With the ten year anniversary of the Iraq War coming up this month, I’ve been thinking some about the war’s legacy and specifically asking one question: Given the sizable opposition to the war, why were there no real notable protest songs about Iraq?
Of course, there were some protest songs, mainly from the traditionally political acts you’d expect to release antiwar songs: Neil Young, Pearl Jam, The Beastie Boys, etc. But all these acts were long passed the peak of their relevance, and the songs were so predictable that they were greeted with little more than a shrug. There were some attempts by mainstream acts, like “Mosh” by Eminem, but nothing commensurate with controversy the war generated. Sadly, the most substantial political moment of the last decade in pop music probably involved the Dixie Chicks…
There are certainly a lot of reasons for this: the political apathy of the post-Baby Boomer generations, the corporatization of the music industry, the blandness of pop music in general, etc. But it’s also worth pointing out a simpler explanation: It’s hard to write a good protest song.
To write a good one, you have to balance the precision needed to address an issue with the polysemy that makes lyrics powerful; you have to advocate for something without preaching about it; you have to seem open-minded without seeming uncertain, knowledgeable without seeming arrogant. Mess this up even a little and your song can sound silly or naïve or insular. And even if you get it exactly right, half of your fans might feel alienated and the other half will compare you unfavorably to the protest songs of previous generations.*
*We tend to glamorize the political music of the 1960s because it is so integral to our memories and perceptions of that era. And some of it certainly was great (especially if it was written by this guy). But a lot of it was pretty terrible: “Imagine” and “Give Peace a Chance” might be the two most self-indulgent songs John Lennon ever wrote. The lyrics to “Eve of Destruction” seem more and more stilted with every listen (though The Byrds’ version is still pretty good). Even decent protest songs like Bob Marley’s “War” or Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” tend to be overly literal and cheerless. If we didn’t remember the 1960s as such a politically charged time, then we’d remember that music a lot less fondly.
And yet protest songs are important. Songs like “A Change Is Gonna Come” or “The Preacher and The Slave” communicate complicated ideas and emotions in a simple, visceral way that is hard to duplicate in other media. Given this, and given the aforementioned difficulties, I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to modern protest songs. But man, sometimes that gets difficult…
Conor Oberst’s “When the President Talks to God” was released as a single in 2005, shortly after Bright Eyes had released I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and when the band was at the height of its popularity. As a result, “When the President…” was one of the few political songs of the last decade to be released at an artist’s critical and commercial peak; Oberst played the song on The Tonight Show and the song became a big part of his tour that year.
As a high school senior at the time of its release, I was right in the song’s target demographic. I loved its belligerent chords, its direct lyrics, its earnest indignation and outright contempt for President Bush and his faith. Even Oberst’s quivering voice made the song sound less commercial and more “edgy.”
Of course, now I found the song to be so naïve as to be cringe-worthy. Its “political message” is so oversimplified that it’s almost irrelevant: “Does God suggest an oil hike?” Come on, Conor, the President doesn’t set oil prices and you know that…
Parts of the song are also incredibly patronizing, like the idea that the army is made up of “poor farm kids,” or that the Bush Administration filled the “ghettos” with “liquor stores and dirty coke.” There is no real coherent message to the song—it just rushes through a litany of issues. Some of these issues are legitimate*—like Bush’s fetish for invading Muslim countries—and some are silly—like the idea that he somehow controlled oil prices**—but lumped together they are not likely to change anyone’s mind. At its worst, the song gives in to the troubling temptation to reduce President Bush’s vast crimes to some simple explanation, like stupidity or greed.
*Even some the legitimate issues, like the line “agree which convicts should be killed / where prisons should be built and filled,” don’t seem to fit. It’s true that the prison population rose under Bush, but that hardly registered in terms of the popular outrage his Presidency generated.
**Even if the President DID control oil prices, why would he use that power to RAISE them? Why would he want the disapproval that comes with high gas prices?
The one powerful aspect of the song is the conceit of the song itself, which inverts Bush’s overt religiosity. To the extent that Oberst has really challenged the issues he mentioned, it’s by juxtaposing them with President Bush’s stated personal relationship with God. But the best verses don’t mention issues at all. The one verse that still resonates with me is the second:
“When the president talks to God,
Are the consonants all hard or soft?
Is he resolute all down the line?
Is every issue black or white?
Does what God say ever change his mind?
When the president talks to God.”
Setting aside grammatical issues, these are powerful lyrics. Rather than simply pointing out that President Bush’s policies are not very Christian—which is hardly new, since Christian institutions have been doing immoral things since the founding of the Church—they actually question the purpose of Bush’s religion. Is religion a vehicle for confronting difficult moral questions and trying to determine how to be a good person or leader? Or is it just a way to justify despicable acts and maintain resolve in the face of evidence? This idea comes back in the last verse, when Oberst asks:
“When the president talks to God,
Does he ever think that maybe he’s not?
That that voice is just inside his head,
As he kneels next to the presidential bed?
Does he ever smell his own bullshit?
When the president talks to God.”
The impact of this last verse has certainly waned over time, but I still think it gets at a crucial, central criticism of President Bush’s tenure: namely, the self-righteous certainty that, against all the facts on the ground, still asserts that history will vindicate his disastrous Presidency. Of course, this belief that God picked Bush and directed his policy outweighs any evidence or rational argument, which helped allow his policies to persist for over a decade. The fact that Oberst is wrong about some of his criticisms of those policies doesn’t completely discount this central point.
What makes “When the President Talks to God” so illustrative is that it falls into a common trap of protest songs while also retaining what makes some of them so effective. When songs just list complaints or preach about issues, they can get overwrought, self-indulgent, and insular. But when they can put a complicated point into a simple image—like the image the President kneeling to pray, or a woman cleaning off a table—they can truly register.