January 4, 2003
A familiar refrain among some music fans in the early 21st century was that they just wanted the artists to keep politics out of their songs. Of course, this is bullshit. Politics has always been entwined with pop music for as long as the genre has existed. And usually the people who get offended when politics rears its head are offended because it's not their politics receiving a voice.
"When I'm Gone" is not a political song. Ideally this would be a boring column about a band missing their families while they toured. But that would only exist in a world where the 9/11 attacks didn't happen and George W. Bush didn't decide to invade Iraq. And when 3 Doors Down decided to use an alternate version of the video for the song to show support for that invasion, it left a rotten feeling inside me.
Brad Arnold was born in 1978 in Escatawpa, Mississippi. Arnold began writing songs in high school and eventually formed what would become 3 Doors Down with friends Matt Roberts and Todd Harrell. The band's name came about when they were in a town in Alabama for a show and saw a sign that said "Doors Down", adding 3 because there were three members in the group at the time. Even though the trio became a quartet when Chris Henderson joined the group as rhythm guitarist, the name stuck. I guess once you start printing the merch, it's hard to turn around and start all over again if the name doesn't make sense anymore.
The band toured the southern United States and generated some buzz at local radio stations with a demo CD they recorded. Soon the band was playing CBGBs in New York and scored a record deal with Republic Records. They spent 1999 recording their debut album The Better Life, and the record was released in February 2000.
The first single from the album, "Kryptonite", was originally on the demo CD that was making the rounds at southern radio stations. Arnold wrote the song in math class when he was 15, an origin story that's dear to my heart. It's also an absolute fucking banger. The song supposes that Superman is fed up with superhero and just wants to be loved for who he is. There's a menacing feeling to the song that I just loved. The guitars are spare in the beginning and then explode alongside Arnold's voice in the chorus. The video was also some kind of weird, with an elderly, has-been superhero still trying to relive his glory days.
The song was a slow burn in establishing the band nationally, but it did the job. It reached #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart in May 2000 where it spent 11 weeks at the top. Soon it crossed over to pop radio, ultimately peaking at #3 on the Hot 100 in November. It lasted long enough that it sat at #4 on my very first top 40 chart in January 2001. If I had started the chart a few months earlier, "Kryptonite" probably would've been the song kicking off this column.
Three more singles came from the album, and they all reached my top 40. "Loser" and "Duck and Run" both scraped the bottom of my chart, while "Be Like That", fueled by a pop crossover, peaked at #2 on my top 40 in the fall of 2001. The singles' collective success fueled The Better Life to move more than seven million copies in the United States. The band toured extensively behind the record, and hired a permanent drummer so that Arnold, who also played drums on the record, could focus on singing.
While the band was touring in Europe, the band wrote "When I'm Gone" along with other songs that would make the cut for their second album. Arnold's narrator is reflecting on how his interior life is so different from the persona he shows the world. "There's another world inside of me that you may never see/there's secrets in this life that I can't hide". He's looking for light in the darkness and is afraid he may never find it, or just is not able to.
Arnold sings the song with the trademark intensity he brought to "Kryptonite" and other songs from the band's debut. The original video for the song adds to this unease. The band performs in a muddy field, while a funeral march passes by and men dig the band's grave around them. The southern gothic feel of the clip is pretty wild. I loved seeing the video whenever it was on TV. The image of Arnold singing while up to his face in mud, and kids throwing flowers on them was a kind of weirdness that absolutely ate up. It was enough for me that the song managed to sneak in for a week on top of my chart at the beginning of 2003 interrupting Queens of the Stone Age's run with "No One Knows".
Back in October 2002, with the United States already having invaded Afghanistan in response to 9/11, and President Bush leading the country toward invading Iraq, 3 Doors Down performed for service members on the USS George Washington while it was stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. This in itself was not controversial. But when the band pulled the original version of the video in favor of one showing clips of the band's performance on the George Washington, with the country only a couple weeks away from invading Iraq, that didn't sit well at all with me.
Reading the lyrics, the song definitely makes sense from the perspective of a service member stationed overseas. But with the country on the precipice of what many Americans believed at the time could be a calamitous confict, I had a big problem with this video. It felt like the band's decision to replace the video was idealizing war and the military in general, and not the sacrifice individual service members were going to make. Fuck that. I didn't like the idea that a song that had nothing to do with war was essentially being used as propaganda for a war I wanted nothing to do with.
Less seriously, I was annoyed that the original version of the video was being memory-holed into history due to the Iraq invasion. While the live version of the video has been on 3 Doors Down's YouTube page for over a decade, the original version didn't appear there until June 2023. You could find it on other unofficial channels, but the quality looked like it was recorded with a potato.
Other artists felt compelled to weigh on the war, either though their music or at concerts. The most egregious example in my mind was Darryl Worley's odious warmongering country song "Have You Forgotten?". It was a quintessential example of the mindset many Americans had that if you didn't want to invade another country, even one that had nothing to do with 9/11, you were un-American and dishonoring the memories of the victims of the terrorist attacks.
On the other side of this was the (Dixie) Chicks. At a concert in London shortly before the invasion, Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines registered her disapproval of the war and said she was ashamed George W. Bush was from her home state of Texas. Needless to say, this did not go over well with country music audiences. The band was enjoying the biggest hit of their career at the time with their cover of Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide", but after news of Maines' comments broke, the band's music pretty much disappeared from the radio. They became arguably the most famous example of the cancel culture that hypocritical right-wing commentators now regularly rail against. (On my top 40, "Landslide" peaked at #8 and probably would've gone higher had radio programmers kept some nerve about the situation.)
As for 3 Doors Down, "When I'm Gone" helped make their follow-up album, Away from the Sun, another big hit, moving over 4 million copies. Three other singles were released from the album, with third single "Here Without You" becoming the band's third and final top 10 hit on the Hot 100. On my chart, none of the singles approached the success of "When I'm Gone". "Here Without You" got as high as #23, and "The Road I'm On" and "Away from the Sun" just barely cracked the top 40.
The band continued to be a durable entity on the pop and rock charts throughout the 2000s. On my chart, they scored one more top ten hit with "It's Not My Time", the first single from their self-titled fourth album. Perhaps tinged with some nostalgia for their less controversial days in my mind, the song got all the way to #2 on my top 40 in July 2008. That was the last time they've been on my top 40. The band released two more albums in the 2010s, but neither one approached the success the band enjoyed in the early 2000s. Matt Roberts left the band in 2012 due to health issues and died of a prescription drug overdose in August 2016. Since then, the band has yet to release new material.
About the only notoriety the band has received in the last few years was when they performed at Donald Trump's inauguration in 2017. They were ridiculed at the time for basically being the best artist who would show up to the event. Of course, anyone familiar with their history wouldn't have been surprised at their presence there. We won't be seeing 3 Doors Down in this column again, and if we're lucky, we won't see them at the 2025 presidential inauguration either.
Eminem's iconic, me-against-the-world anthem "Lose Yourself" peaked at #3 behind "When I'm Gone". You only get one shot; do not miss your chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime, yo.