by carl wilson

Here It Comes ... Bush-Era Nostalgia!


Just kidding, but one week into the new Age of Nothing's Wrong (I say in fun, though Obama's al-Arabia interview yesterday almost had me believing it!), I happened today to read Carrie Brownstein's transition-day, beating-around-the-Bush-era post on the former Sleater-Kinney guitarist's NPR blog, Monitor Mix.

She makes a fine list of songs of anger/angst/protest from the period. But then comes this summary, which hit home on first reading because Brownstein's such a convincing and clear writer:

"In the last few years, the songs and struggles have tended toward the internal: A lot of music has become as personalized and intimate as the means of recording it. There's a widespread sense of weariness and reflection in place of fury, alongside a hard-earned desire to dance, celebrate and escape. But, like the end of the Bush era itself, those recent musical trends are the denouement. The lasting musical embodiment of the Bush administration will be the songs with teeth - the ones that weren't afraid to snarl back at bared fangs."

No disagreement on the tendency to privatization of sentiment and thought in the songwriting of the past couple of years, which I agree is technological as much as it is zeitgeisty. But on reflection, while the Bush administration itself - or let's say the Cheney administration - was eager and willing to snarl, I'm not sure the songs that got traction or will have lasting impact actually are the angry ones, at least not the explicitly politically angry ones. This may be a Canadian point of view - one at a bit more distance from the action - but I think the songs that will end up embodying the era will be the ones that reflect what it feels like to have your government relentlessly snarling at you, and living in a society whose leaders openly sneer at "reality-based" perspectives.

Songs of escape such as Hey Ya (with its weirdly fucked-up family-romance narrative lurking under its chirpy surface) as well as the shelter-offering Umbrella aren't going to be forgotten soon, and the hip-hop fixation on "the club" seems to fall into the same area - recalling the way that escapist songs of the 1930s have endured. Even in the parenthetical, indie category from which Brownstein primarily draws, there was the ascendance of soothing folk/classical/nursery-song-influenced sounds, a lot of punk-disco party music, the Flaming Lips' dance-this-dada-around moves and so on.

The non-escapist music of 2000-08 that endures may include more generalized expressions of anxiety than explosions of anger. There was that initial post-9/11 backlash against critical thinking - which coincided with pop's most ferocious trickster, Eminem, withdrawing almost completely from the limelight during 2001-2008 (save for his brief intervention in the 2004 elections). That seemed to me to be followed by a wave of cynicism about the worth of calling down power in art (except in satire), and much of the music of the age reflected a sense of panic - some acted it out, like the "yelpy" school of indie (Modest Mouse et al) or songs like Crazy, while some staged it through withdrawal, such as Animal Collective and the other more insular sixties-revival-slash-experimentalist groups, or the mournful goth/emo bands such as My Chemical Romance.

There are exceptions, and Brownstein's right to celebrate them, from Green Day to Arcade Fire - the latter's mix of pessimism and optimism and nerve really does seem more heroic to me now than it did before November. And Sleater-Kinney's own muscular engagement with both social and sonic dynamics seemed heroic to me right away, so I'm happy Brownstein's not too shy to give herself and her comrades a nod. Finally, leaving aside veterans such as Young and Springsteen (who were really just taking up their appointed roles), there is the saga of The Dixie Chicks (pictured above on the notorious Entertainment Weekly cover that, in its 'aughties, Britneyish way, was an attempted show of strength that nearly pitched over the threshold of abjection): Not Ready to Make Nice seems likely to hold onto its place in pop history as a cry against the very deep-freeze in the culture that prevented a lot of other protest music from getting a real hearing.

What strikes me about that song is the way that it adopted not so much the language of traditional political songs to make its point, but the rhetoric of a relationship song. And that's a final development worth noting: I could be wrong, but it seems to me that breakup songs have had a real heyday in the past five years particularly. It doesn't take a Slavoj Zizek to read the political-cultural subtext in such expressions of frustration at being disrespected and abused and of the yearning for a fresh start - such as Hollaback Girl and Irreplaceable and Since U Been Gone.

