The USA’s Broken Again, Here Are 9 American Protest Songs

A lot of people are freaking out about Donald Trump being in the White House. Good, they should be. However, as we watch the limits of democracy tested almost daily by the mix of corruption, demagoguery, and corruption we see coming from the administration, we’ve started to forget exactly how bad things were just a little over a decade ago.

It was a vastly different time, obviously. There are people currently attending college with no memory of 9/11. Same for Ralph Nader, Hanging Chad’s, shock and awe or failing levees in New Orleans. Even for older generations, everything seems distant. It’s easy now for people to look at George Bush and see an aging rhinestone cowboy with a watercolor set. Just a rich kid from Texas who got in over his head, I mean he couldn’t even run a baseball team, right? What did we expect?

Still, the America we live in is very much his. He condemned Donald Trump, but he is his legacy. A wrecked economy, flaring racial tensions, mass surveillance, unchecked executive privilege, disregard for the Constitution he swore an oath to before he brought us to a war without an end.

It Was a Different Time

Very few thing’s capture the way a time period feels as good as music does. Songs capture the national mood, especially when that mood is anger and despair. In case anyone needs to remember how to do that over the next four years, here are nine songs from the last time everything felt broken.

Connor Oberst – “When the President Talks to God”

In 2005, George Bush stated that God told him to invade Iraq. In 2005, Connor Oberst released this song. Oberst had already made a name as an indie-folk darling with his main project Bright Eyes. But it’s hard to think about his career without touching on this solo single. It stands to this day as Oberst’s most forward political statement, a reaction to an evangelist president who spoke of compassionate conservatism while overseeing a war that killed hundreds of thousands of people. The song questioned Bush’s honesty and his sanity, something that the majority of the country seemed to be doing as well.

Key Lyric:
“When the President talks to God,
Are the conversations brief or long?
Does he ask to rape our women’s rights?
And send poor farm kids off to die?
Does God suggest an oil hike?
When the President talks to God?”

NOFX – “Franco Un-American”

Punk rock has always been political. 90’s skate-punk veterans NOFX, however, had almost never been political. That all changed in 2003 with the release of their ninth studio album ‘The War on Errorism’. Truthfully almost anything off the album would fit but ‘Franco’ deals with the idea of having a political awakening in the midst of political disaster. Lead singer ‘Fat Mike’ Burkett’s lyrics comedically look at the desire to do something, anything, to help. That desire led to Burkett creating PunkVoter, an effort that tried to use music to organize young people to vote in the 2004 election; they also printed those snazzy “Not My President” T-Shirts that you can still find floating around the internet.

Key Lyric:
“I never looked around, never second-guessed
Then I read some Howard Zinn now I’m always depressed
And now I can’t sleep from years of apathy
All because I read a little Noam Chomsky”

Immortal Technique – “Bin Laden”

New York rapper Immortal Technique built his brand on political extremism, and his 2005 song featuring Mos Def and Jadakiss is no exception. The song makes blistering points about everything from mass surveillance to the CIA’s past backing of Osama bin Laden before delving into conspiracy theories about 9/11 being an inside job. Tin foil hat aside this song is still a jam, and it’s a good reminder in today’s climate that batshit conspiracies weren’t always exclusively a right-wing thing.

Key lyric:
“Bush knocked down the towers! Tell the truth n****!”

Bloc Party – “Helicopter”

U.K. band Bloc Party came onto the American scene in 2005 in a big way with their album ‘Silent Alarm’. The single Helicopter had nothing to do with Bush, with their lead singer going as far as to say that he had written the song about himself. Still, the song wound up taking on a life of its own as a protest song. Stateside people heard lines about brash Americaness and instantly believed it to be a critique of the Ugly American from across the pond. Looking at the lyrics, it’s not hard to see why people felt that way. Full of disapproval about fast food and other American staples, whatever the original intention, it became a part of the Anti-Bush musical canon, reminding us that, for a couple of years in the mid-2000’s, everything was political, even critiquing yourself.

