The George W. Bush years were dark, no matter which side of the aisle you sat on. Less than a year into his first term came the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, and everything thereafter was haunted by the specter of war—first in Afghanistan and then, erroneously, in Iraq. The U.S. government engaged in torture and gleefully degraded its prisoners, and it deflected all criticisms with an anti-intellectual form of doublespeak. Torture became “enhanced interrogation,” quagmires became “missions accomplished,” and the seeds for unprecedented government surveillance were planted in the Patriot Act. Meanwhile, rampant corporate greed instigated a great recession that gradually squeezed the middle class further and further into poverty. Almost a decade later, Bush’s legacy remains toxic.
It also looks positively quaint in comparison to our worst predictions for the looming Donald Trump era, and while it sounds foolish to suggest that totalitarianism or oppression is somehow “good” for creativity, many have already consoled themselves by imagining all the great art his regime will inspire. That remains to be seen, of course. But it did inspire us to look back at what happened the last time everyone felt like this and revisit the pop culture that kept us stable during the rocky aughts. From angry punk albums to revealing documentaries to trenchant political satire, these are the artworks that reflected our ’00s anxiety—and whose analogues we could certainly use in the coming years.
Radiohead’s sixth album seems to start twice: Both “2 + 2 = 5” and “Sit Down. Stand Up” begin as stuttering, syncopated tracks before they erupt, halfway through, into full-bore freak-outs unlike anything the band had attempted before. But this opening double whammy was intended as a wake-up call—sounded twice if they goddamn had to—as Yorke chants repeatedly, “You have not been paying attention.” Hail To The Thief was released in June 2003, just months after the U.S. first invaded Iraq, and early enough in the Bush administration that its title served as a jab at the shady political manipulation that allowed him to claim victory in the 2000 election (even if the band insisted it wasn’t). Radiohead had always trafficked in themes of complacency, doublespeak, and totalitarianism, but Hail To The Thief clarified them in the wake of its earthier Kid A and Amnesiac period. Tracks like “There There” and “Go To Sleep” spoke with characteristic ambivalence about feeling alienated by a patronizing, hawkish regime, and it did so with a return to more traditional rock instruments—it took “A Wolf At The Door” to get Radiohead to plug the guitars back in—for an emotional album that captured the anger, neurosis, defeatism, and confusion of its time. [Clayton Purdom]
Scott Sturgeon, better known as Stza Crack, is one of the last truly controversial figures in punk rock. His debut album with Leftöver Crack saw its title and artwork censored by its label (Hellcat Records, a subsidiary of Epitaph) when he wanted to call it Shoot The Kids At School and have a thematically aligned image on the cover. It was released as Mediocre Generica instead, arriving—quite coincidentally—on September 11, 2001. For the band’s follow-up, Stza aimed to push even more buttons even more deliberately, titling it Fuck World Trade and giving it a cover depicting George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Rudy Giuliani pouring gasoline on the Twin Towers. The liner notes went even further, calling America’s leaders “war criminals.” Meanwhile, the album’s songs take aim at everything else stuck under Stza’s skin, from racially motivated police violence (“One Dead Cop”) to the prison-industrial complex (“Burn Them Prisons”) to the bombing of the radical MOVE organization, with plenty of ire left over for the rest of the world. It’d be easy to dismiss Fuck World Trade for being overly provocative (contemporary critics certainly did), or its music being a messy hodgepodge of crust punk, black metal, and ska (a style that’s come to be known as “Crack Rock Steady”). But it all works, and history has, unfortunately, vindicated Stza and Leftöver Crack’s pessimism; the songs about police violence, in particular, ring even truer today. And while many have tried to imitate Stza and co., as one of punk’s last true extremists, he’s proof that it only works if you’re fully committed to it—and as many can attest, Stza’s commitment can’t be called into question. [David Anthony]
No one expected Green Day to capture the sound of the culture war in 2004. Their star had steadily faded up through 2000’s Warning, a band retreading old riffs with diminishing returns. But after the tapes for a go-everywhere follow-up were stolen, they reworked their songwriting process and created something urgent—a mythic critique of Walmart, megachurches, conformity, and bloviating talking heads. In this context, four-chord punk rock felt newly powerful, like a bottle rocket set off indoors. The suite-like song structures fit uneasily with pop punk, but the juxtaposition works, evoking a narrative of political awakening within a dead-end, closed-minded suburb, all set to music that fit in exactly that setting. Heard today, the album’s uneasy commingling of reality TV and journalism show the recipe for the very American idiocy that created the Donald Trump administration. [Clayton Purdom]
Classifying Team America: World Police as “political” is a little dubious, considering the prevailing message of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s work seems to be “political philosophies are dumb.” Like South Park, their 2004 puppet comedy is an equal-opportunity offender when it comes to taking on Bush’s War On Terror—and in fact, its far more brutal treatment of liberal celebrities, along with its oft-cited “Dicks, Pussies, and Assholes” speech, have long made it a favorite of conservatives. But as self-contradicting as the film’s bipartisan satire can often be, and as much as Parker and Stone have vehemently rejected attempts to frame it as a George W. Bush rejoinder, Team America nevertheless captures the “These Colors Don’t Run” jingoism and shock-and-awe strategizing of post-9/11 America in all its navel-gazing, desert-strafing glory. The duo may have gone out of their way to avoid the easy path of Bush-bashing during his tenure (never more so than in their prolonged, conceptual prick-tease That’s My Bush!). But the fact remains that nothing sums up the bullheaded bluster of Bush’s administration, nor the still-lingering breed of patriotism it engendered, quite like “America, Fuck Yeah,” which may as well have been Donald Trump’s campaign theme song. [Sean O’Neal]
