In the aftermath of 2016, it was widely expected that art and culture – and particularly music – in 2017 would have no choice but to stand up and get ‘woke’.
It was interesting to see some early, pre-emptive efforts to quash such expectations that the rise of far-right nationalism and the election of Donald Trump would be met with a new age of righteous protest music, a kind of Vietnam-era heyday to soundtrack the resistance and marches to come. Influential vlogger Anthony Fantano regarded with scepticism the notion that rock music, and specifically punk rock, would be resurgent in 2017 and beyond; this notion was perhaps born from assumptions that renewed efforts to make socially and politically relevant art would revive the protest media of old, revitalising them with new purpose and new targets for their fury.
Punk, however, arose from a very particular context over 40 years ago, emerging through the dirt and din of dilapidated inner cities to challenge the gloss of disco and the grandeur of prog rock. So why the fantasy that guitar music would now overcome its encroaching irrelevance and enjoy renewed purpose and popularity?
Perhaps Bono’s recent tone-deaf comments on the current dominance of ‘girly music’, and the lack of opportunities for young males to express their rage, are instructive: they betray a wishful thinking that – in a cultural moment defined by Trump, the Weinstein scandal, and the #MeToo movement – masculinity could somehow redeem itself through a more constructive and enlightened redirection of its aggression. (The AV Club posted a far more sanguine take from Sean O’Neal that explored the middle-aged comebacks of mid-2000s indie rock stalwarts including LCD Soundsystem, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear et al by considering the nostalgia for the passing of not only their cultural moment, but also the online community of bloggers and listeners that once championed them)
Meanwhile, some female artists were subjected to heightened scrutiny by those expecting them to politicise their fanbase. In Katy Perry’s case, she painted a target on herself by changing her social media strapline to “Artist. Activist. Conscious.” Elsewhere, Taylor Swift was condemned by some for not ‘using her platform’ as one of the world’s most high-profile performers, with a piece in USA Today proffering that, “Simply commenting on her soured reputation does not a cultured critique make.” Was this informed by assumptions as to the all-American whiteness, and therefore potentially more right-leaning inclinations, of her audience? A sense that mainstream artists have a responsibility to address and educate a mainstream audience? It seems somewhat unfair in Swift’s case, considering that nobody seemed to expect the similarly ubiquitous Ed Sheeran to ditch the vanilla cheeriness and get woke. The onus placed on Swift, as a female artist, seems to have been a disconcertingly gendered one, amounting to commentators complaining, “This affects you and a demographic who identify with you, so say something.”
When it comes to a predominantly white mainstream audience, arguably no artist has a bigger platform than Eminem. His much-discussed BET Awards freestyle, “The Storm”, demanded that any of his fans who considered themselves Trump supporters re-evaluate their stance and either abandon the U.S. President (and join Em) or relinquish their fandom. The performance garnered its share of praise, although on closer inspection telling an audience that you wish to reform to instantly stop listening to your music may not be a very effective strategy. The debate built hype for his forthcoming album, Revival, and fostered hopes that an artist known for his aggressive (and frequently misogynistic) lyricism would now emerge reformed as an ally to the oppressed, his sound refitted for resistance.
What listeners got instead was much of the same from a long-fading force in rap. Revival was for the most part tin-eared, not only in its uncomfortable mixing of on-the-nose proclamations with groan-worthy (and often contextually inappropriate) wordplay (see “Untouchable”), but also sonically in terms of its turgid beats, lazy sampling, and inexplicably shoddy production. Eminem now seems incapable of avoiding self-sabotage, whether it’s the ill-judged scatological punning on by-the-numbers ballad “River” or the shouty, charmless delivery that ruins the cartoonishly fun instrumental of “Offended”. The review posted by Consequence of Sound employed myriad citations to argue that what listeners had been served was, despite the attempts to address police brutality and institutional corruption, “one of the most infuriating and irritating listens of a year when few people want to hear half-assed soliloquies by men”.
Rather than fulfilling its title’s promise of a truly redemptive arc, Revival disappointed with the same wearing vocal cadences, troubling gender politics, and predictable rock-influenced sound. If feats of imagination demonstrate an artist’s capacity for empathy, then here was a record with the crushing dullness to suggest that Eminem had learned precious little about how to rouse his audience to the pressing issues in 2017. In an Atlantic piece considering the nature of protest music in 2017, Spencer Kornhaber considered Revival an encapsulation of how hard this was to successfully pull off.
