Two years into his presidency, musicians have formed a consensus about Donald Trump: he’s a subpar president whose style of governing leaves much to be desired. Most of them don’t seem to care for his behavior one bit, and I don’t blame them. I don’t like to get too political, but heck, I’ll just say it: I don’t really enjoy Donald Trump as president either. I’ve been underwhelmed by much of his decision-making and have yet to really be blown away by anything he’s done. In fact, I think there’s a very real chance he’ll go down in history as one of our least great presidents.
Right when Trump got elected, there was a lot of chatter about how great it would be for art, as all of the brave artists would rally to “stick it to the man” and make their best work while suffering terribly. I was a bit more skeptical. I don’t think a bunch of assholes running the country is the sort of thing that spurs creativity and I’m familiar with how artists get when they feel like they need to “speak their truth” about current events. So I knew what we were really in for: a lot of songs that preach to the choir, pretending to be really daring while having an ineffectual “Trump stinks, maaaaaaaannnnnnn” tone. When I hear songs like this, I understand for a moment why the GOP is so passionate about cutting funding to the arts.
Everyone knows I’m not the type to rip into specific artists and mock their craft. That isn’t what this blog is about, and I would never use this space to add more negativity into the world. So I won’t bash specific artists (like, say, The 1975) for making music that I feel is about pandering to people with obvious talking points. Instead, like always, I want to focus on the positive: an artist who has managed to make music about these times that resonates without resorting to condescending lyrics and false bravado.
The album I’m talking about here is Julia Holter’s Aviary. When it came time to rank my favorite albums at the end of the year, this was the hardest one to peg because it had so much going on and it was hard to tell if I liked the music or just liked the process of listening to the music (I have no idea if this makes sense). Clocking in at a ridiculous 90 minutes, it’s an album that clearly is making a point through excess. There is an unreasonable amount going on even in each song, they all seem to run a little too long, and there are way too many of them. It’s not quite impenetrable, but it asks a lot of anyone listening to it.
This is all reminiscent of what living in 2018 is like, where there is a lot of overstimulation and it becomes difficult to tell what is real and what matters, particularly when it comes to political news. Her twist is to turn all that mind-numbing chaos and noise into something beautiful so that the album also functions as an escapist fantasy world, similar to Björk’s Utopia. Aviary has a lot to say about life right now, but it always shows the listener instead of telling. All of its moods are conveyed through sound and feeling.
What I come back to with Holter’s album is how it challenged the listener and rewarded them for putting in the effort. Because it was this mountain to climb, I wanted to keep listening and thinking about it until I made it to the top. Music that is explicitly about Trump could never hope to accomplish that unique feeling because the artist has chosen to anchor themselves to the type of tired commentary heard on Saturday Night Live. An album like Aviary, on the other hand, understands there is no value in telling people what they already know.
The appeal of the obvious topical music is that it is perceived to be offering a window into these times and capturing a certain mood of the populace. I have never really bought into that as a reason to praise music. Every artist is living in the present and on albums like Aviary, those traits organically came out because she was channeling her experiences and mindset into art. That holds true for every artist, even if they’re making shoegaze music with no discernible lyrics. There are many more ways to comment on life and society than quoting Trump’s Access Hollywood tape in your song.