Donald Trump is going to wish he didn’t make alternative rock great again.
Throughout its existence, the alternative rock genre has been one of the ultimate checks on authority and abuses of power. Punk rockers like The Clash and The Sex Pistols mainstreamed ideas of anarchy and anti-authoritarianism in the 1970s and 1980s. As Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie argue in their book The Declaration of Independents, Vaclav Havel, the leader of the Velvet Revolution against Czech communism in 1989, was inspired by the music of the Velvet Underground. During the administration of President George W. Bush, Green Day was one of the leading anti-war voices.
Sadly, over the last eight years, alternative rock lost some of its anti-authority edge while Barack Obama was in office. The band Muse is one of the few exceptions, releasing three albums during the Obama years, two of which —The Resistance in 2009 and Drones in 2015 — are remarkably anti-authority. Drones was a particularly strong album in its blasting of the military-industrial complex, but that’s commonplace from Muse regardless of who the world’s leaders are.
Enter Donald Trump
But Donald Trump’s candidacy prompted alternative rockers, such as the Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, to release songs and music videos that blatantly call out Donald Trump and his penchant for illiberal authoritarianism.
Adversarial music can serve as both entertainment and a remarkable check on power. It certainly does a better job than Meryl Streep.That’s good news for the American people. Adversarial music can serve as both entertainment and a remarkable check on power. It certainly does a better job at the latter than Meryl Streep standing on a stage, criticizing football and mixed martial arts. Streep’s Golden Globes speech was only impactful to those already receptive to her message; music, on the other hand, bridges gaps.
Franz Ferdinand’s song “Demagogue” goes after Trump and some of his most illiberal policy proposals: “From the Wall straight to La Quenta. Those p***y grabbing fingers won’t let go of me now.”
The song also shows grave concern for the implications of Trump’s poor temperament: “From the mob to chapter eleven. Those tiny vulgar fingers on the nuclear bomb.”
These lyrics and catchy guitar riffs are played over a Soviet propaganda-style poster of Trump. But anti-nationalistic messages from a band like Franz Ferdinand come as no surprise. The group is named after Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who was assassinated by the nationalistic terrorist group “The Black Hand” on June 28, 1914, thus starting World War I.
But the anti-nationalistic Scottish band isn’t the only one already going after Trump. In his dark new song, “Pure Comedy,” released only a few days after Trump’s inauguration, Father John Misty lambasts the idea of strong leaders in general, and Trump in particular.
“Where did they find these goons they elected to rule them?” Misty sings, as b-roll of Trump plays in the music video. “What makes these clowns they idolize so remarkable? These mammals are hell-bent on fashioning new gods.”
Hopefully Misty’s criticism of idolizing leaders is something that resonates well beyond the Trump administration. Leader worship is one of the ultimate threats to individualism. It was rampant on the Left in Obama’s waning days and has already taken hold of many on the Right in Trump’s early days.
Some popular alternative rockers took to Twitter in the wake of Trump’s executive order banning Muslim refugees from entering the United States. The band Cage The Elephant tweeted, “Sad Days……….” And when the ACLU won a stay in a lawsuit against Trump over the executive order, Jack Antanoff of the bands Bleachers and Fun tweeted,
Art is often at its strongest during times of fear, and with an authoritarian in the White House, we can certainly expect writers, artists, and musicians to lead a resistance. It’s nice to have alternative rock back to criticizing leaders. Hopefully it lasts.