30 Days, 50 Songs and the End of the Protest Song
Celebrity rockers flocked to Clinton's side, but in the end what did it really matter
Beyonce and Jay-Z performing (or was it 'talking'?) alongside Hillary Clinton. Madonna's surprise acoustic stumping in Washington Square Park. Even Bruce Springsteen, the Mount Rushmore of American political rock, laying bare his support for her the night before the election. None of it mattered in the end, did it? Picking over the bones of a bookie-defying Donald Trump win, it's easy to throw the affirmations of multi-millionaire rock stars in the same rapidly-filling bin marked 'liberal complacency'.
Trump wasn't without musical backers, like staunchly conservative rocker Ted Nugent, country queen Loretta Lynn, and arch Twitter controversialist Azealia Banks (until she withdrew her vocal support after #Pussygate). Yet it was a slim field next to those behind the 30 Days, 30 Songs project, eventually boosted to 30 Days, 50 Songs. Established by the author Dave Eggers in tribute to the 90 Days, 90 Reasons campaign which sought to re-elect Barack Obama four years ago, it stockpiled a wealth of protest songs in vociferous, honest, often amusing opposition to Trump. Already, mere hours after the vote, they sound like relics of another era.
Listeners in Scotland will be aware of the project as the venue for Franz Ferdinand's first new music since FFS and the departure of Nick McCarthy, with 'Demagogue' marrying a crunchy-guitared Postcard Records aesthetic to some beautifully up-yours lyricism, imagining that 'those pussy grabbing fingers won't let go of me now'. Elsewhere REM's live 'World Leader Pretend' found its perfect expression as a soundtrack to titanic narcissism a whole 28 years (!) after it was released, and Moby went country-rock alongside the Heartland Choir with 'Trump is On Your Side' and unexpectedly punk-rock anthemic with 'Little Failure', alongside the Void Pacific Choir, both of which pilloried Trump's everyman credentials and business abilities.
Cold War Kids impugned Trump's reductive masculinity on the grizzled funk-rock of 'Locker Room Talk' and Death Cab For Cutie took his privilege to task on the deceptively tender 'Million Dollar Loan'. One particularly insightful piece was Aimee Mann's 'Can't You Tell?', which imagined Trump's rage and humiliation at being roasted by Barack Obama in front of his peers. The best of these songs offered something which has been sorely missed during this campaign, and almost every electoral campaign this decade; space for nuance and emotions other than blind anger and frustration.
Yet it seems now that that nuance is increasingly unnecessary amid the challenges of this new reality, that a well-meaning song isn't going to change much in the end. In a world where music has become a financially precarious career choice for young artists even without rocking the boat, what's the point in a protest song any more, next to a protest? Or a vote? Or human engagement with others?
Perhaps songwriters need to look beyond claiming one side of a binary to preach to the converted. From the 30 Songs project, 'The Greatest Conversation in the History of the Universe' by Jesu and Sun Kil Moon remains stunningly transcendent, a twinkling electro-acoustic ballad which pays raw tribute to everything Mark Kozelek loves about America; Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, Muhammad Ali, the raw multiculturalism of New York. 'If you don't like this song or what I have to say,' he notes, in language Trump might appreciate, 'then fuck off and listen to "bye bye Miss American Pie".' His conclusion, with a ring of truth we should all acknowledge, embraces turbulent reality over self-affirming comfort: 'if you think you took no part in (Trump's) place in this world, then you're fired / because you've not been paying attention and your apprenticeship expired.'