Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #5

Public Enemy – Fight the Power

I realized too late that I put myself in a very small box when naming this series. The word “youth” imposes a time limit. For example, I would be hard pressed to include any Fountains of Wayne songs here, despite my love of the band, since I was close to 40 when I first heard them. But what should the cutoff be?

Wikipedia, as usual, is a great resource. Almost 40 turned out to not be too far off, as both Russia and Nigeria have definitions that stretch it to 35. Since I’m in neither country, let’s go with the United Nations, which caps youth at 24. Which means the last possible date for an eligible song to have been released is July 30, 1989, as I turned 25 the following day.

(BTW, if we went with 35, the cutoff of July 30, 2000 would open the floor to a few really amazing songs from 1999 – “I Want it That Way”, “Praise You”, “…Baby One More Time”, “The Bad Touch” (oh, I have so much to say about this last one) – and 2000 – “Goodbye Earl”, “All the Small Things”, “Bye Bye Bye” (with a fantastic “Ted Lasso” shoutout), “Thong Song”. (JK about that last one.))

I’m comfortable with that date. By the end of my 25th year, my heart had been broken at least once, I had dropped out of university, I still hadn’t figured out a career path, I was living in a rented room in a basement, I had twice walked away from my life with no real plan for what came next. Basically, I was pretty fucked up without actually realizing it. You know – a youth.

Weirdly, things did change a bit in my 26th year. I went back to university (I still didn’t finish, but that’s because other adult things like marriage and kids took priority), I entered into my first relationship of some permanence, I settled in the city where I still live. You know – an adult.

A few fine candidates got in just under the wire before my somewhat-arbitrary-but-UN-sanctioned cutoff point. In a very strange twist, two of them showed up on the same Spotify playlist earlier this week: Young MC’s still awesome “Bust a Move” (released May 22) got me rapping along in my car on Tuesday, and The B-52’s “Love Shack” (June 20) had me gliding down my street Wednesday afternoon. Finally, there was “Batdance” by Prince (June 8), a completely ridiculous song that is still pretty fantastic if for no other reason than it gave us the line “If a man is considered guilty for what goes on in his mind, then gimme the electric chair for all my future crimes, oh”.

But there could be only one winner, with a release date of July 4, 1989. “Fight the Power” is a song I still listen to often, and it has been on my 100 favourite songs playlist since it’s inception. I usually listen to the “Fear of a Black Planet” version, but the Branford Marsalis solo is a special treat from the “Do the Right Thing” version.

It can’t be an accident that the most radical Black hip hop group of that era released an anthem of empowerment on U.S. Independence Day. It’s propulsive, defiant, angry and, maybe most important for catching your attention, it gets you moving. Digs at Elvis Presley and John Wayne – symbols of White culture and authority – hit hard, together with the crushing follow-up point that “most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamps”. Playing over the opening credits of “Do the Right Thing”, with fireball Rosie Perez (unjustly denied a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination despite convincing us she was sexually attracted to scrawny Spike Lee) dancing and shadowboxing for the camera, it set the tone for a powerful and not at all subtle film.

I was nowhere close to the target audience for this in 1989, despite already being a sort-of fan based on “It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back”, which I owned on cassette, and my appreciation for Rosie (whose youth ended just five weeks after mine), Spike and company didn’t mean I appreciated the song, but over time it captured me. Sometimes, people need to mature in order to value things properly. On the other hand, maybe the song just aged a lot more gracefully than I did, allowing me to catch up.