Ain’t No "Fortunate Son": Reflecting on ’00s Anti-War Rock

Written by Hunter Schwarz on . Posted in Music

Artists like the Dixie Chicks, Green Day and Madonna sang about their opposition of President George W. Bush and the Iraq War during the ’00s, but without a draft, their music lacked the same fire of the anti-war rock of the Vietnam era.

With my iTunes on shuffle, I read the latest issue of Newsweek, a rush released edition on the death of Osama bin Laden. Out of the countless hours’ worth of music in my library, it was quite the coincidence when songs from Green Day’s American Idiot, Madonna’s American Life and Bloc Party’s Weekend In The City all played, and I couldn’t help but reflect on the impact the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the War on Terror and the Iraq War had on the music of the ’00s.

The music, much of it anti-war or anti-Bush, drew its inspiration from the protest music of the 1960s. But artists criticizing the Bush administration and Iraq War never seemed to reach the same level of cultural importance or relevance that those who did the same for the Vietnam War did. A thousand “American Life” or “Wake Me Up When September Ends” couldn’t pack the same punch as a single “Fortunate Son” or “Gimme Shelter.” Still, these artists’ work serve as primary documents cultural historians will use to make sense of the opening decade of the new century.

Immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans were unified. Jimmy Eat World, on the verge of a breakthrough with their self-financed and unfortunately named Bleed American, quickly retitled the album and song of the same name, not wanting anyone to mistake their music as disrespectful or un-American.

Three short years later, with America embroiled in Iraq, attitudes had changed, however. Jimmy Eat World’s next album, Futures, opened with the line, “I always believed in futures/I’d hope for better in November,” an obvious reference to hopes George W. Bush would be voted out of office.

Jim Adkins and company weren’t the only ones opposed to Bush and the war in Iraq. In 2003, ten days before the United States invaded, the Dixie Chicks voiced their opinion of the president at a concert in London.

“We don’t want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States  is from Texas,” said lead singer Natalie Maines.

Bashing a Republican president is one thing if you’re a rock band, but it’s a completely other thing if you make country music, a genre with a dependably red state fan base. The retribution was immediate. Concert attendance dropped by half, and the hate mail and death threats came flowing in.

The backlash must have scared Madonna, who released American Life, her most political album, a month later. The record was an experimental stuttering synth and folk album that criticized commercialism and pursuit of the American dream more than the war, but Madonna has always been an artist whose work cannot be divorced from the social context in which it was released as well as the imagery she assigns it with her music videos.

For the album’s title track, Madonna and director Jonas Åkerlund set the video on a cat walk featuring models dressed in military garb with images of bombings played on screens in the background. It ended with Madonna storming the catwalk and hosing down the audience before throwing a grenade at a George W. Bush lookalike.

As word of the video’s content leaked, Madonna issued a statement defending it, saying, “”I feel lucky to be an American citizen for many reasons – one of which is the right to express myself freely, especially in my work.”

Madonna has never been one to back down, challenging everyone from the Pope to MTV throughout her career with her controversial videos portraying sex and religion in shocking and sometimes offensive ways. But for whatever reason, things were different this time around. For the first time, Madonna self-censored.

“I have decided not to release my new video,” she said in a later statement. “It was filmed before the war started and I do not believe it is appropriate to air it at this time. Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.”

In it’s place, a subdued video of Madonna singing in front of morphing flags aired. But the damage was already done. American Life became the first flop album in Madonna’s storied career, and even kissing Britney and Christina while performing follow-up single “Hollywood” at the MTV Video Music Awards couldn’t save it. Ironically, for all of Madonna’s animosity towards President Bush, she pulled a page out of his playbook for her next album, pandering to her base on the neo-disco Confessions On A Dancefloor.

By 2004, American forces had yet to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the war had become more political as John Kerry sought to unseat Bush in the presidential election. Jimmy Eat World saying they hoped for “better in November” seemed tame compared to music found on the “Rock Against Bush” compilations released that spring and summer, and the mother of all anti-Bush rock, Green Day’s punk opera, American Idiot, was about to be released.

“I’m not apart of the red neck agenda,” sang Billy Joe Armstrong on the title track. “Now everybody to the propaganda/ and sing along in the age of paranoia.”

Green Day revived their career, receiving near-unanimous critical acclaim and commercial success for their newest album. Songs like “American Idiot,” “Holiday” and “Wake Me Up When September Ends” became the band’s biggest hits, the latter reaching a stunning No. 2 on the Hot 100 at a time when hip-hop and R&B dominated the charts.

On tour, the band’s political leanings were far from secret, with Armstrong frequently wearing a Bush mask while performing “American Life,” and calling “Holiday” a “big ‘f**k you’ to all politicians.” While their rhetoric and music won them plenty of fans, it upset others. Brandon Flowers, lead singer of the Killers, was among those who said he was offended by Green Day’s message.

“You have Green Day and “American Idiot,” Flowers said. ”Where do they film their DVD? In England. A bunch of kids screaming ‘I don’t want to be an American idiot.’ I saw it as a very negative thing towards Americans. It really lit a fire in me.”

Despite the disapproval of Flowers and others, American Idiot went on to sell more than 6 million copies in the United States, and won the Grammy for Best Rock Album.

One of the most under appreciated examples of the impact the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and ensuing War on Terror had on music came from a band that wasn’t even American, and not until the late ’00s. British post-punk rockers Bloc Party captured the paranoia of the era on 2007′s “Hunting For Witches” from their sophomore album A Weekend In The City.

“1990′s, optimistic as a teen/But now, it’s terror/Airplanes crash into towers,” sang lead singer Kele Okereke. “Kill your middle class indecision/Now is not the time for liberal thought.”

But only a few tracks later, Okereke reveals he doesn’t believe his music will actually make a difference, saying, “Pop songs won’t change the government,” on “Uniform.”

For all these and other musicians earnestness, their music didn’t change the government. Green Day could call Bush “President Gasman” all they wanted, but W. still won reelection.

Bloc Party provides more insight on their aforementioned “Uniform,” with Okereke singing, ”I am a martyr, I just need a motive/I’m a believer I just need a cause.”

The anti-war of the rock of the ’00s didn’t resonate, couldn’t resonate, the same way it could during the Vietnam era, because opposition to Iraq never reached the same level. It made the music seem like a trite throwback to the ’60s, and Green Day seem like punk rockers looking for something to be angry about so they could sell records. The fact the president was unpopular and public opinion was shifting on a war he started seemed like a convenient issues to latch onto.

Everything would have been different had their been a draft, however. During the Vietnam War, opposition to the draft was the gasoline to the anti-war movement fire. When John Fogerty, lead singer of Creedence Clearwater Revival sang, “It ain’t me/It ain’t me/I ain’t no Senator’s son,” it hit home. It was more than being angry and it was more than being opposed to a war. It was being opposed to a war you had a possibility of being sent to go fight.

In the video for Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” a girl gets upset at her boyfriend for enlisting in the Marines. Dramatic? Yes. But no where near as dramatic if he was forced to go fight against his will.

How well the anti-war rock of the ’00s ages is, like Bush’s legacy, dependent on the ultimate outcome of Iraq and the War on Terror. Only time will tell.

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