It is not unusual for pop musicians to use their fame and their music as a platform for critique of presidents. Former presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan were on the receiving end of songs and music videos that highlighted their alleged incompetence. Tom Paxton’s 1965 country folk song “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” critiqued President Johnson for supporting the draft and downplaying the severity of the Vietnam War.[i] Almost ten years later, Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” criticized Richard Nixon without actually naming him. The 1974 funk song expressed the American public’s disappointment regarding Nixon’s unfulfilled promises, going so far as calling life under his presidency a nightmare.[ii] The 1986 video to the Genesis rock song “Land of Confusion” used Reagan’s movie career and incipient dementia as a basis for poking fun at the septuagenarian president’s age and lack of experience.[iii] In the video, starring puppets, the aging leader mistakes the nuke button for the nurse button at his bedside and consequently blows up the country.
However, George W. Bush is the politician who has engendered the most musical critiques to date. During the 2004 re-election campaign, musicians assumed the role of public “persuaders” against his re-election. This essay will examine the on- and off-stage work of punk artists who took a stand against Bush during his first term as well as his 2004 re-election bid by crafting songs that protested his platform and organizing voter mobilization campaigns to ensure a robust youth turnout. While most of this essay focuses on punk rock, other genres will be briefly discussed.
One cannot look back to the 2000 presidential campaign without citing the winning candidate’s failure to attain the popular vote (not to mention the “hanging chad” fiasco). Opponent Al Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile, stated the importance of musicians during that first election. In 2003, she expressed her belief that “musicians have reach that politicians need to motivate people to take an active interest in their future.”[iv] It is not surprising that Bush’s approval rating dropped during his first term.[v] Tax cuts for the wealthy and the war in Iraq caused Americans to become increasingly disenfranchised with him and his administration during the early years. When it came time for him to face re-election in 2004 against Democratic contender John Kerry, actors and musicians took special effort to make their opinions known. Their main purposes were to bring to light the errors of his administration and to persuade the American public not to subject themselves to an additional four years of his presidency.
One of the first anti-Bush, get-out-and-vote songs was heartland rocker John Mellencamp’s “To Washington,” which turned the 2000 presidential election saga into a type of folk song in country style.[vi] The music video, which formed part of a live streaming performance via satellite, juxtaposed the song’s lyrics floating across the bottom of the screen with quotes on the right side from famous Americans about how “change is in our own hands.” Combined with the quotes, the lyrics are meant to persuade the unregistered citizen to register. Mellencamp’s accompaniment on acoustic guitar, paired with the lyrics, makes the song sound like a ballad that people could visualize themselves listening to while sitting around a campfire. Mellencamp highlights Bush’s wrongdoings in the hopes that such knowledge will motivate the politically inert to vote in the next election, thus improving the likeliness of Bush’s ouster.
During the 2004 election season, however, musicians—mainly hailing from the punk genre—targeted young voters, who historically have had the lowest turnout at the polls.[vii] The artists used their own voices as celebrities not only to speak against Bush, but to also sing against him. This alliance of bands, known as the PunkVoter movement, included about 200 bands (Myers 195). The band considered responsible for the PunkVoter movement, NOFX, released its anti-Bush album The War on Errorism on May 3, 2003 (Fig. 1).[viii] Getting the youth out to vote proved so important to NOFX front man Mike Burkett, also known as Fat Mike, that he dedicated $100,000 of his own money to start PunkVoter.com, an organization dedicated to youth voter registration (Ardizzone 55).[ix]
Figure 1 War on Errorism, Cover
Many of these same bands formed another alliance, also in 2004, called Bands Against Bush. In contrast, however, this organization had regional chapters throughout the country, and their motto was “your apathy is their victory.”[x] Punk music’s notoriously anti-establishment ways seemed to destine it to undertake this mission of public enlightenment.[xi] Fat Mike himself had never voted until the 2000 election (when he was 33 years old), but he felt compelled to do so at that time: “I wasn’t sleeping because of the outcome. I thought that if only 600 NOFX fans in Florida would have voted, everything would have been different” (Jones 8). Indeed, Fat Mike notably stated that, “Bush getting elected was good for punk music.”[xii]
In addition to PunkVoter, Fat Mike started an organization called Rock Against Bush that was inspired by a 1980s movement called Rock Against Reagan. Rock Against Bush not only produced two eponymous albums in two volumes, but also spawned a tour under that name (Fig. 2).[xiii] The albums were issued by the Fat Wreck Chords label, which focuses on skate and pop punk artists, and as a result, most of the songs were recorded by punk bands. The Rock Against Bush movement was geared toward (but not limited to the target of) 18 to 22-year-old punk and alternative fans who lived in the swing states.[xiv]
Figure 2 Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1, Cover
Most of the Rock Against Bush songs, such as “Sink, Florida, Sink,” which blames the state of Florida for Bush’s initial election, criticize the politician’s policies or actions. The election occasioned a recount, which in turn gave Bush a majority of Electoral College votes in the state and a victory in the general election. Ministry’s punk track “No W” samples the first and last movements on a loop of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, which addresses the wheel of fortune.[xv] The section that is sampled is translated as “fate is against me in health and virtue, driven on and weighted down, always enslaved.” “O Fortuna” has been used numerous times in film, television, and commercials, often to represent dramatic situations or moments of tension.[xvi] By sampling the repetitive bass pattern of “O Fortuna,” the band musically illustrates the American people being stuck in a situation out of which they cannot find their way. The music’s ominous sound likely appealed to punk musicians, given that they wanted to express the gravity of the situation facing the American people.