One way of rousing an audience, and engaging with them on a level beyond simply hectoring or preaching to the converted, is by reconciling a heightened seriousness of subject matter with a well-calibrated sense of humour (see Run the Jewels). Eminem failed on Revival, the goofier verses landing poorly and the pervasive victim complex sabotaging, rather than strengthening, any meaningful engagement with the anger and disenchantment that powered Trump to the presidency. Earlier in the year, another much-anticipated record garnered a far more enthusiastic critical reception whilst attempting a tragi-comic balancing act. Signalling his sardonic, word-weary intentions from the off, Father John Misty released Pure Comedy, his commentary on the social and political situation of 2017. It’s a very different record to Revival, but shares a sense of an artist grappling with how to voice their views whilst remaining aware of how their own exaggerated performance of masculinity comes across.
Pure Comedy – with its panoramic album art, luxurious double LP presentation, and punishingly long tracklist – announces itself very much as an opus, its opening title track lifting the curtain with Josh Tillman’s typically theatricality. Accordingly, it was widely praised and landed on many critics’ end-of-year lists. And yet, there’s a remarkable lack of guile throughout from an artist who had so provocatively undressed the world of monogamous romance with the multi-faceted I Love You Honeybear two years earlier.
The song “Pure Comedy” refers to ‘goons and clowns’, whilst “Ballad of the Dying Man” calls out ‘homophobes, hipsters and the 1%’, employing easy buzzwords rather than building any characterisations as compelling as that which Tillman has written for himself under the Misty moniker. His lyrical clickbait is crooned over a great deal of mid-paced dreariness, almost invariably underpinned by plodding, plaintive piano with the odd tasteful flourish of horns; gone is the variety of Honeybear, replaced by a same-y slog. Perhaps there’s subversive intent in this choice of aesthetic, in how the instrumentation provides a very respectable canvas onto which Tillman splashes his commentary in broad-brushstrokes, but the effect is like listening to someone talking over the same Elton John song for upwards of an hour. When Tillman recounts a childhood memory of choking on a watermelon-flavoured candy on “Leaving L.A.”, it’s a rare moment of detail and colour on a somewhat monotone record.
Despite its title, where Pure Comedy disappoints most is in how inadequately it scrutinises what it means to laugh at/with something given the current state of the world, instead taking the approach of simply reeling off observations with the implied prefix of, “Isn’t it funny that…?”. This is a missed opportunity, when the symbol of the current culture wars is the crying laughing emoji, a weaponised symbol of exhausted, exasperated laughter used to express everything from consolatory disbelief to open disdain for another’s pain or offence.
Funnily enough, Tillman’s own “Bored in the USA”, a lead track from Honeybear in 2015, did just that, cruelly inserting canned laughter from a studio audience once the slow-burning ballad builds to its climactic list of woes. The imaginary audience’s side-splitting reaction to a line like, ‘They gave me a useless education’, simultaneously communicates the callous disregard for others’ misfortune in today’s entertainment age, whilst exploring the struggle for sincerity and even questioning where the line between entitlement and a legitimate grievance can be drawn. The live performance of the song on Letterman only complicated things further, provoking genuine laughter with the use of a self-playing piano but then overdubbing the actual audience with the canned audio.
Funnily enough, the same strategic use of canned laughter effects could also be found on “Dark Comedy Late Show” by rapper Open Mike Eagle, also released in 2015. Framed as one last desperate transmission by a beleaguered protagonist, the song gradually escalates in intensity and emotional stakes. Early on, laconic quips such as, ‘Invade Iraq fifteen times in my adulthood’ draw the applause expected of a comedy audience, yet Eagle continues to whip himself into a frenzy in pursuit of the comfort and validation that only an audience, any audience, can provide.
Had “Dark Comedy Late Show” been released in 2017, it may have been lauded more widely and perhaps even hailed as a brilliant response to a social and political climate distorted by divides and echo chambers. Instead, 2017 saw Open Mike Eagle receive plaudits for Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, a highly personal concept album about the now-demolished projects where he grew up. An intimate, sonically hushed record of homely detail and fading memories, Brick Body Kids offers a potential direction for protest music beyond 2017, one that expertly navigates the appeal of nostalgia whilst considering the inevitability of change and celebrating the power of community. Ω