Can Protest Art Get Its Mojo Back?
Since the 2016 election, pop music and TV shows have emphasized liberal impotence more than anger. Is that about to change?
In the days after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Brooklyn punk rocker Jeff Rosenstock retreated to the Catskill Mountains to do what liberals everywhere were doing—mourn—and what many artists were doing, create work about what had just happened. The resulting songs, released on New Year’s Day 2018, bore titles such as “Powerlessness,” “All This Useless Energy,” “Beating My Head Against a Wall,” and “Yr Throat” (as in, “What’s the point of having a voice / when it gets stuck inside your throat?”). In jittery, epic-scale shout-alongs, he described his neighbors taking shots and moaning, “There’s nothing left we can do right now.” He told of joining a demonstration that shut down an interstate, and then realizing that “after a couple of days / the fire that I thought would burn it down was gone.” He reported withdrawing from regular life to channel his discontent into action, but finding it impossible to do so.
He sang, in other words, about impotence. About complicity. About his inability to effectively rage against the machine.
Rosenstock’s Post-, one of the best-reviewed albums of this year, embodies a prominent strain in recent pop culture. No one could argue that American musicians and other artists have been indifferent to Trump. On the contrary, the entertainment world is undergoing, as a recent piece in New York magazine put it, “the Great Awokening.” Even public figures known for their detachment have become walking Daily Kos comments sections, and when hundreds of thousands of women and other voters marched in protest after Trump’s inauguration, celebrities added oomph with speeches and songs. “Yes, I have thought an awful lot about blowing up the White House,” Madonna confessed to the crowd in Washington, D.C.
Yet while the self-proclaimed Resistance debuted with vibrant-pink mass action, the most-distinctive cultural creations that have accompanied it so far—at least in the rapid-response popular mediums of music and TV—haven’t been so fired up. Nor have they been, to use the clichéd dismissals that plenty of political art readily invites, shrill or didactic. Instead, the general drift has been in the spirit of Rosenstock’s album: self-questioning, tentative, conciliatory, emotional. It is, for better or worse, the art not of a revolution but of a failed revolution.
In music, the watchword has been uneasy, applied even to escapist fare. “Pop Music in 2017: Glum and Glummer,” read the headline on a year-end wrap-up in The New York Times, referring in large part to a trend of morose, drugged-out hip-hop. The notion of an “apocalyptic dance party” has become pervasive, describing works in pop (Justin Timberlake), rock (The Decemberists), and rap (Gorillaz) that reference Trump and imagine the fall of civilization.
Many of the country’s more distinctive and provocative artists have been especially hard on themselves. The Pulitzer Prize–winning rapper Kendrick Lamar is at the top of any list of modern protest musicians, and he intermittently sniped at Trump and Fox News on his 2017 masterpiece, Damn. Yet he focused more on critiquing himself and his allies, fretting that the recent vogue for sign-waving could be fleeting. The savvy, semicamp nostalgist Lana Del Rey spun her personal melancholy into communal gloom on her No. 1 album Lust for Life, solemnly airing concern that North Korea might vaporize the kids at the Coachella music festival. The gnarly What a Time to Be Alive, from the indie-rock stalwart Superchunk, could be described as metaprotest, raging at the self along with the status quo: “I surrender to the flow of shit / that came aboard last year / I didn’t learn anything from it.” These are great albums—and they most urgently interrogate not Trump’s side, but the artists’ own.
On the blue states’ favorite TV satires, the immediate reaction to Trump focused even more explicitly on progressives’ anxiety—rather than on, say, the cause of that anxiety. The great HBO series High Maintenance toured an effete Brooklyn whose inhabitants were so triggered by the news on their phone that they temporarily abandoned their spin classes. A major thread of the recent American Horror Story season followed two liberal lesbians—one a Hillary Clinton voter and the other, in a twist, a Jill Stein voter—as they descended into violent self-recrimination. On Comedy Central’s Broad City, a feminist stoner found herself unable to orgasm in the Trump era until a sex therapist guided her through a fantasy including Hillary Clinton. Each of these shows is squarely directed at the people most horrified by America’s new political reality—and each has thus far mostly stepped back to riff on, rather than repurpose, those viewers’ horror.
History tells us that political art can work in more-outward-facing modes, aiming at villains, emboldening the righteous, and forcing conversations. Less than a year before Trump’s election, Beyoncé staged a national confrontation by showing up to the Super Bowl in Black Panther garb, touting a feminist, police-protesting single. “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me,” went one Rage Against the Machine credo in the 1990s. Three decades earlier, Bob Dylan famously played the role of generational agitator, railing against stodgy senators, the John Birch Society, and the military-industrial complex.
