music / Columns

The Top 5 Debate Songs

September 29, 2016 | Posted by David Hayter

The Donald and Hilary Rodham Clinton went head to head in the first of three Presidential debates on Monday night, providing a rare and truly global instance of appointment television. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that the topic for this week’s Top 5 is debate songs, but hang on a minute…

…what in the blue hell is a debate song?

Well, there really is no such thing; instead we’ll be focused on subject matter, theme and structure (and yes, it’s going to be vague and wooly as all hell).

So what counts:

1) Any song where two or more artists are arguing differing points of view in conversation with one another: for example, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”: the male lead argues it’s too cold to walk home, so you might as well sleep with him. The female responds: you’re nice and all, but I actually want to go home.

2) Any song where an artist is presenting a coherent political argument: so rather than screaming “this sucks” or narrating a story about, say, The Vietnam War, the song actually puts foreword a thoughtful case for a political or policy point of view.

What doesn’t count:

1) Any song that is just a duet with no point of conflict being referred to or discussed: for example, “Islands In The Stream” is not a debate song.

2) Battle songs are not debate songs: i.e. a song where artists are set against each other but are either separately boasting or simply working together while creating a stylistic contrast. For example: Aerosmith and Run DMC’s “Walk This Way”.

Hopefully that helps, now let’s get on with the show.

5. “Nothing Better” by The Postal Service [2003]

Nothings makes for a good debate like a bad breakup. The Postal Service brilliantly bring to life the common concept of a relationship that the two partners view from diametrically opposed positions. As one voices pleads, what could be better than “making you my wife and slowly growing old together”, the stifled and suffocated partner replies: “don’t you feed me lies about some idealistic future”.

Best of all, this jaunty mope-pop ditty actually uses the language of intellectual debate. The female narrative is introduced as follows: “I feel I must interject here” before continuing “I’ve made charts and graphs that should finally make it clear, I’ve prepared a lecture on why I have to leave”. Honestly, given the theme and the use of language, I can’t think of a more appropriate song to kick of a Top 5 debate songs than “Nothing Better”.

4. “I Luv U” by Dizzee Rascal [2002]

Time to dive deep into the sound of my home city with “I Luv U” from Boy In Da Corner, one of the most important, perception shifting albums in modern British history. This is the moment when Grime arrived as both an art form and a hit factory. Okay, this might be classed as a cheat as the debate is confined to chorus where Dizzee and the female vocalist trade insults about their supposed partners, both denying their relationships with fake tough men, pregnant teens and college girls who think they’re too smart for the streets that raised them. “I Luv U” is an example of a narrative song (being trapped in foolish teenage relationship and trying to shamefully shirk your responsibilities) that evolves into a debate song: Dizzee tries to deny the existence of his old girl as he attempts to land the aforementioned college girl.

3. “The Irony Of It All” by The Streets [2002]

The Streets’ debut, Original Pirate Material, was absolutely incendiary; it revolutionized music in the UK by transitioning the barely fermented Garage sound into a chart topping and utterly singular new vision. Snuck on the back end of this album of the decade contender was “The Irony Of It All”: the playful debate between the soft-spoken weed smoker, Tim, and the loud mouthed, dangerous drunkard, Terry.

The weed smoker lays out a polite and rational argument for his cause: (“erm, well, actually, according to research, government funding for further education pales into insignificance when compared to how much they spend repairing leery drunk people at the weekend in all the casualty wards”), while the drunk blares “you’re on drugs! It really bugs me when people try and tell me I’m a thug, just for getting drunk”.

Like all the best debate songs, “The Irony Of It All” is replete with humor and standout lines (“Oh hello. My name’s Tim and I’m a criminal, in the eyes of society I need to be in jail for the choice of herbs I inhale”). Bizarrely, this humorous debate leads into “Weak Becomes Heroes”, Original Pirate Material’s emotional bedrock (talk about a stark juxtaposition).

2. “Don’t You Want Me” by The Human League [1981]

If we were going strictly by song quality this would probably be number one: “Don’t You Want Me” is as close to perfect pop as it gets, a statement (along with its album Dare) that would shape the post-punk landscape in the UK. So why is it a debate song? Isn’t it just a neat dual narrative? Well, no. The male lead, in a fit of post-break up frustration, argues that his girlfriend was nothing more than a mundane cocktail waitress when they met and he fundamentally changed her life (giving it meaning and scope). Understandably, the woman in question isn’t convinced. Sure, she was working as a waitress in a cocktail bar, but she was always capable of expressing her autonomy and that’s exactly what she does in her verse. After the fight back, Phillip Oakey is left crying to himself in disbelief.

1. “Guilty Conscience” by Eminem [1999]

I’m sure everyone and their mother saw this selection coming. The maniacal Slim Shady and fatherly Dr. Dre go head to head, or shoulder vs shoulder on “Guilty Conscience”, taking the role of the good angel and insidious devil respectively. Stepping into the subconscious of three tortured protagonists on the verge of making of very bad decisions, Dre and Em exchange arguments for doing the right thing (keeping your cool) or exploding into murderous violence. It’s good vs. evil played out with a vaudeville theatricality, but updated with some viciously tight word play courteous of Slim Shady.

The third act is a masterstroke, just when you think you’ve got your head around the just angel vs. evil devil routine, a the twist emerges: it turns out Em and Dre aren’t playing imaginary roles. Out of nowhere, Marshall goes in and brings up Dre’s less than gratifying past (i.e. hitting women), tipping the kindly producer over the edge, the old NWA Dre is loosed (“he don’t need go the same route that I went/Ah fuck it, do ’em both Brady, where’s ya gun at”). It’s a great piece of theatre and it’s executed in a series of immaculately tight sketches. In the wrong hands “Guilty Conscience” would be tedious and trite, but Shady bring a silly concept to riotous life.

Don’t forget to share your favorite debate songs below (it is a tough topic granted)