The Ataris’s alternative rock track “Heaven is Falling” is a cover of the Bad Religion song, originally written in 1991 during the Gulf War and the presidency of George H. W. Bush.[xvii] The song, which is accompanied by solo acoustic guitar like Mellencamp’s, sounds like a folk song. The cover song’s lyrics remain unchanged from the original version, right down to the allusion to Psalm 23. The opening line calls Bush “King George” and makes the claim that he is responsible for the legalization of murder—a reference to the Gulf War. Audiences in 2004 might have perceived this as a reference to the innocent civilians and members of the military who died from attacks during the Gulf War and the War in Iraq.
There were two legs to the Rock Against Bush Tour, the first taking place around the time of the album’s release and the second occurring closer to the election. The group set up voter registration booths at each concert to encourage young people to vote. The two Rock Against Bush compilation CDs (volume 1 released on April 10, 2004 and volume 2 on August 20, 2004) had great financial success; both volumes sold over 650,000 copies. For the tour, Fat Mike recruited over 200 punk bands total and strategically planned how to get support from them; he noted that musicians are notably reluctant to part with their money, so in lieu of donations he asked them to write and record an anti-Bush song for the compilations, thus signing on over twenty bands. Proceeds from the two Rock Against Bush recordings financed print and television ads meant to encourage young people to vote.
The Rock Against Bush concerts were not the only voter mobilization concerts. Another organization, MoveOn.org, initiated the 2004 Vote for Change Tour from which the profits went toward America Coming Together (ACT).[xviii] The Vote for Change Tour hit swing states, and while the organization as a whole claimed to be non-partisan, in reality the majority of the performers who ostensibly represented the organization were Democrats. The organization’s other missions included generating media attention and raising money for ACT. They were successful in the latter mission but not the former. The band System of a Down also held a benefit concert on April 24, 2004 called “SOULS 2004” that sought to highlight what they claimed were Bush’s broken promises.[xix] Another organization with a similar modus operandi, Music for America, held concerts in states with Super Tuesday primaries, and they were none too subtle about their position: “Youth of America—Bush is screwing us and voting is the least we can do.”[xx]
Other musicians used their songs to criticize Bush during his two terms, resulting in further anti-Bush songs that were not part of the Rock Against Bush collections. In her jazz ballad “Ugly Man,” Rickie Lee Jones compared the younger George Bush to his father, stating that both are liars who are ugly inside.[xxi] When paired with the lyrics, the song’s cool jazz sound is almost incongruous. Pearl Jam’s rock song “Bu$hleaguer” plays on the baseball term to describe Bush as someone amateurish and below good standards, who therefore does not belong in the big leagues.[xxii] The dollar sign in the place of the letter “S” in the title alludes to Bush’s fixation with money. The electric guitar has a prominent role in the song and its timbre, combined with the minor key, gives the song an ominous sound. The alternative rock song “Holiday” by Green Day, which has a thrashing rock sound, raises the bar by comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler, calling him “President Gasman” and prefacing this title with the German words, “Sieg heil.”[xxiii] NOFX’s punk song “Idiot Son of an Asshole,” from their 2003 album War on Errorism, is a direct attack on Bush:[xxiv] The first two verses frame the refrain that repeats, “He’s the idiot son of an asshole,” and both verses assail his intelligence. The music almost has a comical sound to it, with a simple electric guitar accompaniment. Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President” calls for the removal of Bush from office for a variety of reasons, from lying and abuse of power to dividing the country and spying on American citizens.[xxv] The song opens with the first two measures of the tune “Taps” played by a trumpet. The song is not sung just by Young, but by a vocal ensemble as well. Each line of the song features the same melody, which is simple and stepwise. When combined with the group singing, the musical structure illustrates the need for the American people to come together to accomplish the goal of impeachment.
