“I Love My Dirty Uncle Sam”: A Musical Critique of Post-9/11 American Foreign Policy

Lauren is a fourth year International Relations student at Western University. She has been an editor for The General Assembly since 2017. Her interests include studies of modern popular culture and how it intersects with history, politics, and national identity; specifically in North America and Europe. She can be reached at lpaparou@uwo.ca.

While most artists shied away from criticizing the Bush administration and their foreign policy, post-punk band Sleater-Kinney broke with the status quo, providing a scathing critique of the injustices perpetrated after 9/11

Given the profound political and personal effects it had on the American population, there has been a curious lack of protest music surrounding the events of September 11, 2001 and the ensuing War on Terror. This is especially true in comparison to the ways previous generations of musicians took to the studios to create music condemning the American War in Vietnam. One of the few bands to take up the cause was Sleater-Kinney with their most ambitious album to date, One Beat. One Beat which is both musically and politically ambitious, fusing elements of math-rock and post-punk styles to craft a scathing critique of the American government’s response to the September 11th terrorist attacks. On One Beat, Sleater-Kinney combines the personal and political contexts surrounding the events of September 11, 2001, by sharing their insights, concerns, and condemnations during a time of stifling silence.

In 2001, Corin Tucker, lead singer of Sleater-Kinney, gave birth to her first child two months prematurely. This left Tucker fearing for her son’s survival due to serious medical complications with his birth. Months later, on September 11th, terrorists hijacked planes and used them to attack the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, killing thousands of Americans. The American government launched two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in response. Patriotism became equated with unquestioning support for the military and promotion of incessant consumerism to fund the war effort. This left Tucker, a frightened new mother, forced to watch the world around her explode with violence and ignorance. The result was an album that expertly combined the personal and political context that went into its creation.

The song “Faraway” opens with the lines “7:30 am nurse the baby on the couch/Then the phone rings/‘Turn on the T.V.’/Watch the world explode in flames/And don't leave the house.” This lyric encapsulates the immediate world-shattering response the average American would have had to the events of September 11th, as everyone’s lives were profoundly changed in an instant. Sleater-Kinney demonstrated their critical punk sensibilities by calling out U.S. President George W. Bush with the line “and the president hides while working men rush in and give their lives.” Likewise, Sleater-Kinney helped break the silence surrounding criticism of the American government at a time when fear was the guiding principle for any discussion surrounding the events of September 11th. Sleater-Kinney drew on their feminist punk roots to link the personal with the political and call attention to the corruption, lies, and fear surrounding the foreign policy of the Bush Administration.

Combat Rock,” – named in homage to the Clash’s album of the same name –  was an album created in the similarly stifling Thatcher era and is the most explicitly political track on One Beat. Opening with the lines, “They tell us there are only two sides to be on/ If you are on our side you're right, if not you're wrong,” as a commentary on the oppressive conformity encouraged by President Bush’s rhetoric, including his claim that “either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” These lyrics expose the growing security state of post-9/11 America and the tendency of any public dissent or questioning of the status-quo to be likened to treason. Even the Dixie-Chicks’ relatively mild comments reprimanding George Bush, asserting that they were ashamed that the President was from their home state of Texas, ignited boycotts and even death threats. Unlike the Dixie Chicks, Sleater-Kinney was presenting their music to the politically homogenous alternative music circle, for whom support for the President was almost universally out of favour. This gave Sleater-Kinney free reign to speak their minds. However, their commentary became a point of contention in 2003, when the band went on tour with Pearl Jam, whose fan-base is much more politically diverse, and were met with “boos” from the crowd whenever they admonished the President. Overall, the anger that any criticism of the Bush Administration incited proved Sleater-Kinney’s point; that American society had become conditioned to equate any form of political dissent with treason.

The song “Combat Rock” is backed by a mechanical, military-esque beat to reflect this sentiment. The song continues with an indictment of consumer culture with the lines “Show you love your country, go out and spend some cash / Red, white, blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam.” These lyrics ridicule the President’s advice to revitalize the nation’s spirit by embracing their economic freedom through unconstrained consumerism. The song concludes with the warning, “And if we let them lead us blindly/ The past becomes the future once again,” calling attention to the dangers of accepting the dominant isolationist and xenophobic narrative through an appeal to patriotism.

The album’s closing track, “Sympathy,” is a nod to the Rolling Stone’s “Sympathy for the Devil,” complete with cowbells and “oh-oh’s” but subverts the original meaning. Instead of looking for the Devil in the actions of ordinary men, “Sympathy” is a prayer thanking God for saving the life of Tucker’s prematurely-born child. The song speaks to the universal experience of motherhood and the desire to protect loved ones against the perceived evils of the world. Tucker exposes these anxieties with the lyrics “When the moment strikes / It takes you by surprise and / Leaves you naked in the face of death and life / There is no righteousness in your darkest moment / We’re all equal in the face of what we’re most afraid of.” With this, Tucker links her fears as a mother protecting her child to the fears the American government, soldiers, and firefighters felt each time they tried, and failed, to protect the American people. The song continues with the lines “And I’m so sorry / For those who didn’t make it / For the mommies who are left with their hearts breaking,” which links Tucker’s experience as a mother who nearly lost her son to all of the mothers who lost someone in the events of September 11th and the ensuing War on Terror. With this, One Beat concludes with an elegy lamenting all the lives lost in the terrorist attacks as well as society’s failed attempts to find sense in the senseless, tying Tucker’s personal experience of motherhood to the political upheaval in American society.

Sleater-Kinney’s One Beat is a testament to the power of music amidst a time of oppressive silence. Three women who knew something had to be said about the dismal state of American society veraciously shouted their criticisms to the world through music. During a time when American society was consumed by war, corruption, and fear, One Beat did not offer any easy solutions. Instead, it presented a form of musical sanity by embodying the anxieties and fears of world-shattering events on both personal and universal levels.