And at the end of that cycle comes Single Ladies, which in that context almost seems like a triumphant kiss-off - for "single ladies" read "swing voters" (or non-voters) who at the start of 2009 can sneer at the sleazy chumps who underrated them and set their sights on someone who dares to "put a ring on it," which (while a retrograde image) still can stand for commitment and integrity and square dealing.

One could go on - I haven't touched on the re-emergence of the sentimental homefront ballad in Iraq-wartime country music, which has gone too little noticed outside the genre, or for that matter the newfound respectability of heavy metal, which maybe be a point for Brownstein's snarlers. But as for which music posterity will eventually elect to represent that messy era, well, as Bush himself once put it, "history takes a long time for us to reach."

General | Posted by zoilus on Wednesday, January 28 at 11:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)



The song also attempted to find a cure for cancer and male pattern balding but didn't quite succeed, alas.

Posted by john on February 2, 2009 3:56 PM



This song, first performed with no amps & no PA at an art show opening in Nov. 2001, by an unknown & unsigned Seattle band, described not only the deliberately endless nature of a War on Terror and the mutual theocratic madness of the ideologues in chief, but also predicted the stalemate in Afghanistan and the PATRIOT Act.

(Confession: It's my band. YMMV, obv.)

Posted by john on February 1, 2009 11:50 PM



Hey Mike,

I agree that their tour dates (the Winnipeg bus!) and Jack's wife reveal more engagement with the world than their actual music...but it's the music I'm referring to...along with bands like the Strokes they communicate an insular aesthetic and for me, are a metaphor for Bush's ignorance.

I'm also a fan and I'm sure they would've been the same band had they come of age during an Obama administration.

Posted by david on February 1, 2009 7:06 AM



David: How exactly did the White Stripes "pull up a drawbridge on Fortress America" and "retreat" into "Bush's parochial world view"? Speaking as a fervent White Strips fan, let me say: No way, Jose. They didn't pull up any drawbridge. They rode out across it into the world, and took America with them.

To cite but one example of the Stripes' cosmopolitan outlook, check the tourdates page of their website: for every show in the States, there are two abroad. Did you miss their unprecendented 2007 Canadian tour of bus stops, community centres and sheds-down-by-the-water? No one thinking parochially is dreaming up tours like that.

The White Stripes' America isn't a fortress, it's a magic landscape of mystery and possibility. Exactly the America the rest of the world is excited to finally have back.

Posted by Mike W. on January 30, 2009 1:45 PM



Once I heard Steve Kado's cover of "Hey Ya!" - the family incest triangle narrative became crystal clear.

Funny how these turbulent times have made music writing both cynical and utterly reverential. (Mostly, in tandem with gushing all over TV On The Radio's mediocre output this year.) My favourite post-Obama rock crit comes from Simon Reynolds' take on Vampire Weekend for the Village Voice's Pazz N' Jop, who writes:

Their shit is tight, like their asses, because flawlessness is part of their aesthetic game plan—it's what the record had to be and is. (The only defect I can find is that the lyric doesn't actually read as Peter Gabriel II.) How righteous that 2008 should have started with some literally African-American music to herald the election of a literally African-American president. Funny, too, how all the attributes that describe (and, in some eyes, condemn) the band—cultivated and cosmopolitan, calm and collected, cautious and clean-cut—apply so amply to Obama. It's as if history had twisted its way around to arrive at a place where the virtues in our polity are also the virtues in our pop music. Unlike sax addict Bill C. or faux-populist George W., our new prez doesn't have a rock 'n' roll bone in his body, and neither do Vampire Weekend.

Sad but true, though I still believe Obama's magical powers will end the recession by March break in time for me to land a staff writing gig at the New Yorker. (Kidding! I like waitressing!)

Posted by Chandler Levack on January 29, 2009 8:45 PM



One of my favourites - Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief”…so sickly claustrophobic and unrelenting...or how about The White Stripes and The Strokes for pulling up the drawbridge on fortress America in the wake of 9/11, a retreat epitomizing Bush’s parochial world view...

(btw, i just finished your book and totally enjoyed it - when is your next one coming out?)

Posted by david on January 29, 2009 7:59 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson