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.

Actually, Trump is Pretty Easy to Beat

I watched the last democratic debate on Wednesday night and one of the subjects brought up over and over by every candidate was “we need to choose a candidate who can beat Donald Trump,” with each making their own case for why they’re that person. The way each candidate talked was in line with how most liberals I know (or follow on Twitter) seem to view this upcoming election, as a very difficult one against a candidate who is uniquely hard to defeat. It’s easy to understand why they feel this way: we all got cocky last election thinking Trump had no chance, he seemed immune to scandals or deficiencies that would sink other candidates, and of course, he won and is now an incumbent. But increasingly I think people fundamentally misunderstand what happened last election and as a result are underrating the chances of the democratic nominee, regardless of who it is.

My belief in this is primarily rooted in one idea: that Hillary Clinton was possibly the worst presidential candidate in American history. This has nothing to do with my own beliefs or feelings about her but is instead a conclusion that I think can be reached by clearly looking at facts. Clinton had never shown a particular knack for winning elections and was essentially gifted the Democratic nomination because it was “her turn.” The first sign she might not be a great candidate was when relative unknown Bernie Sanders put a huge dent in her campaign. Hillary had spent years in the public eye being a polarizing political figure, and whether it’s fair or not, people just don’t really like Hillary, as evidenced by her consistently low favorability ratings.

Despite Hillary being uniquely bad, Trump’s victory required a wide confluence of fortunate events. Hillary was a heavy favorite in the days leading up to the election until the infamous Comey letter gradually swung the odds until Trump was (if I remember correctly) about 30-40 percent to win on Election Day according to FiveThirtyEight. Even with the letter (and Russia and sexism if you want to fold in those factors), Trump won by very narrowly defeating Clinton in three swing states while losing the popular vote, and my guess is if you simulated that Election Day a million times he probably wins less than 50 percent of the time.

In addition to that evidence, there’s just the reality that all of us witnessed Trump bumble his way through the campaign, beat a clown car of incompetent Republican frontrunners in the GOP primary, run into a constant string of scandals, and get crushed in every debate by a not particularly great debater. Of course, he has a base of people who like him and Republicans who will put up with him, but that isn’t enough people to turn him into an electoral powerhouse. Now running as an incumbent, he doesn’t have that “let’s burn this whole system down” angle supporting him, but instead will be forced to defend the status quo of his own presidency, which rates as highly unpopular in every poll, putting him in the same company as past incumbent losers like Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Every potential democratic nominee (except for Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg, who objectively suck) will likely be favored over Trump in a general election. People my age don’t really like Joe Biden or Amy Klobuchar much, but they’re each skilled politicians who know how to win elections and are generally liked. Bernie Sanders, the current frontrunner, has consistently high favorability ratings, is pretty much scandal-free (outside of media-created pseudo-scandals like “Bernie Bros” and concern over his age), and has an enthusiastic base with a message that emotionally resonates with a wide range of people. Elizabeth Warren could potentially unite those two sides of the party, winning over some of the less extreme Bernie supporters while also appealing to moderates and independents. Regardless of your own leanings, it seems really obvious to me that these choices are far better than Hillary Clinton, who was widely hated and only created enthusiasm among those weird people on Twitter who thought she was Daenarys Targaryen or something.

And note that this is coming from me, someone who is cynical to a fault and has essentially no faith in humanity to ever do the right thing. I’m fully aware that the majority of voters just pick who they like most in a very lizard-brained way. That’s part of why I think one of the popular democratic nominees, especially someone like Sanders who has likability and authenticity, is likely to win over a widely despised incumbent. Basically, I don’t think Trump is an effective campaigner just because he barely won one election against a horrible candidate, and this time he will face a much stronger candidate in a far less favorable context. This doesn’t mean it will literally be an easy campaign or that he can’t possibly win again, but other than PTSD or Russia conspiracy theories, there is no real reason for liberals to be so scared of this guy. Right now, the biggest thing liberals need to overcome is their own defeatist mentality.

 

Please Don’t Sing About Donald Trump

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 UtopiaAviary 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.