10 songs that show there’s space for skepticism in the music industry

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Brian Eggohttp://glasgowskeptics.com
Brian Eggo has been running Glasgow Skeptics for over five years, hosting over a hundred events in that time. He has also spoken for a number of Skeptics groups and helped run SiTP organiser workshops at QED conference. His day job is training development and delivery for a tech company.

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Here in the Skeptisphere, as with all communities, we like to see our values and ideals reflected in the wider world outside of our own circles. An unexpected pop-up in pop-culture is particularly satisfying, but when it comes to echoing the principles of Scientific Skepticism in the world of music, the pickings are somewhat limited, depending on what criteria you apply (more on that later).

As with many other walks of life, there has been a downward trend towards simplicity over recent decades when it comes to the music that tops the charts. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a powerful message conveyed in a simple manner if the listener is prompted to investigate further, but considering the majority of themes are around sex, love, and relationships it’s no great surprise that some crowdsourcing was required to put together a decent top ten of skeptically themed songs.

The Monkeez showed some early potential when they refused to become believers without evidence. Unfortunately, the evidence that changed their minds was by no means compelling, and they further blotted their copybooks with their credulous admiration of daydream believers. The Vaccines of course deserve a special mention, but their lyrical content stops them getting to ‘heard community’ here. No surprises that Placebo don’t have any tangible effect on the results, although arguments that they strongly influenced some of the other artists on the list may require some further investigation from Mike Hall.

To annoy some of the sourced crowd further, there are a number of excluding factors I’ve applied:

  • I’m avoiding religion. This is a good policy in general, but in this case specifically it’s a little too narrow a subject matter, and lyrical approach tends to be less skeptical/philosophical and more comedic/vitriolic. If you want to go down a vitriolic rabbit-hole (good band name) though then Slayer’s God Hates Us All album is as good a starting point as you could hope for.
  • Songs with a scientific theme only don’t make the cut. There’s plenty of lists of science-friendly music out there already, so in this case there has to be a reasonable connection to scientific skepticism.
  • Musical comedy/comedians don’t count, as we’re looking for mainstream artists here. This therefore excludes a number of gems which may merit a separate article, including Tim Minchin, George Hrab, Mitch Benn, and Tom Lehrer to name but a few. Also under this category are the likes of MC Hawking, and one-off classics like Monty Python’s Galaxy Song.
  • Artists who haven’t broken into the mainstream public consciousness. Even if your mate Dave’s band ‘Rock-em’s RazR’ are working on a concept album about Street Epistemology, they don’t make the cut here I’m afraid. Sadly, that brings down Eggo’s Machete on the likes of the hugely under-appreciated Baba Brinkman. Sorry.

So, with the rules of engagement declared, here’s my top ten:

10: Superstition – Stevie Wonder

Creeping into the top ten thanks as much to the sheer quality of the music as to the lyrical content within, which Wonder himself admits came as an afterthought of sorts. A simple skeptical message that following superstition rarely ends well. Extra points are scored for playing the song as the first major performer on Sesame Street, although many would argue that those points would be lost for some arguably less credible work later in his career.

9: Games People Play – Joe South

Scooping Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Contemporary Song, South takes a swat at hypocrisy, intolerance, and irresponsibility. Hard hitting in 1968 terms, but perhaps less so in current times, the criticism of horoscopes amongst other things is enjoyable nonetheless.

8: Omniverse – Greydon Square

Greydon Square may sound like a dreary, pigeon-infested space between some concrete blocks in Milton Keynes town centre, but it’s actually the stage name of hip hop emcee Eddie Collins. He is a member of the international secular hip-hop activist movement The Anti-Injustice Movement, and has also established his own organisation, Grand Unified Theory, which “uses creativity to educate people about science and rational thinking.” As a former soldier and former Christian he has plenty of experience of the other side of the rational equation to draw from too. Omniverse is a complex, wandering, scientific journey, ticking the skeptical box with a brief stop-off at Russel’s Teapot along the way.

7: The Idiots are Taking Over – NOFX

Described as the ‘Rolling Stones of Punk’, NOFX have only occasionally dipped their toes into more politically charged lyrical content since their inception in 1983. It comes as no great surprise therefore that their strongest messages came in the post 911 era with George W Bush at the helm with 2003’s War on Errorism. The song is a scathing indictment of the dumbing down of the population and the celebration of ignorance – which still seems depressingly familiar nearly two decades after the song’s release (see number 1 for more on that).

