Songwriting in the time of our big dumb president

AJJ, Anti-Flag, and the reluctance to write music about the dumbest person alive.

Hello! If you’ve come along for this journey that is REPLY ALT, you may have noticed that there are two types of emails I send out: 

  1. Long, reported features that take days of work and preparation

  2. Incoherent ramblings that fall out my brain after I’ve taken too much melatonin

Today’s email is the latter, so please bear with me and perhaps I will I have arrived at some sort of point by the end of it but probably not sorry.

First off, this Substack service I use collects the email addresses of all you kind subscribers into one neat little place for me so that I can bombard you with my bad music takes whenever the mood strikes. And while that’s helpful, I feel strangely guilty about peeking at them—like it’s some violation of your privacy or something. Mark Zuckerberg feels no remorse about selling your toilet cam photos to Ukrainian businessmen but I find peeping email addresses to be a betrayal. Different strokes for different folks, I guess. But the one time I did give the list a quick scroll, I noticed a lot of Fest band-related usernames. I get it. I know my audience. And while I think “give the people what they want” is a strategy that crosses every moral line I have regarding creativity, I hope you dug last week’s Rank Your Records interview with D4 which, in my opinion, was in the correct order! Between researching, interviewing, transcribing, prepping, etc., a longform piece like that typically adds up to an entire day of my time. That said, please consider opting for a paid subscription to REPLY ALT, the world’s only email newsletter about music. As we’ve seen over the last month with Deadspin, good things on the internet can just up and disappear if rich idiots decide so. So, fund the things you like online so we don’t have to deal with these cretins.

In fact, if you subscribe through this weekend, I’ll knock 15% off the annual subscription:

Get 15% off for 1 year

Aaaaanyway, I didn’t come here to talk about discount codes. Here’s what I really wanted to talk about today...

I don’t know what you were doing on November 9, 2016, but I’m sure you remember the day well. I was working at a music website at the time. Like most soulsucking digital media companies, our office was set up in the testament to social etiquette endurance known as the open floor plan. The post-election mood was so somber that it felt palpable in the big open room. In my mind’s eye it was physically darker than most mornings and, unless I’m misremembering this, gentle sobbing could be heard from somewhere in the distance. My coworkers all filed in with the same morose look on their faces. No one said anything or acknowledged each other all morning. People just sat down and stared blankly at their computers. Around 10:30 I finally broke the ice by saying, “You guys watch that election thing last night?” This is a great summation of the type of colleague I am to work with. Awful.

We had an editorial meeting that afternoon and the general feeling was—why? Why are we doing this? Why are we sitting in a fishtank conference room, trying to talk about which up-and-coming artists are worth covering as if today is a normal day? That was the old world—B.T. (Before Trump), if you will. How do we move forward from here? The consensus was that we had a responsibility to cover more artists who were speaking out, whether that meant spotlighting artists vocal against the Trump administration or amplifying the voices of those directly affected by its policies.

We started an email address for this very reason and encouraged readers to contact it. This sounded like a smart plan at the time, and is still good in theory. But then after the music submissions and press releases started pouring in, the problem that quickly became evident, to me anyway, was the reminder that all art is not equal. Like with any subject, a handful of artists can take on the topic of our current hell world in a worthwhile/interesting/provocative way, but the large majority of it is useless. Sorry. I know that’s not a polite thing to say. But some art just sucks regardless of good intentions. Even more offensive to me, though, were the bands trying to game the system—wrapping their mediocre music in some vague facade of making “political music” or covering “social issues.” I can’t tell you how many pitch emails I got that looked something like this:

Hi Dan—

Hope you had a good weekend. Just circling back on this anti-fascist indie pop band called Mommy Dad Daddy Mom whose new immigrant rights anthem “umm can the president srsly not right now?” was just added to Spotify’s playlist Chill Political Vibez.

And then you click play and it’s some unlistenable drivel that barely touches upon the issue as it was presented. It felt exploitative. It started to make me appreciate artists who were able to stay the course and continue on with their vision unfettered, as privileged a position as that may be. Ian Mackaye once said that all art is political. In that light, it makes abstaining from covering a topic that is so huge and omnipresent feel like an act of rebellion in itself.