Eminem’s rap song “Mosh” is the most outspoken and explicit of the songs that did not appear on any of the anti-Bush compilations.[xxvi] The video, released only a week before the 2004 presidential election, opens with the “Pledge of Allegiance” and closes with Eminem’s own metrically-analogue pledge, in which he proposes that everyone unite to oust Bush from the White House for the sake of future generations. The song has a repeating bass line, which functions like that of Ministry’s “No W.” From the music video’s opening, Eminem criticizes Bush and comments on his intelligence. The rapper himself plays the role of Bush during the September 11 terror attacks and reads to school children but holds a simple children’s book upside down (Fig. 3).[xxvii]
Figure 3 Eminem as George W. Bush in “Mosh”
The most powerful image in the video is a black-hooded group led by Eminem that appears to be marching toward the White House but is actually marching to the polls. At the end, a pro-vote message flashes onto the screen. After the 2004 election, Eminem released a new version of “Mosh” called “The Mosh Continues,” with a video featuring the same people from the first video. This time, instead of storming the election booths, they crash Bush’s State of the Union address.[xxviii]
Despite the concerted effort to mobilize youth through music, none of the anti-Bush songs beyond “Mosh,” System of a Down’s “Boom!,” Green Day’s “Holiday,” and Rise Against’s “Give It All” received radio or music video play.[xxix] This was likely because the majority of anti-Bush songs were not in a style that was very friendly to radio-play. Nonetheless, focusing on the fans of their respective genres, these artists released the songs anyway, assuming that the fans would still be interested in both the music and the message. The artists who composed several of the early anti-Bush songs chose to release their songs as download-only for free tracks rather than on CDs for profit, at least initially. These artists were more interested in disseminating the message than they were in making a profit. Of course, in the pre-YouTube era of these songs, their circulation was significantly more difficult. (See Table 1 for a comprehensive list of Anti-Bush songs.)
Leslie Kreiner Wilson, executive director of the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture, once stated: “I believe Bush’s legacy will be almost entirely shaped by pop culture. Pop culture has always had some impact on our perception of presidents, but the media explosion since the 1980s has made things much harder on the presidents since then, like Bill Clinton and George W. [Bush].”[xxx] One thing is certain: music played a more powerful role during the 2004 election than anyone could have imagined. While the musicians had hoped for a different outcome, they did manage to assist broader efforts created to bring the 18–24 demographic to the polls. By targeting the population segment with the lowest voter turnout, punk artists and other concerned musicians still managed to leave their imprint on the 2004 election.
Anderson, Mark. “PunkVoter.” In We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews, edited by David Sinker, 297–304. Chicago: Punk Planet, 2008.
Ardizzone, Leonissa. “Yelling and Listening: Youth Culture, Punk Rock and Power.” Taboo 9 (2005): 49–58.
Cave, Damien. “Rockers Unite to Oust Bush.” Rolling Stone, November 26, 2003.
Collins, Dan. “Punk Bands Play Anti-Bush Music.” CBS News, April 25, 2004.
De Sola, David. “The Politics of Music.” CNN, August 30, 2004.
File, Thom. “Young Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections, 1964–2012: Population Characteristics.” Census.gov, April 2014.
Garofoli, Joe. “Beyond PunkVoter/‘Fat’ Mike Burkett Built a Legitimate Interest in Politics Among Apolitical Punk Listeners, But Who’ll Carry That Torch in 2008?” SF Gate, May 27, 2008.
Gronbeth, Bruce E., and Danielle R. Wiese. “The Repersonalization of Presidential Campaigning in 2004.” American Behavioral Scientist 49 (2005): 520–35.
Hajdu, David. “Where Has ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Gone.” The New Republic, June 28, 2004.
Horton, Scott. “O Fortuna!” The Harper’s Blog, September 7, 2008.
Humphries, Stephen. “George W. Bush and Pop Culture’s Perception.” Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 2008.
Johnson, Sasha. “‘Punkvoter’ Founder Aims to Unify Youth Vote.” CNN, November 4, 2003.
Kot, Greg. Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. New York and London: Scribner, 2009.
Myers, Ben. Green Day: American Idiots and the New Punk Explosion. New York: The Disinformation Company, 2006.
“Presidential Approval Ratings -- George W. Bush.” Gallup Poll, n.d. Accessed July 28, 2016.
“‘Punk Voter’ Slates ‘Rock Against Bush’ Tour.” Billboard, August 18, 2004.
