Rock Against Bush, Vols. 1 and 2

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BUSH CULTURE REVIEW. Whatever the trajectory of this album, it serves to emphasize the lived immediacy of culture. Rock Against Bush is timely and obtains its political value from that timeliness.

Joe Lockard

Soul-sick from hating Bush? Here’s good company. The Fat Wreck Chords label has assembled this collection of punk tracks, mostly from the last year and mostly unreleased or rare material. It will go nicely with your copy of The Official I Hate George W. Bush Handbook. In a decade or two, both will be eminently saleable additions to a political paraphernalia collection. Win or lose, anti-Bush culture items will become valuable trade either as memorabilia of a successful pre-election culture battle or of a noble lost cause. Its commodity value will rise long after its political value has dissipated, which is a nostalgic world that ‘I Like Ike’ campaign button collectors prefer.

Whatever the trajectory of this album, it serves to emphasize the lived immediacy of culture. Rock Against Bush is timely and obtains its political value from that timeliness. Cultural conservatism worships at the altar of artistic timelessness, of culture that rises above and exceeds its own time-bound origin; it valorizes ‘art that speaks for the ages.’ That valorization is an avoidance of the political challenge of writing, art, music, or other work that collides with or undermines dominant aesthetic and social paradigms. Claims of timelessness attempt to impose an impossible stasis that would preserve and make permanent social power structures through critical force majeure imposed by class-determined gatekeepers. The propagandistic culture that responds to the moment, according to this traditionalist view, is doomed to experience no more than the moment.

This is why Leon Wieseltier opens his New York Times chop-piece on Nicholson Baker’s new novel Checkpoint with bile-driven patriotism like “This scummy little book treats the question of whether the problems that now beset our cherished and anxious country may be solved by shooting its president.” Under this critical prescription, Baker’s work is to be treated as another “hermeneutical toy” severely limited in its artistic vision by the anti-Bush immediacy of its politics. The question of globe-stretching imperial violence in Bush culture is to encounter the aesthetics of demagoguery.

Fortunately, Rock Against Bush does not suffer from the same ideological constipation as that killed poor old Wieseltier. The virtue of punk music in the current political environment is that it does not sit for polite liberal-versus-conservative debate. It responds by shouting, demanding, and screaming back at the oppressiveness of Bush culture. As part of an open and democratic culture, this album demonstrates the continuing embrace by punk communities of timeliness as an aesthetic value and practice. To write or make music needs no authorization from social gatekeepers, and the superimposition of an unascertainable standard of ‘timelessness’ represents a priori censorship through a closed aesthetic that is cultural fascism where it has political enforcers. A democratic aesthetic embraces the day and its expression; its culture is an open traffic, not a closed standard. That immediacy of timeliness is a voice in the continual social debate that constitutes culture. Rock Against Bush, in its timeliness, comes out swinging alongside other works of anti-Bush culture like Baker’s Checkpoint.

There is substantial question as to how the anti-Bush politics of the Rock Against Bush album are going to succeed with its near-complete wall-to-wall white punk rocker boy look. Close to one hundred musicians play on the first volume: only a bare half-dozen women appear, and almost no musicians of color. The second volume is more of the same, excepting an appearance by Sleater-Kinney. It is difficult to imagine how to assemble this many musicians in US music culture without a significant and visible black presence, but this two-volume album has managed that non-accomplishment. The great majority of tracks are new material, which does testify to the producer’s diligence in searching out fresh sound.

Anti-Flag’s ‘The School of Assassins’ is one of the stand-out tracks on the first volume CD. Justin Sane’s lyrics are simple, straightforward, and put political demands on the table. Samples from Father Roy Bourgeois link the long-ongoing struggle over the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia and its promotion of repression in Latin America to a campaign against systemic US policies that destroy popular political movements. Political sampling comes into repeated play throughout this album, as in Ministry’s ‘No W’ cut quoting George Bush expostulating on “fighting evil.”

‘It’s Such a Sad State of Affairs,’ a hard-working track by Descendent, succeeds reaching contemplative notes while still keeping a fast pace. Authority Zero’s contributed track, ‘Revolution,’ gets tiresome with its repetitious truism “You wanna revolution? You gotta make a difference on your own.” Really? Jello Biafra jams with D.O.A. on a husky, chair-pounding version of ‘That’s Progress.’ Biafra’s political monologues can be predictable, but there is none of that here and this is a brief taste of what makes him such an attractive musician. Social Distortion runs with a theme of reclaiming the political commons winds throughout many songs here, providing alternative social advocacy alongside anti-Bush denunciations. As the World/Inferno Friendship Society’s song ‘The Expatriate Act’ goes:

…from where I stand outside

the gated communities I can see there is another America than the one I live in

and what they’re exporting is me this land is my land, where ever I stand

See you in the funny papers or in the penitentiary

this land is my land and I mean goddamn you’re embarrassing me.

Songs like this and others transmit outrage over Bush’s appropriation of ‘American-ness’ as the singular possession of a militaristic Texas-born politics.

For those who need their star power before convincing them to buy an anthology, the first volume finishes with a Billy Bragg track with Less Than Jake, a semi-satirical song entitled ‘The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out.’ It does not have the stirring or moving quality that Bragg can bring to a song, but it’s always good to hear the old subversive.

In the second movement of this anti-Bush punk symphony, Bad Religion’s notable “Let Them Eat War” makes its political point at high speed: the Bush administration has made war instead of social progress. The lyrics are succinct and complex, unlike the simple-minded repetitiveness of Operation Ivy’s “Unity.” Several of the live songs are from a tour, including work from Jawbreaker, Bouncing Souls, and Mad Caddies.

There can be some lack of clarity in precisely why some songs appear on an anti-Bush album, given that other than some general social angst there is no particular political bite. Flogging Molly’s weakly “Drunken Lullabies” has no visible association of this sort; neither does Sugarcult’s “What You Say,” but it is a strong truck of a song. Sleater-Kinney contribute a subtle new song, “Off With Your Head,” that while it does not address Bush directly, is a brief mediation on power. Indirection can be a more effective strategy than futile directness; it leaves listeners to integrate music and message.

The (International) Noise Conspiracy and Thought Riot are here to fill out the cast, along with a host of punkistim. It is not that there are significant numbers of punks at risk of voting for Bush, despite the amusement of and The question this album represents for punk culture is how it translates into the future, whether it will be remembered largely as a cultural memento or whether this and other artistic work against the Bush administration will pivot into an electoral effect.

Distributed by Fat Wreck Chords.

Copyright © 2004 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.

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