On most days, and in the long run, culture may be upstream from politics. But Tuesday is Election Day, and I suspect even the most culturally-obsessed of us will prioritize the monumental decisions Americans are making collectively – if fractiously –all over the country. Which is not to say culture can’t help.
Here’s a playlist of 25 of my favorite songs and notes on why they reminded me of this particular presidential contest. No “Fight Song.” I promise.
1. “I Need You To Survive,” Hezekiah Walker and the Love Fellowship Choir: When I was in college, I occasionally went to services at a church where the choir sang this song on loop until everyone had greeted not just their neighbors, but every single other worshiper in attendance. At a moment when the election offers a choice between division and unity, this is about as beautiful expression of the latter idea as I can imagine.
2. “American Land,” Bruce Springsteen: In the midst of an election that turns on the question of what American greatness consists of, it’s worth revisiting this optimistic immigrant narrative, inspired by Pete Seeger’s “He Lies in the American Land,” an adaptation of steelworker Andrew Kovaly’s poem of the same name. It’s got a warning, too: “They died building the railroads, they worked to bones and skin / They died in the fields and factories, names scattered in the wind / They died to get here a hundred years ago, they’re still dying now / Their hands that built the country we’re always trying to keep out.”
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3. “Bread and Roses,” Judy Collins: Yeah, yeah, I know all the objections against the arguments against the idea that women will provide a civilizing influence in politics simply because we don’t have a hand in the atrocities of governments past. Suspend that critique for the three minutes and five seconds it takes to listen to this song, an unbearably beautiful invocation of women’s political power.
4. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Sam Cooke: Even more so than most presidential election, 2016 feels like a year in which the work that lies beyond Election Day is highly daunting. But if you’ve ever needed an exhortation to keep doing something difficult, Sam Cooke’s got you covered.
5. “Bridge Over Troubled Water / We’ve Only Just Begun,” Aretha Franklin: One of those combinations that is just otherworldly.
6. “If I Were a Boy,” Beyoncé: There are any number of tracks by the magnificent Ms. Knowles-Carter I might have included here, but in a year when the very different playing fields for men and women were on full display, this one just feels too right.
7. “Down To The River To Pray,” Alison Krauss: I feel about the best Christian music the way Ron Swanson feels about churches: The theology’s not for me, but I love the creative efforts in support of it. If you need a song that will elevate the feeling of standing in line to vote, or really, standing in line to do anything, this is a good choice.
8. “This Land Is Your Land,” Pete Seeger: In an election that’s suggested in stark, and often ugly terms, that we have to choose between different versions of America, or that there’s not enough of America to go around, Seeger’s joy in the scale and beauty of the country is a tonic.
9. “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Bob Dylan: One of my favorite things about this song is how carefully it counts the cost of change, and how Dylan observes that sometimes, people only accept change when it’s right on top of them, and when the consequences of resisting or ignoring that change have already arrived. It’s an appropriate warning for the political moment.
10. “By Way of Sorrow,” Cry, Cry Cry: No matter what happens, this election will have cost us a great deal. This gorgeous song is all about acknowledging the loss that often accompanies great change, and setting a determined course for the future.
11. “Sons and Daughters,” The Decemberists: This is as good a modern anti-war anthem as exists.
12. “Easy Silence,” Dixie Chicks: “Not Ready To Make Nice” is the most obvious Dixie Chicks choice here, but “Easy Silence,” which is about trying to balance engagement with a world that feels frightening with taking care of yourself, or another person, is a better choice for today.
13. “Become You,” Indigo Girls: Another great song about the hard work involved in any sort of transformation. Plus “The landed aristocracy / Exploiting all your enmity / All your daddies fought in vain / Leave you with the mark of Cain” feels pretty apropos for this political moment.
14. “Mama’s Eyes,” Justin Townes Earle: Am I a bad person if I admit that this utterly brutal kiss-off to Earle’s father, the country singer-songwriter Steve Earle, which ends in praise for Justin Townes Earle’s mother, is really just in here as a coded message to Tiffany Trump? Be free, Tiffany!
15. “Democracy,” Leonard Cohen: In college, a dear friend liked to quote one of the last lines in this song, Cohen’s declaration that “I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet.” This election has been draining and faith-destroying. But I’m holding onto the idea of that little wild bouquet as best I can.
16. “The Pill,” Loretta Lynn: To be played as loudly as possible in the direction of anyone who starts talking about Making American Great Again.
17. “I Will Move On Up A Little Higher,” Mahalia Jackson: When they go low, we – well, you know the drill.
18. “I Shall Be Released,” Nina Simone: There have been a lot of sad and frightening things about this election, and I hope that anyone who’s felt less safe in this country and in their own community because of the rhetoric on display and the policies on offer feels a modicum of relief come Tuesday night. As I’ve said earlier, I think the work is just beginning. But any break in the sense of threat that so many Americans live under will be welcome.
19. “Home and Dry,” Pet Shop Boys: I know, I know. This is a playlist with entirely too many slightly sobering tracks. What can I say? I’m anxious. But this song certainly expresses how I’d like to feel about the end of this election.
20. “The Body of an American,” The Pogues: During an election where Donald Trump repeatedly suggested that the state of America was somehow shameful or depressing, I found myself repeatedly listening to this song, which is a loud, enthusiastic blast of pride in being an American.
21. “Ladies First,” Queen Latifah and Monie Love: To a certain extent, it’s depressing that we’re making the same arguments all these years later. But during an election cycle where women have stepped up, repurposing Trump’s insults and making plans to “grab back,” the blast of feminist energy in Monie Love’s declaration that “We are the ones that give birth / To the new generation of prophets because it’s Ladies First” is undeniably invigorating.
22. “Come So Far (Got So Far To Go),” the cast of “Hairspray”: Clinton has the “Hamilton” vote, while Trump favors Andrew Lloyd Weber. But this song from the 2007 musical version of “Hairspray” takes the “there’s so much more work to do” idea that’s at the heart of so many other songs on this list and makes it absolutely, irresistibly uplifting. Use it to get “Fight Song” out of your head.
23. “End of the Line,” Traveling Wilburys: Like I was really going to get through the end of this list without making at least one more “Parks and Recreation” reference.
24. “I Decided, Part 2,” Solange: Because no Election Day playlist would possibly be complete without a song you can use as a processional for that climactic march into the voting booth?
25. “I Was A Teenage Anarchist,” Against Me!: For playing loudly in response to anyone who tries to talk you out of voting, or into voting, for Jill Stein.
Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post’s Opinions section.