Anthems of Outrage
Five years into George W. Bush's presidency, with his approval ratings at an all-time low, pop artists have declared it Bush season and are taking aim with protest songs. Recent weeks have brought songs by the Rolling Stones, Pearl Jam, Pink and Bruce Springsteen, who went straight to the source, recording a collection of old Pete Seeger folk songs.
But none of the above hit harder than Neil Young, who surprised even his record label when, just about a month ago, he announced that he had recorded an entire anti-Bush album, Living With War, and further excited bloggers and cable commentators by revealing that it includes a track titled "Let's Impeach the President." Since April 28, when he began streaming the album in its entirety at neilyoung.com, the site has garnered over a million hits. This week, it arrived in stores, rushed straight from the manufacturer.
Young, who has vacillated between low-key acoustic folk and loud, roaring rock for forty years, plugged in his electric guitar for this effort. Backed by drums, bass, an occasional mournful trumpet and a 100-voice chorus, the music is blistering and the mood is angry.
Living With War pulls no punches in condemning Bush and the Iraq War. "After the Garden" opens the album with a distorted guitar lament and the lines: "Won't need no shadow man/Runnin' the government/Won't need no stinkin' war." That sentiment is reinforced on "The Restless Consumer," a throbbing rocker in which Young's 60-year-old yet ever-adolescent howl takes the voice of a television viewer grown tired of the onslaught: "Don't need no ad machine/Telling me what I need/Don't need no Madison Avenue War." The verses give way to a furious repetition of "Don't need no more lies."
The heart of the album, "Let's Impeach the President," is not the most musically interesting song of the bunch, but it has already captured the most attention. Opening with the trumpeted first measures of "Taps," the song morphs into a singalong list of high crimes and misdemeanors. In just six short verses, Young nails Bush for lying the nation into war, Katrina, corruption and cronyism, domestic spying and blurring the lines between church and state. A nice added touch is the inclusion of recorded Bush quotes, punctuated with a chorus that alternates between "flip" and "flop."
Young's sense of immediacy is undeniable. The music is passionate and the songs, while not among the best of his storied career, are on par with his most recent work. It's a pointed, high-profile protest album that has already sparked debate and made an end run around the Beltway talking heads to launch a national conversation on the Bush presidency. It's a cathartic listening experience, but one that's not likely to endure past the current political moment. And for tried-and-true Bush critics, this album probably comes a few years too late.
After 9/11, Young raced into the studio as well --just as he had in May 1970 with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young after National Guardsmen shot and killed four student protesters at Kent State and injured nine others. In the '70s, "Ohio" was rushed to radio as a concise and moving protest of the Nixon Administration. It invigorated the student antiwar movement: "Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/We're finally on our own/This summer I hear the drumming/Four dead in Ohio." In these few short lines, Young helped eviscerate the legitimacy of the Nixon Administration for a generation.
Thirty years later he rush-released "Let's Roll," a narrative tribute to the undeniably heroic passengers on United Flight 93, who gave their lives to save countless others. That song, however, dovetailed perfectly with Bush Administration policies of pre-emptive war that helped turn a national tragedy into an international travesty.
Young's anthem echoed the language of a famous Bush speech (taken from Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer's call to arms): "We've got our marching orders. My fellow Americans, Let's roll." But Young gave these words a poetic lift that Bush's speechwriters could have only dreamed of: "Let's roll for freedom/Let's roll for love/Going after Satan/On the wings of a dove/Let's roll for justice/Let's roll for truth/Let's not let our children grow up/Fearful in their youth." This time, a presidency that for many Americans had lacked legitimacy before 9/11 was granted a new authority.
"Let's Roll" was part of that pop culture moment, along with songs like country singer Toby Keith's vitriolic "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)," and others, which helped the Bush Administration operate in a political landscape where dissent was "unpatriotic" and those who weren't "with us" were "against us." Alternative voices were muted as the Bush Administration went on a mad power grab.