To be sure, the Trump era has featured some examples of rhetorical grandstanding—but they have been, in a word, bad. Eminem’s freestyle command to his Trump-leaning fans to desert him certainly kicked up a lot of discussion, but much of it was just about the clunkiness of his opening couplet: “That’s an awfully hot coffee pot / Should I drop it on Donald Trump? Probably not.” U2 devoted its new album to buoyant calls for national unity and incongruously upbeat rock about the worldwide refugee crisis; its release was greeted with a dull murmur by the public. And television’s bloom of hammy White House parodies, from Saturday Night Live to Will & Grace to Stephen Colbert’s Our Cartoon President, have all accomplished the same thing: They’ve made many politically sympathetic viewers nod at the intent and cringe at the execution.
Then again, who’s to say what makes any piece of political art “good”? Though entertainment does play a role in shaping public attitudes, it’s rare to find a song or sitcom that definitively sways a lawmaker’s position. The mission to educate, provide catharsis, and inspire solidarity shouldn’t be discounted, but it’s hard to determine, for example, whether the civil-rights movement needed “We Shall Overcome” to motivate its marchers. And attempting to draw a line between “political” art and “protest” art can be maddening: Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” didn’t explicitly call for change, yet before Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage, the simple act of landing an ode to LGBT dignity at No. 1 felt like a protest.
However contested its public impact may be, pop-culture protest serves as a vital barometer of American attitudes. Listen and watch to know where the country’s head is—or at least where the head of the left-leaning culture that produces the bulk of popular art is. To judge by the most interesting and powerful works trying to engage with Trump thus far, pop artists and their audiences are now in either a moment of reflection before renewed galvanization, or the first phase of a traumatized shutdown. On Post-, Rosenstock sneers, presumably at himself, “Oh please, / you’re not fooling anyone / when you say you tried your best.” The question that naturally arises is at what point trying harder begins. How will the art look and sound when, or if, self-scrutiny turns to action?
Well before the 2016 election, an activist spirit had taken hold in the entertainment world, turning the pop concert and the late-night comedy routine into a pseudopolitical pep rally. Two advance regiments of so-called identity politics—one concerned with gender, the other with race—gained fervor as Trump became their foil. You could hear the zeal even in Rosenstock’s excellent October 2016 album, Worry, which blended the title emotion with fierce calls to keep “kicking, fighting, beating, screaming” in the face of conformity, militarism, and corporate rule.
Sing-alongs, we were reminded, could be political tools. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly in 2015 and Beyoncé’s Lemonade in 2016 waxed knotty and self-interrogatory in their verses, but their choruses offered catchy rallying cries for the Black Lives Matter movement (“We gon’ be alright!” “Let’s get in formation!”). YG and Nipsey Hussle’s self-explanatory rap of 2016, “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump),” and later its remix, provided a forum for a variety of rappers to dis the then–GOP candidate. Dave Eggers enlisted rock luminaries to contribute to a growing playlist on the theme of stopping Trump (sample song title: “Demagogue” by Franz Ferdinand). Members of Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine, and Cypress Hill formed a manifesto-slinging supergroup called Prophets of Rage that made a ruckus throughout the campaign season (and then released a muddled, tepidly received album eight months after Trump’s inauguration).
The Clinton campaign leaned into all of this. Chart-conquering divas were already regularly insisting that their booming choruses doubled as female-empowerment salvos, and now those salvos could serve as campaign songs. Who can forget the ubiquity of Rachel Platten’s anodyne “Fight Song” as Clinton’s entrance music (and who isn’t a bit relieved that it was banished from public life with extreme prejudice after November 8)? Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, apparently unconcerned with jeopardizing their broad-based appeal, roared against the national glass ceiling at swing-state rallies. Meanwhile, comedians entered the political fray with fresh combativeness—paving the way for the backlash that hit Jimmy Fallon when he played by the old, more docile rules and did what most of his peers would have done a year earlier, tousle Trump’s hair rather than spar with him.
What did the sloganeering and fight-picking bring? Well, for one thing, a slew of commentaries asserting that such efforts could only backfire. Ross Douthat of The New York Times made the case that Clinton had a “Samantha Bee Problem,” arguing that “the feeling of being suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance is turning voting Republican into an act of cultural rebellion.” Whether or not he was correct, conservatives weren’t alone in sensing that the left had overestimated the sway of its trendiest allies. One poll from 2015 found that, to the extent that celebrity activism has an electoral impact, it can sometimes be of the alienating sort, in aggregate boosting the side the entertainment star opposes. “DNC Aiming to Reconnect With Working-Class Americans With New ‘Hamilton’-Inspired Lena Dunham Web Series,” joked a November 15, 2016, Onion headline.
