Rock Star Vs. President Songs
As the following Rock Star Vs. President Songs attest, over the years some of rock’s most famous musicians have fearlessly criticized the actions and viewpoints of our country’s various leaders.
Listen as presidents such as Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon and both George Bushes come under heavy fire for their handling of wars, foreign and domestic affairs in the lyrics of the following classic rock “State of the Union” addresses:
Unlike most of the lyrics on this list of Presidents Songs, Alice Cooper isn’t referencing or criticizing a specific leader of the free world. In fact, most of “Elected” is a tongue-in-cheek campaign pledge to get wild, during which Cooper jokes that he doesn’t care about the problems of our major cities. But his true colors and concern seems to be different, as revealed by the line “Kids want a savior / Don’t need a fake.”
Shocked and incensed by the deaths of four anti-military protesters on May 4, 1970 at Kent State University, CSNY rush-recorded and released this Neil Young-penned protest song, which hit stores and airwaves the following month. The lyrics make no bones about who the group held responsible for this tragedy: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming / We’re finally on our own / This summer I hear the drumming / Four dead in Ohio.”
‘Postcards from Richard Nixon’
Although lyricist Bernie Taupin still denies the popular story that 1971’s Madman Across the Water was about Nixon — the only active President ever to resign from office — there’s no denying this Elton John song is about him. What can be questioned is exactly what’s being said about “Tricky Dick,” although it doesn’t seem particularly complimentary. The lyrics suggest Nixon invited the duo to use their music to help distract people’s attention from the Vietnam War: “And Richard Nixon’s on his knees he’s sent so many overseas / He’d like to know if you and me could help him in some way / A little camouflage and glue to mask the evil that men do / A small diversion caused by two pale kids come to play / And we heard Richard Nixon say ‘Welcome to the U.S.A.'”
‘Kiss My Ass’
Our 43rd president, Bill Clinton — nicknamed “Billary” here — gets a rather direct and unpleasant invitation from the always outspoken and conservative-minded Ted Nugent. He extends the same offer to then-Attorney General Janet Reno, the IRS and animal rights activists: “I see the weenies with the dirty hair / Protestin’ on the street / They condemn the clothes we wear and the morality of what we eat, yeah / It’s gotta be a fluke / They make me wanna puke.”
‘Bonzo Goes to Bitburg’
Punk pioneers the Ramones were among the many who didn’t appreciate President Ronald Reagan’s 1985 visit to a German cemetery partially populated by Nazi solders accused of running World War II extermination camps. They made their feelings clear on this track: “You’re a politician / Don’t become one of Hitler’s children.” The group changed the name of the track to “My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (Bonzo Goes to Bitburg)” for inclusion on their 1986 album Animal Boy to acknowledge the Reagan-supporting views of guitarist Johnny Ramone, who understandably wasn’t pleased with the lyrical message of the song.
It’s a double-shot of anti-presidential rock as R.E.M. rip both Ronald Reagan and his vice president and one-term successor George H. W. Bush for a decade of (alleged) deception and warmongering. They also save some venom for the press for failing to call the White House out properly: “The paper’s terrified to report anything that isn’t handed on a presidential spoon / I’m just profoundly frustrated by all this / So, f–you, man.” In the end, singer Michael Stipe admits his words are probably in vain: “I know that this is vitriol / No solution, spleen-venting / But I feel better having screamed / Don’t you?”
‘How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live’
Bruce Springsteen re-wrote most of the lyrics for his cover of this Blind Alfred Reed song to address President George Bush’s reaction to the 2005 disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina. His feelings about the man he called “President Bystander” are laid particularly bare in this verse: “He said, ‘Me and my old school pals had some mighty high times down here / And what happened to you poor black folks, well it just ain’t fair’ / He took a look around, gave a little pep talk, said ‘I’m with you’ then he took a little walk.”
Sting reflects on the history of the war of words and military posturing between the Soviets and the Americans, referencing ’60s Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev and ’80s U.S. President Ronald Reagan in this hit Presidents Song from his debut solo album: “Mr. Reagan says ‘We will protect you’ / I don’t subscribe to this point of view.” The inspiration for this plea for peace dates all the way back to the former Police leader’s college days, when he and his friend would watch the Russian equivalent of Sesame Street on illegal cable and realize that the two countries were more alike than they realized.
‘Line ‘Em Up’
The normally soft-spoken James Taylor mercilessly roasts President Nixon on this late-’90s track, accusing him of being phoney even while being shoved out of our country’s highest office in shame: “I remember Richard Nixon back in ’74 / And the final scene at the White House door / And the staff lined up to say good-bye / Tiny tear in his shifty little eye / He said ‘Nobody knows me / Nobody understands / These little people were good to me / Oh I’m gonna shake some hands.'”
‘Let’s Impeach the President’
More than three decades after he first showed he wasn’t afraid to call out the most powerful men in the free world by name, Neil Young does it again. This time, he’s even more direct and to the point, in a furious call to action attacking George W. Bush’s role in the war on 2003 war on Iraq: “Let’s impeach the President for lying / And misleading our country into war / Abusing all the power that we gave him / And shipping all our money out the door.”