With major black and mainstream pop musicians effectively boycotting Donald Trump’s inauguration, event planners have been compelled to rely on artists with a large popular following who hail from culturally marginal genres. Classical crossover, a schlocky genre predicated on slavish devotion to a mirage of European high culture, is well-represented by the 16-year old platinum-selling plaster angel Jackie Evancho and a Utah YouTube quartet (5.3 million followers) named the Piano Guys. Country, whose core audience is eager to see the genre’s association with political conservatism reinforced, is even more prominent: Toby Keith and Big & Rich are the best known, but there are several other male country artists as well. There are various outgroup collectives whose bosses aim to curry favor with the incoming power: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the marching band from historically black Talladega College, and the white members of the Rockettes. There is DJ Ravi Drums, an Indian-American who has been seen on television and is 48 years old. There are, at least for now, the gospel singer Travis Greene and the R&B songstress Chrisette Michele. There’s Tony Orlando.
Donald Trump didn’t get elected president by being subtle. It shouldn’t be a shock that the self-nominated cultural representatives of Donald Trump’s America have motives that are as obvious as the man himself. They believe in putting nationalism over politics: “I hope to just kind of make everyone forget about rivals and politics for a second and just think about America and the pretty song that I’m singing,” said Evancho when interviewed on CBS. It’s a senseless proposition: Nationalism is always already politicized, and this is never more the case than when Trump, who campaigned by naked appeals to national self-interest and a violently exclusive conception of the nation, is the president due to be sworn in.
Yet the ethos of Trump won’t be best exemplified by the brazen jingoism of country as done by Toby Keith or Tony Orlando’s casino-grade crooning or the inorganic cleanliness of Jackie Evancho’s classical crossover, but by 3 Doors Down. Founded in 1996 in the Gulf Coast town of Escatawpa, Mississippi, 3 Doors Down is most easily classified by its lack of character. The band’s sound is not easily distinguishable from that of the multitude of rock bands that found radio and chart success around the turn of the millennium, Nickelback chief among them. These bands were retrospectively grouped together under the label of post-grunge rock, and for good reason: They labored in the shadow of Nirvana and benefited from its example. Kurt Cobain’s band had proven the possibility of fusing catchy, introspective lyrics with muddy guitars, and enormous popular success with the integrity of a marginal scene; though Cobain died in the process, his death hardly warned off potential imitators. Some things simply can’t be copied, though, and so a curious inversion took place in post-grunge. What the guitars gained in polish, the words lost in nuance; inner vision imploded into opaque self-pity, but the sound reduced itself to clarity. Their lyrical imprecision aside, post-grunge bands were precisely what Cobain feared he and his band was becoming: thoughtless chart-toppers with a knack for passing off sap as substance, narcissism as integrity.
Their chart success was no accident. Every culture has its own way of registering melancholia, the basic pain of existing: saudade, Weltschmerz, ennui, tizita, mono no aware. In this sense America, typically atypical, is no exception: For a culture that celebrates personal achievement above all else while shirking individual responsibility at any cost, self-pity is the primary mode of grasping suffering. Each one suffers from isolation, in isolation. When the world is reduced to the self, the self’s thrashings and failures take on global proportions, and whoever can describe this feeling in a plain and accessible language is bound to strike a chord — often literally, as was the case with 3 Doors Down & Co. They sold millions and millions of records by soundtracking a common sensation of self-centered sorriness: “I’m a loser, and sooner or later you know I’ll be dead.”
This wasn’t the only thing they shared in common with their audience, though, and here Cobain’s example is once more illustrative. His agonized performance of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” marked the final vital point of contact (the White Stripes’ museum-tier replications notwithstanding) between contemporary rock, generated by white Americans for white Americans, and the blues (themselves the specifically black American rendition of melancholia) from which rock music originated. The ‘90s marked the extinction of the line of black rock icons running from Chuck Berry to Hendrix to Funkadelic to Rick James and Prince, and the shift in mainstream rock marked by the emergence of post-grunge was as much a cause of rock’s resegregation as it was a symptom: The portentous aspect of its self-absorption was a note few Americans of color could credibly reproduce or willingly listen to.
A similar retrenchment took place regarding gender, as the assertiveness, electric androgyny, and polymorphous libido prevalent in pre-’90s rock yielded to a sullen, unequivocally straight masculinity. As the video for Nickelback’s career-defining hit “How You Remind Me” painfully reiterates, women no longer arouse by their presence so much as they disappoint by vanishing. (And the notion of a woman lead singer in a post-grunge band was unthinkable — the genre was defined by the impossibility of Joan Jetts and Princes alike.) You can purify the world of alien influences and keep your woman from leaving if you feel bad enough for yourself. This isn’t how the purveyors of post-grunge viewed themselves, but it does correspond to how their music played out in the field of culture.
The compatibility between the social and spiritual perspectives amplified by post-grunge and the revanchist right-wing politics of Trumpism seems fairly obvious, but it’s never more explicit than in the music video for 3 Doors Down’s own career-defining hit “Kryptonite.” As in the film Birdman, to which the video serves as an unwitting precursor, the protagonist is a repellent white man. Old, with disheveled hair, dressed in his underwear, his food infested with insects, he was once a superhero (or a superhero on television, it’s unclear). He watches reruns of his former self on TV. The old man is prepared to die in the city apartment he inhabits alone: You can tell because he releases a bird, representing his soul, from the window. Then he witnesses a scene in the hallway: A slickly dressed young man with stereotypically Latin features is manhandling a blonde-haired woman. The old white man decides to dress up in his old costume and save the white woman. But on his way he’s accosted by five young white people — you can tell by their punkish clothes and dyed hair that they’re cultural liberals. They shove him over. He perseveres, though, and his plotline eventually intersects with the shots of 3 Doors Down, backed by American flags, playing a concert in a club when he crashes through the concert venue skylight and flattens the swarthy man beneath him. In some ways, nothing has changed. The old man is still going to die soon. But the question the final scene, centered on his defiant thumbs-up, asks us to consider is a new one, or at least newly relevant in the light of the inauguration. This old man is preposterous and awful and doomed, but how many can he take down with him?