Can Pop Music Thrive in Trump's America?
Efi Chalikopoulou


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Can Pop Music Thrive in Trump's America?

Ten days away from Donald Trump's inauguration, we consider the effects of a bigoted administration on popular culture.

Trump's America is a terrifying prospect. By now we're all familiar with the cold sweat-inducing checklist of civil rights under threat thanks to our President-elect. These threats aren't simply social and political, they have deeper ramifications, because what happens to popular culture under an inherently bigoted administration? Can pop music continue to exist in a political climate that is, at its core antithetical to the camp-ness of pop? The same questions were being asked in the early 2000s, in a post 9/11 America where the government had reached what we thought to be peak Islamophobia. (Attempting to implement a Muslim Registry? Thank goodness we left that sort of nonsense behind. Oh…). A couple years ago Sean McCarthy from Pop Matters wrote, "During those confusing few weeks, music writers asked if music would ever be the same. Had we reached a tipping point where we no longer wanted music that either glorified violence or reveled in shallow materialism?" Indeed, in the week directly following the World Trade Center attacks, music sales in the US declined by five percent, while the New York area specifically saw a drop of 16.2 percent. More than 165 songs, both old and new, were banned on Clear Channel radio stations, including AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," Neil Diamond's "America," Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," and R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World as We Know It." Essentially any song that could be seen to allude to, or be applicable to tragedy was verboten from the airwaves. Some artists even removed tracks from their albums, like The Strokes, who nixed "New York City Cops" in time for its post-9/11 Stateside release, after deciding the chorus of "New York City cops / They ain't too smart" might come off a tad disrespectful.


Thankfully within a month Clear Channel lifted its ban, after a brief hiatus Saturday Night Live was back on air, and South Park was cracking 9/11 jokes (because, let's be real, it's never too soon for Trey Parker and Matt Stone). Albums release that month racked up staggering sales numbers: Jay Z's The Blueprint went two times platinum, while (rather depressingly), P.O.D's Satellite went three times platinum, and, still worse, Nickelback's Silver Side Up shifted double that. After the initial slump, pop music became pivotal to America's recovery, which went two ways in aiding a traumatized state. On one hand, artists mobilized to became politically vocal, like Bruce Springsteen's LP The Rising, which dealt with grief in the aftermath of the attacks, or Talib Kweli's song "The Proud," which called America's own terror resumé into question.

On the other hand it was also the first half of this decade that ushered in the glossy pop perfection of peak Britney and Xtina. So much of pop music in the early 2000s was designed to inspire joy and celebration in an orgy of glow sticks, writhing bodies, and bare midriffs (paralleling the golden days of early-90s house): From the soaring vocals to the blinding strobe lights; like the vodka Red Bulls that powered you all night and Eva Herzigova in the iconic 90s Wonderbra ads—this period in pop was all about the uplift. Similarities can also be drawn to the glittery disco of the 70s, which offered an alt dimension of sequins, hedonism, and good times, as the figures on The Misery Index soared. (For those unfamiliar, The Misery Index is an economic indicator that measures inflation against unemployment. In the mid-to-late 70s the average hovered around 16, compared with around nine in the era of Obama.)


During those times of socio-political uncertainty, music was often an escapist haven, and as this new era shapes up to be similarly anxiety-inducing, it's little wonder that pop culture is once again searching for a euphoria that was last prevalent back in the early-Aughts, with today's It Boys and It Girls resurrecting the look and feel of the age too. To wit: Kylie Jenner has, on multiple occasions, Instagrammed herself wearing Von Dutch trucker hats, Zayn Malik pairs bleached tips and turtlenecks like 2002 never ended, while the Hadid sisters are taking their cues from Juicy Couture and getting papped around in matching tracksuits. And then there's Rihanna who looks like she's perpetually ready to hop in a time machine to 2000 to go rave with Missy, inside the actual Matrix. At all times. Back then club kids were valley girls in body glitter and neon pumps, they wore beaming smiles and dreamt of Mykonos sunsets. Now Zayn and Rihanna have taken the era and distilled it into something so no-fucks-to-give-chic it makes you want to die when recalling your own bland, back-in-the-day jeans and t-shirt existence. This lot are pulling from an uncool era and making it cool now. One could argue it's simply that 90s revivalism is played out and this is the next epoch up for resuscitation, but it feels like this renaissance goes beyond pure aesthetic. Pop from this period was about unbridled happiness and un-self-conscious abandon and popular artists now have managed to hold onto that early-00s spirit in which having fun and doing what feels good is better than striving for some arbitrarily prescribed version of coolness.


