A Trump Retrospective and “The Seduction of Kansas” Appreciation

Donald Trump’s presidency is finally ending, which means it’s time to survey the blasted landscape he’s left this country in. While there is too much wreckage left behind by this catastrophic president to talk about in one post, what I’ll always associate with the last four years is the irreparable damage he did to art/artists and the way he made communication completely insufferable for almost everybody. I’ll repeat a common observation about Trump: he was so cartoonishly bad that it became impossible to make any kind of cutting satire or commentary about him, which made almost any politically-focused art or humor in the last four years laughably inert. One of Trump’s unfortunate powers was his ability to drag down all communication to his level, and since he dominated the news and headlines so much, pretty much everyone ended up in the dirt with him.

Everybody became a grifter during Trump’s presidency. Of course, there was the cable news stations, which fed addicted viewers 24/7 hysteric coverage of his every move; while Fox being State TV got the most criticism, CNN and MSNBC were almost equally as bad, as they targeted scared liberals and made every day sound apocalyptic because their ratings and jobs needed them to. There was an entire industry around anti-Trump writing and tweeting; the replies under any Trump tweet were an ecosystem of strange leeches who would tweet about “covfefe” and somehow got thousands of RTs/likes. Trump’s own niece even got in on the grift, along with the James Comeys of the world, publishing bestselling books that amounted to “he’s not a great guy and is not someone who should be president, probably.” The word I used a lot the last four years was “obvious.” There was nothing you could say about Trump that wasn’t right there in the open already.

This particularly hurt music. Trump was so garbage that most artists understandably felt like they had to “use their platform” to “speak out” against him, and not doing so for some felt like contributing to his power. There were fantasies early on about all the vital punk music that would come from a Trump presidency, but he wasn’t a worthwhile or interesting target for rage. A song like “God Save the Queen” can work because the Queen has dignity and a presumption of purity, which makes it at least a little shocking and subversive to insult her. That didn’t work with Trump: he didn’t even pretend to be honest or morally upstanding, so there was no hypocrisy to expose, no veil to pull back. I made fun of some punk bands the last few years like Idles, whose songs about Trump to me just came off as like “murder is bad, you guys!” I became generally less interested in punk and started appreciating music that wasn’t necessarily apolitical, but that tapped into deeper emotions and imagination instead of the ugly pettiness of politics in the Trump era.

Only a small handful of punk bands succeeded during this time for me, and there was one album in particular that I praised much more than anyone else I saw: The Seduction of Kansas by Priests. It is hard to define the terms of success for an indie album like that, but I think by most measures it was a flop. It received mildly positive reviews, didn’t end up on many year-end lists (and wasn’t high on any), and at the end of 2019 the band went on an indefinite hiatus, which might have been unrelated but I doubt the reception to this album helped. At the time, I identified the album as one that was underrated because of the context I just discussed: everyone wanted that Great American Punk album they had been fascinating about, and they had a certain idea of what it would sound like and how its ideas would be expressed. When Priests delivered this unusual album, it alienated a lot of listeners, who wanted something with more rage and venom.

I loved the album, though, because I was so uninterested in hearing a punk band yell “REPUBLICANS ARE BAD” at me when I was spending so much of my day already thinking about how bad Republicans were. Instead of engaging in the simplistic and unproductive Trump-bashing, The Seduction of Kansas looked for answers to the bigger questions, like how our country got in this position and what the possible escapes were. Lyrically, the band embraced ambiguity, and it conveyed these themes through vague character studies that were told from different points of view. The roaring opener, “Jesus’ Son,” puts me in the mindset of someone who would storm the capitol because they were full of self-mythologizing bravado. “Good Time Charlie” used the story of womanizing congressman Charlie Wilson, who “weaponized the forgotten,” providing a clear but unspoken parallel to Trump’s behavior in the present.

“68 Screen” was the best song I heard about how the internet allowed everyone to start living in their own reality where they were never wrong. The “bright light that obscures my being” is a line I associated a lot with the online discourse now, which is often based on bad-faith readings where everyone assumes the worst of people they communicate with. “I’m Clean” covers somewhat similar material with more of a feminist bent, putting the listener in the shoes of someone who says she has “no agency or complexity, not a single feeling inside of me,” which I take as a commentary on the way men objectify women, or as a critique of a lot of one-dimensional women characters in entertainment. The title, The Seduction of Kansas, is evocative itself — the Wizard of Oz reference ties together a lot of this album’s themes, which are about how innocent, normal people can be lured to the dark side, which was a defining theme of the Trump years (unless you assume all of his voters are just naturally horrible people, which I was never comfortable doing).

Those lyrics and themes put Priests at a level beyond simple punk (I guess literally this was post-punk), and its sound was also varied, with influences ranging from Prodigy to Stereolab and Electrelane, especially on “Carol,” which was my favorite song on the album because of its addictive rhythm. The musical creativity was also part of what resonated with me, and I appreciated the diversity in the songwriting to match all of the different angles of the lyrics. More than anything, I loved that the band recognized the value of quieter subtlety in a time that dared and rewarded artists to be as obvious as possible. These songs used vagueness to their advantage, allowing for numerous interpretations and applications to the state of the country, which made it so much more fun to listen to than the instructive, moralizing tone of a lot of contemporary rock. The Seduction of Kansas was the work that most captured my feelings during the Trump era, and I’ll always be a little miffed that it didn’t get credit from others for what I thought it accomplished. On the other hand, I’m also learning to accept that I love albums like this in part because of how they do the unexpected and break away from trends, even if it means getting less recognition.

