Does Bush-Era Protest Music Still Hold Up?

Green Day
Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong performs during the MTV Video Music Awards Japan 2009 in Saitama, north of Tokyo, May 30, 2009. Toru Hanai/Reuters

The day after Donald Trump won the presidency, New Yorkers filled the subway tunnel beneath 14th Street with wall-to-wall post-it notes. The notes contained messages of support, despair and catharsis. One anonymous person scribbled the following:

We Need Punk
A post-it note found in the subway tunnel beneath 14th Street in Manhattan. Zach Schonfeld/Newsweek

It's a common refrain on the left. Music fans want to believe Trump will usher in some golden age of righteous fury in the form of protest rock.

Is it too much to hope that we'll at least get some, good righteously pissed-off music out of the Trump years?

— Will Dana (@wdana) November 9, 2016

On the flip side, I'm interested to see what kind of music and culture thrives out of a Trump presidency. Like punk under Thatcherism.

— Matt Trevithick (@M_Trevithick) November 9, 2016

For realists, this is cold comfort: There is enough oppression and violence already for protest-minded music to flourish in Obama's America, and anyway, meaningful art isn't produced when the safety and resources available to marginalized artists are gradually stripped away.

"At least the next four years will have great art" - I would gladly only listen to Hoobastank for the next four years if it meant no Trump

— tyler mccauley (@tylernotyler) November 13, 2016

In this area, Trump will not be an aberration from historical norms. Rock and punk bands have been sneering at U.S. presidents for as long as rock and punk have existed. During the Nixon years, Elton John and Neil Young heeded the call with "Postcard From Richard Nixon" and "Ohio," respectively. During the 1980s, hardcore and hip-hop sailed to prominence on a wave of anti-Reagan fury, from D.O.A.'s "Fucked Up Ronnie" to The Damned's "Bad Time for Bonzo" and Prince's "Ronnie Talk to Russia." The 1990s were quieter, but they brought us Sonic Youth calling George H.W. Bush a "war pig fuck" on 1992's "Youth Against Fascism," as well as a laundry list of rap songs that mentioned Monica Lewinsky by name.

In recent decades, the president who prompted the loudest outcry in the musical community, across genres and geographic boundaries, was George W. Bush. Anti-Bush music is a sort of genre unto itself—some of it great, much of it embarrassing—which peaked between 2003 and 2005 (the one-two-three punch of the Iraq invasion, the 2004 election and Hurricane Katrina). The best examples of the genre can be found on albums like Green Day's American Idiot and the very dated Rock Against Bush compilations. (In lots of ways, the past eight years have been the historical aberration: President Obama is remarkably friendly with the liberal-leaning music world. President Obama loves hip-hop, he sings Al Green tunes in public and when he is invoked in song, it's often—though not always—in the spirit of affection and admiration. But that's another subject.)

We dug through the most significant anti-Bush songs and albums and tried to figure out whether any of them still hold up. Spoiler: Some do! Most do not! It's not an exhaustive list; we're focusing on material that explicitly refers to the perceived ravages and oppressions of Bush and his actions between 2001 and 2009. If we missed anything major, let us know in the comments section.

The Beastie Boys' creative spark began to dim 20 years into their career, which was also around the time they decided to get political. "In a World Gone Mad," a well-meaning protest track, was released as a free download the same month the U.S. invaded Iraq. Props for the effort, but this song seems to have been written by an eighth-grader who just started reading Daily Kos.
Sample lyric: "Well, I'm not pro-Bush and I'm not pro-Saddam / We need these fools to remain calm​"
Does it hold up? "No!"

Reading the lyrics, it's easy to scoff at Conor Oberst's bleeding-heart presidential faux-fan-fiction. But when you listen to the song, it's hard not to be struck by the raw force of his voice. It's not a coincidence that the opening chords sound like something from The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Folk is where the modern protest song started.
Sample lyric: "Does he ever smell his own bullshit / When the president talks to God? / I doubt it"
Does it hold up? It's very 2005. But also very good.

