumbeats. Honorable mention: “Run to the Hills” by Iron Maiden.
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” by U2: This 1983 ode to the life and death of Martin Luther King Jr. was the Irish quartet’s first Top 40 hit in the United States. Not everyone was a fan. Kurt Loder from rolling stone complained that the song “stands out only on the strength of its booming beat and big, buzzing bassline, not on the loftiness of its lyrics, which are unremarkable”. Later, the magazine crowned it one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
“Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young: “Toy soldiers and Nixon are coming!” shouts Neil Young, doing like a counterculture Paul Revere in this 1970 Top 20 hit inspired by the Kent State shooting. Now he tells us.