One of my favorite songs of the moment is the devastating "Reagan" by Atlanta MC Killer Mike. It's a searing indictment of the Gipper that ends with the words "I'm glad Reagan's dead," but it also touches on the War on Drugs, the moral emptiness of gangsta rap, and calls out Bush, Clinton, and even Obama along with Reagan for lying to the public and abusing American power abroad. Listening to it has gotten me thinking about the critical music from Reagan's own time. Many of these songs were part of my own political awakening, which finally broke through around 1991 (a year I tend to think of as the end to the spiritual 1980s and beginning of the 1990s.)
Grandmaster Flash, "The Message"
Hip-hop and punk rock, born in the 1970s, were the most cogent source of musical protest in the 1980s. No early hip-hop track has the power of "The Message," which doesn't directly mention Reagan, but certainly details the consequences of the neglect bourn of contempt that his administration had for the black and brown urban poor.
Black Flag, "TV Party"
On the punk rock side, Black Flag were the Johnny Appleseeds of the 80s underground, touring the nation and inspiring DIY punk rockers in their wake. This hilarious satire of the time's consumerism and apathy still cracks me up.
The Minutemen, "This Ain't No Picnic"
Speaking of DIY, in the glamour-obsessed hairspray decade, one could do nothing more rebellious than living in a tour van playing for gas money at shows where you set up your own equipment. The Minutemen were the real deal, and in the inspired video for "This Ain't No Picnic," old footage of a war film starring the Gipper himself is used to show him trying to snuff out these dissidents.
REM, "Welcome to the Occupation"
In the late 1980s, Michael Stipe stopped mumbling so much and started salting his lyrics with tart political references. 1987's Document would give REM mainstream success, but it was ironically their most political album yet. This song referenced the American government's meddling in Central America and the war crimes of its clients. Of all of their explicitly topical songs of this period, it's my favorite.
Neil Young, "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World"
Though technically a comment about the election of George HW Bush with lyrics like "we've got a thousand points of light for the homeless man/ we've got a kinder, gentler machine-gun hand" it savages the horrific social consequences of Reagan's policies as well. The title and chorus are a big Bronx cheer to the self-congratulation over "winning" the Cold War at a time when homelessness was skyrocketing.
Public Enemy, "Fight the Power"
Of all the songs here, this one really meant the most to me at the time. Just about the point when I began to question the Republican beliefs of my family I began to delve into rap music with the help of episodes of "Yo! MTV Raps" after school. This song really knocked me upside the head with a perspective I'd never really had before. (You mean John Wayne is one of the bad guys?) To bring things full circle, this is the kind of hip-hop that Killer Mike derives his inspiration from, and for good reason.
Boosty Collins and Jerry Harrison, "Five Minutes"
Back in 1984 Reagan made a "joke" at a radio taping where he spoke into the mic and said "My fellow Americans, I'm pleased to tell you that I've just signed legislation outlawing Russia forever. Bombing begins in five minutes." Unbeknownst to him, the mic was live. The fact that he was willing to be so non-chalant about nuclear war when tensions with the USSR were running is pretty damn scary. Funk legend Bootsy Collins and Talking Head Jerry Harrison thought so too, and under the moniker Bonzo Goes to Washington took Reagan's quip and turned it into a song. It sounds pretty dated today, but even so, it ought to be a riposte to the brigades of Reagan worshippers today who want to turn him into a demigod, and erase the memory of those who opposed him.