Monday, February 20, 2017

Six Albums to Listen to in the Trump Era

"Without music, life would be a mistake," Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote. Indeed, music is an extremely powerful art form, perhaps the most powerful. No wonder, then, that people often turn to it in times of strife and turmoil; even people reduced to the lowest level possible have turned to music--slaves working in the fields, prisoners working on chain gangs, and other oppressed groups throughout human history have used music as a sort of spiritual manna. In the worst period in American politics for many years, it's no wonder I've found myself thinking about what music is appropriate to turn to--what can offer the most solace, the most strength, the most hope, and the most understanding.

To be clear, I am not trying to be objective with this list. These are the albums that strike me as particularly relevant right now, meaning that they're all from artists that I like and listen to relatively frequently. So this is a list shaped a great deal by my personal tastes and what resonates with me rather than what I would select if I were trying to pick the most relevant possible albums and a give a fair representation to different genres, different time periods, different cultures, etc. For that reason, please don't tell me that I unfairly excluded some album--but do feel free to leave a comment listing some of the albums you think are relevant. These are just my contributions, and I'd be very interested to hear others.

I limited myself to one album per artist so this list would have greater variety, and have picked out a lyric from each album that strikes me as particularly noteworthy given the current situation as well as one track from each album just to give a sample of what they're like. These are not ordered with any regard to which are most relevant or my favorites (those would be difficult things to decide with these albums). With those disclaimers made, let's get to the list!

Rage Against the Machine--Rage Against the Machine 
Rebel, rebel and yell
Cause our people still dwell in hell...
Now freedom must be fundamental
In Johannesburg or South Central
On the mic, cause someone should tell em
To kick in the township rebellion
Okay, I know this isn't a particularly original choice and that Rage Against the Machine are, yes, so over the top it's easy to laugh at them or parody them, or just write them off as the music of a stereotypical wannabe rebel. But their songs aren't just a bunch of angry, adolescent rebellion anthems, whatever their critics might say. This is an album that addresses issues like systemic racism, Eurocentrism in school curriculum, consumerism, COINTELPRO (read about it if you don't know what it is--seriously, please do), Apartheid, US foreign policy--the list goes on. Point being, this is an album that's a prolonged, bitter attack on a lot attitudes, policies, and phenomena that are still hurting many people today. In "Killing In the Name," the band's signature song, frontman Zack de la Rocha sings "Some of those that work forces are the same that burn crosses," which, in live performances sometimes becomes "Some of those who burn crosses are the same that hold office"--a statement that's uncomfortably salient, given Donald Trump's history of racism and the power that Steve Bannon currently holds in the government.

But as relevant as some of the lyrics may be, I won't pretend that they're the sole, or primary, reason that gets this album on the list, considering that I admittedly can never catch more than half of them when I listen to the album. It's because--appropriately, given the name of the band and the album--it's an acerbic, angry, battering ram of an album that viciously denounces injustice and oppression and, musically, sounds exactly how it should, given what it's doing. De la Rocha delivers every lyric with conviction and outrage, and the aggressive rap/funk metal sound that each song has makes this an hour-long adrenaline rush. I don't think there's any album that makes me feel as eager for revolutionary action as this one does. And no, I don't think that a violent revolution is the answer to our problems, but having the energy this album brings certainly doesn't hurt.

Holy Wood (In the Shadow of the Valley of Death) --Marilyn Manson
But I'm sorry Shakespeare was your scapegoat
And your apple's sticking into my throat
Sorry your Sunday smiles were rusty nails
And your crucifixion commercials failed
But I'm just a pitiful anonymous
Manson's most political album (and my personal favorite), this is a concept album like the two albums preceding it were--and together they form a trilogy, told in reverse order. But explaining that in detail would take far too long here, believe me. This is an album that was written largely as a response to the blame that was placed on Marilyn Manson for the Columbine massacre; Manson has described the album as a "declaration of war." It functions as a sort of polemic against a culture ridden with celebrity-worship, religious hypocrisy, and censorship. The front of the album shows Manson crucified with his lower jaw ripped off--a reflection of attempts to scapegoat and silence his band after Columbine.

One of the key phrases that recurs in some form on the album (and which the tour supporting it was named after) is "guns, God, and government"--the second track on the album, sardonically titled "The Love Song," compares America's fixation with these three items to a love affair. We still see that today: large swaths of the population view any attempts at gun control with paranoid suspicion, our vice president, Mike Pence, is a religious zealot who's backed gay conversion therapy, and Donald Trump is drooling at the thought of expanding government powers so he can censor his critics and keep out the undesirables.

The album portrays a city called "Holy Wood," that faithfully adheres to a religion called "Celebritarianism," that views celebrities as saints of some kind, with John F. Kennedy elevated to the level of a messiah. According to Manson, Kennedy, Jesus, and John Lennon suffered the same phenomenon--after violent, premature deaths, they were turned into mere symbols to be used by the Establishment and blindly worshipped, with their actual ideas and preachings fading into the background. It's particularly easy to see how this happened with Jesus, as we watch self-proclaimed Christians, often those who are thoroughly pious and vehemently religious people, completely ignore the actual teachings of their Savior. And in a day and age where the president is a former reality TV star and a billionaire who's long been famous for being famous, the idea of Celebritarianism seems even closer to a reality than it did when the album was made.

Oh, and this isn't really related to Holy Wood, but right around Election Day, Manson released a promotional video for the band's next album where he decapitates Donald Trump. I thought that was worth mentioning.

