Protest music has long been a vessel for calling out the names of oppressors, speaking truth to power, and releasing that dissent into the air. No matter the subject, airing specific grievances through song remains a powerful gesture, with sometimes intangible results.
While there will always be a platform for musicians to continue creating pointed protest songs, those who have given up on trying to understand existence have found greater success asking questions rather than claiming to know the answers. Blending elements of rock, new wave, post-punk, and noise, this inquisitive but accessible strain of indie rock stands out for its literary ambitiousness, morphing into a meta style that approaches existential ideas in lieu of concrete answers.
The most widely celebrated act making this type of music, LCD Soundsystem, returned this fall with American Dream, their first LP in seven years. The album dances its way through pervasive levels of existential dread, looking at existence through a widescreen lens — “Other Voices” mentions tinfoil hats and those with interests in manipulating public perceptions of time, while the title track addresses displacement of the self through the eyes of someone for whom the “American Dream” is ever out of reach.
There’s a vast array of thoughtful music similarly disguising its big ideas about the nature of existence in a more easily digestible shell. Artists like John Maus, Destroyer, and Wolf Parade pose big questions by wrapping them in familiar sounds, using mainstream aesthetics as a means for pushing ideas that are anything but.
Wolf Parade’s Cry Cry Cry, their first LP in seven years, owes much of its thematic inspiration to Hypernormalisation, a 2016 BBC documentary by Adam Curtis that the band watched while in the throes of recording.
Curtis’s documentary draws a grim, slightly conspiratory line connecting Brexit and the rise of Trump to a single moment in 1975, when New York City ran out of money and allowed itself to be bailed out by financial institutions. Curtis’s claim was that it was that moment when our government first realized that support from these institutions could bolster the illusion of a stable infrastructure, creating a status quo that could weather a changing world. He also suggests that all art perceived to be part of the “counterculture” is part of this illusory narrative, perpetuated to prevent any true revolutionary concepts from threatening the façade of a healthy capitalist society, and thus, preserving the powers that be.
As a three-hour, found-footage documentary, Hypernormalisation is a lot to take in. But channeled by Wolf Parade through the chugging, paranoid anthem “You’re Dreaming,” the glam-dusted prog of “Weaponized,” and the synth-rich agit-pop of “Artificial Life,” Curtis’s themes become palpable and digestible. Cry Cry Cry documents a darkly hyperbolic version of reality wherein our lives are consumed by technological overreach and pass under glass on tiny, shattered screens, when creatives have surrendered their cities to royalty and are “just part of the scenery.”
“If they were talking about this in Reuters, the whole façade would collapse,” says Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner. “Hypernormalisation in the mainstream would read like one of those Lovecraft tomes of forbidden knowledge, where if they were to confront it, they would go insane and the system would shut down.”
There’s a requisite level of artfulness required, though, for any musician hoping to infuse big ideas into music that still has a wide enough reach to pay the bills. Cry Cry Cry practices its most blatant moments of protest through a meta, mythological lens — in lieu of conjuring orange-skinned effigies or mentioning Trump’s name outright, for example, the album climaxes with the epic, blown-out tale of “The King of Piss and Paper.” “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” sings keyboardist Spencer Krug. “So we just hung it up, hung it up on the gossip tree.”
“It’s hard to make political art,” says Boeckner. “History is never kind to it.”
“When you’re too on the nose in songwriting, it narrows the audience a little bit, right?” says Krug. “To keep it a little more open-ended and open to interpretation means that whatever your message is might reach a wider audience.”
Krug’s words suggest that tackling questions of existence through songwriting render “existential pop” a new form of protest music, a wide-angled remedy to popular music’s hyperfocused practice of direct action through song. It turns out that in an era where there are endless things to protest, questioning the nature of existence proves to be the easier move for artists already thinking about such things.
Fresh off his doctorate in political philosophy, John Maus makes aggressively poppy music with the manic urgency of a man removed. Like Krug, he sings with a declarative and intense fervor, a bard standing outside his acropolis, warning the city of rising waters.
Maus uses the sloganeering of pop culture as a means of infusing philosophy into speedy rave-ups, addressing the fleeting effect that the process of time passing has on our consumption habits. Songs like the football-themed “Touchdown” and the He-Man/Star Trek–referencing “Edge of Forever” contemplate our complicit existence through a pop lens, with Maus cheekily urging listeners go “get your Gameboy” in the latter track. As Maus wraps his big ideas in widescreen synthesizers and references galore, his methods are different from Wolf Parade’s, but the existential aims are the same.
