The Anti-Bush “Band” Wagon

Why Are There So Many Artists Taking Bush to Task?

There was something striking about the April issue of Rolling Stone. In this, the 40th anniversary edition, icons from those heady, rebellious days of 1967 were interviewed. The counterculture figures involved in the New Left or anti-war movements: Mailer, Fonda, and of course Dylan. Living and breathing proof of the intersection between popular culture and popular resistance. But in the front of the magazine, there was a striking parallel to be seen: a story on the sizeable chunk of anti-Bush, anti-war material now seeping into mainstream music.

For about four years now, music journalists have been asking where the protest music is. Well, if it’s not here now, it’s most certainly starting to rear its head. What is surprising is that it is coming from previously apolitical acts; artists who would seem like the last to foray into activism or anything beyond a catchy beat.

A few highlights:

Tori Amos: though Amos has long been synonymous with the strident and outspoken modern woman, her new album American Doll Posse starts on a combative note asking, “is this just the madness of King George?”

Nine Inch Nails: Trent Reznor has long been considered one of the most prolific and innovative recording artists of our time, but political he’s not. Until now. His recent Year Zero album takes place in a not-too-distant-future police state presided over by a dictator who “signs his name with a capital G.”

Linkin Park: the standard bearers of nu metal shift their emotional vitriol from failled relationships to the pain and frustration of watching New Orleans washed away “as the nation simply stares.”

The White Stripes: “Icky Thump,” from their upcoming album, makes a pretty open declaration on the state of immigrant rights: “well Americans: what, nothin’ better to do? Why don’t you kick yourself out? You’re an immigrant too!”

It’s a far cry from four years ago when the Dixie Chicks were almost burned at the stake for having the gall to say they were ashamed Bush is from Texas. Now, four years since they were banned from the airwaves, four years since the US commenced a slaughter in Iraq, two years after watching an entire city of black and poor people being left to drown like rats, and seven years after the biggest sham election in recent history, the chorus of “we’ve had enough” has never been clearer. Are we really to believe that this will not rub off on even the biggest artists of our time?

To listen to the naysayers, one would think that no, it doesn’t, and if it does it shouldn’t. Stances like this from artists are already provoking an onslaught from the right. Hannity & Colmes dedicated a whole segment to decrying Rage Against the Machine for calling the Bush administration war criminals and saying they should be “tried and shot.” And Green Day’s cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” has earned more scorn than praise on the blogosphere. “To ‘rock against Bush’ is to scream for attention,” says Windsor Mann in a 2005 National Review article, “and screaming for attention is, in many ways crying for help.”

In other words, an artist only takes a stand when he or she is desperate. Music and politics don’t mix. Or so we are told almost every single day by what passes for “common sense.” In the cartoon logic of mainstream America, politics are somehow hermetically sealed from all other realms of our culture. Film, literature, painting and sculpture, sports and music have no room for the political unless you somehow want to sully the culture. In other words, if you’re a musician, you should shut up and sing, and be content with an existence of minstrelsy.

But there’s just one small problem with that formulation: it’s wrong. It denies a fundamental truth: that musicians are themselves human beings with intellect and emotions in the context of a changing world. And it’s no coincidence that we hear this line of reasoning when there is the most social turmoil in any given era. Does anyone hear these same right-wing pundits decry the racist bilge of an established musician like Ted Nugent? No. Despite what we may hear from naysayers about protecting the integrity of the music, this is an argument designed to stifle dissent and deny musicians their humanity. Bottom line.

Which is precisely why these songs and albums are so important for both music and the nascent culture of resistance brewing in this country right now. From the streets of LA to the military brig, the amount of repression meted out to anyone willing to stand up and fight is significant. That the White Stripes and Tori Amos aren’t meeting the same bloody-murder cries of treason that the Dixie Chicks did is a welcome development.

Will these songs be looked back upon as the iconic protest anthems of the early 21st century? Hard to believe for most of them. And for some, I sincerely hope not. If the best our generation has to offer is John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change” then I’m tempted to give up music writing right now. But while all of these songs share a dissatisfaction with the current state of things, what most lack is a way forward, a sense of struggle and possibility.

That must come from us. Just as it took a decade for the left of the ’60s to learn its lessons and radicalize hundreds of thousands, so it took that same decade for the sounds of the British invasion to transform into Woodstock. The idea that music could be an open forum of rebellion and resistance was spurred by the actual rebellion happening in the world at large. Musicians that saw themselves as artists only were suddenly compelled to lend their voices to the growing movement for a better world. And a whole new crop of artists and musicians came along that saw their music as an active part of that struggle.

