A List of Songs that Explain International Relations

For several years now, I’ve been slowly putting together a (semi-serious) list of songs that I think can help explain various IR concepts and theories.  Although it’s still a work in progress, I am now sharing it with the world.

A few opening disclaimers:

  • Any such list is obviously going to be highly idiosyncratic, so YMMV.  My main criteria for inclusion were: did I like the song, and did the song and/or music video make me think differently about the world.  My list skews heavily towards the United States; pop, rock, and rap; music made since 2000; and contains mostly (but not entirely) English language songs.  If my suggestions don’t do it for you, feel free to check out these two other “IR Playlists” by Michael Tierney and Stephen Walt, or feel free to come up with your own and send it to me!  As you’ll see, there’s a couple spots where I’m still looking for particularly good fits.
  • I’m linking to my preferred version of the songs on Youtube, but given the fleeting nature of music on Youtube, a lot of the links will go dead within a few weeks or months.  If a link is dead, try searching for the artist and song title using Youtube’s search engine.
  • For some of the songs (especially more recent ones) watching the official music video helps understand the message much better, whereas for others I think it’s mostly just the lyrics that matter.  I encourage you to watch both the music video and a lyrics video if you enjoy a given song.
  • Several of the songs have a great deal of profanity (I’m looking at you, Korn!), deal with painful topics in quite brutal ways, depict extreme violence in their music video, or might otherwise trigger strong emotions.  That is part of their point, so caveat auditor.  My listing a song here is not necessarily an endorsement of it.



[Still looking for a good example]



War” by Edwin Starr (1969)

Masters of War” by Bob Dylan (1963)



[Still looking for a good example]



Running the World” by Jarvis Cocker (2006)



Guerrilla Radio” by Rage Against the Machine (2001)


Critical Theory:

They” by Jem (2004)

Imagine” by John Lennon (1971)

Where Is the Love?” by the Black Eyed Peas (2003)



If I Were a Boy” by Beyoncé (2008)



Earth Song” by Michael Jackson (1995)



Cambodia” by Kim Wilde (1981)

Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks (2002)

Zombie” by the Cranberries (1994)

Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)


Interesting Examples of Contemporary Militarism:

The Choir of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs’ cover of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” (2014)

The choral anthem of the Cyberspace Administration of China (2015)

Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith (2009)



“Hilltop” commercial (1971), for Coca-Cola, which proved so popular that its jingle was re-recorded as a full-length song

Korean commercial (c. 2006), featuring a remix of Pachelbel’s Canon in D (c. 1700) w/ Korean traditional instruments, beat-boxing, and break dancing, in order to sell television sets


Violence Within Nations:

Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People (2010)

Youth of the Nation” by P.O.D. (2001)


Violence Across Nations:

[Still looking for a good example, but here’s a tongue-in-cheek one.]

Nobody Speak” by DJ Shadow (2016)


Economic Inequality Within Nations:

I Will Buy You a New Life” by Everclear (1997)

Common People” by Pulp (1995)


Economic Inequality Across Nations:

Prayer of the Refugee” by Rise Against (2006)

Borders” by M.I.A. (2015)



Handlebars” by Flobots (2008)



Make It Bun Dem” by Skrillex & Damian Marley (2012)

Uprising” by Muse (2009)


Political Representation:

Give the People What They Want” by the O’Jays (1975)

Get Up Stand Up” by Bob Marley (1973)


Soft Power:

“U.S. Boy” by Jena Lee (2010) [French lyrics here, or the music video gets the point across even if you don’t speak French]



Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd (1979)



Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” by They Might Be Giants (1990)


North-South Solidarity:

We Are The World” by USA For Africa (1985)


South-South Solidarity:

Hello India” by Sasi The Don (2014)

Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” by Shakira (2010)



Changes” by Tupac Shakur (1998)



Y’all Want a Single” by Korn (2003)

Please Use This Song” by Jon LaJoie (2014)


The Financialization of the Global Economy:

“R.M.I.” by MC Solaar (2001) [French lyrics here, music video with a good English translation here]



Born Free” by M.I.A. (2010)


The United Nations:

Jan Egeland” by Ylvis (2012) [with Egeland‘s reaction here (use the auto-translate closed captioning option)]


American Foreign Policy:

Political Science” by Randy Newman (1972)


National (In)Security:

Kenji” by Fort Minor (2005)


Nuclear Weapons:

“Neunundneunzig Luftballons” / “99 Luftballons” by Nena (1983)





Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the Evolution of the “Repertoire of Contention”

Way back in April 2018, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies at Jindal Global University hosted a day-long workshop to revisit Dr. King’s legacy.  The Centre kindly invited me to speak at the workshop, and the contributions of speakers were recently published in the December 2018 issue of Delhi-based monthly magazine Seminar.

My contribution examined how King, Mahatma Gandhi, and the contemporary American left all attempted to use innovative protest tactics to change the “repertoire of contention,” a term sociologists use to refer to the set of actions most individuals in a society recognize qua protest tactics.  If you’re interested, you can find the whole long piece on my Academia.edu page, but I’m excerpting a portion of it here because I think IR scholars and students aren’t sufficiently familiar with the term.

Happy 2019, everyone!


In both the cases of the Indian independence movement and the American civil rights movement, the protesters ultimately proved successful by combining savvy media courtship with innovative,  powerful, and non-violent protest techniques.  In one of his last published pieces, Dr. King wrote at length about the importance for black protesters to become “creative dissenters” (“creative” appears 9 times in the essay). This notion of breaking down the apathy of the audience via the  popularization of novel forms of political protest was central to the missions of both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King. Today, sociologists refer to the same idea with the term the repertoire of contention.”  This concept, first developed by Charles Tilly, asks the question: how do you recognize a given action as a form of political protest? How do you know if something you see is a political protest or not?
While this may seem like an easy question, it is not always. For instance, I recall an evening when I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires during my university years. I was in my host family’s apartment when suddenly a terrible racket could be heard in the street below.  I looked out the window and saw a long procession of people walking along banging on pots as loud as they could.  “What in the world was this?”, I thought to myself. My host family could tell that I was very confused, and they told me that this was a cacerolazo, a form of grassroots political  protest common in Latin America where people try to direct attention to a political issue by, at a set time, collectively making as much noise as they can using household objects.
A much more chilling example is given in the chart below from the work  of sociologist Michael Biggs. It shows how suicide began catching on as a form of political protest in the early 1960s. In particular, self-immolation was pioneered as a protest tactic by Buddhist monks against the draconian South Vietnamese government, and has stayed in the worldwide repertoire of contention so forcefully that even in 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi wished to make a statement about economic injustice in Tunisia, he chose the immediately recognizable form of setting himself on fire, thereby helping to ignite the Arab Spring.