6: Cosmik Debris – Frank Zappa

A lesson to all in not judging a book by its cover. You’d expect someone with the appearance and free-from musical stylings of Frank Zappa in the 70s to embrace new-age hocus pocus like an old-friend. Happily, it’s quite the opposite, as the song charts Zappa’s refusal to buy-into the claims of a “Mystery Man”. Zappa went on to cement his rationality credentials as he took on US Congress to battle the PMRC’s proposals for censoring music. At a time in the 80s when freedom of speech was genuinely at risk it took the unlikely trio of Zappa, John Denver, and Dee Snyder (of Twisted Sister fame) to be the combined voice of reason.

5: My Mind Ain’t So Open – Magazine

The common skeptical mantra “Do not be so open minded that your brains fall out” is frequently misattributed to Carl Sagan, although it turns out that the phrase (or variations of it) is much older. Despite being used with great style by Tim Minchin to potentially gamble away his wife in 2008, its musical debut appears to have been in the late 70s on the B-side of English post-punk outfit Magazine’s best known (but still not that well known) single. Seems like a bit of a waste for such a useful quip.

4: Put it to the Test – They Might be Giants

Probably best known by people who don’t know much about music as the band that play the theme song from Malcolm in the Middle, They Might Be Giants were winning awards and selling millions of records for decades back when buying records was still a thing. Well known for their quirky, alternative style, they’ve also managed to carve themselves out a niche in educating children through music. Here Comes Science was released in 2009 on the back of two previous educational albums, and Put it to the Test perfectly encapsulates the spirit of Scientific Skepticism in just under two very catchy minutes. Play it to your kids!

3: Jesus He Knows Me – Genesis

Ok, so I know I said no religion, but this is particularly relevant to Skepticism, and is considerably different from the antitheist content that was excluded in the rules. As the Satanic Panic grasped the USA in the late 80s and early 90s many of the heavy metal bands who were under fire from the Christian right responded in kind with songs about the hypocrisy and exploitative nature of televangelists; Metallica had Leper Messiah, Anthrax had Make me Laugh, Slayer had Read Between the Lies, Iron Maiden had Holy Smoke, and Suicidal Tendencies even weighed in with the gloriously funky Send Me Your Money. How strange then that 70s prog-rock weirdlings turned 80s pop-rock behemoths Genesis (this doesn’t count as religion either) popped up out of nowhere to pick up the same theme. Evoking memories of James Randi’s amazing exposé of Peter Popoff, the song is accompanied by a near-perfect video.

2: Get it Right – Frank Turner

Following the breakup of post-hardcore outfit Million Dead in 2005, frontman Frank Turner carved out a successful solo career with a softer style of acoustic folk/punk rock. A blistering touring ethic and energetic presence cemented his reputation as a great live act, and won him a slot in the London Olympics opening ceremony. Although lyrically benign through much of his career, he delved somewhat into some more political territory in his 2018 album Be More Kind, with tracks such as 1933 and Make America Great Again tackling the rise of the far right. It’s the closing track of the album that scores the skeptical points though, with a gentle salute to intellectual humility in a time where online discourse has devolved to near-constant flame wars.

1: Age of Unreason – Bad Religion

It’s no surprise that the best of Punk Rock tends to surface during the worst of times, and Trump’s America provided fertile enough ground to invigorate genre pensioners Bad Religion to produce arguably their best work since 2004’s The Empire Strikes First. Vocalist and primary lyricist Greg Graffin may look more like a university lecturer than a punk rocker, but that may be because he’s both. His thesaurus-swallowing wordsmithery makes for tricky singalongs at times, but the content is considerably more cerebral than you’d expect from looking at the band name and their (in)famous crossbuster logo. With an obvious tip of the hat to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason, the album tackles the pervasive (seemingly willful) ignorance that appears to have swept across the world in recent years (although number 7 on the list may suggest otherwise), with the title track directly referencing Paine’s persecution for promoting enlightenment values in the face of religious fundamentalism.

So, while we appear to have a relatively rich seam of skeptical content out there, there’s a conspicuous lack of contemporary megastars voicing the type of message we’re looking for. If you happen to know any of those megastars then please give them a nudge. Either that, or pick up your guitar and see if you can do better. Much more importantly though, we’ve learned that I’ve got exquisite taste in music. If you disagree then you can either (a) come fight me on twitter, or (b) add to the collaborative playlist of Skeptically themed songs that I’ve created in Spotify. Give me your best shot!

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