“Being an optimist there is this part of me — especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively — I’m like, ‘This is our moment.’ Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again. We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.” — Amanda Palmer, of the Dresden Dolls, speaking a month after Trump’s election.
“President Trump’s gonna make punk rock great again? Well, when I picture that, I imagine a ham-fisted, slapped-together punk song with lyrics about Trump directly, like, quoting his shitty tweets, and other things that will be date the track nearly instantly.” — Ryan Walsh, of Hallelujah the Hills, speaking in an interview earlier this month.
At some point not long into this presidential election, you surely heard someone say something to the effect of — “Well, at least we’ll get some good music out of it.” When I first heard it, I cringed. The idea that good art would be the country’s salvation was bizarre. Just as off, though, was the idea that an artist responding directly to a news cycle could be a productive way to make good art.
One year in to Trump’s presidency and we have indeed been flooded with “resistance anthems.” For the most part they have all been complete trash. And what a wide variety of trash!
Some have come from the well-intentioned old guard. The ’60s folk vanguard Joan Baez put out a song called “Nasty Man” full of shouts about a “future dictator” with “dangerous pathological disasters.” Billy Bragg just went ahead and redid Dylan, shoving in lyrics about “Mexicans, Muslims, LGBT, and Jews” into what he called “The Times They Are A-Changing Back.”
Fiona Apple got in the mix with a little awkward throwaway called “Tiny Hands.”We don’t want your tiny hands,” she mumbled, “anywhere near our underpants.” Via The Hamilton Mixtape we got a thudding number called “Immigrants (We Get The Job Done),” featuring a carefully curated selection of multicultural artists. Never one to be out-earnest-ed, Macklemore gave us “Wednesday Morning,” a reaction to election night. “When she wakes up, will the world be the same?” he cooed. “Will my girl be afraid in the home of the brave?”
Toward the end of the year Eminem parachuted in with quite possibly the worst offender. It was a BET freestyle called “The Storm” and it was four and a half minutes of impotency. “Fork and a dagger in this racist 94-year-old grandpa / Who keeps ignoring our past historical, deplorable factors,” he huffed with righteousness. Everyone seemed to love it. The words “demolish” and “shredded” and “ethered” were thrown around a lot.
The problem is the pedantry. Everything here is unblinkingly correct and on message. These are direct responses to a massive social upheaval that carry all the fury of a college application essay.
Over the last century, with regularity, waves of American protest music have cropped up in conjunction with a dizzying array of social movements: labor, civil rights, anti-war. In the ’60s, then-ascendant, now-iconic acts flooded the streets with righteous yearning. At their best the songs echoed true populism, and felt universal because of it. (At their worst they, too, were predictable and pedantic.) But consciously or otherwise, when people say “We’ll get some good music out of this” about Trump, they’re echoing a much narrower, less fruitful genre than popped up in the early ’80s: anti-Reagan punk. It was a strange, interesting time — bands were actually naming themselves things like Reagan Youth! But most of that rapid response material hasn’t lasted, and with good reason.
Here’s Paul Westerberg of the Replacements (via Bob Mehr’s Trouble Boys) explaining why his band never fell into the wave: “There’s nothing that bores me more than a hard-core band that says Reagan sucks. That’s about as overused and easy and silly as ‘Let’s make love tonight, baby.’ I mean, yeah, Reagan sucks — so?”
The songs of the Trump era that have worked have been more sly and less concerned with propriety. In December Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan went solo with an acoustic release that captured the jokey pessimism so much of the country was stuck in. Things would be better in 2018, because they couldn’t be as bad as 2017: “Happy New Year/ Prince can’t die again.” Before Trump’s election we had YG and Nipsey Hussle’s “Fuck Donald Trump,” an angry song that doesn’t feel the need to yell to make its point. There’s no indignation; there’s no gasping about national values. It’s honest and simple and direct. Just as catchy, though, was a track called “CIT4DT” from teen Baltimore rappers Dooley, Tlow, and Lor Roger. Winkingly, they chanted “We got a choppa in the trunk / for Donald Trump.”
For my money, though, only one band managed to look Trump in the eyes and to write a truly great song while doing it — to channel a modern energy and a topical news story and make a banger out of it. That’s Downtown Boys from Providence, Rhode Island. And that song is “A Wall.”
We hear a rolling bass line, some smashed downstroke guitar, and a rising saxophone. Then, the powerhouse vocalist Victoria Ruiz punches in for work: “How much is enough?!! And who makes that call?!!!” The call and response vocals kick in: “Fuck yeah!” The guitar goes squirrelly and sideways. But it all comes back up for the big shouts. “From the broad side — to the hidden side — a wall is a wall — a wall is just a wall.”
It’s a response to an infamous campaign promise. It’s defiant — classically, punkishly defiant. “You can’t ball the fuck on us — I won’t let that go!” But it’s also resigned and nihilistic. And so it’s truer to our times. “A wall is a wall — and nothing more at all,” Ruiz shouts, and we’re left to make of that what we will.
Downtown Boys are big Bruce Springsteen fans. You can hear it here — in the sax, but also in the fuzzier, woozier, ephemeral bits. I interviewed Ruiz once about her love of Bruce. To my surprise, she explained it via “Dancing in the Dark” — a great song, to be sure, but also one of his cheesier, synth-ier ’80s hits. The song, she said, is “all about desiring darkness to feel free in. And I think that people of color, who are dark, we feel the word so often comes off as negative: It’s associated with death, or the antagonist. That reclaiming of the word ‘dark’ — I think it really works for Downtown Boys.” That says a lot about this band — they can reimagine “Dancing in the Dark” as a rallying cry for the oppressed.
Political music is handicapped by its ambitions. There’s a place and a time to talk policy and it’s not in song lyrics. When any music is preemptively presented as “political” I think of it as Walsh describes it above — ham-fisted, instantly dated. And most of the time, that’s true. But a song like “A Wall” reminds us that it’s worth trying, because it’s possible to pull this off with grace. “A Wall” is not pedantic, it’s not proper, and it’s not about Trump. Not really. It’s about what it feels like, right now, to be alive.