Since Trump’s upset victory, artists haven’t exactly felt the need to undertake an apology tour to repent of their outspokenness. Many have continued along in campaign mode, though with diminishing returns, as seen in the progressive laundry list that Common dutifully rapped at this year’s Oscars (yes to immigrants and feminists, no to the National Rifle Association and Trump). But some are proceeding more gingerly. Perry hyped a move into “purposeful pop” that delivered only vague lyrical swipes at apathy (“Keep sweeping it under the mat!”). Randy Newman talked about his decision to leave an anti-Trump song off his latest album because he “didn’t want to add to the problem of how ugly the conversation we’re all having is.” Such gestures may suggest a chastened recognition that stridency didn’t work in 2016, and now it’s time to try something else. “I think we should stop talking about him,” the comedian Larry David said of Trump in October 2017, the same month he debuted a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, in which his character serially offended people across the ideological spectrum. “He only wants attention, right?”
Maybe a sign of course-correction can be discerned in the Trump-era entertainment that has taken tentative, bewildered trips into the territories that elected 45. Netflix’s Queer Eye, for example, performs gentle missionary work in one episode, sending a squad of urban gays to ever so respectfully make over a Trump-voting Georgia cop. Sarah Silverman’s new Hulu series, I Love You, America, has the foulmouthed comedian venture into the heartland to listen, argue, and bond through potty humor. The rapper Joyner Lucas landed a viral hit with “I’m Not Racist,” an imagined—and cartoonish—conversation between a Trump supporter and a Black Lives Matter activist.
But many of these works are so self-reflexive and hesitant (Silverman’s series opened with a musical routine listing the many biases she needs to check), they end up only confirming the sense that cultural bubbles have transmuted into concrete domes since the election. It’s little surprise that the one breakthrough overture by Hollywood to the postelection heartland, ABC’s Roseanne reboot, was quickly appropriated by Trump as a tribute to him.
Calls for outreach have been, in fact, less resonant lately than observations about how the world keeps reaching into personal spaces. Superchunk sings of a “sickly kind of light” coming from the cellphone screen, there on the nightstand, presumably bearing bad news. The sitcom Black-ish tackled the Trump era by portraying politics invading work—an office scene transformed into a partisan minefield. Broad City showed one character’s bedroom plastered with Women’s March signs, looming over the two lead women as they recovered from a mushroom trip. It was a perfect encapsulation of the blue-state state of affairs, in which protest is now a part of life but life is also a comedown.
Anxiety about politics encroaching on the personal obviously reflects a social-media-driven reality in which friendly banter is swirled together with hot-topic arguments and breaking news. But the disquiet may reflect a deeper response too. In his 1987 essay, “Stories and Totalitarianism,” Václav Havel observed that under oppressive rule, “public life is not as sharply distinguished from private life as it used to be,” which “forces a creative person to turn his attention to private life.” Totalitarianism has yet to arrive in the U.S., but if popular entertainment was politicized by the left before the election, the tweeter in chief has responded in kind, transforming leisure preferences—now NFL watching, not just news-channel allegiances—into a question of partisan priorities. It makes sense for artists to turn to the one space that the bummer national discourse might not so easily reach—the interior self—and then express double dismay to find that it, too, has been infiltrated.
Artists have also been turning to the historical past—not simply to escape the now, but to figure out what to do about it. In the same song that conveys her worries about Kim Jong Un killing all the beautiful hipsters, Lana Del Rey imagines the corporate-sponsored Coachella festival as a new Woodstock: mass youth revelry in a time of fear. (“When the world was at war before / we just kept dancing,” she sings in another track.) It’s a knowingly provocative comparison, in part because it’s such a hoary one. For decades, the Boomer hegemony has held up the protest movement of the 1960s as the standard for meaningful cultural engagement in a time of turmoil. During a new moment of crisis, Millennials desperate for signposts might even start believing the hippie myths.