Roberts, Joel. “How Swing States Are Swinging.” CBS News, September 22, 2004.
Ross, Michael E. “Younger Activists Use Music to Get Out the Vote.” NBC News, February 24, 2004. .
“Springsteen, R.E.M. Open ‘Vote For Change’ Tour.” Billboard, October 4, 2004.
“System of a Down Perform to Capacity Crowd at SOULS 2004 Benefit.” Blabbermouth.net, April 26, 2004.
Wiederhorn, John. “Good Charlotte, Green Day, NOFX to Rock Against President Bush.” MTV News, September 19, 2003.
[iv] Donna Brazile quoted in Damien Cave “Rockers Unite to Oust Bush,” Rolling Stone, November 26, 2003. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/rockers-unite-to-oust-bush-20031126.
[v] “George W. Bush Approval Rating,” Gallup Poll, n.d., http://www.gallup.com/poll/116500/presidential-approval-ratings-george-bush.aspx.
[ix] During the 2004 election, the organization raised over one million dollars. According to the mission statement on their website, their goal is to “educate, register and mobilize over 500,000 of today’s youth as one voice.” See Joe Garofoli, “Beyond PunkVoter/‘Fat’ Mike Burkett Built a Legitimate Interest in Politics Among Apolitical Punk Listeners, But Who’ll Carry That Torch in 2008?,” SF Gate, May 27, 2008, http://www.sfgate.com/politics/joegarofoli/article/Beyond-PunkVoter-Fat-....
[xi] Dan Collins, “Punk Bands Play Anti-Bush Music,” CBS News, April 25, 2004, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/punk-bands-play-anti-bush-music/.
[xii] Sasha Johnson, “‘Punkvoter’ Founder Aims to Unify Youth Vote,” CNN, November 4, 2003, http://www.cnn.com/2003/ALLPOLITICS/11/03/elec04.punkvoter/.
[xiii] “Rock Against Bush, Volume 1,” YouTube playlist, June 1, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3P_qJKSHBT8&list=PL536F7CF72541C5BD; “Rock Against Bush, Volume 2,” YouTube playlist, December 19, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6K6bpbdZWFw&list=PLC83F14127525F132. For more about the tour, see “‘Punk Voter’ Slates ‘Rock Against Bush’ Tour,” Billboard, August 18, 2004, http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/66868/punk-voter-slates-rock-agai....
[xiv] Swing states, also known as battleground states, are the states where the two political parties have similar voter support, and are important in determining which party will win the presidential election. For more on the swing states during the 2004 election, see Joel Roberts, “How Swing States Are Swinging,” CBS News, September 22, 2004, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/how-swing-states-are-swinging/.
[xv] “Against Me! - ‘Sink, Florida, Sink,’” June 2, 2014, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7oxwI418poA; “Ministry, ‘No W,’ November 13, 2006, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBGMW86u1Qk; “O Fortuna” (Carmina Burana), September 10, 2009, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNWpZ-Y_KvU.
[xvi] For more on this, see Scott Horton, “O Fortuna!” The Harper’s Blog, September 7, 2008, http://harpers.org/blog/2008/09/o-fortuna/. For a list of the uses of “O Fortuna” in popular culture, see “Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ in Popular Culture,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carl_Orff%27s_O_Fortuna_in_popular_culture....
[xvii] “Bad Religion ~ heaven is falling,” December 15, 2012, YouTube video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJyqF2cFFok; “The Ataris – Heaven Is Falling,” March 6, 2013, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d38yYa4yUyY.
[xviii] See “Springsteen, R.E.M. Open ‘Vote For Change’ Tour,” Billboard, October 4, 2004, http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/66248/springsteen-rem-open-vote-f....
[xix] See “System of a Down Perform to Capacity Crowd at SOULS 2004 Benefit,” Blabbermouth.net, April 26, 2004, http://www.blabbermouth.net/news/system-of-a-down-perform-to-capacity-cr....
[xx] Michael E. Ross, “Younger Activists Use Music to Get Out the Vote,” NBC News, February 24, 2004, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/4031566/ns/politics/t/younger-activists-use-mu....
[xxvii] With this impersonation, the rapper alludes to the president’s response upon hearing about the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center.
[xxix] See David Hajdu, “Where Has ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Gone,” The New Republic, June 28, 2004, https://newrepublic.com/article/67654/where-has-where-have-all-the-flowe....
[xxx] Stephen Humphries, “George W. Bush and Pop Culture’s Perception,” Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2008, http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2008/1023/george-w-bush-and-pop-cu....