Digs at Bush's not-quite-election-win were getting stale by 2007, but this Brother Ali track has an interesting passage where he compares enlisting in the military to "crack peddling": "dying and killing for a dream you were given."
Sample lyric: "What freedom? I ain't dying for no president / Sending kids to die when we didn't even elect the bitch"
Does it hold up? Sure.

These Brits are best known for the '90s feel-good classic "Tubthumping," but there is nothing feel-good about this 2002 dig at war-mongering.
Sample lyric: "9/11 got branded / 9/11 got sold / And there'll be no one left to water / All the seeds you sow"
Does it hold up? I mean, it's no "Tubthumping"...

The Dixie Chicks' most well-known protest song wasn't a song at all. It was a snippet of antiwar stage banter that knocked the trio's career so off-course that the band spent 2003 facing boycotts and death threats instead of Grammy nominations. But the Grammys came later, for 2006's Taking the Long Way, which is highlighted by the catchiest non-apology of 2006, "Not Ready To Make Nice." It took mild courage for Green Day or LL Cool J to stick it to Dubya. But it took real chutzpah for the Chicks, whose fanbase was so deeply entrenched in red America.
Sample lyric: "I'm not ready to back down / I'm still mad as hell and I don't have time / To go round and round and round"
Does it hold up? Natalie Maines did issue a half-hearted apology to Bush on March 14, 2003. But this song is proof that a rousing non-apology holds up a lot better than an actual apology.

EMINEM — "MOSH" (2004):
Eminem's entry in the anti-Bush sweepstakes was released as a digital single just a week before the 2004 election. It sounds like a guy reading an angry LiveJournal post over corny thunder sound effects. Thanks for trying, Eminem.
Sample lyric: "Let us ... assemble our own army / To disarm this weapon of mass destruction that we call our president"
Does it hold up? Absolutely not.

This trip-hop banger flips Bush's war rhetoric on its head and runs with it for three-and-a-half groove-heavy minutes. It's a great track.
Sample lyric: "Whether Halliburton, Enron or anyone / Greed is a weapon of mass destruction / We need to find courage, overcome / Inaction is a weapon of mass destruction"
Does it hold up: Lines like "Misinformation is a weapon of mass destruction" resonate far too well in the era of fake news and "Pizzagate."

I love The Flaming Lips. I keep spare boomboxes around just in case some friend appears on my doorstep and wants to listen to all four discs of Zaireeka. But "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" is an atrocious song. It's so irritating, it deserved the Kraft salad dressing commercial in which it appeared. The same album contains the live favorite "The W.A.N.D,," which formed out of a "radical protest rock mentality" and is nearly good enough to redeem it.
Sample lyric: "Time after time those fanatical minds try to rule all the world / Telling us all it's them who's in charge of it all"
Does it hold up? More like 'The No No No Song." (But hey, "The W.A.N.D." isn't bad.)

Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time—I bought American Idiot at the mall when I was an angsty teenager flailing through the demoralizing 2004 election—but I love this rock opera in all its messy, confusing bombast. Green Day captured one generation's apolitical disillusionment on Dookie and an altogether different generation's Bush-bashing fury on American Idiot. On the inescapable title track, Billie Joe Armstrong rails against Bush America's seemingly insurmountable domination: "I'm not a part of a redneck agenda / Now everybody do the propaganda / And sing along to the age of paranoia."
Sample lyric: "Sieg Heil to the president Gasman / Bombs away is your punishment / Pulverize the Eiffel towers / Who criticize your government"
Does it hold up? Yes!

The first rule of pop is, when a song opens with a guy reciting the First Amendment over a hip-hop beat, skip to the next one. There's no subtext here, just text—Liberal Writes Open Letter to George W. Bush—and nothing you haven't heard already elsewhere. The sentiment is nice, but LL Cool J seems to have written some of the lyrics in the cab on the way to the studio.
Sample lyric: "Mr. President, I would ask you about the war / Really and truly, what is it for? / When a I.E.D. make a soldier fall / Is he dying for something above us all?"
Does it hold up? No.