It’s true that certain parallels with the late ’60s seem obvious, 50 years later. The political ideology of the flower children—against war and for civil rights, sexual liberation, and communitarian social projects—became indistinguishable from rock-and-roll culture under President Lyndon B. Johnson, much as identity politics became overt pop concerns in the late years of Barack Obama’s presidency. Richard Nixon’s election, like Trump’s, was interpreted in part as a reaction to the left’s cultural noisemakers: Spiro Agnew railed against the “closed fraternity of privileged men” running the TV networks, and the phrase the Silent Majority captured, among other things, the notion that its members felt they didn’t hold the microphones.
If the Trump years were following the model of the Nixon years for incubating protest—and thereby protest art—we’d expect a cohort of diverse and pissed-off fight-starters looking beyond the self to the collective. In store may lie wails of patriotic dissent like Jimi Hendrix’s “Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. (Lady Gaga’s Woody Guthrie interpolation at the 2017 Super Bowl halftime show might have been a gesture in that direction, but it came off as a simple national mood booster.) Calamities ahead might crystallize countercultural anger into something like Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s elegy after the Kent State shootings, “Ohio.” (Or has that mode already arrived in the many hip-hop and R&B songs mourning victims of police violence?) It could be that we’ll close this era on a note as cathartic as Stevie Wonder’s hit “You Haven’t Done Nothin,’” an acidic kiss-off released two days before Nixon resigned. (Eminem’s transparent desire for one of his Trump takedowns to be a radio smash has gone unfulfilled.)
But it’s the post-idealist hangover of the mid-’70s, rather than the activist pep of the ’60s, that may be more relevant to today. Watergate helped propel “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ” up the charts, but the bigger effect of the scandal—combined with fatigue after years of fighting in Vietnam—was artistic disengagement from politics. For the rest of the ’70s, as the journalist Dorian Lynskey reports in 33 Revolutions per Minute, a history of protest songs, “rock stars would confine their politicking to single issues”—think Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”—or “eschew social comment completely.” When the soul songs of the Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter eras addressed the national burnout, it was often with a sigh. “Whatever happened to the protests and the rage?,” Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson sang in 1975. “And whatever happened to the people that gave a damn?” Violations of democracy don’t necessarily mean louder clamor; they can mean tuning out.
John Lennon’s transformation is instructive. Early in Nixon’s term, the former Beatle embarked on a frenzy of protest singing and activism. He took on topics ranging from capitalist exploitation to indigenous rights, and staged the famous “Bed-In” against war while minting the primal chant of “Give Peace a Chance.” Thanks to such efforts, he was harassed by Nixon’s FBI and immigration authorities. Evidence suggests that the persecution may have succeeded in getting him to ditch plans for an anti-Nixon tour coinciding with the 1972 presidential campaign and culminating at the Republican National Convention. By 1980, Lennon had disavowed his protest career almost entirely.
Today, Trump regularly threatens to silence critics—whether by revising libel laws or revoking TV licenses—and has relished siccing his supporters on entertainers who rile him. After a Trump-led backlash against Kathy Griffin’s symbolic beheading of the president, the comedian was blackballed by Hollywood. And in one of his typically self-serving hijackings of a preexisting trend, the president has taken credit for the diving TV ratings of the NFL, alluding to his call to boycott games because many players kneel to protest racism.
All of which is to say that, given the resemblances between past and present, languor and doubt on the part of Resistance-minded artists don’t seem strange. Nor should we be surprised that Trump-era introspection has been accompanied, from the start, by a self-aware girding against disillusionment and crackdowns. “He will not divide us,” goes the mantra of Shia LaBeouf, Luke Turner, and Nastja Säde Rönkkö in a postelection live-stream running for the duration of the presidency—and quickly sabotaged by right-wing trolls.* The scatological soft rock of the comedian Tim Heidecker’s Too Dumb for Suicide opens with a vow to keep dissenting even if tortured in the basement of Trump Tower. Superchunk’s catchy “Reagan Youth” memorializes the punks who inveighed against the Gipper—and points out that they were outmatched by the influential yuppie Republicans of the same generation. One year into Trump’s presidency, and the band’s singer, Mac McCaughan, is already invoking “the end of ’89,” when “the heat all drained away” for a past era’s dissidents.
Confronted by the morass that is Trump—the power struggles, whiplash of news, upending of norms, surreal rhetoric—the imagination strains. It’s one thing to mine the spectacle for buzzwords, as TV dramas such as Quantico and The Good Fight have done with plotlines about “fake news.” But trying to land a meaningful critique of a man who thrives on conflict and inconstancy is like throwing a pebble at a gelatinous cube. If the truth of the Access Hollywood tape couldn’t bring him down, why would Hollywood’s satiric fictions be able to? If his supporters managed to ignore the white working-class godhead Bruce Springsteen, who has any hope of reaching them? No wonder that tuning out the president—Broad City literally bleeped out his name each time it was spoken—has beckoned as one approach to living and working under Trump.