“The Leanover” Goes Viral

A weird part about blogging is that all of my old posts just sit around on the internet and still are occasionally stumbled upon by random people using Google. Most of my posts aren’t very high on search engines, but I’ve had a few that get listed prominently on Google through certain search terms, usually involving more obscure bands where there is less saturation of content written about them. One such post has exploded in popularity recently: a fairly short 2012 piece concerning my obsession with “The Leanover” by Life Without Buildings. The coolest part about the post isn’t anything I wrote, but a comment left by the band’s guitarist, Robert:

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this. For my money, you nailed most of what makes this my favourite of our songs; the aspect of joy that Sue always conveyed was something that we talked about a lot, and something that we felt distinguished us.

The Leanover was the first thing we wrote which we knew was good, and the first thing that successfully grafted Sue’s writing to the music; it was when we realised she had killer timing as well as everything else. I remember when we’d put down the backing track for the home demo, then Sue came round with a stack of paper and did what became The Leanover pretty much first-take, on an office chair in my bedroom, with the rest of us sitting on the bed in awe.

Good luck with everything!

Robert, Lwb guitar

That remains one of my fondest blogging memories, and even though I would write the post a lot differently today, I’ve always been somewhat proud of providing the “fan’s perspective” on this band for anyone who searches them out of curiosity. And Life Without Buildings are a band that I would guess leads to much more Google searches on average from people who hear them: their songs certainly grab attention, and they make people want to figure out what the deal with the group is. At least that’s how I felt when I first discovered them.

Anyways, it became clear from my boost in traffic that there was a sudden, somewhat significant interest in this song from 2001, and I searched around to see what the cause was. As it turns out, “The Leanover” has become something of a viral sensation on the social media platform Tik Tok, where it has been featured in 55,000 videos so far. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never used Tik Tok, and the thought of young people using this alien way of communicating that I do not understand fills me with terror. I created an account so I could see what the posts were about, and it seemed to mostly be people trying on clothes while the song played in the background. I am no closer to understanding why this is entertaining or what anyone is really getting out of this platform, and every second I spent there made me more and more aware of my uncoolness and looming death.

That said, I’m no gatekeeper. If Tik Tok is making people discover “The Leanover,” then keep the videos coming (also, keep finding my blog). And it was a lot of fun to read comments about the song and see the reaction people have to this unique band. As expected, there was plenty of “this is nails on a chalkboard to me” and “this song is so annoying.” But there was also a lot of the feeling I had when I first discovered Life Without Buildings: puzzlement, uncertainty, and a definite curiosity in what this band was and how they made a song like “The Leanover.” Those are the people I assume are finding the blog and I’m hoping my words and Robert’s comments are a decent enough answer.

I went on and on about this song and band back in 2012 (to the point that I was self-conscious about the amount of obsessing I was doing), and my opinions haven’t really changed much. In terms of capturing something unique that feels special and exciting, I don’t know if I rank any song over “The Leanover” or any album over Any Other City. Sue Tompkins’ performance on it is probably my favorite by an artist in any medium: innovative, daring, and endearing, her personality radiates off these songs, which have an enthusiasm and spirit that is beyond infectious. And “The Leanover” is the best showcase of an artist who really invented a new kind of singing and lyricism. There have been talky singers before, and artsy poetry lyricists before, but nobody who did anything quite like this. Tompkins was a painter at the time, and approached words like they were colors and the music like it was her blank canvass, there to be covered with splatters, blotches, and other intentional imperfections. While some will inevitably dismiss her style as pointless babbling, I find there to be an internal logic to her lyricism — there isn’t much literal meaning, but all of the words, the references and repeated phrases add up and cohere into tangible feelings and emotion.

Another crazy thought I’ve had about Life Without Buildings: they’re the only band I’ve heard that I feel would be virtually impossible to cover. In fact, one of the themes in the Tik Tok videos I saw was people trying to lip sync along with her words, and just doing that is too difficult. Nobody else in the world could have Tompkins’ timing or her energy — even if they managed to get all the words right at the right time, so much of the band is based on the specific way Sue’s voice sounds and the way she says the words. I’m never bothered when people say the song is annoying because when an artist does something so different, it only makes sense that it will irritate those who are used to only hearing music made in a certain “normal” style. A more pessimistic view I have sometimes is that Life Without Buildings expose the lack of imagination in so much other music and lyricism, with the conventional rhyming schemes, recycled influences, and basic structures. But really, they mostly prove how hard it is to actually innovate, and how enjoyable it is to hear artists who find something new that actually works.

The uniqueness of Tompkins and the band are why “The Leanover” makes a weird amount of sense as a viral hit, even 20 years after its release. A word that comes up over and over on the Tik Toks is “vibe,” and Tompkins definitely has that in spades. She was maybe ahead of the curve in having a quirky individuality that mirrors some of the short videos, which are mostly people looking to stand out online via their offbeat fashion and music choices. Tik Tok also seems to be an emerging platform for music discovery, and hearing a snippet of a song in this context is probably more effective at getting people interested in a band than the most well-written reviews. I don’t know if the song’s success of platform is necessarily evidence of any of this on its own, but I’m glad that greatness like “The Leanover” is finding an audience, even if it’s through unconventional means.