Most of this list consists of music I listened to during the mid-2000s. Here is an exception: I hadn't heard The War on Errorism, NOFX's Bush-bashing ninth album, until Monday, on a friend's recommendation. So there's no nostalgia fogging my vision toward songs like "American Errorist (I Hate Hate Haters)" and "Franco Un-American" (sample couplet: "I'm eating vegetation cuz of Fast Food Nation / I'm wearing uncomfortable shoes cuz of globalization"), but I wish there was. The protest rock scarcely rises above the sophomoric level of the omnipresent puns or Bush-roasting album art, none of which has aged very well. (To his credit, Fat Mike's activism extended beyond the record. He founded to mobilize, er, punk voters, and helped initiative the "Rock Against Bush" tour, lambasting Bush as "the most ridiculous president in the history of presidents." Were we ever so innocent...)
Sample lyric: "There's no point for democracy when ignorance is celebrated / Political scientists get the same one vote as some Arkansas inbred"
Does it hold up? No, but like your 2003-04 diary, it's a neat time capsule.

Anti-war pop that's catchy enough to make it onto the radio: Unfortunately, it didn't, but at least the video is fun. A lot more fun than the subject matter would suggest, really.
Sample lyric: "Everybody's going to war / But we don't know what we're fighting for / Don't tell me it's a worthy cause / No cause could be so worthy"
Does it hold up? Eh.

During the group's 2003 tour, Eddie Vedder routinely donned a rubber George W. Bush mask while performing this scathing yet verbose diss track. Which doesn't make an awful lot of sense: Why dress in costume as Bush while attacking Bush? The song prompted further spectacle when fans were reported to have walked out of a 2003 show after Vedder impaled the mask on his stand. It's an odd, oblique song that Newsweek blasted, in a 2002 review, as "spoken-word poetry that recalls Jim Morrison at his drunkest, flabbiest and closest to death."
Sample lyric: "A confidence man, but why so beleaguered? / He's not a leader, he's a Texas leaguer"
Does it hold up: When's the last time you grabbed the George W. Bush novelty mask from your closet?

Public Enemy pioneered protest rap during the Reagan years, so it's about right that the group returned with this track of white-hot fury during the first Bush term. The lyrics denounce multiple Bush generations—"the father, the son and the holy Bush-shit"—while the harrowing beat recalls the cacophony of blaring sirens on 9/11.
Sample lyric: "Don't look at me, I ain't callin' for no assassination / I'm just sayin', sayin' / Who voted for that asshole of your nation?"
Does it hold up? Yes. Extra credit for flipping off both Bushes in one song. (Not you, Jeb.)

Thom Yorke performs with Radiohead at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California, on April 14, 2012. David McNew/Reuters

Yes, we know—Radiohead is British. But 2003's Hail to the Thief is suffused with an overwhelming sense of sociopolitical dread. Thom Yorke described it as "the general sense of ignorance and intolerance and panic and stupidity" provoked by Bush's election. (The title even refers to an anti-Bush slogan that originated during the 2000 election chaos.) Written and recorded during the early months of the War on Terror, Hail to the Thief is paranoid and jittery even by Radiohead standards. I relistened to it the week Trump was elected and found some lyrics startlingly relevant: On "2 + 2 = 5," Yorke rails against Orwellian disregard for truth. On "Go To Sleep," he sneers, "We don't really want a monster taking over."
Sample lyric: "Because you have not been / Paying attention / Paying attention / Paying attention / Paying attention / You have not been / Paying attention / Paying attention"
Does it hold up? Definitely.

The darkest Roots album is also a dark-horse candidate for best Roots album. Political despair jostles for space with more personal grief occasioned by the 2006 death of J Dilla. "Partying is good and whatnot," Questlove said at the time, "but I really think that 2006 called for a very serious record."
Sample lyric: "Sentence me to four more years, thank you / I'ma make you feel a little bit safer / Because it ain't over / See, that's how we get your fear to control you"
Does it hold up? Yes.

