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.
While never being overtly pro-Bush, Young did publicly back the Patriot Act. Addressing a gathering for the People for the American Way in December 2001 he said, "We've only given up our rights for a while to fight something that preys on our freedom and our vulnerabilities and our openness."
Conservative Fox News commentators Fred Barnes and Morton Kondracke swooned at Young's political song and dance. Kondracke invited the Canadian to become a full-fledged American, while Barnes hyped the song on Fox and followed, "He's not really a conservative, but he did say nice things about Reagan back in the '80s, and the liberal rock crowd went crazy. They may go crazy again." It's doubtful the Beltway Boys will be sending Neil Young any adulation today.
While Young, like many Americans, approved of some of Bush's policies in the wake of 9/11, he had turned around by 2003 with the album and film Greendale, a small-town morality tale, which Young characterized in a Rolling Stone interview as representing a time of "great inner turmoil for the majority of the American people." He continued that the Bush Administration had a "holier-than-thou attitude towards the rest of the world--that is not classically American."
But for all his iconic political dalliances, Young is not a particularly keen observer of current events. His manager, Elliot Roberts, once described him as a "that-day guy. If he sees something in the morning on the news, he'll talk about it that day--but a week later it's gone," according to Jimmy McDonough, author of the Young biography, Shakey.
Perhaps because of this, Young's history of political involvement is as diverse as his oeuvre: He went from peace movement liberal to Reagan backer who once angered his liberal fans by telling reporter Jason DeParle, "So what if [Reagan's] a trigger-happy cowboy? He hasn't pulled the trigger."
On welfare Young has opined that the poor should "stop being supported by the government and get out and work. You can't always support the weak. You have to make the weak stand up on one leg, or a half a leg, or whatever they got." But he also mocked George H.W. Bush's social policies in his ambiguous protest anthem "Keep on Rockin' in the Free World": "We got a thousand points of light/For the homeless man/We got a kinder, gentler, machine-gun hand."
Young is hard to categorize politically, but he appears to be something of a populist libertarian and humanitarian, with a penchant for cantankerous contrarianism. His altruistic endeavors include being an outspoken advocate of relief for family farmers as an original member of Farm Aid. The father of a son with cerebral palsy, he also founded a school for the children with severe speech and physical impairments, which he supports with annual benefit concerts. And he has consistently been against war.
But according to manager Roberts, "Neil doesn't read newspapers, he doesn't really read Time or Newsweek very much. It's gotta be something he sees--if he watches TV on the road and there's a CNN special on Bosnia, Neil wants to do a record and a benefit within two days. Or he can ignore it forever if he doesn't see it." While we're sure to hear charges that Young is a Canadian, America-hating, rock and roll anarchist, he actually seems more akin to that creature that pundits and politicians are so enamored of: the independent voter.
Living With War appears crafted to appeal to independents. Young steers clear from any partisan commentary. On "Looking for a Leader," he suggests that anyone from Barack Obama to Colin Powell--"to right what he's done wrong"--could be destined to lead America out of our "desolation." In other songs, such as "Families" and "Roger and Out," Young evokes the war's toll on soldiers and their friends and families. And in "Flags of Freedom," a song that references Bob Dylan's 1960s protest anthems, Young attempts to wrestle the patriotic imagery from the prowar zealots who wrap themselves in the flag.
Young's body of work may lack the political sophistication of Bob Dylan's early songs, but his best ones, protest or otherwise, have an introspective immediacy that comes out of a romantic longing. The emotional heft of "Ohio," for example, which he wrote in a fury after seeing that iconic Life magazine photo, comes from the lines: "What if you knew her/And found her dead on the ground?/How can you run when you know?" Young's inward focus is tailor-made for moral outrage.
That outrage is amplified by Young's complicity in the political atmosphere after 9/11. Like many other Americans, he appears to feel duped by the Bush Administration's lies in the run-up to war. His latest album seems to be an attempt to spark a revolt of those who had given Bush the benefit of the doubt after 9/11 and now have turned against him.
"We are the silent majority now, and we haven't done a damn thing," Young recently told the New York Times. ''We've stood by and watched this happen. But there's more of us than there is of them, and we have to do something. When people start talking and see they can get away with it, it's going to happen everywhere. It's going to be a landslide, it's going to be a tidal wave. This is just the tip of it."
One rock album can't change the entire political discourse, but there is something happening here. A tide in pop culture has turned. If an independent-minded rock star can cause such a stir by calling for Bush's impeachment, just think what might happen if the Congressional Democrats did.