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What Is The Future Of Political Music In The Trump Era?

“How do you address something that is so heavy?”

by Grant Rindner

There are about a million words that a listener would use to describe the music Wild Nothing makes before they got to “angry” or “rebellious.” But on November 9, Jack Tatum and his band ripped through their typically serene setlist with a sense of urgency and outrage, recasting practically every track in a new light. Hearing Tatum address the crowd at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge and turn his placid songs into something political was the second-most surreal thing to happen to me that day, besides realizing the irony that Chicago’s most soulless, empty calorie building, which I walk past nearly every day, bears the name of the next president.

“My music is not political in any way, and so it became this thing of how do you address something that is so heavy and has so many consequences for so many different types of people when really that has never been my approach,” Tatum says a few weeks after the show. “I always felt like, ‘Well my music can be separate.’ But now things really do feel different, where it’s like I don’t know what the right approach is from here on it.”

His comments speak to a larger question that looms over us as Trump's presidency has approached: What will political music sound like in this frightening and unpredictable era? Yes, artists have been standing for causes and against ill-intentioned and incompetent politicians for decades, but they face a new challenge in the demagogic Trump administration that we’ve never quite witnessed before. The government under the likes of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush was heavily criticized by musicians for the actions they took, but even those leaders didn’t rise to power on the wave of fear-stoking and often race-baiting rhetoric that put Trump and his vassals in the catbird seat.

The ‘60s and ‘70s produced some iconic and diverse political records, from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, which was inspired by his brother’s difficult acclimation after serving in Vietnam, to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio,” which was inspired by both the Vietnam War and the Kent State Shooting. Folk played a massive role in the early days of protest music, and artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Woody Guthrie were on the forefront, employing the genre’s intimate, stripped-down, rambling style to deliver vital messages. Acts like Bob Marley and The Wailers brought a reggae flair and an outsider’s perspective to issues like civil rights.

Protest music from the ‘80s and ‘90s benefitted from the growth of rap (and its subgenres), as waves of police brutality like the Rodney King beating inspired artists like N.W.A. (and later Ice Cube’s solo work), KRS-One, and Mos Def to make gritty rap that reflected these harsh realities. One of the most prominent targets of that era, Ronald Reagan, is still referenced in dozens of records each year. Artists like Rage Against the Machine channeled similar sentiments into arresting verses and guitar lines, albeit with a nu metal/rap rock sound that can feel more than a bit gimmicky in 2017.

It’s also important to note just how much the music has changed in the time since the last widely criticized administration was in office. While protest music was certainly written during the Obama era, and even some that criticized the president directly, the brunt of it was aimed at more systemic issues like police brutality, race relations, and same-sex marriage and typically didn’t implicate decisions made by the president’s administration. The last roundly criticized American leader—at least in popular culture—was George W. Bush, whose handling of the Iraq War and the U.S. economy united everyone from legendary rock stars and rappers to country singers against him.

But that was a very long time ago. Back when Bush was in office, Kanye was willing to go off script on national television to not only hit the president with a haymaker but also blast the way black people were portrayed by the media in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Now, Mr. West is meeting with the new president at Trump Tower (ostensibly to discuss “multicultural issues”), posting a signed copy of Trump’s Time cover on Twitter, and delaying his oft-discussed presidential run until 2024, which in light of this election is tough to simply shrug off as Kanye being Kanye and is proof of just how much culture has shifted.

The Bush era produced some arresting and important music. Lil Wayne’s “Georgia…Bush” is both technically impressive and unflinching in encapsulating the anti-Bush mindset post-Katrina and Sleater-Kinney’s “Off With Your Head,” from the Rock Against Bush compilation series, is more lyrically abstract but equally defiant. Bright Eyes’ “When the President Talks to God” is incredibly on-the-nose, but its no-nonsense production (Conor Oberst and an acoustic guitar, nothing else) and prescience more than a decade later—the phrase “Does he ask to rape our women’s rights?” is even more brutally appropriate—make it more enduring than most of the protest music from that era.

Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis, whose debut solo album as Sad13 dealt with topics like consent and gender inequality while maintaining a punkish spirit and sense of humor, credits political music from the Bush era with inspiring her own musical conscience.

