The Greatest Protest Rock Songs of the 1990s

Rage-ing with the Boss, Bikini Kill and More

Compared to our post-9/11 world or the tumult of the 1960s, the alternative era seemed downright serene. But look again, and you’ll recall racial unrest, the rise of the riot grrrl and upheaval against the Iraq War (the first one, 1990-1991). We compiled some of the strongest voices of the decade to tell the hidden history of the 1990s. 

Rage Against the Machine - "Killing in the Name Of"

Courtesy the artist

A cowbell never sounded so serious as it did when Rage Against the Machine’s furious number hit airwaves in 1992. Brad Wilk’s double-fisted assault mimicked the blasting of officers’ guns as Tom Morello’s spiky guitar represented the undercurrent of change. And in the shadow of the Los Angeles riots, for Zack de la Rocha to growl, “Some of those that run forces are the same that burn crosses” was a powerful line in the sand. “Killing” was used to torture Guantanamo Bay prisoners in late 2000s, according to The Guardian via SPIN, prompting the band to (unsuccessfully) sue the State Department. 

Bikini Kill Kathleen Hanna
Pat Smear

The third-wave feminist movement of the 1990s found a mighty motto in this 1991 punk song. “We want revolution, grrrl style now!” came the rebel yell from scene leader Kathleen Hanna. Along with a flurry of self-published zines, marches and anti-fashion statements, the riot grrrls dug their claws into alternative music. The front woman’s facetiously childish voice mocked misogyny in rock while band mates Kathi Wilcox, Tobi Vail and Billy Karren churned up deliberately frightful noise. More »

Bruce Springsteen - "Streets of Philadelphia"

Bruce Springsteen Streets of Philadelphia
Columbia

What this Academy Award-winning ballad was protesting was ignorance. The film from whence it came, Jonathan Demme’s , gave mainstream America its first real look at the toll AIDS took on the gay community. “No angel gonna greet me,” lamented Springsteen, reflecting on the peril faced by Tom Hanks’ dying character. It’s a lonely sentiment shared at SongMeanings by someone who lived it: “(I)ndeed there was ‘no angel gonna greet me,’writes user dmerrill. “Our churches threw us out. They were afraid to touch us, afraid to share a meal, for fear they would catch it. It was ‘just you and I my friend’.”

Sonic Youth - "Youth Against Fascism"

Sonic Youth Swimsuit Issue
Anders Jensen-Urstad/Creative Commons

Noise rock veterans Sonic Youth stretched beyond their artsy origins in their second decade. The Kim Gordon-led “Kool Thing” famously scoffed at hip-hop’s oppression against women, and this 1992 Thurston Moore-fronted track attacked the topic of sexual harassment. The band was unafraid to put high-ranking bureaucrats in their place— when Moore declared, “I believe Anita Hill/Judge will rot in hell,” it was a pitchfork to conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who was appointed despite Hill’s claims he sexually harassed her.

Tori Amos - "Silent All These Years"

Tori Amos Silent All These Years
Atlantic

Sometimes the loudest protest can come from the quietest voice. Piano goddess Tori Amos released this angelic-sounding song in 1991 that was inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. However, with lyrics like “I got the Anti-Christ in the kitchen yelling at me again,” it was evident there was more than a fairytale behind the single. Eventually, the fragile number served as the official song of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, where Amos worked as a spokesperson.

The Cranberries - "Zombie"

The Cranberries Zombie
Island

Ed Helms might have taken the song in karaoke jest on The Office, but the Cranberries’ wailing dirge is about the 1993 bombing deaths of two children in England. The Dolores O’Riordan-led group would often opine about war in their work (see also “Bosnia” off 1996’s To the Faithful Departed). This 1994 track in particular stirred the masses, and saw the Irish artists performing it on Saturday Night Live the following year. It’s the same stage where fellow countrywoman Sinead O’Connor tore up a picture of the pope in 1992.

Bad Religion - "21st Century (Digital Boy)"

Bad Religion 21st Century Digital Boy
Atlantic

Did Greg Graffin’s gang call it or what? Originally released on 1990’s Against the Grain, its 1994 redux on Stranger Than Fiction nailed the growing obsession with computerized life. “And I don't want it, the things you're offering me/Symbolized bar code, quick ID, oh yeah,” the singer barked. Though, the band members note that this, like 60 percent of their material, is ironic. “The truth is that even though the song was written in 1990, it was clear that the youth were going to be affected for good and bad by digital technology. It's probably because we loved video games so much,” he told Scientific American in 2010