End of an Era

by Greg Call

The past eight years have been decent for protest songs, and I suppose the next four, at least, will be less so. It’s time to look back on the best Bush/Iraq protest music, and see if we can come up with a list that surpasses the Reagan era (should be easy) and challenges the Nixon era (not likely).

Here are my nominations:

–Randy Newman, A Few Words in Defense of Our Country
–Ted Leo, The High Party, Bomb. Repeat. Bomb., Loyal to My Sorrowful Country (“In the days when we were young, we were free, we were free/Now that Georgie’s reign’s begun, we won’t be, we can’t be”)
–Neil Young, Let’s Impeach the President, Shock & Awe, Looking for a Leader (the whole Living With War album, really)
–Spoon, Don’t Make Me A Target (“Clubs and sticks and bats and balls/for nuclear dicks with dialect drawls/they come from a parking lot town/where nothing lives in the sun”)
–Arcade Fire, Intervention
–Sleater Kinney, Combat Rock (“Show you love your country go out and spend some cash/Red white blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam”)
–Pearl Jam, Bushleaguer, Worldwide Suicide
–Bright Eyes, When the President Talks to God
–Kimya Dawson, Loose Lips (“and we’ll pray, all damn day, every day/that all this sh*t our president has got us in will go away”)

Any to add?


26 thoughts on “End of an Era

  1. I’d say none of the above.

    I’m not a Bush lover, but songs with clear political agendas usually come off as clumsy and boring. There is something to be said for subtlety. This goes for film as well.

  2. It’s amazing. This collection is nothing compared with the anti-Vietnam War music. There’s something to be said about compulsory military service to get a war seared more in our minds, and affect our artistic abilities.

  3. I think that some of the best stuff was remakes of the good stuff from the 1960s/1970s. A Perfect Circles “Imagine” is what I am listening to right now. Green Day’s “Working Class Hero” (also a Lennon remake).

    Green Day’s American Idiot Album is by far their best, though I am not sure if the political content was all that poignant (though I fully agreed with its sentiments). However, I am always up for a good poke it the eye.

    System of A Down did some great stuff (though some of it was not). Chop Suey was very meaningful to me after 9/11 eventhough it was written prior to that.

    The most unfortunate thing was that the greatest protest band of the 1990s, Rage Against the Machine, was absent during the last 8 years. Audioslave did not fill the void. Of course all of the Rage albums applied to the last 8 years perfectly.

  4. I agree with John K. I give a pass to the Arcade Fire song, because though it obviously anti-war it is so strange that it can be heard in many ways. A good piece of art points in many directions away from itself.


  5. “I Shot The Devil/Reagan” by Suicidal Tendencies beats everything mentioned so far. Plus the band got investigated by the FBI for writing it.

    My favorite Ted Leo protest song is “Shake the Sheets.”

  6. This one is going to fly right in the face of John K’s thought that protest songs should be subtle, but Anit-Flag’s “Depleted Uranium is a War Crime” is the head and shoulders favorite of all the little burgeoning Marxists in my middle school. It may be blunt, but I think this one will be the “London Calling” of this generation.

  7. I have to agre wtih Chris, the album American Idiot beats all of these, though Worldwide suicide is pretty darn good.

    Still, nothing compared to the older protest stuff.

  8. A subtle protest song is a contradiction in terms.

    Protest songs are not usually great songs in the normal sense (in part because they are didactic) but there can still be great protest songs. It’s just a different category. Very rarely, though, there are protest songs that are great songs (“Ohio,” by Neil Young; “Masters of War,” by Bob Dylan). So, when Country Joe and the Fish sang at Woodstock, “1-2-3 What are we fighting for/Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn/Next stop is Vietnam” — it was a dumb rock song in absolute terms, but a great protest song. I think the newer protest songs hold up well against Country Joe, and only seem inadequate when we compare them to “Ohio” and “Masters of War,” which isn’t fair.

  9. Even though I’m conservative and probably belong to the group they are protesting, I’ve always kind of dug Rage Against the Machine. Yeah, that’s the 90’s. But let’s be honest. Everything done the past few years has largely sucked. The only good stuff tends to be covers of old 70’s tunes.

