Sounds of Silence: The Absence of Protest Anthems in the Age of Trump
For many of us this simple two-word phrase has become a way of life over the past 17 months. After the initial shock of November 2016 wore off, many of us reemerged to engage with a country that we did not recognize. As we navigated these new, uncharted waters what we found was that we were not alone. There were others among us who also sought to do something, anything in the face of what we saw was a clear and present danger to our country and our way of life. New parents joined the fight to maintain their healthcare. Workers joined the fight to maintain their union rights. Retirees joined the fight to protect Medicare and Social Security. Some people joined the fight to had never previously been politically active. Others reemerged after a decade-plus hiatus. Others still who had been lifelong fighters suddenly felt a new urgency to their work and advocacy. Regardless of how we got there, we all came together in opposition to the current regime.
The Resistance has been growing ever since. It started with the Women's March, which dwarfed the presidential inauguration in size. It then picked up both Indivisible and Solidarity groups, local groups organized as part of a national effort by former Obama staffers to provide training and leadership development. It also grew as a result of this administration's incompetence. The ACLU's fight against the Muslim ban earned it national praise and also more than $24 million the weekend after they joined the fight. Reverend William Barber has reimagined and reinvigorated Dr. Martin Luther King's Poor People's Campaign in all 50 states. A team of precocious and powerful teenagers emerged in the wake of the Parkland shooting to become powerful opponents of the NRA and NRA-backed politicians. In addition to organizing a national March for Our Lives, these teens have now begun a cross-country tour to register new voters. And now, most recently, there have been multiple protests against the administration's draconian refugee policies with over 130 rallies scheduled for next weekend alone. By and large, these events have served to galvanize the public against the Trump agenda.
In addition to those who have been doing the heavy lifting, there also have been a number of celebrities who have weighed in. It began with the cast of Hamilton who publicly asked Vice-President Pence for his support in the wake of the election. It continued with Meryl Streep calling out Donald Trump for his bigotry with a powerful speech at the Golden Globe Awards. It culminated with Robert DeNiro saying aloud what many of us have been thinking and muttering to ourselves for months two weeks ago at the Tony Awards. We've also seen high-profile athletes and coaches chime in as well. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has continued to speak out for racial justice despite being blackballed by the NFL for well over a year. Despite being told to 'shut up and dribble,' NBA star LeBron James not only criticized Donald Trump but also offered support for all teams refusing a White House invitation. Spurs coach Greg Popovich has been an outspoken critic of Donald Trump and he has been joined by Warriors coach Steve Kerr in this regard. And although the Philadelphia Eagles made waves when Donald Trump disinvited them to the White House to celebrate their recent championship, it should be overlooked that WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, who were not even invited to the White House, chose to make a statement by doing community service in the greater DC region during a recent visit.
Yet despite this ever-growing coterie of concerned citizens, there remains one group conspicuously absent: American musicians.
The last time Americans faced an internal crisis came during the Vietnam era. At that time, musicians took the lead in expressing their disdain for the current political climate. Artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, John Lennon, and Edwin Starr all offered their songs of protest during these tumultuous times. Combined with the growing popularity of protest anthems like "We Shall Overcome" it became apparent that music would be one of the driving forces behind this era's large-scale fights for social justice. Despite potentially alienating part of their listening audience, these musicians chose to use their platform as a way to draw attention to the issues of the day and to make a statement about exactly where they stood on those issues.
Flash forward nearly 50 years and what we have in the year 2018 is a glaring absence of musicians in The Resistance. Even previously politically-active musicians like Bruce Springsteen and U2 have refused to create anti-Trump songs for public release. In fact, other than Childish Gambino's "This is America," one can argue that there hasn't been a truly critical piece of music released in the past 17 months. Yes, there have been some songs used to fundraise, especially for Puerto Rico, but as a whole, the vast majority of prominent musicians have stayed clear of making political statements. At a time when The Resistance is growing by the day, the music industry has simply been a non-factor and has not used its influence in any meaningful way.
The reasons for this aren't immediately obvious. However, one possible explanation could be the fallout experienced by The Dixie Chicks in March of 2003. Ten days before the Iraq War was to be launched, the country music band stated their embarrassment to be from the same state as the current sitting president and shared that they were not in support of the proposed war during a performance in the United Kingdom. The public backlash was swift and decisive. Their single "Landslide" immediately fell out of the top-ten. Country music stations were bombarded with phone calls demanding their music be pulled. CDs of the band were collected and bulldozed in an effort to publicly shame the group. The group went from country music darlings to pariahs overnight and it took them a good four years to recover. It was not until 2007 when public sentiment against the Iraq War had finally caught up with the Dixie Chicks that they were finally able to get back in the public's good graces. But that four years of forced exile unquestionably made waves in the music industry and for many served as a warning of what could happen with a band's potential involvement in the politics of the day.
In addition, many artists are most likely hesitant to alienate their fans. They know that it takes a certain income-level to attend a concert and typically those that do have the resources to attend a show would make up a variety of political beliefs. Music can be a great unifier that brings together people of all backgrounds and ideologies. To intentionally ostracize part of your fan base would be a huge risk for any band or artist. To say to 30-50% of one's fans that they are wrong in their beliefs could potentially be a terrifying gamble and one that musicians simply are not willing to take. They might private advocate for certain policies or state their concerns in interviews but to openly create music taking a political stance seems to be a bridge too far.
Lastly, let's be honest: the music industry is run by rich, White men who tend to vote Republican. Writers, producers, and owners all have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. The last thing they want is an artist or band making them look bad and putting them in a position where they could potentially lose money by creating a controversy. They know how important it is for those on the record label to have a certain kind of image and reputation to uphold and to do it in a way that brings in rather than takes away new fans. Whereas artists and bands of the 1960s and 1970s had more creative control, today they are handcuffed by being part of a system where they often don't write their own songs and are essentially forced to record what the label wants them to. To try and advocate for more creative control would be seen as being insubordinate and would potentially strain the relationship. To go behind their backs and attempt to record a protest song without their permission would be a huge risk, the consequences of which today's artists and bands simply aren't willing to take.
When the history of this era is written, The Resistance will be discussed as a collective movement created to oppose Donald Trump. Some will be lauded for their work while others will be criticized for their inaction. Today's musicians will be on the latter end of this assessment. While they sit in their multi-million dollar mansions, the people who listen to their music on their iPods are taking to the streets, fighting for what's right. Their music may very well live on, but their courage and their actions against this administration will be a glaring omission in their story. Some of them may end up recognized in the annals of music history, but they will not end up recognized for their role in The Resistance. That chapter in American history will include those who weren't afraid to fight back at a time when our country's most vulnerable needed us most.
And that chapter won't include any of today's bands and muscial artists.
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