A protest song by its very existence is polarizing, and as such it is unlikely to enjoy widespread appeal. Even so, some songs that captured the mood of an era so accurately became hits on the Billboard Hot 100, with six reaching No. 1 and four others climbing to No. 2.
To determine the most popular protest songs on the Billboard Hot 100, 24/7 Tempo reviewed performance data on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. Songs were ranked based on an inverse score where in a week at No. 1 is worth 100 points, a week at No. 2 worth 99 points, and so on, up to a week at No. 100 worth one point. Chart data is current through the week of Nov. 19, 2022.
Protest songs in America go back at least 100 years. Their roots are in folk music and their message is that the American economic system does not work for all Americans.
The father of this genre was a Swedish immigrant, born Joel Hägglund, who changed his name to Joe Hill. He became a union activist who railed against the oppression of miners, longshoremen, and railroad workers and wrote memorable protest songs before he was controversially convicted of murder and executed. (These were the largest strike waves in U.S. history.)
Hill inspired the composer and ethnomusicologist Charlie Seeger and also Woody Guthrie, who eventually passed the folk-protest baton to Charlie’s son Pete and to such figures as Phil Ochs; Peter, Paul and Mary; Joan Baez; and Bob Dylan. (Here’s a ranking of Dylan’s greatest all-time hits.)
In the 1960s and 1970s, African-American music and rock ‘n’ roll picked up the protest gauntlet and focused on issues such as the Vietnam War, the nuclear threat, urban blight, pollution, civil rights, overdevelopment, and feminism.
Most of the protest songs on this list were released during the Cold War era. After the fall of communism and the easing of fears of nuclear war eased, fewer songs addressed the issue of total destruction. More contemporary artists such as Green Day and Nine Inch Nails have used their music to protest American foreign policy.
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