The Ghost of Tom Joad--Bruce Springsteen
From the Monongahela Valley
to the Mesabi Iron Range
to the coal mines of Appalachia
The story's always the same...
Once I made you rich enough
Rich enough to forget my name
Bruce Springsteen has long spoken out in sympathy for the downtrodden and mistreated, such as in the much-misunderstood "Born in the USA." He has already been active in speaking out against the Trump administration and is, in general, a very politically outspoken artist. The political issues of the day have been major themes on a number of his albums, but this one strikes me as particularly relevant now. It focuses a great deal on poverty in America and in Mexico. The title track, and first track of the album, is told from the perspective of a narrator observing a scene of homelessness and despair who feels filled with the spirit of Tom Joad, the character from The Grapes of Wrath:
Mom, wherever there's a cop beatin' a guy/Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/Where there's a fight 'gainst the blood and hatred in the air/Look for me Mom I'll be there/Wherever there's somebody fightin' for a place to stand/Or decent job or a helpin' hand/Wherever somebody's strugglin' to be free/Look in their eyes Mom you'll see me.
"Youngstown" (whose lyrics I quoted at the top of this entry) tells about the deindustrialization of Youngstown, Ohio, and the devastating effects it had on the working class there. Especially important in the Trump era, several songs express sympathy for Mexican immigrants, including "The Line," which tells of a Border Patrol agent who ends up helping a woman get across the border (illegally) into the US, where she has family, with her child and younger brother. To me, what this album represents most of all is an effective alternative to the far-right populism that Trump espouses; it takes the side of the oppressed regardless of skin color, religion, or nationality. It addresses the plight of the white working class, but instead of trying to turn them against immigrants or minorities, it unites them in a struggle against injustice, as the monologue from Tom Joad expresses.

The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan and The Times They Are a-Changin'--Bob Dylan
A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you were born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game
Yeah, okay, I broke my "one-album-per-artist" rule here, but Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, so excuse me if I had to make an exception for him. Honestly, I did start with the intention of choosing just one Dylan album, but it seemed wrong to omit either of these from the list. Many of the songs on these albums were intended to address the issues of the day, back in the turbulent 1960s, but the issues remain relevant--have a renewed relevance now, even. The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan opens with one of Dylan's most famous songs, "Blowin' in the Wind," which is, of course, a lamentation about the persistence of intolerance and injustice in the world--an all-too-relevant song right now.

From there we get the viciously acerbic "Masters of War," attacking war profiteers in the harshest terms ("I hope that you die, and your death will come soon"), "A Hard Rains a-Gonna Fall," which ponders the wonders and injustices of the world and serves as a call to action of sorts, and the surreally comical 'Talkin' World War III Blues" (timely given the Cold War in the '60s, also disquietingly timely now given that the Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight it's been since 1953). The Times They Are a-Changin' starts with its prescient title track, also giving us the bitingly satirical "With God on Our Side" and "Only a Pawn in Their Game"--a song about the use of racism by the ruling elite to distract poor whites from their economic condition.

These songs are, of course, interspersed with other less political songs, some of which rightly rank among Dylan's best-remembered work as well, such as the classic "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Dylan would go on to have a long career after these two albums (obviously), and deliberately eschewed the sort of protest songs that these albums are both filled with; he would also branch out musically, causing enormous controversy by going electric (which now seems like a pretty inane thing to be controversial, I know). Certainly some of his later albums (of which there are many) may be better than either of these, but I doubt any of them are more appropriate right now.

Who You Selling For--The Pretty Reckless
They're dropping bombs on all of my friends
Every time I turn around they're blowing up again...
I'll try to avoid it
Try to avoid this
This vulture at my door
And I'm living in the storm
This is (in my judgment) the least overtly political album on this list. It's also an unlikely choice, I will acknowledge. Love them or hate them, every other band or artist on this list can boast of being outright legendary in one way or another, whereas The Pretty Reckless are a band fronted by a former actress best known for playing Cindy Lou Who in the weird, unsettling live-action version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," and Jenny Humphrey in "Gossip Girl." So why exactly am I putting them among the likes of Bob Dylan and Rage Against the Machine in terms of essential listening in the era of Donald Trump?

There are a few reasons. Firstly, Taylor Momsen, the frontwoman, represents post-Trump America in several ways: she's young (a "Millennial"), an assertive, independent woman, socially liberal, and skeptical of organized religion. For her, as for many others like her, Trump looks like a throwback to an unenlightened era that was thought dead for good. I assume that, at least, given that, although she generally seems to avoid speaking out on specific issues or candidates, she has made it clear she is horrified by Trump.

But obviously the band's lead singer is not the only reason I've selected this album. It strikes me as an album that captures the chaos and shock that are reigning right now; it came out only a couple weeks before Election Day, and the timing could not have been better. The first track of the album commands, "when they come to hang you/Stand straight, brace your neck, be strong, daughter"; that same feeling of struggle carries over into the second track, "Oh My God," which plays at a frantic fever pitch while the singer wishes to be anything other than what they are, asking for a return to the innocence of youth. Later we get slower, downbeat songs including the album's title track, which wistfully looks forward to a better future. The most relevant track, though, is "Living in the Storm," which is about being surrounded by vacuousness, cruelty, and violence. For what it's worth, it also has a great guitar solo.

Unlike the other albums listed, this one does not so explicitly examine the problems that led to Trump's rise or that are embodied in his presidency, and it doesn't clearly propose a way forward; but I do think that it serves well as a catharsis for all of the confusion, dismay, and terror that people are rightly feeling right now. It is an album full of sadness, desperation, and anger, which makes it perfect for a time full of sadness, desperation, and anger.

So those are my selections; like I said before, I would be thrilled to hear what albums you think are right for the Trump years (if he actually manages to last that long), so feel to comment. Until then, happy listening, and stay vigilant. 

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