    Audioslave wasn’t really political because Chris Cornell despite being very much the political activist doesn’t really like to sing about it. Reportedly Rage is back together again and ready to protest about the right wing populism of Obama…. (grin)

  10. I didn’t even know there were any Bush protest songs other than two that haven’t been mentioned yet: Eminem “Mosh”:

    and the Dixie Chicks “Not Read to Make Nice”

  11. sister blah 2

    Yes! The Dixies Chicks should hold a special place in this category since they bucked the very audience the made them rich. Biting the hand that feeds you. That is principle. That is courage.

  12. Maybe it is because I’m not drawing a distinction that I should be (political music vs. protest music) but I would point to Rage Against the Machine as the perfect example of my opinion.

    I think they are the greatest protest band of all time, yet they rarely name names or get more specific than they need to. Their music obviously doesn’t lack subtlety in the sense that basically every lyric is political – yet, their message can fly under the radar with many of their fans.

    This helps make them successful by avoiding pissing off a lot of their possible fan base. It also lets their message slowly seep into one’s mind…

  13. Clark,

    I thought that you and I were getting along now. No? Not giving in to commercialism is not somehow admirable?

    John K.,

    I think that there message is missed because people ignore it, not because they miss it. Of course, a good bass line goes a long ways toward the seeping it.

  14. Chris, I don’t think alienating all your clients is commercialism. It’s suicide. Let’s put it an other way. Do you think Steve Jobs would be courageous were it to hold a press conference and say Republicans shouldn’t buy Macs? No. It’d be massively irresponsible.

    Now musicians and so forth like to imagine they aren’t business people. That they aren’t selling a product. But they are. Now if they don’t care about their career that’s one thing. But it isn’t really courage or not. Either they don’t care about their career in which case it takes no courage or else they do in which case it’s just irresponsible.

    John, that’s actually been a strong criticism of Rage. A lot of fans of 60’s protest songs suggest that Rage’s rage is pretty superficial. Sort of the musical equivalent of wearing a Che t-shirt and thinking you’re saying anything particularly profound.

    That’s not to say they don’t have a message. I think they do. (Take a song like Guerilla Radio) But I do agree it is a bit superficial or vague. Of course I tend to think that of a lot of 60’s stuff too. Unless you’re doing particular ballads it’s hard to do a specific protest song.

    Now musically I think being vague and superficial is a good thing since it allows individuals to apply the songs to their own experiences more. That subjective element is, in my mind, an important part of good art. And is one reason why music isn’t typically like an essay or editorial.

  15. But they got a grammy and found a whole not audience. I bought their CD for my wife even.

    “But I do agree it is a bit superficial or vague.”

    We are not listening to the same CD’s. Or maybe I am the only one picking up on all the socialist subtexts.

  16. That should be “whole new audience.”

    Music is different than computers Clark. Not sure if you can make that comparison and truly understand protest music.

  17. Now musicians and so forth like to imagine they aren’t business people. That they aren’t selling a product. But they are.

    True, that’s what agents are (supposedly) for – to look out for the business interests of their clients. In music, producers often take that roll as well.

    One example I have is Metallica. Whether you call them sell-outs or not, their style clearly changed in 1990 when they made their self-titled album. In addition to their music changing, they cut their hair and made tons of videos, and made their music more radio-friendly and accessable. And guess what – it made them multi-millionares. I don’t blame them. I would have done the same thing. Now, however, they’ve got Rick Rubin (producer for Slayer, et al) producing their latest album and you’ve got their previous speed, complexity, and anger back into play. They’ve returned to their old ways because they have established themselves forever. So they took a few years off to make some money. So at least for them, they recognize the business side of their work. I respect that, even though a “screw the system” attitude makes for cool lyrics and songwriting.

  18. David, that’s true to a point. But merely having good advice (and I’ll lay good odds their agent told the Dixie Chicks to quiet down) and following it are two different things. I can have my accountant tell me I don’t have enough money to spend. But it doesn’t mean I can’t go bankrupt ignoring their advice.

    Rick Rubin did his best work with Johnny Cash and a bunch of the rappers at Dethrow. Slayer? Eh.

    Chris, music is different from computers but if your career is music then it’s a career. Certainly some people – especially protest singers and folk singers – don’t care about a career. However the Dixie Chicks were hardly your typical folk singers ala the counterculture movement of the 60’s.

    As I said if they decided their career was unimportant more power to them. I’ve no qualms with that. But let’s not kid ourselves it was somehow brave.

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