“I think the first ‘protest’ music that clicked for me was The Specials, one of my favorite bands when I was in elementary school—and still,” Dupuis says. “I was 12 when GWB was first inaugurated, and, as I became a teen, I started to have a sense of my own political identity during his first term. Sleater-Kinney and Bright Eyes were especially meaningful to me at that point, and, certainly, influenced when I started to write my own songs around that time.”

But there’s also plenty of music from the early 2000s that feels incredibly dated in that way that makes us look back with little more than a bashful sense of nostalgia. A record like Green Day’s American Idiot worked in 2004 because it captured the generalized, holistic anger people were feeling. But that kind of operatic, heart-on-the-sleeve rock rebellion simply couldn't have the same sticking power in 2016, and that’s due as much to the change in the political climate as it is in our shift toward a more complex musical palette. Need proof? No one is holding up Green Day’s latest, Revolution Radio, as an example of the kind of music we should be making to oppose the Trump agenda. Part of that is likely because the record is far less urgent than American Idiot— it seems to want the political label but not take any defined stances besides stock progressive opinions. But another part of the equation is far more instructive for the future: We need a lot more than white guy guitar rock to fight Trump.

Perhaps the most encouraging difference between protest music in the early 2000s and protest music in this decade has been the rise of artists with a different perspective, as well as a stronger commitment by artists on the forefront to use their platform to not only fight oppression and marginalization but also to champion identities and ideas in a way that affirms their importance and place in our society

As the music industry has changed and representation has grown more diverse, we’re fortunate to have artists using their cultural and ethnic background to explore and explain forms of persecution that are alien to many listeners. Showing listeners a new perspective has always been one of the great powers of music, and it’s been utilized brilliantly by artists like Stevie Wonder (“You Haven’t Done Nothin’”) and Grand Master Flash & The Furious Five (“The Message”) in classic political tracks over the past several decades.

Today, we have artists like Run the Jewels, who offer the wisdom of decade-plus careers battling the forces of evil, but also takes on a given issue from both a black Southern and white Northeastern standpoint, often within the same verse. They’ve also perfected a shared anti-hero persona that is late period Walter White-level delicious. Swet Shop Boys, the rap duo of Heems and Riz Ahmed (The Night Of, Rogue One), offer similarly bombastic rap but from Indian-American and British-Pakistani standpoints, respectively. Their track “T5,” about airport security discrimination, is pitch-perfect satire, delivered humorously over-the-top but with a chilling central message.

Xenia Rubinos blends neo-soul, R&B, punk, and hip-hop and uses that eclectic canvas for powerful lyrics about the day-to-day experience of Latinx people in America. Her record “Mexican Chef” makes it abundantly clear which group of people gets stuck with the thankless tasks that keep your life (and the nation) running smoothly.

“I don't see my music as politically conscious; I'm telling stories of my experience and that of those around me and trying to understand better who I am, where I come from, and where I want to be. My approach is not dependent on who's president,” Rubinos says, citing tracks by Nina Simone, Pablo Milanes, De La Soul, and Kendrick Lamar as examples of socially conscious music that has resonated with her.

And if you need more proof of this shift in political music, just look at the records released last year by the Knowles sisters. 

While the logline for Beyoncé’s Lemonade was focused on infidelity, it was also hugely affirming of a black female identity in a time of escalating racial and gender hostility with tracks like “Formation” and “Freedom.” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” from Solange’s A Seat at the Table isn’t Super Bowl-sized like her sister’s music, but it’s even more fiercely autonomous, taking pride in the aspects of her physical identity that are objectified with a paternalistic, condescending fascination. On “F.U.B.U.” (which Rubinos sent me as another example of socially conscious songwriting), she strives to carve out a cohesive black space free of harassment and racism, while providing her son and the next generation of black youth the fuel to continue the fight.

The idea behind F.U.B.U., of carving out shared spaces and collective identities, is one that will surely play a large role in the future of protest music. Our relationship with music has grown more personal in a lot of ways since the ‘60s and ‘70s—we carry it in our pockets and do most of our listening in headphones—but given the increase in hate crimes and broader hostility, it’s important that political music be used not only as inspiration but also as refuge.

Dupuis sees the role of artists helping to establish communities as being particularly crucial right now.

