EMA’s “False Flag”: Well, Here’s the 21st-Century Protest Song You’ve Been Asking For

One of the constant complaints you hear about the music of Kids These Days is that there are no ’60s-style protest songs written in the 21st century. It’s not true, although in general, 21st-century political songs are not so much impassioned declarations of intent as they are evocations of the uncertainty and ennui that characterize this century. But shit, if you’ve been wanting a visceral indictment of, well, everything, look no further than EMA’s incendiary “False Flag,” which she released yesterday via her page on DIY multimedia publishing platform New Hive. (And no, before you ask, it’s not some wacky conspiracy theory about 9/11 being a “false flag” attack — she’s repurposing the term, not getting all truther on us.)

It takes some gumption to put out a song like this on September 11th, especially as it explicitly references the World Trade Center attacks and identifies 9/11 as the day that has shaped the direction of the world in the 13 years since the Twin Towers came down. This isn’t exactly a revolutionary observation, of course — there’s a whole lot of shit that’s happened post-9/11 that you can trace back to that crazy, terrifying day, for better or worse, and politicians everywhere were quick to exploit its potential as a pretext for a lot of policy that might otherwise have been indefensible. This isn’t revisionist thinking, either — as early as October 2001, people were decrying the way that the Bush government politicized the tragedy and used it as the pretext for a whole lot of questionable policy, both foreign and domestic.

What’s most interesting to me about “False Flag,” though, is that it’s the first song I’ve heard about the experience of growing up in the shadow of 9/11. On her Twitter, EMA called the song a “lost generation take on 9/11,” and the lyrics deal with something that few artists so far have done a particularly good job of approaching: the fact that the millennial generation is the first one in many years to grow up with no expectation that the world they inherit will be on an upward trajectory. The oil’s running out, the planet’s heating up, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting screwed. It’s may or may not actually be all doom and gloom, of course, but there’s a stark difference between the direction the world is heading for the millennials and the direction it was headed for several generations that preceded them.

Much of that direction, of course, was set on 9/11 and in its immediate aftermath — and much of the frustration of “False Flag” seems rooted in a sense that things could have been different. It’s easy to forget just how the world felt immediately after 9/11. The immediate sense was that, yes, this changed everything — but no one was quite sure how. There was a weird time, for a couple of weeks, when it felt like everything had been reset and the future was wide open. Nobody really knew what the attacks meant. They were so unprecedented that everything just sort of stopped dead for a while, and for a fleeting moment there was a sense that some sort of post-9/11 consensus might endure, and change the world to the better: no more internecine partisan bitching in Congress, no more populist anti-Americanism in the world at large (it’s also easy to forget the huge amount of global goodwill that was directed toward America after the attacks).

It all sounds hopelessly idealistic now, but that’s really how it felt: like that horrific day might at least lead to fundamental changes for the better. It wasn’t to be, of course — within a month, George W. Bush and co. were busy pissing it all away with the implementation of the Patriot Act and the invasion of Afghanistan, then the futile and ultimately disastrous invasion of Iraq, and the ongoing war on an abstract noun. And 9/11 provided a convenient pretext for all of it.

It’s this that I think of when I hear EMA declare that “everything’s fucked and the future was stolen.” Because for all that people like to bitch and moan about the millennial generation, it’s them who have to live in the world that we leave them. And that world changed radically with 9/11 — it became a world of perpetual war, of fear and propaganda, and of forever taking your shoes off for the TSA. It became a world where companies like Halliburton reaped huge profits from the invasion of Iraq, and surplus military equipment ended up in the hands of police, to disastrous effect. The post-9/11 consensus is a distant memory, Congress is divided as ever, and our entire political discourse continues to shift rightwards.

It all comes back to the day the towers came tumbling down. Of course, every generation defines the world for the next, but rarely, if ever, has there been such a prominent moment where a direction was chosen, where we stood at a crossroads and decided which way to head. The maddening thing is that America’s course was set by a lot of men who’ll be dead long before the results of their actions will. It’s this, I think, that EMA’s song rails most furiously against — that one of the most traumatic events in American history was hijacked for short-term, partisan ends, and it’s her generation who’ll have to pick up the pieces.

I suspect some of the alleged ennui and escapism that characterizes the art of this generation — from the faux nostalgia of chillwave through the resurgence of pop music and the current fondness for wordless, visceral EDM — is driven by a similar feeling. As R.E.M. pointed out, paraphrasing Richard Linklater, “withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.” And, of course, it’s easier to focus on the personal when the big picture seems both overwhelmingly bleak and beyond your power to change.

EMA, bless her, is having none of this — her judgement of her peers is as severe as that of her forebears: “My generation just rolled over/ Nothing to say but a lump in our throats.” The kicker, though, comes with the line that’s repeated as the song fades out: “The worst part is we lost faith in ourselves/ And that was the real wound.” It seems that, perhaps, in recent years her generation has been in the process of rediscovering that faith — for all its failings, Occupy Wall Street was a youth-based movement for change born out frustration at America’s ever-increasing inequality, and it was rooted in a feeling that direct action might be able to effect some sort of change. What happens next remains to be seen — as EMA’s own album title noted, the future is void — but for better or worse, it’s her generation who’ll be living the results.