R.E.M. — "FINAL STRAW" (2004):
R.E.M. summoned lots of anti-Bush passion on the "Vote for Change" tour in 2004. Unfortunately, none of that energy translated to the record. Around the Sun was a lifeless slog from beginning to end, and "Final Straw"—its Iraq-inspired centerpiece—is a timid fart of a protest song. Michael Stipe sings about putting up a fight with love as his "strongest weapon," but the only emotion the song really conjures is a half-hearted shrug.
Sample lyric: "I don't believe and I never did that two wrongs make a right / If the world were filled with the likes of you, then I'm putting up a fight"
Does it hold up? As a lifelong R.E.M. fan, I can't in good conscience recommend anything on Around the Sun. Thankfully, the band regrouped and wrote some great politically charged tracks on 2008's Accelerate ("Houston," "Man-Sized Wreath").

RILO KILEY — "IT'S A HIT" (2004):
Rilo Kiley swapped out the suffocating anger and impotence of so many anti-Bush songs and penned this deceptively sweet 2004 gem.
Sample lyrics: "Any chimp can play human for a day / Use his opposable thumbs to iron his uniform / And run for office on election day / Fancy himself a real decision maker / And deploy more troops than salt shakers"
Does it hold up? Yes. Still not a hit, though.

On this 2003 track, Zack de la Rocha swapped out the chunky nü-metal riffs of Rage Against the Machine for DJ Shadow's heavy hip-hop production. It was released for free on the eve of the Iraq War, but like most songs that focus on Bush's personal qualities ("He don't know a missile from a gavel"), it's very much of its time.
Sample lyrics: "He flex his Texas twisted tongue / The poor lined up to kill in desert slums / For oil that boil beneath the desert sun"
Does it hold up? No.

Riot grrrl was always political. But on 2002's One Beat, Sleater-Kinney got very political, mouthing off about Bush on the 9/11 anthem "Far Away" and denouncing jingoism on "Combat Rock."
Sample lyric: "Hey look, it's time to pledge allegiance / I love my dirty Uncle Sam / Our country's marching to the beat now / And we must learn to step in time"
Does it hold up? "Far Away" certainly does. The song evades the patriotic platitudes that sunk other post-9/11 songs and remains in the Sleater-Kinney setlist rotation one reunion later.

SYSTEM OF A DOWN — "B.Y.O.B." (2005):
System of a Down's mystifying "Limp-Bizkit-on-speed" aesthetic is as unlistenable as ever here, but I like the blood-curdling shriek near the start of the song: "WHY-DO-THEY-ALWAYS-SEND-THE-POOOOR??"
Sample lyric: "Why don't presidents fight the war? / Why do they always send the poor?"
Does it hold up: Woof.

Rousing pop-punk songs envisioning a dystopian United States "governed by fascist faux-Christians"? Yes, please.
Sample lyric: "We built too many walls / Yeah, we built too many walls! / And now we gotta run / A giant fist is out to crush us"
Does it hold up? Yes; the album is very imaginative, catchy as hell and widely (and currently) applicable because it doesn't have many dated Bush-era signifiers.

Neil Young is impulsive. His manager, Elliot Roberts, once remarked that "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." Living With War fits squarely into that category: Young wrote and recorded the damn thing in just nine days after seeing a picture of wounded soldiers on the cover of USA Today. Fans bash this one for its simplicity and blunt lack of nuance, but the three-chord urgency of it all is striking. The title track is an eerie gem, and anyway, there's something delightful about corralling a 100-voice choir to sing a rousing anthem about impeaching Bush. (Some neat trivia: "Lookin' for a Leader" is probably the first major recording to mention Barack Obama by name. If you can prove otherwise, let me know.)
Sample lyric: "Let's impeach the president for hijacking our religion and using it to get elected / Dividing our country into colors and still leaving black people neglected"
Does it hold up? Better than pretty much anything else Neil Young released during the Bush years.

Heems's Eat Pray Thug was not released during the Bush administration. In fact, it was released in 2015. But it captures an earlier era with startling force: Rap songs like "Patriot Act" and "Flag Shopping" describe what it was like to be a racial or religious minority in Bush's America during the raw weeks and months after September 11.
Sample lyric: "We scrubbed words like bomb from our vocabulary / And airports changed to us forever / Where another blue uniform came to represent oppression or undressing"
Does it hold up? Check back in 2026.