The drawback of making a subtle point in a song about the human condition is that nobody pays attention to subtle points in songs. Your average listeners aren't priming their ears for the moment when an artist makes the perfect lyrical metaphor about unrest in the Middle East. They just want to dance.
That's why people keep thinking that "Born in the USA" is a patriotic song, and why most people don't get the subversive message of ...
6"This Land Is Your Land" by Woody Guthrie
What You Think It's About
With its simple but catchy melody, "This Land Is Your Land" sounds like about the least offensive song ever written. Songwriter Woody Guthrie adapted it from an old American folk song, and the lyrics boil down to the almost childishly innocent message of "America is wonderful, let's share it, everybody!"
Yep. Just an all-around great patriotic song upholding the blandly positive idea that everyone is welcome in the USA. Nothing to see here!
"Yay for the section of Earth that we live on!"
What It's Really About
"This Land Is Your Land" is, for lack of a better term, a song about communism. The opening lines are a bit of a giveaway, but only if you know the background: "This land is your land/This land is my land." OK, well, that doesn't have to be referring to the idea of public ownership of all property. Maybe "The invisible hand of the free market will dictate who is the rightful owner of this land" just didn't fit into the rhyme scheme.
But in fact, Guthrie was a fairly outspoken communist sympathizer. And the song wasn't written just as a folk song about America and its people. Guthrie specifically wrote it as a rebuttal to the song "God Bless America," a tune he considered overly patriotic and sappy. He didn't think it represented average, working-class Americans like himself and their feelings about the government.
"Kill the fascists, and the barbers too while you're at it."
Lyrics that didn't make the final version of the song that really hammer the point home were later found by Guthrie historians. As in hammer and sickle? Political jokes are hard. Anyway, here are the lyrics:
One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
by the relief office I saw my people.
As they stood hungry,
I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.
See, it's because the old emblem for Communist Russia was a hammer and- oh, fuck it.
Now that would have put a different spin on things. At some point Guthrie cut those lines, presumably figuring that a subtle approach would be best to get the point across. As this list is going to make abundantly clear, it totally doesn't work that way.