Protest music has always been a part of popular music. Protest songs contains lyrics that express dissatisfaction with the social or political status quo. This article recalls two famous protest artists and the stories behind the music.

What’s Going On-Marvin Gaye 1971

Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album is a treasure trove of sign of the times protest music. The ecology song better known as Mercy, Mercy, Me, is a smooth reconciliation of pop vocals with jazz instrumentals. The main subject of Mercy, Mercy Me is industrial pollution and man’s abuse of nature. “Poison in the lakes, fish full of mercury” are groundbreaking lyrics for its time. Perhaps the most widely remembered lyrics from the song are “Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong; but who are they to judge us simply ’cause our hair is long”. This single phrase captured the feeling of the Vietnam era.

The tune Inner City Blues better known as “Make Me Want to Holler” is a riveting, complex jazz composition supported by a complex report on social injustice and economic stress.”Rockets, moon shots, sending all the have-nots.” “Bad breaks set-backs, oh it makes me want to holler and throw up both my hands, makes me want to holler this ain’t living”. Inner City Blues is a jazz masterpiece that is the musical equivalent of Dr. King’s Nobel Prize winning essay, Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

What’s Going On: the Back-Story

Marvin Gaye composed all of the music on the What’s Going On album in 1970, but the recordings languished in obscurity until 1971.

During his tenure with Motown, Marvin composed a deep catalogue of music that Berry Gordy refused to publish. Mr. Gordy firmly believed that popular recordings are for good times and dancing. While What’s Going On aged in the Motown unpublished works catalogue, America turned against the Viet Nam War. In 1971, the Kent State riots scarred the American psyche, and the Supreme Court overturned Muhammad Ali’s criminal conviction for draft evasion.

Marvin seized the moment to give Mr. Gordy an ultimatum: publish the title song or else he would never record another song for Motown. Gordy gave in but lamented that Marvin Gaye’s album would put them both in the poor house. Good thing Mr. Gordy capitulated, because the single What’s Going On shot right up the Billboard hit chart to number two.

When the single skyrocketed in popularity, Berry Gordy demanded that Marvin return to the studio to record the rest of the album in 10 days. The What’s Going On Album went on to sell two million copies in 1971 and curiously, did not receive a single Grammy nomination.

Allentown-Billy Joel 1982

The Piano Man made his mark on social protest in 1982 with the commercial hit Allentown. The song’s hook is the happy, non-threatening folk-rock refrain “Well we’re living here in Allentown”. What lies beneath the song’s happy refrain is a stinging indictment of the steel industry collapse and the sons and daughters of America’s Greatest Generation that it left behind.

“Well our fathers fought the Second World War, spent their weekends on the Jersey shore; and our mothers in the USO, ask them to dance, dance with them slow”. “And we’re waiting here in Allentown, for the Pennsylvania we never found; but they never told us what was real, iron and coke, chromium steel”.

Allentown’s Back-Story

There is nothing subtle about the economic inequality messages contained in Joel’s lyrics. Allentown makes a compelling statement about lost opportunity, but what inspired Billy Joel to write the song?

Billy Joel grew up in Levittown, NY a northern industrial town much like Allentown, Pennsylvania. Joel’s lyrics were originally about Levittown, but his first crack at the song seemed boring. Joel holed up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to rewrite the song; but Joel’s producers thought the town’s name would get confused with a song about the birthplace of Christ. Allentown is a small city right near Bethlehem.


Plant closings, pollution, racial violence and discrimination, unjust war, police brutality; these issues have been addressed by protest songs of the past 70 years. The first Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects protests songs because they are political speech. Thus, the Constitution guarantees us that this form of non-violent protest will always be a safe haven for artistic souls who want to speak out against injustice.