Few works of literature have loomed larger over popular culture than Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. This classic 1729 essay created the template for satirical television shows like The Colbert Report and several popular music classics (more on that in a bit).
Writing during a time of great political and economic turmoil—much of it caused by British imperialism—Swift anonymously suggested that the starving people of Ireland could turn their malnourished frowns upside down by literally eating their young. “A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends,” Swift dryly stated, “and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish.”
Peter O’Toole once noted that this essay has “a little something to offend everybody.” Sure enough, the Irish actor’s over-the-top recitation of A Modest Proposal provoked a mass walkout of dignitaries during the 1984 reopening of Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre.
Swift’s grotesque instructions went far beyond the limits of good taste—if you’ll pardon the pun. “Those who are more thrifty (as I must confess the times require) may flay the carcass,” he wrote, “the skin of which … will make admirable gloves for ladies, and summer boots for fine gentlemen.”
A Modest Proposal may be a bit long in the tooth, but it still has a bite. “I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked or boiled.”
The satirist acknowledged that the practice of killing babies could be perceived as abhorrent (“some scrupulous people might be apt to censure such a practice”), but at least it is better than the status quo.
In short, Swift wanted to give the public a cold rhetorical shower. This same impulse can be found in today’s popular music—running through everything from the political punk of Dead Kennedys and the anarchic ‘60s skronk of the Fugs to Randy Newman’s lovely popcraft. Here is a rough guide to those artists’ songs, followed by a list of other Swift-Rock classics.
The Fug’s “Kill For Peace”
The Fugs were a riotous band founded by poet-provocateur Ed Sanders. Their song “Kill for Peace,” performed at the famous 1967 Pentagon levitation rally, is positively Swiftian in spirit. The lyrics speak for themselves: “Kill kill kill for peace/Near or middle or very far east … If you don’t like the people or the way they talk/If you don’t like their manners or the way they walk/Kill kill kill for peace.”
Dead Kennedy’s “California Über Alles,” “Kill the Poor,” “Holiday In Cambodia” and “Pull My Strings” (a four-way tie)
Dead Kennedys were political pranksters in the tradition of the Fugs, whose song “Kill for Peace” shares its DNA with the punk band’s “Kill the Poor.” Their 1979 single “California über Alles” skewered the new age-y worldview of the state’s highest elected official. “I am Governor Jerry Brown,” Biafra warbled, “my aura smiles and never frowns, soon I will be President!” In this anti-hippy musical rant, the satirical version of Jerry Brown warned everyone to “mellow out” or else they would get dosed with “organic poison gas.”
Randy Newman’s “Political Science,” “Short People” and “Rednecks” (a three-way tie)
Like Dead Kennedys, much of everything Randy Newman writes is steeped in Swiftian irony—though, unlike them, Randy Newman regularly wrapped his sour lyrics in sweet melodies, making it easy for listeners to miss the intended message. When this cult artist finally had a breakthrough hit with “Short People” (chorus: “short people got no reason to live”), some humorless mainstream listeners were outraged. His song “Political Science” is a favorite of mine: “Asia’s crowded and Europe’s too old/Africa is far too hot and Canada’s too cold/and South America stole our name … They all hate us anyhow/so let’s drop the big one now.”
Various Swift-Rock Classics
Because my editors at Little Village continually threaten to mutilate my body and dump it in the Iowa River if I dare to go over my 1,000 word limit — no irony here, I’m being dead serious! — I’ll conclude with a short (non-exhaustive) list of other Swift-Rock classics.
- Dead Milkmen “Tiny Town”
- Devo “Beautiful World”
- Bob Dylan “With God On Our Side”
- Fear “Let’s Have a War”
- The Kinks “Victoria”
- The Kominas “Sharia Law In the U.S.A.”
- The Ramones “We’re a Happy Family”
- Reagan Youth “Reagan Youth”
- Sex Pistols “Holiday In the Sun”
- Talking Heads “Nothing But Flowers”
- Timbuk 3 “The Future’s So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades)”
- Too Much Joy “Take a Lot of Drugs”
- The Weirdos “We Got the Neutron Bomb”
Kembrew McLeod would like to thank Jonathan Swift for inspiring this column, and all his social media “friends” for suggesting their favorite picks. For the record, Kembrew’s young son, Alasdair, is not a fan of A Modest Proposal.