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Michael's Number Ones: "Megalomaniac" by Incubus



DATE

WEEKS

February 21, 2004

2


Here's one thing I remember very clearly about the 2000s: George W. Bush was not a good president. He surrounded himself with lying fucks like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, and got the country into two wars that ultimately did little to change the status quo in the Middle East after 9/11, but cost taxpayers over a trillion dollars and irrevocably changed the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers and their families. To say nothing of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.


By the end of 2003, it was clear that the war in Iraq wasn't going to be as smooth as the Bush administration promised it would be. I touched on how the music industry responded to the buildup to the war when I discussed "When I'm Gone" by 3 Doors Down. But once people realized the war was going to be a quagmire, artists started feeling emboldened to speak out against it, and against George W. Bush.


Artists have used music to speak out for or against causes pretty much since the radio was invented. If you believe Brandon Boyd of Incubus, then "Megalomaniac" isn't explicitly about Bush. But that doesn't really matter; if anything, the song is prescient in describing a world where politicians are worshipped like celebrities.



Incubus's 2001 album Morning View became their highest charting album in the United States, peaking at #2 and going double platinum. Spurred on by that success, the band decided to experiment more with their sound on their next album, A Crow Left of the Murder. Incubus may have rode in on the nu metal wave of the late 90s, but they never fit comfortably within that space. It's probably why they were able to last as long as they did.


"Megalomaniac" would be the first single from the album. Despite being one of the heaviest singles in Incubus's catalog, Mike Einzinger initially composed the song on an acoustic guitar. Boyd claims he didn't have George W. Bush in mind when writing the song, but was referring generally to "power crazed people and their destructive behavior."


If there was a specific person in mind for Boyd when writing the song, it was a fictional one. Boyd claims he was inspired by the villain in the 1986 comedy Three Amigos. In that film, Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short play silent film actors who are recruited to take down a Mexican warlord named El Guapo. I probably watched the movie on cable when I was a kid, but the trailer looks dumb as fuck.



"Megalomaniac" wouldn't have been nearly as relevant if El Guapo was the only inspiration for the song. Boyd's narrator is talking to someone who sounds like they have a serious cult of personality: they're on the radio, they're permeating his screens. Whoever this person is sees themselves in the right, but Boyd sees through the charade: "If I met you in a scissor fight, I'd cut off both your wings on principle alone."


The chorus is where Boyd really devastates the megalomaniac: "You're no Jesus, yeah you're no fucking Elvis. Wash your hands clean of yourself, baby, and step down, step down, step down." There's an anger to Boyd's voice during the song, and I think it resonated deeply with me and everyone else upset at a war that was taking place under false pretenses.


I'm not going to pretend the song doesn't apply to George W. Bush. Saying "you're no Jesus" feels like an explicit call-out to the ascendancy of evangelical Republicans during the 2000s, a group Bush considered himself a part of. Boyd later sings, "all of us are heaven-sent, and there was never meant to be only one."


Of course, there have been plenty of people in the past for which the song could apply more directly. And then you have Donald Trump, who in 2004 began burnishing his false reputation as a successful businessman with the reality show The Apprentice. Trump had already flirted with presidential runs prior to that. Personally, I thought he was a joke when I was nine years old. Now? Well, if anyone's ever thought themselves to be a combination of Jesus and Elvis, it's that motherfucker.


The video for the song, directed by Floria Sigismondi, drives the point home. There's images of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Joseph Stalin dispersed throughout the clip. Hitler is shown flying through the sky with airplane and angel wings. A man bearing a vague resemblance to George W. Bush stands behind a gas pump as he directs police to assault protesters. A family feeds a baby crude oil. If you didn't understand what the song was about by this point, you were leading a blissful existence that I would've been insanely jealous of.


The video got constant airplay on Fuse; always ones to shy away from a controversy, MTV relegated the video to late night airplay on their channels. This was in the wake of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake's "wardrobe malfunction" at that year's Super Bowl Halftime Show, which raised the ire of the FCC, not to mention the evangelicals who comprised Bush's base. There were a handful of videos that got this treatment at the time, but "Megalomaniac" was the only one that didn't have sexual content in it. (Janet Jackson's biggest hit on my chart, 2001's "All for You", peaked at #5. Justin Timberlake's biggest hit, 2013's "Mirrors", peaked at #11.)



Despite, or probably because of, the song's content, it was a major hit on alternative radio, topping the Modern Rock chart for six weeks, and getting to #55 on the Hot 100. It may have also given license for other artists to air their political grievances without fear of getting shunned by the mainstream. One artist in particular rode that discontent to one of the most successful albums of the century, and they'll be in this column a few times soon.


As for Incubus, they weren't done with songs inspired by a possibly dystopian present. We will see them again in this column soon.


THE NUMBER TWOS

Evanescence's magnificently gorgeous tearjerker, "My Immortal", peaked at #2 behind "Megalomaniac". It captivates me by its resonating light.




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