The Bush Era: Protesting Too Much About Not Protesting Enough?

Jan 21st, 2009 // 19 Comments

During the Bush administration, everyone seemed to agree: there were no protest songs. Or, at least, no good ones. At any rate, it definitely wasn’t like the ’60s. In her latest blog post for NPR, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein provides a welcome correction to this idea, noting both how many protest songs there were and how widespread the perception was that releasing a protest song was a bad idea. But even if there were protest songs, surely they didn’t have the same effect as in the ’60s, right?

Well, that depends whether we’re talking about an actual effect or an assumed effect, and when it comes to the ’60s, we always seem to be talking about the assumed effect. That decade’s hagiographers have been very successful at encouraging the idea that music helped to end the war, but just because people were listening to Bob Dylan doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have opposed the war without him. As for our current decade, the implication seems to be that because the Dixie Chicks got into trouble for making a snide anti-Bush remark, the powers that be must have a vested interest in suppressing music that expressed opposition to the government—which would then mean that protest songs are indeed dangerous. This was a real perception, certainly real enough to have a chilling effect, as Brownstein remembers:

My own band, writing and recording our fifth record during the winter of 2001, put more than a few songs about Bush and the war on what was to become One Beat—specifically “Combat Rock” and “Faraway.” It’s interesting to note that, upon the album’s release in early 2002, interviewers focused on the so-called risk we were taking by including those songs.

Ultimately, though, it’s unlikely that the administration’s effort to stifle dissent was aimed at music specifically. More likely is that it was aimed at the press (successfully) and at partisans more generally; pop was just collateral damage. Still, maybe it was ignored because music has gotten so toothless that it’s not worth worrying about anymore, right? Well, not really. The dominant view of the ’60s always forgets all the bubblegum and parent-pop that was even more popular than the politically engaged stuff, and overstates the reach and importance of the artists we’ve come to value. It seems more likely that music wasn’t more politically engaged in the ’60s; rather, it was more culturally prominent, more of a megaphone for the values of the majority, and thus more representative of public opinion. When music is smaller, why should politics pay attention to it?

The funny thing about all this, of course, is that the election of Barack Obama represents a rejection of “the ’60s,” or at least its dominance over our political and cultural dialogue. By picking Obama over Hillary Clinton during the primaries, Democratic voters seemed to indicate a desire to move away from arguments about culture war and identity politics. Music, on the other hand, still seems stuck in the boomer mire; even the supposedly transformative album of 2009 can be legitimately described as “psychedelic.” There seems a disconnect here.

Eight Years Gone [NPR]


  1. Ned Raggett

    Okay, Mike, you are winning the universe today.

  2. bcapirigi

    There’s been almost forty years for people to filter out things like Bobby Goldsboro and forget about things like how Freda Payne’s career tanked after Bring The Boys Home. In 2048 it’s very possible that people will remember this decade as the one where everybody was listening to Sleater-Kinney and the Thermals all the time.

  3. Audif Jackson Winters III

    I find it a little hard to swallow the idea that there was a perception that it was a “bad idea” to release protest music, particularly after maybe 2002. The anti-Bush compilations that Brownstein mentions were stuffed with well-known pop acts that suffered no repercussions, commercial or otherwise, from making their thoughts on the administration known. Green Day resurrected their career and were suddenly lionized by the press pretty much be virtue of the fact that the became political in their lyrics. Hell, even the Black Eyed Peas had their first big hit — a track featuring a guest vocal by small-timer Justin Timberlake — with a song that referred to the CIA as “terrorists”.

    And how many times am I going to read how “brave” that Conor Oberst was to sing that irritating track on “The Tonight Show”? So he was going to alienate his fanbase by singing lyrics that reflected their worldview?

  4. natepatrin

    @bcapirigi: Then they’ll have to put up with my cranky 71 year-old ass reminding them of how much better Missy Elliott and the Rapture were.

  5. Anonymous

    Everyone’s quick to forget that Against Me! song where the guy yells “CONDOLEEEEEEZAAAAA” over and over again.

  6. Dickdogfood

    Out of curosity, what was the first pop/rock song to flat-out say that the war in Vietnam was wrong, bad, no-good, rather than just say war-in-general was wrong, bad, no-good? Was it “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” in 1967? (Could ’67 be considered something of a late response to the war?)

  7. Anonymous

    thank you for pointing out that the rise of obama does not have a mimetic relationship with pop music. i’m getting tired of music critics throwing the “in this post-obama age…” line into their reviews, especially since we don’t even know what “obama” means yet.

    i didn’t think that the bush era had a lack of protest songs, “good ones,” maybe, but i really happened to like one of the first: pearl jam’s “bu$hleaguer.” to me, it hit the nail on the head, and it was at a time that preceded the dixie chicks controversy, [i]american idiot[/i] and all of the political posturing that came to follow.

  8. heyzeus

    Let nobody forget the Pink song about Bush. Our generation finally found its anti-war voice.

  9. tigerpop

    @borntohula: Plus Eddie Vedder running around onstage with that Bush mask was really funny.

  10. How do I say this ... THROWDINI!

    Ted Leo & The Pharmacists Shake The Sheets is pretty much an entire album of anti-Bush protest songs. And an awesome one at that.

  11. AquaLung

    @heyzeus: Too bad Eminem beat P!nk to it with that generational call to arms, “Mosh.”

