Two years ago, the American Enterprise Institute’s website posted a list of what it called “The 21 Greatest Conservative Rap Songs of All Time.” The selections were so ridiculously entertaining that it made us wonder – what if we could collect a similar list of memorable, conservative-minded soul music?
The task is slightly tougher, though. Unlike rap music and its countless odes to gun rights, modern soul focuses on the vagaries of romance. Love can be a political arena, but singers tend to portray relationships between a man and a woman as a matter of course, not as an implicit rejection of gay marriage. So for issues-oriented R&B, we have to turn the clock back to the 1970s, when the art form’s most famous conservative held sway.
James Brown, as far as we know, was not a registered Republican. During the 1968 presidential election, he stumped a bit for Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey before switching his support to Richard Nixon. Brown’s business-oriented, anti-tax philosophy, as laid out on “I’m Paying Taxes, What Am I Buyin’,” dovetailed nicely with the goals of the Nixon administration. He wrote hits like “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself),” where he emphasized his disdain for government welfare. And when President Nixon foundered during the Watergate scandal and eventually left office, he responded with “You Can Have Watergate, Just Gimme Some Bucks and I’ll Be Straight.”
Just like the man himself, Brown’s messages were plainspoken and unambiguous. Less clear were the motivations behind Funkadelic’s “Everybody Is Going to Make It This Time” from their 1972 album America Eats Its Young. “There’s not a doubt in my mind/If hunger and anger place the blame/There won’t be a country left to change,” read George Clinton’s lyrics, which seemingly take aim at inner city protest groups. It’s reminiscent of how John Lennon mocked ‘60s radicals on the Beatles’ “Revolution,” and how Mick Jagger put down hippie preachers on the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
However, the title and artwork for America Eats Its Young points a finger at the entire country. As Clinton explained in his entertaining memoir Brothas Be, Yo Like George, Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?, “The cover is an illustration of a (funky) dollar bill that showed America as it really was: corrupt and debauched, consuming resources in a way that benefited the rich at the expense of the poor.”
Many of our selections for conservative Americans who love soul are equally slippery, and open to (mis)interpretation. Gladys Knight & the Pips’ “Mr. Welfare Man” details frustration with a broken welfare system, but is songwriter Curtis Mayfield advocating for its end, or simply asking for its recipients to be treated with more humanity? And is Whitney Houston’s “Miracle” a pro-life anthem, written from the perspective of a woman who shouldn’t have gotten an abortion? Her words certainly sound like it. “When love grows inside you, the choice is yours/There’s a miracle in store,” she sings. “A voice of love is crying out/Don’t throw love away.”
There are a few things that unalloyed Red Staters and not-necessarily-Republican soul legends can uniformly agree on. The world is tough, and it requires a strong hand, whether that’s a robust police force, or simply a detective like John Shaft, the star of the Four Tops’ “Are You Man Enough?” It takes hard work, so as Teddy Pendergrass sings on Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes’ “Wake Up Everybody,” no more sleeping in bed. At the end of the day, we make our heaven and hell right here on Earth. As the Pointer Sisters sing on “You Gotta Believe,” “You gotta believe in something/Why not believe in me?”