In high school, I was part of a small book club that met in the school library, hosted by our librarian. In addition to reading books, we'd sometimes branch off into other conversations — like the time we talked about political music via Neil Young. The librarian played and shared the lyrics for his song "Ohio," written after the National Guard killed four students at Kent State in 1970, and then "Let's Impeach the President," which was a new song at the time, 2006.
Our assessment was immediate and clear: "Ohio" is great, and the other song was terrible. "Ohio" feels timeless and urgent, despite being decades old and citing Nixon by name; "Let's Impeach the President" sounded dated as soon as it came out.
I started thinking about those two songs after reading a discussion on a private Facebook group about the art of resistance. The original post noted that Nixon, Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher saw the birth of punk and hip-hop, while the Bush era...had a lot of good music, but not much of it particularly political.
Henry and I have talked before about how Bush criticism, whether in music or comedy or TV, now feels very dated and clunky. We discussed the idea in 2012 after attending a performance of a music/spoken word piece that had been written during the Bush years. The performer affected a mocking Texas accent, made self-consciously ominous references to the war on terror, and generally acted as if he and the audience were in on a grim joke together, nudging each other and rolling their eyes at this clown of a president. And yes, terrible things happened or were started under Bush; I don't mean to suggest that it's gauche or boring to criticize extrajudicially detaining and torturing people. But just a few years after Bush's administration had left office, making fun of him had come to feel painfully beside the point.
Talking about the scarcity of lasting anti-Bush art, though, made me struggle to remember whether that kind of anti-establishment message ever really succeeded in the '00s. In that Facebook group discussion, people pointed out that after 9/11, the wall-to-wall patriotism and required support for the troops made it hard to create biting satire. (Definitely some exceptions, but in revisiting The Onion's 9/11 issue, I was reminded that even they joked, "Gen X Irony, Cynicism May Be Permanently Obsolete.") And then in the back half of Bush's presidency, after Fahrenheit 9/11 and Katrina and that time he choked on a pretzel, a lot of pop culture reacted by being jaded, by laughing with an edge of bitterness. Half a decade after cynicism was declared dead, the most popular political comedy was delivered with an ironic smirk.
Under Obama, political sincerity has been validated as I don't think it was under Bush. The top political comedy shows now feature the hosts simply expounding on issues for several minutes at a time. (Remember that in the Daily Show's heyday, standout segments were often the ones in which correspondents made fun of conservatives to their faces.) When Parks and Recreation debuted in 2009, Leslie Knope's ardent political dorkiness made her awkward and clueless; by the end of the series, it made her adorable and powerful. Neil Young's "Let's Impeach the President" is a bad song, but it's easy to imagine a 2016 anti-Trump song being applauded just for existing.
I'm oversimplifying, obviously — there are a million factors that influence these trends and plenty of examples to the contrary, both pre- and post-2008. But the general swing of sentiment and style from one decade to the next has made me wonder what's ahead for us. Some people have weakly suggested that at least bad presidents make for great art, but the correlation is hardly direct. Will art and pop culture just get more and more earnest as we face dire threats to our democracy and most vulnerable people? Will artists experience serious challenges to their First Amendment rights, or just see their funding slashed? There's been a lot of hands-on engagement with politics and social issues as an immediate reaction against Trump (and a continuation of movements like Black Lives Matter). Will that action last, or will we be pushed to sullen exhaustion and retreat into sour irony?
When I think about anti-Bush art, I think mostly about white dudes: Stewart and Colbert, Radiohead and Green Day, Patton Oswalt and Lewis Black. When I think about political art right now, I think of Beyoncé and Solange and Kendrick Lamar, Claudia Rankine and Ta-Nehisi Coates, Aziz Ansari and W. Kamau Bell and Kate McKinnon. Again, that's an oversimplification, but representation of and access for minorities in media has seen a leap forward in the past decade. It's not close to perfect, but there's been some change.
Yesterday I saw a Twitter thread about Casablanca, about the scene in which the whole cafe sings the Marseillaise. Go watch it now, whether you've seen it before or not. In the scene, the German soldiers start singing a military song; resistance hero Victor Laszlo marches over to the band and tells them to play the anthem of what was then occupied France. Cafe owner Rick gives a nod to the band, they play the song, and Laszlo sings. The cafe patrons jump to their feet and join in, quickly drowning out the Nazis. There's a cut to a close-up of a young French woman singing fervently, shaking, with tears on her cheeks. I didn't know until reading this Twitter thread that the actress, Madeleine LeBeau, was a refugee from France herself, that her intense emotion in that scene is real. It's easy to forget that Casablanca was made in 1942 — the war and the occupation of France were still going on, and LeBeau was one of many European refugees in the movie's cast.
Leah Bobet, who wrote the Twitter thread about this scene, says, "I just want you guys to know that Casablanca is what it is because of her, Peter Lorre, Conrad Veidt... [and many more names.] They were all refugees, guys. Casablanca is a movie made by refugees."
I don't know what kind of art and culture will come out of these next years, and we'll have plenty else to worry about. But this is key: movies made by refugees. Movies made by people of color, by queer people, by immigrants, by Native people, by women. And music and books and TV shows and games and gallery art and public installations. Maybe the most mainstream anti-Bush stuff hasn't lasted because it never had the weight of being made by the people who were most deeply and directly affected. White people have to protect marginalized people simply because they are people — and they will need protecting. But it's important to fight too for their ability to create and lead.