Yet what if tuning him out could amount to more than an avoidance technique? What if it offered a creatively fruitful way for pop entertainers to change the terms of the debate? Moving forward might mean achieving a mind-set less cramped than the one the national discourse encourages. It might mean, that is, opting out of the melodramatic reality-TV show produced daily by the White House, and trying to focus on the tangible problems that get eclipsed by all the commotion but that aren’t going away. “It drains your energy when you’re speaking about something or someone that’s completely ridiculous,” Kendrick Lamar said when asked by Rolling Stone why he doesn’t rap about the president more. “Speak on self; reflection of self first,” he continued, making clear that he wasn’t talking about retreat or impotent introspection. “That’s where the initial change will start from.”
Lamar and the movement he’s associated with have demonstrated the expansive power of the “speak on self” approach for a while now. In the late Obama years, entertainers sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement gestated a blend of personal narrative and political rhetoric that gained mainstream traction and produced some sensational works. Ferguson, Missouri, inspired the singer-songwriter D’Angelo to finally release his funkily righteous album Black Messiah in late 2014. September 2016 brought the buzz-catching FX show Atlanta, casually weaving the reality of police violence into its surreally comic depiction of hip-hop strivers.
Since the election, socially conscious black artists have maintained verve by, in part, pointedly ignoring Trump. The hip-hop classicist Joey Bada$$’s riskily earnest 2017 album offered a front-to-back reckoning with race in America, and he later said he regretted mentioning the president at all (“If you got the guts, scream, ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ ”). The Black Panther phenomenon, both the movie and its Lamar-curated soundtrack, reveled in the sidelining of white-American hegemony. The R&B futurist and Obama ally Janelle Monáe fired off a single that cheered on the “highly melanated,” boasting that women like her “in the darkest hour spoke truth to power.”
Such works come out of a worldview that sees Trump’s rise not as a psyche-shattering disruption but as a continuation of the history of American racism. The feminist wing of pop culture, though set on its heels by Clinton’s loss, has similarly built upon its previous projects. The #MeToo movement’s reckoning with sexual assault obviously has added resonance thanks to President “Grab Them by the You-Know-What,” but it’s not fixated on him. A long and growing tradition of art has helped draw attention to a need for cultural awareness and change. Recent TV such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Big Little Lies, and pop music such as Kesha’s “Praying”—a barely veiled jab at the producer she says abused her—warned of male monstrousness even before Harvey Weinstein was publicly accused. At the 2018 Women’s March, the singer Halsey went viral when she read a poem she’d written about how her own life, and the lives of many female friends, had been shaped by sexual assault. The litany of victims and predators referred only briefly, but potently, to Trump.
The common conception of protest art emphasizes more-pointed callouts: “You Haven’t Done Nothin’ ”–style condemnations, or maybe Alec Baldwin–style mockery. But under Trump, hot, unvarnished spite—plentiful though it is—may not turn out to be as energizing a political, or creative, force as it’s often assumed to be. Certainly the gauzy triumphalism that infused the entertainment world’s activist output in 2016 isn’t likely to return. If pop artists publicly touting a new social awareness are to convert post-Trump stress disorder into something that looks and sounds like grit, they might draw a lesson from those who’ve discovered the power of taking a longer and wider view of the era’s struggles, both personal and collective.
Stirrings of outward-looking energy can be felt, though so far they’re still filtered through a haze of dread and discouragement. Yet to protest is to acknowledge challenge, is it not? The determination not to cower is what distinguishes the folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff’s guts-grabbing 2017 track “Pa’lante.” The song invokes the Stonewall riots and the Nuyorican movement of the late 1960s and ’70s, and insists that the drag of nine-to-five workdays need not preclude social action. You can hear something similar in “A Wall,” a fierce outcry by the buzzy rock act Downtown Boys. The singer Victoria Ruiz offers a mind trick—with rich historical echoes—to vanquish Trump’s symbolic arsenal: “A wall is just a wall!” The line has a therapeutic ring, but it implies a call to action, too. Obstacles are, as they have always been, for overcoming.
This article appears in the June 2018 print edition with the headline “Pop Culture’s Failure to Rage.”
*The article has been changed to cite by name all three collaborators on the project, not just Shia LaBeouf, and to clarify that the live-streaming continues, despite repeated attacks.