  12. Anonymous

    @Audif Jackson Winters III: Political music is gererally considered a bad idea not politically, but artisically. Whatever that means. The problem isn’t that you’ll land in jail, but that you’ll super seriously tell America to stick a cheeseburger up it’s ass.
    The Redwalls had a few semi-political songs I can stomach, but mainly because they sound more snotty than outraged. Why doesn’t anyone like the Redwalls?

  13. King of Pants

    I think that while the idea of the ’60s protest song and anti-war movement in rock is definitely being looked at through some rather rosy glasses, it’s not just that the protest songs during Dubya’s affair weren’t there or missed the mark: it’s that in the last eight years, pop culture cocooned itself and became a hermetic world, divorced from reality, during the Bush Administration, with the nascent blogosphere forming the caul lining around it. Pop culture could, at times, reference what was happening in the Administration and the world at large, but only in the most cartoonish of ways. More to the point, this pop culture balloon was formed in direct reaction to 9/11. Its entire purpose was to somehow take focus away from the very real terror this country experienced (whether firsthand or broadcast live for anyone to watch — Americans take their TV seriously, after all). Pop culture has been its own reason, its own reward, and the very reason it’s been so wildly successful in the last eight years is that it was impossible for anything that thrived in the hothouse to make any sort of real impact, especially with an administration that did not care what anyone thought of what they did.

    Moreover, the nucleus of the anti-war movement in the ’60s, before it became popular and peace signs littered the pop culture landscape, was composed of real, leftist radicals who were very very successful at organizing and demonstrating resistance. And also, it hadn’t been done before. People forget that the rock world was routinely keeping company with some legitimate radicalism in its day. The nearest countercultural equivalent in the Bush years has been “indie,” a word that means nothing and comes entirely from a world of apathetic white privilege. There is no counterculture nowadays. There’s a cadre of self-defined media-aware bloggers who are simultaneously trying to climb the ladder while “snarking” about it, who’ve declared themselves cultural arbiters, and who are living, breathing manufacturers of consent. You can’t be part of the pop culture bubble if you’re trying to subvert it. This isn’t even getting into how the media of the day quickly co-opted the hippies and made the term a bemused, condescending insult.

    So you can talk all you want about that Ted Leo album that you and 30,000 other people on the planet know about, or that one time Eddie Vedder wore a Bush mask (because Pearl Jam had both relevance and credibility in the last decade?), or how a bunch of bloggers were so desperate for any media validation that they took “Mosh” to heart…but the fact is that since the ’60s, pop culture had any last remaining rough edges smoothed out, and it’s just a hothouse flower, drunk on VH1 shows and links to Stereogum, where the people who are severely media-aware can congratulate themselves on how media-aware they are, and somehow fool themselves into watching television with a straight face; where rock and rap just don’t have any cachet at all anymore, so any possible anger that they could muster is neutered; where somehow, “American Idiot” looks radical because its apathetic stoner suburban protagonist mouths a few anti-Bush brohimes while living within its cul-de-sac; where Jon Stewart, milquetoast comedian, is hailed as some sort of revolutionary when he’s just doing a few lame video gags because reality really did get that fucking bad that it was beyond satire; and where any sort of real action or emotion or anger simply slid off the velcro surface of the bubble, neither able to pierce or gain traction, and anyone who was on the outside could only gape and watch as generations who had grown up with these new forms of supplied media suddenly discovered that they simply could not live without that steady stream of entertainment, no matter who supplied it or what their reasons were.

    So that is why there were no good protest songs in this past decade.

  14. the rich girls are weeping

    @King of Pants: I was in the midst of writing a a comment that was hitting a lot of your points — basically, the 60′s both birthed and killed the mainstream protest song.

    Of course there were no protest songs in the post-ironic era. Who would take them seriously?

  15. Anonymous

    Let’s not forget Peaches’ “Fuck or Kill.”
    I’d rather fuck who I want/than kill who I am told to/let’s face it we all want tush/if I’m wrong impeach my bush/impeach Bush
    There’s no greater protest song.

  16. cheesebubble

    Neil Young – Living With War

  17. Anonymous

    Down With Protest Songs!
    Hell No, I Won’t Slo(-gan)!
    Lest we forget, it was not the protest songs of the ’60s that ended Vietnam; it was the protest songs of 1974.
    Oh, and what was the greatest protest song of all “For What It’s Worth” protesting? Absolutely jack nothing. Canon fodder “Blowing In The Wind”? The answer is a penis referencing “whatev’s”. The entire Beatles political out put amounted to “don’t worry about it, everythings going to be alright one day. Because of Love”. The same with Bob Marley. What’s the difference between the Clash pretending to be armed revolutionaries and the Paul Revere & the Raiders pretending to be armed revolutionaries?
    Protest songs are stupid and they make me inarticulate.

  18. giorgionyc

    Great post, King of Pants, especially about “indie” and the comment about rock “keeping company with some legitimate radicalism” during the 60s. I know that young people today, or a lot of them, roll their eyes at any mention of the 60s. But it was an era of genuine political and cultural radicalism whose innovations continue to be felt. What’s considered cutting edge, or “edgy” today is a joke. Agree entirely about “American Idiot” and Stewart. Colbert, however, is another story. No milquetoast he — he stuck it to Bush & Co in person, at the White House press club event a few years ago.

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