In the months leading up to the presidential election, there was a glib joke that journalists, musicians, and fans would default to. The silver lining to winding up with four years of Trump and the oppression he promises, it was said, is that music will be better: Punk will rise up, or maybe pop will deflate and get “real,” gain meaning, be explicitly political. Since Tuesday night, the same lame sentiment keeps making the rounds on social media. But we need to see it for what it is at its core: It’s not a joke; it’s indifference to the plight of other people, and ignorance of the many ways a Trump presidency threatens to ruin lives — which is how we got into this fucking mess in the first place.
As frightful as it is, let’s consider the very real and looming possibilities of how Trump’s presidency could impact art and artists, rather than continuing to foster this perdurable fantasy that struggle makes anything more pure, more authentic, or better. Think about all the songs and albums you love that were made by black and brown and queer artists, and how central the expression of their identity is in their music. Now think about those artists as people. If your favorite creators are made to feel even more unsafe, even more vulnerable in America than they already were before this hateful prick came into office, why should we expect them to tour? If making art about their own humanity or who they love will make them a target for the bigots who have been galvanized and validated by this election, where exactly do we as fans get off suggesting that an artist living in fear will make more meaningful art?
Let us also consider how self-employed musicians, artists, and folks on the lower rungs of the music industry — many of whom have only just gained health insurance in recent years because of the Affordable Care Act — might be impacted by having that safety net taken away. Realize how access to mental health care, affordable medication for anxiety and depression, and birth control can affect the shape and quality of their lives and their ability to write music, record, and tour. What about the musicians and producers who will have to give up pursuing their artistic careers because they have to financially support a chronically ill family member who has lost his or her health insurance?
To suggest that music is going to be “better” under this current, particular application of oppressive batshittery is also to erase a vast body of personal-political music from these past few years that explicitly confronts injustice. From Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Vince Staples’s Summertime ’06 to Helado Negro’s Private Energy to Solange’s A Seat at the Table — among many, many others — there are countless examples of deep, passionate, political art being made right now. By failing to accord these artists, these albums, their due as valuable and intellectual politicized statements, by not recognizing their discourse and their witness, we are enforcing a hierarchy where some people’s pain and experience counts and others’ does not. Or perhaps oppression only counts when it sounds a certain way? We must not fail to recognize that the racial violence, police brutality, misogyny, transphobia, and marginalization that so many artists are responding to is already bad enough.
When people suggest that punk, or rock, or music itself, will finally “start reacting,” what is really being said is that things will be so bad that straight white people will start noticing and doing something because the floodwaters have reached their door. People have been singing their struggle since the dawn of recorded music in America; we just chose not to listen, or got tangled up in some bullshit hand-wringing over whose music was “real,” whose experiences we were willing to take in.
The false corollary between electoral results and musical quality also ignores that the homestretch of Barack Obama’s presidency has been one of the greatest periods for pop music in recent memory. The last 18 months have been driven largely by albums rooted in black identity that have pushed pop’s form forward — Rihanna’s Anti, Kendrick Lamar’s untitled unmastered. and To Pimp a Butterfly, Anderson .Paak’s Malibu, Young Thug’s Jeffery, Lil Yachty’s Lil Boat, Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, Frank Ocean’s Blonde, Rae Sremmurd’s SremmLife 2, Future’s everything, the aforementioned Lemonade and A Seat at the Table, and the Hamilton soundtrack — and most of those have come in just the last nine months.
It also brushes aside the immaculate swell of a musical constituency in Obama’s hometown. During the president’s second term, there has been an ebbless wave of Chicago artists finding a national audience for work that is very much of the city. These artists have released albums and mixtapes that are engaged, clear-eyed, and forward-shifting, songs that offer complexity, beauty, wit, incision, mourning — all richly centered in blackness and independence: Noname’s Telefone, Mick Jenkins’s The Water[s], Chance’s Coloring Book, Jamila Woods’s Heavn, Saba’s Bucket List Project. Add to that Vic Mensa, G Herbo, Joey Purp, CupcakKe, Tink, Malcolm London, DLow, Ric Wilson, Sol Patches, and DJ Rashad’s Chicago opus Double Cup. And while Kanye West became a major American pop-cultural figure, boldly, during some of the darkest days of George W. Bush’s presidency, the other biggest nationally known artists from Chicago in those years were R. Kelly and Lupe Fiasco. Do your own comparative calculations about how much enduring music eight years of Bush inspired — no shade to “Kick, Push.”
Even if we're just grasping at straws to stave off crying this week, we would be wise to leave behind the bootstrapping ethic that underlies the dream that “at least music will be better.” The equation that great art is best born in a hothouse of desperation is a false one. It’s a blithe dare for artists to come out on the other side of trauma dancing — survive, and entertain us, too. The expectation that real artists make the most of their pain assumes that we are watching from the security of our seats. It suggests that we are owed something by the artists we love. It abandons the work of bearing witness to transact on someone else’s suffering.
Maybe it’s easier to imagine that low times in America will inspire a stream of remarkable and bold art if we misremember the past. Don’t let the movements and sounds that bloomed in Reagan’s America mislead you into romancing the trickle-down horror show of the 1980s, when a president’s racist and homophobic public policies made it all too clear whose lives (and, more importantly, whose deaths) mattered to his administration. And don’t forget what happened when Bush’s war was imminent in the early 2000s. Most folks who were actively involved in the American rock and punk scenes didn’t retreat to their practice spaces to jam out resistance anthems. Nope. Instead, many spent those years treating their despair by liberally dousing themselves in “recreational” cocaine and dancing to electroclash. If anything, we entered an age of music that was defined by its lack of meaning, its ironic lilt, its willful obtuseness. No one wanted to think, or feel bad, or be reminded of everything that had come in the wake of 9/11. By and large, sentiment was vague and ironic distance was king. The most pointed and reactive works indie rock delivered in the Bush era were Pedro the Lion’s glorious “Backwoods Nation” and Bright Eyes’s “When the President Talks to God,” which we mostly remember because it was one of the only noteworthy rock-and-roll reactions to the invasion of Iraq.
Here we are, then, this week, staring down the barrel of four years that are certain to be frightening and have an unfathomable impact on the fabric of life both in and outside of this country. For most of us, we go to music not just for entertainment — we go to music to salve and heal us, to find community, to find our people. Some of us joke that a particular song or band has saved our lives. Others really mean it. But it’s clear that we are about to enter a time where music will only provide so much cover. We’re going to need a tighter connection, and we're going to need to get real.