But I’ve been noticing more artists lately saying that Trump, as a topic, is inescapable at this point. To keep my brain from becoming a hardened lump of coal floating in coffee while I work on MY BOOK, I’ve been taking on side gigs writing band bios. (You can hire me to do this too! I’m quick and efficient!) I recently wrote two in one week, one for AJJ’s new album Good Luck Everybody and one for Anti-Flag’s 20/20 Vision. The two bands are fairly different in approach, but both shared similar sentiments on songwriting over the last year.

AJJ, a folk-punk band, has touched upon social issues before in their writing, particularly on their 2011 album, Knife Man, but they typically cover these topics with broader strokes. But on this new record, they shot right for the elephant in the room with lines like:

For all the pussies you grab and the children you lock up in prison, for all the rights you roll back and your constant stream of racism, for all the poison you drip in my ear, for all your ugly American fear, I wrote you this beautiful song called “Psychic Warfare”

Here’s what frontman Sean Bonnette told me about the songwriting process for this album:

“With songs, I try to go for a timeless effect. You can hear it and generally not think about the context under which it was written. But for this one, when I was trying to write music, all the bad political shit just kept invading my brain and preventing me from writing that way. So I decided to fully embrace it and exorcise that demon so that maybe I can write differently in the future.

...

I don’t like writing this way. I like going for timeless themes and universal truths. But at the same time, you’ve got to sound the alarm when it’s appropriate.”

Then there’s Anti-Flag, who are definitely known as a political punk band, which is evident right from their name. But if you’ll notice, they’re not the type to crucify a president on their album album covers like their 80s punk predecessors. They’re usually taking aim at larger issues of systemic injustice. But, like AJJ, they also felt like there was no way around it this time around. 20/20 Vision opens with a clip of Trump at one of his white supremacy rallies, saying of a protestor, “In the good old days, this doesn’t happen, because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, they would not do it again so easily.”

Here’s what Anti-Flag bassist Chris #2 told me, which I found strikingly similar to Bonnette’s words:

“We have actively chosen to not attack presidents directly, either with album art or having songs be about certain times in history, because we recognize that the issues we’re dealing with are cyclical. There’s that fear of being an 80s Reagan punk band where none of your shit is relevant because it’s all about that. But this record in particular, we kind of said, well fuck that, we need to be on the record in opposition to the policies of Donald Trump and Mike Pence.”

And this from guitarist Justin Sane on the record serving as a line in the sand: 

“To people who are buying into this neofascism, neochristian elitism, you’re on the wrong side of history and we’re calling you out. I think that’s really important to do at this time because when the dust settles, people are gonna be on the wrong side of things and it’s time for them to make a choice. To me, this record is a warning to people holding neofascist ideas or people who are enabling these types of positions whether you’re outright racist or you’re enabling racism or sexism or homophobia or transphobia. You need to make a choice at this point. There’s no more grey area. What we’ve seen with this White House is there’s no grey area anymore. On our last record, we didn’t outright call out Donald Trump or Mike Pence. But on this record the issue is Donald Trump.”

The absolute dumbest conversation that erupted immediately after the election was well, aT LeAsT pUnK WiLL bE GoOd aGaIn. And since I realize I’m treading dangerously close to that territory, I will clarify to say that three years into this relentless bombardment of bewildering and/or catastrophic news, I think we can now start to measure the effect it’s had on arts and culture. It’s made Phil Ochses out of the reluctant. It’s made POTUS analysts out of sports writers. But more than that, I think we can also start to measure the effect it’s had on our brains. And folks, I’m going out on a limb here to say I don’t think it’s been good!

As for myself, I’m torn on music in the age of Trump. Some days everything feels so overwhelming that I come home and want to completely drown it out for my sanity’s sake with an old Explosions in the Sky album or something. Other days I want to embrace the catharsis and listen to Anal Trump because fuck it that can be fun too.

For what my opinion’s worth (nothing!) AJJ’s Good Luck Everybody rides a nice middle ground. I wouldn’t call it fun, per se, but it does a good job of capturing the feeling of what morally decent, compassionate people are supposed to do when they’re pushed to the brink after three years in a country under siege by the world’s most incompetent narcissist. It’s when you get, as one of the songs calls it, “normalization blues.”

Bonnette put it pretty well, and I found this quote extremely relatable, so I’ll let him have the last word:

“There’s something that comes along with scrolling through your phone on Twitter or Instagram and seeing a puppy, and then a joke from a comedian, and then a young black person being shot by police, and then another puppy, and then your friends announcing a tour, and then children in cages. There’s something in that that fucks your brain up. I don’t know if it’s made me more of a passionate arguer or just made me confused and numb.”