“I don’t mean to suggest that I stand outside of [pop culture] any more than I stand outside of English,” says Maus. “I don’t suppose that I could ever look at it from afar, I think that’d be very presumptuous. It’s the language that I’m meant to use. These are the concepts that I’m meant to mobilize, these sorts of images, these memes. If the idea is to somehow accomplish something [other] than the end that these mechanisms have in store for us, the best way to do that is at the vanguard they’re operating at. Existence is close to [a] consciousness that everybody’s prepared to suppose is understood in advance, but nobody’s even begun to scratch at that wormhole.”
Every artist’s reason for asking these big questions is a little bit different. While Maus’s indulgences are largely informed by his doctorate, Wolf Parade is interested in finding a palatable vessel for distilling matters like class privilege in artistic communities and technological ubiquity into a document of bawling catharsis.
These artists have found inspiration in pop existentialists past. Both American Dream and Cry Cry Cry allude to David Bowie, who plays the part of LCD Soundsystem’s late friend on “Blank Screen” and pop’s prototypical voice of otherworldly otherness on Wolf Parade’s “Am I an Alien Here?” Wolf Parade also alludes to Leonard Cohen, whose masterful, worldly summations of life’s duality made him a man removed from the protest music movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Krug sings about the seemingly profound timing of Cohen’s dying the night before Trump’s election, on “Valley Boy.”
“It’s just waxing poetic about the fact that he seemed to bow out right as Trump got in, right as the barbarians were banging down the door,” he says of the song. “There’s a line where he goes out on the back stairs. He’s just like, ‘Fuck this, I’m out! This house is burning down.’”
“My dad grew up in Cohen’s scene,” says Boeckner. “He used to drive him back to his hotel from his poetry performances at the university in Toronto. A lot of people who were maybe trying to cast a wider net with their writing maybe just rejected the dumb. I think of Country Joe and the Fish, basic sort of protest music. Which is fine, but it’s the ’60s equivalent of the American Idiot record. Did they stop a war in Vietnam? No! The Americans left in 1976. Cohen was smart enough and/or selfish enough to realize that.”
“He was certainly touched,” adds Maus. “There’s no doubt about that. But popular music as a genre enabled him to write the sort of verse that would have maybe been forbidden in a more lofty ivory tower answering to English poetry.”
Using pop culture as a device doesn’t always result in music that sounds poppy, though. Such is the case with Protomartyr, whose new record, Relatives in Descent, presents blistering post-punk stream of consciousness that offers no easy answers. A reference to Elvis, in Protomartyr’s case, grounds the album’s explorations of unfettered capitalism in excess from the outset.
On opening track “A Private Understanding,” front man Joe Casey remembers the second book in Peter Guralnick’s Elvis Presley biography, Careless Love. Elvis drives through Phoenix when he sees the face of Joseph Stalin in some clouds, which soon transforms to Jesus. “He’s searching for meaning, I guess,” says Casey. “After I put it in the song I found out that Al Stewart, who wrote ‘Year of the Cat,’ has a song he wrote after reading that book, specifically about Elvis driving through the desert (‘Elvis at the Wheel’). So it must be the best part.”
Casey isn’t surprised by the coincidence. “A lot of people’s first deep thoughts come from pop culture nowadays, where it used to be from religion or something,” he says. “When you first get frightened by a movie as a kid, that has as much of a profound effect on you as going to church.”
Not discounting the power to glean wisdom from the pop music that moves us as kids, Dan Bejar, who performs under the name Destroyer, credits the accessibility of his new album ken to a subconscious desire to honor the late-’80s pop melancholia embraced by U.K. artists from his youth, “certain dour, gray, mystic poet-rocker types” like the Cure’s Robert Smith or Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch.
“[It’s] less rambling, more simple and direct musically, as I was writing in these forms and thinking of this music of my teenage years,” he says. “I’ve started using very extreme terms in a very casual way, and it seems like every song refers to four or five things, steadily, throughout the record: terms of madness, violence, sickness, decadence, and depravity. And then a narrator who is seeking some form of isolation or escape, or just watching the shit go down through a peephole in a hovel.”
Bejar originally planned to call ken “The Rules of the Game,” a nod to the English translation of Jean Renoir’s film La Règle du Jeu and the title of the album’s closing track. While Renoir’s satirical comedy of manners delivers a scathing critique of the French upper class just before World War II, Bejar says his attraction to the film’s title was far more primal.
“At some point I started thinking of [the title] as some sort of prayer or mantra you could sing over and over again to America in a language that America wouldn’t understand,” he says. “It was an expression I couldn’t get out of my head, aside from the reference to the movie, as a group of words itself incredibly menacing and dark in ways I didn’t understand … a very, violent, vaguely apocalyptic expression. Maybe it’s the day and age we live in.”