That’s what makes this point in time so exciting. These musicians are coming to grips with what it means to be living in scary times. And in doing so, they are giving a long awaited release to what most of us in this country are grappling with ourselves. And if that is any indication, then the only way from here is up.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at Read other articles by Alexander.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Sweetpea said on June 9th, 2007 at 11:55pm #

    With Bush’s approval ratings in the single digit zone, these artists are hardly breaking new ground, or even taking risks. With Republican presidential candidates openly distancing themselves from their lame duck leader, and even die hard wingnuts trying to downplay their former pro-war stance, expressing opposition to the current political establishment at this point in the game is a little redundant, to say the least. When you have Donald Trump blasting Bush and his idiotic war, a smattering of anti-war lyrics in in pop songs is hardly going to establish an artist as maverick, or a risk taker. Nothing could be less controversial at this point than Britney Spears dedicating “Toxic” to Karl Rove, or Marily Manson making blood drenched vampire love to Dick Cheney in his next video.

    If Trent Rezner and company had come out with this kind of material. . . oh say, five years ago, the argument could be made that these performers were brave individuals who put principles over profit, and were willing to risk their careers in order to express genuine opposition to the war. That’s not to say that we should instantly dismiss this recent spate of politically charged lyrics in pop music out of hand on the grounds that it’s too little, too late. But nor should we applaud their efforts too vigorously, or too unquestioningly since they come at a time when such content merely reflects the consensus view of the American public across the political divide.

  2. Tim said on June 10th, 2007 at 1:01pm #

    In response to Sweetpea,

    It’s a good thing though, it’s not like having the Democrats in is going to abolish the problems. They’re about as far left as George Bush is intelligent.

    Music allows for an expression and communication of frustrations on a personal level. We need it to cultivate a culture of activism and awareness, well beyond the next elections.

  3. Otherworld said on June 11th, 2007 at 8:06am #

    I think Rage Against the Machine has had a pretty consistant record of delivering strong political messeges. Artists like Trent Reznor are stepping out of their usual formulas to provoke their audience. If these people can get even a small number of their following to think a little harder then I think they deserve a high five or something. The right words can come from anybody. And a few right words can change a lot.

    People followed a slave out of Egypt; A humble man from Galilee has churches built for him in every corner of the world; And a religion was started around a man who sat for a long time under a tree. So a counter-culture messege from a rough looking musician should atleast be given some consideration.

  4. Alexander Billet said on June 12th, 2007 at 8:35am #

    There is a bottom line here: the inclusion of anti-Bush, anti-war lyrics in major music widens the room for debate, and gets people thinking about getting active. Right now there’s a fifteen year old high school student whose brother is in Iraq right now listening to the new NIN. He may have never thought about politics in his life, but he’s got a gut instinct that the war isn’t right, and he’s probably fearing for his brother’s life. He’s hearing the new NIN and perhaps for the first time is encouraged to take up the idea of openly opposing Bush and the war.

    I am not saying these new artists are the end-all of great musicianship, songwriting or rebellion. But our starting point has to be how this music is going to affect the ideas of those listening to them. Right now, despite the anger at Bush, there is little organized opposition past the dead-end road of the Democratic Party. This music reflects that anger, and the more people hear songs like this and think about it, the more they are forced to think about possible alternatives to this sick system.

    Are we in the middle of a new cultural uprising against the tenants of war, racism and neo-liberalism? No. But the ground work is being laid, and these artists are thankfully part of that.

  5. Eric said on August 8th, 2008 at 7:22am #

    When I hear about these artists giving anti-Bush speeches during their concerts, it tears me up inside. Young people are so easily led and willing to adopt whatever stance their favorite artists espouse. There are some who come by their opinions through honest research and soul-searching, but those are such a small minority. The rest ape what they hear from the ‘cool’ people onstage and do nothing more than that. I would liken it to getting financial advice from a poor person, or medical help from a CEO, or claiming you’re now a computer expert simply because you’ve seen Tron.

    Then, sadly, some of them vote.

    These people are not political experts, nor do they base their lives on real life. They are about as connected to the rest of us as Halley’s Comet… yeah, they come round so we can see them for a bit, but the rest of the time they’re way off into outer space. But what really hurts me the most is that now Tori Amos, one of my favorite artists who I saw in concert over 10 years ago or more, is no longer listenable to me. Neither is Coldplay, a new favorite.

  6. Janis said on September 24th, 2008 at 4:34pm #

    Check out “Thorn In Her Side” by the Subdudes!

  7. Alexander Billet said on September 24th, 2008 at 7:35pm #


    Why does it “tear you up inside” to hear artists speak out against Bush? Aren’t artists also people who feel the need to voice their opinion when things are going wrong? Don’t you think that listeners can decide for themselves? Is it that artists are manipulating the minds of young people, or is it that they are merely validating what most people already feel (that the war, the bailout for the rich while the poor scramble to keep a roof over their heads, the low wages and lack of health care are just fucked up)?

    Kids aren’t stupid. I know I wasn’t. I’m sure you aren’t. And people aren’t sheep. Is a laid-off worker unable to talk about the unfairness of this economy simply because they haven’t had the time to go through the Fiancial Times every day? No.

    In this climate, there are a lot of people with a lot of gut anger against the injustice in this system because they are feeling it personally. Political art can help validate that anger, take it from being a personal thing into more of a collective experience. That’s the power of art, and it’s great to see that power being wielded in a more effective way lately.