The line between propaganda and journalism has always been clear, but prone to violation. This was particularly true during the Bush administration, which maintained a cozy relationship with the massively popular, jingoistic Fox News and provided access in Iraq only to state-sanctioned embedded reporters. (This is not even to mention their masterful manipulation of The New York Times in disseminating false reports that Saddam Hussein even had weapons of mass destruction.) Accordingly, the Bush team decried Al-Jazeera as “the mouthpiece of Osama Bin Laden”; early on in Control Room, Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld can be seen accusing the network of staging tragedies and manipulating images to enhance regional sympathy. The documentary is a clinical dissection of journalistic bias and a stirring rejoinder to America’s millennial misperceptions about Al-Jazeera, but it is also an argument for the political power of the press—if only through its absence. [Clayton Purdom]
Few punk bands have inspired kids to hit the books and explore radical politics like Propagandhi. Since the early ’90s, the Canadian band has included lengthy reading lists in its liner notes to supplement the heady topics in its songs. On 2005’s Potemkin City Limits, those songs grappled with a post-9/11 America, war in the Middle East, and—on a more inward-looking note—how the outrage spread across various other punk albums was merely a means of selling records, rather than a form of genuine dissent. On “Rock For Sustainable Capitalism,” Propagandhi even takes shots at its own label, Fat Wreck Chords, and its owner, NOFX frontman “Fat Mike” Burkett, who had undergone a sort of political awakening after Bush’s election: putting out 2003’s War On Errorism by his own band, along with the aptly titled Rock Against Bush compilations, as well as launching the Punk Voter website. While plenty of great political punk records would be released during this era—and many of them on Fat—Propagandhi was one of the few bands not willing to take their slogans at face value and encourage fans to dig deeper. [David Anthony]
Spike Lee doesn’t dabble in documentary that often, but when he does, the results can be shattering. Lee went productively long with When The Levees Broke, a rigorous polemic on the causes, effects, and grueling aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Aired in four episodes across two nights on HBO, only a year after the storm did its damage, Levees made the convincing, damning case that the government—including President Bush—had spectacularly failed New Orleans, both through the negligence that resulted in the massive levee failures in the first place, and in its response to the disaster. But while the movie initially played like a vital, timely cry of outrage against the indifference of Bush’s administration, it operates today as a more timeless vision of a city—its suffering, but also its perseverance, its art, its culture, its people. Political docs often age fast. This one feels built to endure—just like New Orleans itself. [A.A. Dowd]
The Dixie Chicks made their definitive anti-Bush statement in 2003 when singer Natalie Maines told a U.K. concert audience that the group opposed the war in Iraq and was “ashamed that the President Of The United States is from Texas.” The repercussions of those comments, particularly among country music’s conservative fanbase, were swift, involving widespread boycotts, plummeting record sales, and dropped sponsorships. When the Chicks released “Not Ready To Make Nice” as the lead single from their 2006 album Taking The Long Way, it was a defiant assertion of their convictions, as well as a condemnation not just of Bush, but of his supporters who had harassed them—including sending them death threats. In the bridge, Maines sings, “And how in the world can the words that I said / Send somebody so over the edge / That they’d write me a letter / Saying that I better / Shut up and sing / Or my life will be over?” It’s an eerily prescient question, particularly in an age where it’s not just the president-elect’s supporters who are going after protesting artists, but the president-elect himself. Of course, these days death threats arrive much faster than a letter. [Esther Zuckerman]
Never mind 24. If there was one TV show that really captured the psychological topography of living through the War On Terror, it was Ronald D. Moore’s sweeping space opera Battlestar Galactica. Early on, the show established that enemy Cylons could be living among us and not even know their own identity until activated, a parallel to the real world of terrorist attacks, sleeper cells, and sudden, catastrophic suicide attacks, plus the corresponding torture and civil liberty violations meant to address it. Viewers were conditioned to empathize with the show’s humans, who were threatened constantly by the specter of another devastating sneak attack from the Cylons, just as Americans had learned to live with a color-coded “alert system” in the years after 9/11. Then, in BSG’s third season, a seemingly successful attempt to colonize a habitable planet was followed by a Cylon invasion, forcing the humans to turn to the very terrorist tactics they’d once feared. In so doing, the show forced viewers to see the world from the vantage point of the oppressed, taking increasingly desperate measures to reclaim their home. [Clayton Purdom]
Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible arrived right as the financial crisis was just beginning and as both of the Bush-era wars were still smoldering. Arcade Fire—always something of a dramatic band—was well positioned to create an album exploring that post-9/11 anxiety, and the result was something with the cathartic, desperate feel of a tent revival: a sweaty, church-organ-drenched psalm to a god who’s probably not even listening. Fear—about faith, about duty, about violence and death—hangs over every track. Uncertainty infects even the up-tempo “No Cars Go,” which at first offers up a hopeful vision of a secret place only “us kids know” before confessing that they don’t actually know where that is. Elsewhere, opener “Black Mirror” holds critiques of television and surveillance that still feel resonant, while the album’s despairing final track, “My Body Is A Cage,” evokes our current, “post-truth” apocalypse: “I’m living in an age / That calls darkness light / Though my language is dead / Still the shapes fill my head.” [Nick Wanserski]
While much of George Saunders’ essay collection The Braindead Megaphone critiques American society in the era of Bush II, no piece gets at the heart of the problem (or one of the problems) as directly as its title essay. As in his fiction, Saunders relies heavily on metaphor, the central one a man with a megaphone who interrupts a party where people had been having smart, enriching conversations. This agitator stirs up fear through innuendo, gossip, and simplified us-or-them thinking, causing a deterioration in the discourse through sheer volume and the fact that he’s utterly impossible to ignore. Sound familiar? At the time, Saunders’ “Megaphone” represented the 24-hour cable news cycle and all its sensationalism and truthiness, something he argues makes it all the easier for the U.S. government to do something like, say, invade a foreign country without anyone putting too much thought into it. But of course, metaphor carries, extending to our president-elect and our current, “fake news”-driven, fear-mongering political climate. Saunders believes that the fight isn’t over: “Every well-thought-out rebuttal to dogma, every scrap of intelligent logic, every absurdist reduction of some bullying stance is the antidote,” he writes. It’s not a panacea, but it’s something. [Laura Adamczyk]
Released just a couple weeks before the election of Barack Obama would officially put an end (if only temporarily) to the era of confusion, dread, and rancor that colored Bush’s presidency, TV On The Radio’s Dear Science offered up an appropriately apocalyptic prophecy you could dance to. The Brooklyn art-rock band brought big brass hits; slinky, Prince-derived funk; and the most upbeat rhythms it could muster for its party at the end of the world, where every moment of cathartic letting-go has the creeping edge of desperation. The album has a self-conscious push-pull that’s summed up in the opening lines of its most direct political statement, “Red Dress”: “Hey Jackboot / Fuck your war / ’Cause I’m fat and in love / And no bombs are falling on me for sure,” which is immediately followed by “But I’m scared to death / That I’m living a life not worth dying for.” Still, even amid all the fear and doubt, Dear Science also offers the band’s brightest, shimmering glimmer of optimism of a “Golden Age” comin’ round soon, a euphoric message about holding onto hope—and to each other—in troubled times that every generation can take some inspiration from. [Sean O’Neal]
A big-screen spin-off of director/co-writer Armando Iannucci’s BBC series The Thick Of It, In The Loop seemed at first like a vicious post-mortem for the era of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, but the years since have solidified its status as the definitive film satire of the modern political class. Chaotic, hyper-verbal, and really goddamn funny, In The Loop jumps around a cast of characters that ranges from incompetent to openly sadistic, energized by Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed Scottish operative played by current Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi. What it pictures is a world of bullying, manipulation, flagrant careerism, and piss-poor decision-making, where political talking points are traded and devalued like commodities on an exchange—politics as a perfect storm of international technocracy and personal vendetta. And though Capaldi gets many of the film’s juiciest and most quotable lines, the whole cast is superb, including Tom Hollander, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Gina McKee, David Rasche, and a young Zach Woods. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]
Young Jeezy was one of the biggest rappers in the world in 2008, trafficking in gigantic DJ Toomp beats and monolithically simple verses designed to be shouted along to. Lyrical purists bemoaned his popularity and rolled their eyes at his lightly conceptual third record, The Recession. But rather than attempt to fictionalize the recession or capture all its complexities, Jeezy, ever the populist, did what he was best at: created a sweeping collection of absolute bangers, empathizing with everyone who’d ever dropped a day’s pay into their gas tank. The production still sounds decidedly late ’00s—a collection of chintzy brass car-rattlers—but the framework of the global financial crisis provided Jeezy’s tried-and-true motivational ethos with an added resonance. He’s one of the only rappers whose boasts sound inclusive. As he repeats on the first track, “I just came back to give everybody hope,” preaching a sort of Up With People hip-hop optimism that would come in vogue again toward the end of Obama’s second term.
And the album closes just as 2008 did, with “My President,” an ode to the stunning election of the nation’s first black president. Jeezy recorded it well before Obama’s election even looked likely, but for some, it was the anthem of that dreamlike year in which the darkness of the Bush administration’s two terms finally let up at last. Over triumphant brass, Jeezy relays—with his usual, thudding clarity of vision—a pair of verses about paying bills, Iraq, Katrina, and the stolen 2000 election, not as a sweeping indictment but as a roll call of Bush-era grievances ready to be redressed. “Obama for mankind,” he yells at the end, “we ready for damn change!” It’s the sound of hard-won hope, yelped for us all; today, it is enough to shatter your heart. [Clayton Purdom]