“I don't know if [Trump’s election will] be a change for the individual artists' processes, so much, but perhaps more of a change in the communities we build together, and the efforts we focus on collectively—whether those are more fundraising shows and compilations or an increased attention to making arts spaces more inclusive and supportive for those who are clearly unwelcome in Trump's bigoted America,” says Dupuis.

Rubinos says she has been making inclusiveness a focal point of her recent shows.

“For a few shows I worked with the promoter and venues to invite community groups and activists who are advocating for POC, LGBTQ, women, and other marginalized groups in their town,” she says. “We reach out to these groups and offer them tickets to the show and invite them to bring materials about their groups to hand out and just let them know that not only are they welcome in that space, but I want them to be there.”

Even Tatum saw that power less than 24 hours after Trump’s election.

“That whole day leading up to the show, I was dreading it… I don’t think it was really even until we got up there to play that the more cathartic elements of what playing music does revealed themselves,” he says. “That’s what music can do for us at a very base level, not even talking about music as a form of political protest, but just music, period. There is the power to make people feel better and feel more optimistic about life.”  

Though not a live event, writer Dave Eggers co-organized 30 Days, 30 Songs, which eventually ballooned to 30 Days, 50 Songs over the course of the project and included artists from Death Cab for Cutie and Open Mike Eagle to Aimee Mann. The compilation received a lot of press, in part due to Eggers involvement, and its genre-spanning, Spotify-embracing nature does point to a powerful way for artists to come together and make a united stand in an era where more and more people slice albums into playlist fodder. Political protest compilations were around in the Bush era, too, but it’s the rare music industry idea from the early 2000s that actually has more utility today.

The songs here ranged from the explicit (Ledinsky’s “DonaldTrumpMakesMeWannaSmokeCrack”) to the more abstract and narrative-driven (Open Mike Eagle’s “How to Be Super Petty to Your Ex”), highlighting the need for music to tackle the tremendous challenge of battling not only Trump as a political figure but also the intolerance and close-mindedness his Twitter army traffics in. When taken as a whole, 30 Days, 50 Songs serves as a mosaic of how diverse music is today, and how many different sonic alphabets we have for opposing the looming administration. And now, the same people behind this project have launched Our First 100 Daysby donating $30 (which goes to causes ranging from immigration reform to LGBTQ rights to community building in Indiana) supporters are given access to unreleased music by everyone from Angel Olsen to Whitney to Wild Nothing.

So with all that said, what exactly is the future of protest music, and how is it different than what we’ve heard in the past?

George W. Bush had plenty of failures that warranted critique, but his presidency wasn’t as buoyed by intolerance as Trump’s looks to be (for example, his administration went to great lengths to avoid the phrase “Radical Islamic Terrorism,” while Trump’s probably has it hanging in every door frame like it’s their “Play Like a Champion Today” sign).

It has to not only take the president to task for policy failings but offer some respite for those who feel the impact of their decisions and rhetoric every day. There has to be anger, but it can’t simply be the raw indignation of the early 2000s. It needs to come not only from Xenia Rubinos and Swet Shop Boys but also artists like Wild Nothing who may be stretching into new territory as songwriters.

Trump is going to do and say things every week that warrant the harshest of criticism, and many of his supporters are also going to make everyday life divisive and stressful. From that perspective, Sad13’s “MCGA” is already offering a new angle that will be crucial in a more stratified world; it’s a record about how to have uncomfortable conversations, in this case with friends and family you see over the holidays who voted for Trump. With the spread of Twitter, Facebook, and think pieces, we’ve grown a lot more attune to how we have conversations, which is a quality that hasn’t always been present in political music and needs to be going forward.

There’s also the question of whether, given how our relationship with artists and information has shifted, we really need singers to return to railing against specific issues. There are plenty of people who can tell you when Trump lies or why his actions are harmful, do you really need to be getting that from music too?

The answer may still be yes for the most part, but it seems like the trend for protest music is moving more toward affirming and upholding the importance of minority identities and the specific experiences that encapsulate them. Beyoncé is doing this, it’s the reason Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” might be the most important political record of the decade, and countless newer acts are writing their realities as protest music too. The all-consuming anger of the Bush era might often feel like what’s necessary, but it won’t have the lasting, perspective-widening effect that we need from music during a regime that seems committed to pitting groups of people against one another.

But one thing we’re sure of is that there will still be room for YG’s “FDT.”