In 2002, George W. Bush was only in the second year of his first term as president of the U.S., but by that point he had already become one of the most divisive and polarizing figures in American history. The epitome of evil to some, a symbol of power and pride to many others–the mention of his name in any context could elicit hissing or chants of “USA! USA!” During the 2003 Riot Act tour, Pearl Jam received plenty of boos and cheers whenever they pulled out “Bu$hleaguer”. Where most of Pearl Jam’s political songs addressed ideals and events, this song was about a particular figure at a particular moment in history. Accordingly, no other Pearl Jam song shook up the band’s fanbase quite the same way.
As I’ve written before regarding political songs, they’re extremely tough for even the best artists to pull off. The biggest problem is that it’s easy for a writer to create their own strawmen, or become them. Devoting an entire song to Bush unfortunately makes it too easy for people to dismiss the song simply as another “Bush-hating” liberal attack job. Though there are real issues alluded to in the song, from nepotism to energy policy, but as the name of the song is “Bu$hleaguer”, otherwise interested listeners are already primed to tune out. Even in 2007, when many Republicans are starting to realize that the Bush presidency has been somewhere between a failure and absolute catastrophe, the song is a little tough to swallow–as if the target was too easy.
Contrast the line “born on third, thinks he got a triple”, with “a handsome face / that the president took for granted / writing checks that others pay.” While it’s clear to anyone listening to “World Wide Suicide” who that president is, the description of their attitude toward other people’s sacrifices is probably true for most presidents throughout history, just as most (but not all) U.S. presidents have come from privileged backgrounds. The baseball joke from “Bu$hleaguer”, while I might appreciate it, is a petty jab. Sure, it’s the tone of song to be wry and sarcastic, but it just isn’t as powerful as it could be.
Musically, however, the song is very interesting. Somewhere out there, a recording exists of Vedder singing the verses, but he ultimately speaks them in an almost improbably low grumble. For all of my queasiness about “I’m Open” and “I’m Still Here”, “Bu$hleaguer” is probably my favorite Vedder spoken word performance. Even though the humor doesn’t always win me over, the fact that the overall tone is humorous makes Vedder’s voice easier to listen to, as it rolls and tumbles over all kinds of interesting wordplay. Gossard’s music is at times dark, metallic, bruising–very dramatic, at other times casual and jangly. The lines “Blackout weaves its way through the city”, which I believe pre-date Vedder’s lyrics, feature some creepy-ass doubled vocals. This is my favorite part of the song, as well as the chorus–which suggests all sorts of shit the Bush administration has stirred up, from the botched, corporate-led “rebuilding” of Iraq, to the behind-closed-doors scripting of the nation’s energy policy, all without one-liners that make it too easy for someone to confuse putting a mask on mic-stand with “impaling” it.