The Trump Protest-Song Boom, in the Eye of History

Pop is now as political as it was in the ’60s, the author Dorian Lynskey says.

Janelle Monáe performs at the 2017 Women's March
Janelle Monáe performs at the 2017 Women's March (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

The first anniversary of Donald Trump’s presidency is also the first anniversary of a landmark weekend for art and politics. Trump’s inauguration festivities brought Toby Keith and 3 Doors Down to the National Mall—amid rumors that bigger performers had turned down invitations. Then came the Women’s March, in which pink-hatted protestors sang taunts at the new president, activists and pop stars speechified, and bands mobilized.

The year since has seen a flourishing of protest music, extending a preexisting trend in which even the most vanilla pop singer began regularly slinging social causes with their music. Whether it was rappers naming and shaming the president or indie rockers writing cryptic ballads about national unrest, album after album asked to be evaluated in the context of the political climate. At the same time, Trump sparred with celebrity detractors, firing back at Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Kathy Griffin, football players following Colin Kaepernick’s lead, and other high-profile critics.

The U.K. music critic Dorian Lynskey’s 2011 book, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, insightfully traces politics and pop’s intersections from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Green Day’s “American Idiot.” Looking for historical perspective on the occasion of Trump’s one-year mark—is this really a protest-song boom?—I spoke to him via Skype. This conversation has been edited.

Spencer Kornhaber: In 33 Revolutions, you wrote that you feared the book was a “eulogy” for protest music, because it seemed to be on the decline. How do you feel now?

Dorian Lynskey: I don’t know that I thought it was dying. I thought that a certain era was over, which related to the waning of pop music’s place at the forefront of culture, which goes beyond protest songs. If you look what people were saying about bands in the ’60s, there was a wonderful sense that they could and should lead the revolution. Certainly that feeling had gone.

What did make me pessimistic was that after the 2008 financial crisis, there was a lot of talk that this surely would kind of inspire other protest music. And there really wasn’t much. So I was thinking, “If not now, then when?”

Now, looking back, I realize, with Brexit and Trump, that the aftershocks of that crisis took a long time to kick in. Starting with Black Lives Matter and then accelerated by Trump, I’ve seen something on a scale that I didn’t expect.

Kornhaber: You recently wrote that “Donald Trump might be the most powerful spur to protest that the U.S. has ever seen.” That’s a big statement, thinking back to the Vietnam War and the George W. Bush presidency. Why do you think Trump might be the biggest spur that we’ve had?

Dorian: Because he’s so detestable. I’m saying that objectively: Many people detest him. And he’s just so focal, to an exhausting degree.

Looking historically at the greatest spurs [to protest], a war is obviously huge, and a war with a draft can’t be beaten because it’s such a clear and present danger to people. But apart from that, it’s a dislikable figure. It’s a Nixon, a Thatcher, a Reagan. Trump has the effect of making people actually look back relatively kindly on these figures because they didn’t seem to set out to be hated.

One problem is going to be writing protest music that doesn’t all become part of this dialogue with Trump, that’s actually addressing other things that are still important. Everything becomes about him. Every single issue. I’ve spoken to musicians like Randy Newman, who had a song about Trump that he dropped from his latest album. He was like, “I don’t want to give him any more airtime.”

That’s an interesting thing because I don’t think that’s happened before. I don’t think people were exhausted by songs about Reagan or Thatcher.

Kornhaber: What protest music stands out from the past year or so?

Lynskey: The figure of the moment is Kendrick Lamar, who I must admit I didn’t see coming: one figure who would take on the mantle. So many people avoid the pressure and expectation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s very religious. When I’ve asked Bono why he takes on all this responsibility and takes the flack, a lot of it comes from religion. Without some real burning desire to do good in the world, people back away.

Kendrick was quite smart to mention Trump maybe once on [his 2017 album] Damn. He’s trying to have a whole other conversation about race, violence, gender relations, and all kinds of things. Damn is deeply political without being didactic, without a “fuck Donald Trump” song—much though I like YG’s song of that name.

There’s a difference between what’s good and what’s making a big impact. Eminem’s freestyle was brilliantly timed and very shareable. We have [so many] different ways of getting the message out, and a four-minute song may not be the most effective all the time. The way that Eminem presented that was deliberately flawed and had this crackling, raw energy—and it was something that everybody was sharing on Twitter.

I don’t think there’s anything in music that rivaled what Kaepernick was doing. It was quite easy to make a startling political statement in music in the ’60s and the ’70s because it felt taboo. Suddenly, the Beatles say one line about Vietnam and it’s an event. Not the case with music now. But sports, people do still [say], “Oh, wow!” And Trump got wound up by it. I don’t know whether Trump’s interested enough in music.

Kornhaber: We’ve had a few examples of Trump tweeting about artists who diss him. Is there a lot of precedent for a major political figure to be sparring with his celebrity critics?

Lynskey: Well, not in that way. If Nixon had had Twitter, I bet he’d have had things to say about Neil Young and Stevie Wonder. He had musicians on his enemies list. He was actively trying to get John Lennon thrown out of the U.S. So they obviously bothered him, but we only get to hear it on the White House tapes. Reagan was a rise-above-it character. George W. Bush responded to Kanye West a lot later. Margaret Thatcher had no relationship to the world of celebrity, so she just didn’t care if pop stars liked her or not.

Kornhaber: When Trump elevates an entertainer to the level of someone who the president is responding to, is it a victory for that artist? Or is Trump gaining the political advantage by firing back?

