Why You Shouldn't Trust Indie Rock With Your Protest Music
It's Kendrick and Beyoncé—not Death Cab For Cutie and Jim James—leading the charge.
BY Miles Raymer | Oct 13, 2016 | Music
On Monday, Death Cab for Cutie released "Million Dollar Loan," the first installment of Dave Eggers' 30 Days, 30 Songs project curating tracks by indie-leaning acts like R.E.M., Aimee Mann, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James intended to "provide both motivation and soundtrack to doing the right thing" this election, according to its website. "Million Dollar Loan" is clearly a well-meaning gesture of liberal anti-Trump sentiment, although it's unclear what it's actually meant to do. It's unlikely that many Trump supporters will have their minds changed by Death Cab's wan finger-wagging at the Donald's claim to be a self-made man. And as far as propaganda to motivate the pro-Hillary side, a soft-rock song about one of the least offensive things about Donald Trump doesn't have much value.
In the early aughts, when Death Cab was one of the prime movers in the Great Indie Come-Up, there was a lot of concern–particularly among older liberals–that young musicians weren't doing enough to address the evils of the Bush Administration and the war in Iraq. "Where are all the protest songs?" was a common refrain at the time, and indie rockers answered with a few worthy anthems like TV on the Radio's calmly cutting "Dry Drunk Emperor" and a lot more cringe-inducing attempts at political relevance like Conor Oberst's Dylan reenactment "When the President Talks to God."
As it turns out, indie rock—with its twee aesthetics, tendency towards self-absorption, and punk roots long since faded away—is a terrible vehicle for protest music, as "Million Dollar Loan" so effectively reminds us.
Modern folk music, which placed the foundation for the cultural revolutions of the '60s, isn't up for the task either. While a handful of more traditional acts like Rhiannon Giddens and Hurray for the Riff Raff have kept that spirit alive, the genre's largely been swamped by Lumineers-style "Coachella folk" that aim for molly-fied good vibes rather than political statements.
Hip-hop acts like Kendrick Lamar and Run the Jewels have been able to find mainstream success through explicitly political music, but they're not the only rappers discussing the issues right now. Veteran The Game put together an all-star anthem about police brutality; so did G Herbo, aka Lil Herb, who was part of the Chicago drill scene that the media and political commentators love to use as a stand-in for the city's epidemic of gun violence. Jay Z, Chance the Rapper, Scarface, Vic Mensa, and dozens of other rappers have released singles dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement. L.A. rappers YG and Nipsey Hussle even set aside their affiliations in order to record the song "FDT," which stands for "Fuck Donald Trump," which are also the words to the chorus.
Modern folk music has largely been swamped by Lumineers-style "Coachella folk" that aim for molly-fied good vibes rather than political statements.
Of course, hip-hop has a history of political engagement that goes back decades, and ranges well beyond the lineage of conscious rap that connects Public Enemy to Common to J Cole (who aside from being a terrible rapper at least deserves credit for dropping a track about the Michael Brown shooting less than a week after it happened). Ice-T rapped about the Iran-Contra affair in 1987; Jadakiss was a 9/11 truther before Loose Change hit YouTube.
Recently, R&B has re-emerged as an equally crucial voice of protest–listeners may have forgotten that the genre's roots run deep in the politically-steeped soul music of the '60s and '70s. The tumultuous early Bush years coincided with a time of aesthetic and philosophical conservatism in the genre, which was ruling the Hot 100 and not overly inclined to jeopardise that. Since then the airbrushed perfection of the Hype Williams era has gone out of fashion, and Erykah Badu and D'Angelo, once considered funky boho outliers, have become the genre's guiding influences.
In late 2014, D'Angelo sprang out of a years-long exile to deliver a masterful comeback album, Black Messiah. The record was steeped in the energy of the recent Ferguson uprising that helped to galvanize a burgeoning social consciousness within the influential "alt-R&B" scene and reconnected the genre to the activist past. In July, slow-jam superstar Miguel released a song inspired by the police shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, hot on the heels of underground trendsetter Dev Hynes' revolutionary Freetown Sound. Even legendarily dissolute playboy Ty Dolla $ign opens his new album Campaign with an exhortation to vote. Solange Knowles' new LP, A Seat at the Table, an exploration of black pride from an unabashedly politicised perspective, is currently the number-one album in the country. Back in February, her sister Beyonce performed "Formation" at the Super Bowl with a team of backing dancers dressed as Black Panthers in front of 115.5 million television viewers.
Any sort of political activity by black Americans makes white conservatives anxious, and they aren't reacting well to this upswell in musical activism. The cultural battle against black music–usually focused on hip-hop but easily expanded to include R&B–that conservatives stage every election cycle has been going full force since primary season, when the GOP unwisely put one of the world's most passionately beloved performers on blast for imagined anti-police sentiment in the "Formation" video and her Super Bowl performance. More recently, Trump surrogate Betsy McCaughey strained to draw a false equivalence between Trump's hot-mic speech about grabbing unwilling women by the pussy and a lyric in "Formation" celebrating consensual sex and affordable seafood.
For the most part these don't fit the Vietnam generation's idea of message songs, either in style or in structure. There isn't a "The Times They Are a-Changin'" for the progressive movement to rally around, because rap's polymorphous adaptability has given artists a way to slip messages of uplift and resistance into hundreds of not-expressly-political songs. "Foundation" and Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" are movement anthems but they're mostly about the stresses of superstardom; Future's "March Madness" became one despite being mostly about partying. There isn't one principal anthem on the left, just as there isn't one principal leader of the progressive movement—despite what hardcore Bernie and Hillary supporters might wish.
Like the athletes who've followed Colin Kaepernick's lead in sitting out the National Anthem, all of these artists contribute small gestures that collectively help saturate our awareness with their message. It's good that Eggers and the rest of the people behind 30 Days, 30 Songs are trying to remind listeners of the important role that music plays in social progress, but we don't need a special program to find the voice of protest in modern pop; it's already on the radio, in the club, on the street, and all around us.
From: Esquire US