Kornhaber: Part of the idea of the culture war is that both sides must have their own figures, their own entertainers. Do you think about the political art coming from the right?
Lynskey: It’s always been hard to find. The Republicans were trying to make a big deal that for the the silent majority, country was their music. But when it came to actually finding a country singer to sing a pro-Nixon song, it was really hard. Even some of the songs people thought were belligerently conservative, like Merle Haggard’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” were more complex than that.
In the folk boom in the early ’60s, they were trying to do answer records to “Eve of Destruction” and Bob Dylan from the conservative point of view, and they just didn’t work. The National Review did a list years ago of the top 50 conservative protest songs, and most were really tenuous. It didn’t make George Harrison a conservative because he was moaning about a 90 percent tax rate.
Because Trump is such an extreme figure, you’ve got a lot of mainstream country stars who are just not saying anything because country is still a genre where you probably do have to worry about losing your fan base if you attack the right. But where are the people stepping up to sing at his inauguration?
This is why Ted Nugent is well known. He shouldn’t be well known based on his music alone—he’s a marginal figure. But when people go, “Name a conservative rock star,” they go, “Oh, Ted Nugent,” and now Kid Rock.
Kornhaber: To ask the most broad question that you’re ever going to get: What’s the point of protest music? Is it to change minds, or is there some other metric by which it has to be judged?
Lynskey: The worst argument against protest music is based on practical utility. It’s very hard to find songs, movies, novels, paintings that have led to a policy change. Because with a few exceptions, that’s not what art does.
Protest songs make people feel not alone. If we were looking at a situation where no artists were doing songs about Trump and nobody was talking about opposition to him, you would notice the absence. It would be painful. On a macro scale—a global or online scale—it serves the purpose it served in civil-rights demonstrations, where you’d be walking along singing freedom songs. This is where I think preaching to the converted is underrated. It’s fine to cement beliefs to inspire people to act on them.
There are also cases where they can turn somebody on to a particular fact or a certain way of looking. I learned a huge amount from Public Enemy as a white, suburban, English teenager. A large part of the reason many people know about Kent State as they do is because the [Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young] song “Ohio” brings it to people who are not necessarily researching the Nixon era.
After the election in 2016, the Tribe Called Quest album [We Got It From Here … Thank You 4 Your Service] and the Drive-By Truckers album [American Band] I listened to a lot. They were made during the campaign, and addressed a lot of the things that needed emotionally addressing that November. I thought, “I have no shortage of information about this election and about Trump. Yet there’s still something that music could give me.” Both those records, there’s defiance, mourning, insightful lyrics, and that feeling of, “Oh, these people get it as well.”