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 Seduction of Kansas” is the Ideal Punk Album for 2019

I’m starting to love it when punk bands mellow out. The first album by Priests, Nothing Feels Natural, was released right after Trump was inaugurated and was widely received as an intense call to action. While I liked it fine enough, I didn’t think the songs were overly memorable or original, and it wasn’t an album I found myself going back to since its release. Listening to their new album, The Seduction of Kansas, I feel like the band might have agreed with me: it’s a full-scale evolution that embraces a much wider set of influences and inspirations. Every song sounds different, but it all coheres into an album that retains the band’s fiery voice while being a much more adventurous listen.

The change in direction has led to a less excited response from critics, who seem to struggle with music that doesn’t make its intentions as obvious as possible. They and many others think punk music needs to be about yelling didactic opinions at the listener while playing at max volume. The Seduction of Kansas is the next level of punk, where the artists are confident enough in their words, convictions, and musical ability that they don’t need to make a big show of how aggressive and intense they are. It reminds me of a bit of wisdom I read from former professional wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts, when asked why he tended to speak quietly while other wrestlers were known for screaming into the mic: “If you’re yelling at me, I’m not listening. If you’re whispering, everyone’s listening, thinking it’s a secret.”

The quieter and more spacious sound of The Seduction of Kansas draws me in more than their previous material, and it makes their lyrics feel more impactful. Make no mistake: this is still a rock album, and it has moments that rival the intensity of their previous music. But now those heavier songs, like the opener “Jesus’ Son” and the raucous “Control Freak,” stand out more and feel more vital because they’re surrounded by these funky, surprisingly catchy pop songs. “68 Screen” has an addictive chorus and relatable lyrics about how the internet has warped our perceptions of each other. My favorite song on the album, “Carol,” is almost reminiscent of Stereolab with its driving rhythm, dreamy coda, and the politically conscious lyrics that retain some level of abstraction.

On a philosophical level, The Seduction of Kansas captures the way I’ve been feeling about the current political and cultural climate. Namely, that empty outrage is not a solution to anything. Now is the time to regroup, think, and actually consider the people around us and what we can do to make the world less terrible. It may not always sound like one, but this album is a call towards a different kind of action.