Similarly there's something equally anarchic in the spirit of camp-y pop that's also been in slow revival in recent years. We seem to have been edging ever so gently back into that gaudy yet jubilant early-00s sensibility (for instance, Taylor Swift's video for "Bad Blood" is analogous Britney Spear's "Toxic,") wherein a feeling of indulgent spectacle, no matter how silly or over the top, is more satisfying than a whiff of cool. Further examples of the recent early-Aughts resurgence comes in the form of Ariana Grande with her PVC mini-skirts, crop tops, and knee-high boots, plus her album, Dangerous Woman, which was a sonic reproduction of this look, and every club dance floor circa 2004. Elsewhere, Zayn's video for "Like I Would" throws back to JLo's 1999 hit "Waiting For Tonight," while on "What Do You Mean?" Justin Bieber co-opted the era by bringing back the sound of the pan flute (memorable from early 00s hits like Shakira's "Whenever Wherever" and Ashanti's "Happy"). Even Selena Gomez's "Kill 'Em with Kindness" features actual whistling. Can anyone say "World, Hold On"?

Against the backdrop of Bush's America bloomed a seemingly endless stream of live-in-the-moment bangers including "Get The Party Started" by P!nk, Outkast's "Hey Ya!,"J-Kwon's "Tipsy," 50 Cent's "In Da Club," R.Kelly's "Ignition (Remix)," Sean Paul's "Get Busy," Nelly's "Hot in Herre," and Jay and Bey's "Crazy In Love," to name a smattering. Pop fought back with party, sex, and cheesy, unbridled decadence. Now that The Weeknd is getting into bed with Daft Punk and Justin Timberlake urges us to "Dance, dance, dance," pop music seems to be on a similar trajectory as it was 15 years ago.


But as the US braces for the impact of aggressive male whiteness, some artists have also, just like in the early 2000s, taken an alternate tact, politically weaponizing their music instead. The most high profile and obvious examples of this are, of course, Beyoncé's Lemonade, which amplified the voices of black communities and black women specifically, while Solange's A Seat at the Table was even more radical, tackling the vast history of black culture and its place in modern American society. On "Weary" Solange doesn't mince words as she rails against the overarching racial hierarchies that exist in contemporary society, not to mention the commonplace social micro-aggressions experienced by black women in "Don't Touch My Hair." Similarly, Blood Orange's Freetown Sound takes on issues of race as well as sexuality and gender, sampling sound bites, including young, Atlanta-based poet Ashlee Haze's "For Colored Girls" which angrily declares, "I will tell you that right now there are a million black girls just waiting to see someone who looks like them." Elsewhere, Frank Ocean's Blonde explores the invisible queer in 2016's modern society, with Noisey's own Emma Garland noting that "an album like this feels at once perfectly timed and profoundly beyond our culture's comprehension of queerness." And with ANOHNI's Hopelessness serving as an arresting, inventive, and emotionally resonant collection which doubles as an environmental protest album—it feels like pop is striving to cover all bases.


So here we are, once again, at this fork in the road, now sign posted by the orange face of our uncertain, dangerous future. Pop has three options: it can back down into predictable blandness; it can descend into an escapist, sweat-drenched dance party, or it can stand up and say something. If our recent cultural history tells us anything, the first is not an option. As protesters rally to march against Trump's inauguration, the climate is ripe for pop culture to embrace the spirit of revolution, and really say something.

But sticking it to the man can just as easily be about scantily clad, oiled up dancers, and gleeful romp in the name of love and free expression. What's more confronting to the -ists and the -phobes planning our future than men and women of every color, shape, size, gender, religion, and sexual orientation not only being themselves, but being themselves loudly and publicaly? We can use pop music to create our own safe spaces, something that MUNA's track "I Know A Place" suggests in its rallying, anthemic notes. Singer Katie Gavin says the song is "encouragement for our community to remain vulnerable and kind and hopeful in the face of violence. We cannot build a better world without first imagining what that world might look like, and by creating that space inside ourselves first."

There's hope nestled between the lines of music's ability to speak to and for generations of disenfranchised people. Pop music can bring us together when the powers that be try to tear us apart, articulating our frustrations and fears, and paralleling the demands we're trying make on our unravelling society. But there's also a medicinal property in being able to unleash the most un-cynical version of yourself on the dance floor, to feel good without having to answer to anyone's judgment. Let's hope that in Trump's America, pop music will be our soundtrack not only for active, deliberate protest, but also for that protest that's slightly less obvious in its intention, but no less defiant when it's all covered in glitter.

Follow Kat George on Twitter.

Illustration by Efi Chalikopoulou.