Key lyric:
“Stop being so American There’s a time and there’s a place
so James Dean, so blue jeans, gonna save the world, he’s gonna”

Public Enemy – “Son of a Bush”

Once referring to hip-hop as “CNN for black people”, rapper Chuck D’s biting critique of social and political issues built Public Enemy into a massive hit in the late 80’s/early 90’s before fading away into the hip-hop backdrop by the end of the decade. The only pre-Iraq song on this list, ‘Son of a Bush’ came out in 2002 to help restore the group’s relevance right before member Flava Flav diminished it by becoming a reality TV star. Like everything ever released by PE, this track is full of righteous anger that also happens to be incredibly informative. Chuck tackles a variety of issues in the song including Bush’s past cocaine use and the insane number of executions that Bush oversaw during his time as Governor of Texas, all under the context of his father’s legacy.

Key lyric:
“Bringin’ kilos to fill up silos, you probably sniffed piles, got inmates in Texas scrubbin tiles, that shit is wild, that shit is wild CIA child.”

Against me! – “From her lips to god’s ears (The Energizer)”

Against Me! Might be the quintessential Anti-Bush band. Their 2005 album ‘Searching for a Former Clarity’ retained the political edge of their previous albums but narrowed the focus. ‘From her lips’ takes on Condoleeza Rice who had taken over for recently resigned Colin Powell as Secretary of State. It could get a crowd of angry kids moving. Despite the songs’ bleak outlook, it was still fun, and unlike most of the other songs on this list, it doesn’t sound out of date today.

Key lyric:
“Democratic election under Martial law.
An Iraqi president out of control of our choices.
After all this death and destruction
Do you really think your actions advocate freedom?”

Eminem – “Mosh”

Eminem had never been a stranger to controversy. However, it’d be almost impossible to say he had made any form of political statement before releasing ‘Mosh’ in October of 2004. The cartoon video was distributed for free online in an attempt to get young fans to vote against Bush that November. The video was pretty cutting-edge for its day and included scenes ending with an angry mob of Em’s fans marching towards a building, which they then simply entered to vote peacefully. Unfortunately for the world and the American people, Eminem’s fanbase didn’t turn out to be enough to put John Kerry in the White House, but they did help keep the song in a fairly regular rotation for months following the election.

Key lyric:
“Rebel with a rebel yell, raise hell, we gon’ let ’em know Stomp, push shove, mush fuck Bush! Until they bring our troops home.”

Mos Def – “Dollar Day (Katrina Clap)”

Hurricane Katrina was a horrific natural disaster and the response to it by Bush’s White House was a horrific man-made one. Rapper Mos Def had made his displeasure with Dubya well known in some songs before releasing ‘Dollar Day’. It was this song that probably best expressed his frustration with a President who failed to heed warnings and left a whole city to rot.

Key Lyric:
“Listen, homie, it’s Dollar Day in New Orleans
It’s water water everywhere and people dead in the streets
And Mr. President he bout that cash
He got a policy for handlin’ the n****z and trash”

Green Day – American Idiot

Ending this list with any other song would be impossible. There were mixed reactions to Green Day’s 2004 pop-punk opera concept album about life in a new America that had formed under Bush after 9/11. No one, however, can deny its legacy in the larger history of American protest music though. The green splattered music video hit the airwaves and showed people that things were fucked up enough that even a band who had previously named an album “Dookie” wasn’t fooling around anymore. And, most importantly, it served as a gateway drug for disenfranchised young kids across the country who began to seek out political activism. Over a decade after its release, the lead single is still a staple on both alternative rock and pop radio stations and has since been adapted into a Broadway musical.

Key Lyric:
“Well maybe I’m the fa**ot America
I’m not a part of a redneck agenda
Now everybody do the propaganda.”

Honorary mention

Kanye West – “George Bush Doesn’t Care about Black People.”

This isn’t a song, but he said what we were all thinking right?

About Alex Kack

Alex Kack is writer, comedian and political advocate living in Washington D.C. Previously based in the Southwest he has been featured as a guest on a variety of of TV shows, radio programs and podcasts. Previously he was the co-host of Mood Adjustment Radio an AM talk variety show in Arizona. He has appeared in films, television commercials and performed live around the country. His last name sounds like a joke you made in middle school.

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