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The politics of protest music



Our First 100 Days is an ongoing series of releases that raise money for causes currently under attack by Trump administration policies.
  • Our First 100 Days is an ongoing series of releases that raise money for causes currently under attack by Trump administration policies.

Presidents' Day might seem a strange time to reflect upon music. I recently attended a film screening in Boulder where the Scottish post-rock band Mogwai performed their live score to Mark Cousins' haunting documentary Atomic, Living in Dread and Promise. The concert was a strikingly emotional affair. Years earlier, I'd traveled to the city of Hiroshima and witnessed firsthand what happens when the capacity for nuclear warfare — usually rather abstract and detached from daily conversation — spills catastrophically into tangible, concrete life.

About a month after the screening, on Feb. 16, the words "nuclear holocaust" were trotted out with relative ease and nonchalance in a press conference held by President Donald Trump. If anything, this sequence served as a reminder that politics, or, more specifically, the consequences of politics, do not exist in a vacuum, and those in all disciplines will likely spend the foreseeable future navigating this balance.

Plenty of U.S. presidents have dabbled in music. Most of us still remember Bill Clinton's occasional saxophone performances on television. Warren Harding was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist who organized the Citizen's Cornet Band (available for both Republican and Democratic rallies), and Chester A. Arthur and Richard Nixon could have slotted into an afternoon set at MeadowGrass, being adept at the banjo and accordion, respectively.

However, we're much more used to finding music at the periphery of the presidential universe. Pop music is frequently used as cultural capital in an attempt to humanize a politician — often attracting considerable backlash, such as the 2016 Republican National Convention's attempts to co-opt The Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," Hillary Clinton's unsanctioned use of Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl," and, perhaps most embarrassingly, Bob Dole's reinvention of Sam and Dave's classic "Soul Man," which became "I'm a Dole Man."

Most commonly, of course, we encounter music as a reaction to and critique of the contemporary political proceedings. We can find this close to home, such as in Kevin Mitchell and Lord Damage's new album, Hannibal's at the Gates, or even in the title of The Sleights' upcoming EP, Fake News.

The desire to express protest in musical form is omnipresent and inevitable, and history looks back favorably on American protest music: the revolutionary spirit of African-American spirituals, the folk revival of the 1940s-1960s, and the urgency of 1980s punk rock. The ubiquity of social media and online consumption of music redoubles the efficiency of music as response; it allows Father John Misty to cover comedian Tim Heidecker's song "Trump's Private Pilot" with the timeliness of a 24-hour news cycle. Indeed, former Dresden Dolls frontwoman Amanda Palmer shared her prediction that Trump would soon "make punk rock great again."

Palmer received plenty of derision for this statement, especially given that she simultaneously announced she'd be leaving the United States to fight the good fight from her remote and "tasty" new home in Australia. It's easy to understand the reaction: If new policies cause legitimate pain and suffering in peoples' lives, how could a revitalized punk scene possibly be an acceptable trade-off?

Despite the cultural impact of '80s punk's vilification of the Reagan administration, he still served two terms. The punk mobilization efforts against subsequent administrations failed even more dramatically, with Fat Mike's 2004 Rock Against Bush compilations failing to translate into an effective voter registration drive or maintain any significant cultural impact. While it's perhaps inspiring to imagine a protest song as a clarion call to widespread action, the consumption of online media — a highly individualized activity — encourages an individualized way of interpreting and understanding media. While this allows immediacy, it's rarely conducive to collective action.

That said, one thing remains consistent through music's dance with politics, and that is the ability of people to help and inspire each other. While the punk movement in England may not have directly and immediately effected political change, bands such as the Mekons were hugely successful in raising funds for the UK miners' strike of 1984-85. The ongoing compilation Our First 100 Days — featuring rare and unreleased tracks by Angel Olsen, Meat Wave, Toro Y Moi and many more — is already succeeding where "Rock Against Bush" failed, raising funds for causes threatened by proposed policy changes. Local fundraising concert efforts have direct impacts on the lives around us.

In marrying the inspiration of music to the efficacy of direct action, we may yet tap into the infinite promise hinted at by protest music; the hidden potential of the arts, the word made deed.

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