Lynskey: The problem with Trump is that it’s easy to go, “Oh, don’t give him attention, it’s what he wants.” But to be silent is not going to help either. He’s not gonna go, “Nobody wants to play my culture war, I’ll just give up.” I don’t know whether it elevates anyone. It seems sort of like a grim necessity.

Which is a weird thing as well, because you’ve got people criticizing Taylor Swift and almost assuming that she must support Trump because she hasn’t condemned him. That’s unusual. From the reading I was doing, it didn’t seem that anybody was being accused of being a secret Reaganite just because they hadn’t said anything about Reagan. Kanye, when he spoke against George W. Bush, was such a memorable, striking moment because it was like, “Oh, you can’t do that.” Whereas now LeBron James can call the president a “bum” and people are just like, “Yeah, okay, that makes sense.” There’s no, “Oh, you’re insulting the office,” or “Oh, he went there.”

Kornhaber: There’s a bit of a chicken and the egg question about whether Trump has made pop culture more political, or if pop culture already had become more political—and that may have actually elevated Trump, an entertainer himself.

Lynskey: It depends what kind of connection you want to draw between Black Lives Matter and Trumpism. Because [protest music] really started to change around Black Lives Matter, pre-Trump. It seemed to wake up hip-hop and R&B in a way that hadn’t happened since the early ’90s. [Hurricane] Katrina was a brief blip when a lot of people had their Katrina song, but then that was it. Whereas here you’ve had so many rappers like T.I. and The Game, whose brand was not predicated on being politically outspoken, recording protest songs.

If you want to expand the definition of protest and talk about the more identity-politics side of it—where you’re talking about blackness in the way that, say, Beyonce’s Lemonade movie did—that now just seems to be the norm in the space of three or four years. You have figures like Chance the Rapper who are intrinsically political even when he’s not doing overt protest songs. Or Solange. All these artists are big, and that’s the point. Kendrick is not Talib Kweli, he’s not some niche figure.

With these things, of course, you’re always talking about a mood. Lots of little things that add up to a wave. I don’t think it’s people sitting at home not thinking about politics, and then Ferguson happens and they go, “Oh, now I’ve got to be political.” But around Trayvon Martin, you began to see this rebirth of the idea that there’s no contradiction between being political and being mainstream. That’s the big difference.

Kornhaber: How far back does the idea of a “culture war” go? What precedent is there for Trump making the celebrity class into something to rally against?

Lynskey: What resonated when I was researching the book was this Nixon/Agnew idea: positive polarization. That’s culture wars, wedge issues, and talk of “limousine liberals.” There was a real attempt to find where the fault lines in America were and exacerbate them—on the basis that your side of the fault line was going to be the strongest electorally.

Agnew was a troll. His speeches were deliberately intended to wind up liberals at a time when most mainstream Republicans did not think that the main job of conservatism was to be annoying and provocative. Obviously, your villains are going to be celebrities and rock stars and Jane Fonda. [Fonda] was an extreme case, but that whole idea of the celebrity liberal who is antithetical to the values of hard-hat-wearing Americans—you’ve really had 50 years of this as a strategy.

It’s interesting, now, how many artists just don’t care what the cost may be. They’re going, “Okay, you’re gonna put me in a culture war. Fine. I will take a side.” That line in Eminem’s freestyle—if you’re a fan of Trump and you’re a fan of me, I’m drawing a line, which side are you on?—was remarkable. In the past, even some of the boldest political musicians would never go so far as to say to part of their audience, “I don't want you.” So that’s another innovation Trump has brought.

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.”

Kornhaber: So you’ve mentioned Kendrick, Eminem, A Tribe Called Quest, Drive-By Truckers. Anything else you would want to flag?

Lynskey: A lot of the best stuff at the moment seems to be about ideas of America. So there’s a song by Margo Price called “All American Made.”A couple of songs on the Lana Del Rey album, pretty and bleak, capture a sense of national mourning and powerlessness.

I really like Depeche Mode “Going Backwards” because it’s this damning indictment of human nature, which is important as well. Many great protest songs are just pointing at our worst qualities. It’s also unexpected: Depeche Mode haven’t made a protest song since 1983. Suddenly they come out with one, and it has more power.

There’s Hurray for the Riff Raff’s “Pa’lante,” which is just astonishing: personal, polemical, incredibly emotional, and dramatic. A real masterpiece.

A lot of the time it doesn't have to be a protest song from stem to stern. I think of “The Story of O.J.” by Jay-Z as being very good on race, but actually half of the lyrics seem to be about house prices and his investment portfolio. The way they use Nina Simone, it’s this dialogue with the past through the sample.

When I talk about protest songs, I go, “Don’t just look for ‘White Riot’ or ‘Fight the Power,’ because you’re going to miss a lot of the different ways in which we talk about a political mood.” The stuff I’m responding to most channels this mood of concern, anxiety, fear, and anger that you’re not sure how to turn into action.

Kornhaber: Any other thoughts?

Lynskey: It’s been nice to be wrong about where protest music was going. The flip side to that was I didn’t know how bad things were going to get. When people would go, “Would you like to see a large-scale resurgence of protest songs?,” I was like, “Kind of, but also I would not like to see the economic depression, war, or autocrat that would inspire that.”

But I’m reassured that art has stepped up. If we had the current political situation and musicians weren’t doing that, you could have definitively said, “Right, okay, that form is dead now.” The range of people that have, in different ways, connected with the public is hugely inspiring.