This is not a politics post. There are others who do that much better than me. Suffice it to say, I don’t necessarily want Donald Trump to be the president of the United States of America. But I’ve also lived long enough to know that what I don’t want to happen can still very well happen. I lived through two invasions of Iraq. At the first one, I asked the only person I knew who was old enough for the draft if he thought it was possible that I might have to go to the desert and kill people. He was not a kid who talked much; he generally seemed more interested in smoking cigs, listening to Helmet, and sneering at teens who came into the CD store we worked at looking for music we hated. But in a rare, and probably for him difficult, moment of fraternal kindness, he took a moment to explain how life worked. He was 26.
I remember him leaning against the counter, his shoulders sloped, his hands in the pockets of the store's uniform khakis, his face contorted painfully as he listened to me dance around the word “draft.” He looked so sad for me. Annoyed. Tired. Not of me, but of whatever system made it so that we had to be having this discussion in the first place. Some suits in D.C. had decided that some suits in Iraq were in the way of something they wanted, so some kid in Van Nuys had to ask some dude in the backroom of a CD store if he thought he would live to see 21 years old. Neither of us wanted that. But neither of us could stop it.
That’s the hard thing about living in what we, for brevity’s sake, still call a democracy. The fact that you don’t have power is brought into acute relief by the persistent mythology that you should. Living in this American version of democracy is like being forever trolled. It’s not that you were lied to. It’s that you were taught to deeply value one set of things — equality, freedom, justice — and then forced to live an entire life in the shadow of their opposites.
That was the first time I learned that my country could just straight violate my trust. I mean, I understood that America did that; I was aware that past people had lived in days of horror and atrocity. But I just imagined, in some youthful way, that my being alive and knowing right from wrong would keep the world from continuing the same brand of bullshit it had executed for the previous several millennia. Maybe the persistent folly of youth is that we overestimate our importance while we underestimate our meaning.
The point is, I now know that unwanted things can happen, no matter how wrong I think they are. Which means I know that we might elect Trump. And I know that such a possibility challenges my ability to have hope and faith in myself and in you. And I know that if I lose faith in myself and in you, then I lose the most important thing I have.
I don’t quite know where our country is going, or what I’ll be called on to do when it gets there, but I do know that I need to keep my soul in working order. So I’ve set aside some songs.
These are not songs that are cool. These are not songs that I want you to know I like. These are not songs that make me look good. It’s just that my spirit balances on a very thin line, on one side of which is a feeling that nothing I do matters, because here is so much hate, greed, laziness, stupidity, and cruelty among us as a species that the living experience I want, the one where people are at a general peace because they love easily and feel love easily, will never happen. On the other side is a feeling that there is a seed somewhere in my heart that allows me to germinate and grow the kind of joy, kindness, respect, and freedom that I want for myself and for everyone, even Trump. And the line between the two is so thin, the balance of my soul so precarious, that sometimes all it takes is one song to push me to the positive side. Here are some of those songs. They are not the best songs ever made; these are just the ones that weirdly make me feel love. I could have chosen thousands. Here, in no particular order, are five. Enjoy them if you can. Or find your own songs if you must. But whatever you do, keep your spirit and soul in working order.
1. Dawn Penn — You Don't Love Me (No, No, No)
Dawn Penn is fearless, an absolute saint, in her ability to let this sorrow unfold so very slowly over time, refusing to be hurried, dropping from one key to the next like an overly thick waterfall. Sad music has always made me feel alive and in love, because I trust people who are in mourning. And you know we’ve gone to a genuinely lugubrious place when the most energetic instrument in a song is the bass, which is somehow both lumbering and insistent. This is a song that sees your grief and raises you from it.
2. New Order — Your Silent Face
I was four minutes into hearing this song for the first time when it occurred to me that I hadn’t thought of anything other than the music since it started. This means I was temporarily freed from the permanent bondage of myself, which is why i need this song every day. All those different tempos work like hypnotizing rings that spin in two directions at once. To ask for love so confidently, and plaintively, and hopelessly, is, to me, the most human thing there is. Somewhere in this song, if you listen to it with enough heart and with enough bass, there is a moment that feels like a drop even though literally nothing changes. The beat remains the same. It just kind of dawns on you what’s really happening in it.
3. Fela Kuti — Water No Get Enemy
How the horns feel like a celebration even working in minor keys. How the snare sounds both flighty and rigidly contained. How the singers sound both violent and droll. There is magic in this music; Fela is capable of both incantations and incitements simultaneously. This is a fight song. Water gives life and takes it, and yet it makes no enemies. Why, then, do you try to kill the soul and heart of a people who want to be free? We are water. We are coming. We are too powerful for your opinion to matter. A lot of art has been made about black power. Fela’s music simply is black power.
4. Shlohmo — The Way U Do
This is so weirdly and specifically how the inside of my head sounds that I feel it was made for me and I’m not entirely sure it actually exists outside of my imagination. There is a lot of evidence against the idea that there is a god hearing and answering prayers. This is one lone piece of evidence for it. Therefore I find this song to be life-affirming.
5. Sonic Youth — 'Cross the Breeze
“What if this were the most beautiful song ever written?” has occurred to me on multiple occasions in the 20 years since i first heard it. What if it were? Kim’s voice is hope expressed in violence, her delivery is rapture expressed disaffectedly. The song is noise in arranged and separated polyrhythmic layers. It’s played like kids, but arranged like adults. The first time I heard it I felt stunned, amazed, and horny. This song is not a part of my life, it is my life. I didn’t choose it that way. I just accepted it.