Don’t back down: Trump vs liberals vs liberal self-flagellation

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Blaming liberals is the fun game that anybody can play. For the right, it’s a multi-million-dollar industry but liberals do it to themselves for free. Many of them on Twitter spent most of the first weekend of the Trump administration debating whether it’s OK to punch a neo-Nazi, or rather whether it’s OK to laugh at a meme of someone else punching a neo-Nazi, lest it make us as bad as Nazis, as if the defining characteristic of Nazism were thumping people and not, say, genocidally racist nationalism. (Note: “Liberal” can mean many things but, as I’m mostly discussing US politics, I’m using it here in the very broad American sense of “the left”.)

While punching-a-Nazigate rolled on, millions of people in seven continents (yes, even Antarctica) joined the Women’s March on Saturday to protest the Trump presidency. It was a remarkable, unprecedented event but, inevitably, a parade on which some people couldn’t help but rain. Times columnist Camilla Long tweeted: “I’m afraid this women’s march just feels like a middle-class, entitled white girl orgy of virtue-signalling. A pity,” thus casually erasing millions of protesters outside of that demographic and framing the basic act of protest as self-indulgent showing off. One music critic was somehow offended by artists who refused to perform at the inauguration: “Not playing for the president-elect, or going one further and publicly decrying him, is a form of virtue-signalling, and symbolic of the myopia that led to his shock victory in the first place.” The ostensibly liberal columnist Dan Hodges was dismayed that a protest might foreground the niche interests of half the world’s population: “Do the people organising a women’s march against Donald Trump realise it’s precisely this sort of stuff that lead to Donald Trump.” [sic] Labour MP Richard Burgon, a loyal Corbynite, agreed with the Blairite Hodges for once in his life: “Trump inauguration – what can happen when centre/left parties abandon transformation of economic system and rely on identity politics.”

I’ve seen versions of this argument coming from both centrists and socialists but the clearest expression was a Spectator column by Brendan O’Neill, the tireless pundit who makes a living by repeating right-wing talking points while pretending he’s not right-wing. In a four-lane pile-up of shitty writing, O’Neill blamed liberals for Trump because, among other things, they “treated owning a gun and never having eaten quinoa as signifiers of fascism”, “beatified Caitlyn Jenner”, “thought correcting people’s attitudes was more important than finding them jobs” and “banned super-size sodas and smoking in parks.” (I should say here that I enjoy smoking in parks and can take or leave quinoa so maybe I’m off the hook.)

By this logic, Trump’s victory is divine punishment for the myopic arrogance of believing in equal rights, and any dissent, whether it’s the Women’s March, a Samantha Bee monologue or a speech by Meryl Streep, is not just fruitless but counterproductive. Forget the role played by the Republican Party, the right-wing media or the people who actually voted for Trump — it was all the fault, like everything else, of the metropolitan liberal elite. It’s a neat intellectual finger-trap: the more you oppose Trump, the more you are to blame for Trump. If you ask not to be hit, then you are to blame for being hit. Shut up, basically.

Of course, any political party that loses an election needs to ask some searching questions but not to read that loss as a crushing repudiation of its core principles which requires it to shove aside every tranche of its electoral coalition that isn’t white men. Especially when Trump won the electoral college by less than 80,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while losing the popular vote by almost three million, and has an approval rating 20-30% lower than his three predecessors enjoyed at the equivalent stage. This isn’t McGovern ’72 or Mondale ’84. There’s a difference between reflection and masochism, between rethinking tactics and replacing beliefs.

As Helen Lewis writes in the New Statesman, the idea that Clinton lost because she campaigned on identity politics is a myth. Analysis of her speeches and debates shows that she mentioned jobs more than any other issue, and indeed more than Trump did — what’s more, Trump played to identity (of the white variety) more than Clinton did. Clearly Clinton’s message didn’t land as powerfully as it needed to, but it’s not because, as O’Neill absurdly claimed, “you talked more about gender-neutral toilets than about home repossessions.” The very phrase “identity politics”, like “political correctness” or “virtue signalling”, has been stripped of its precise original meaning and coopted by the right to mean “having liberal principles in public”. Stand for the rights of women? Careful, you’ll spook the menfolk. Advocate racial equality too loudly? Well, you’re asking for racism.

This argument implies that the existence of a backlash means you were wrong in the first place. Nixon won two elections partly thanks to Silent Majority resentment towards civil rights and the anti-war movement, but those movements were on the right side of history. This is what reactionary waves do: they react. The progressive movements that they are reacting to have no obligation to apologise or retreat. They fight back.

Doubtless there are cases of clumsy and illiberal overreach on college campuses but squabbles over Halloween costumes at Oberlin aren’t impacting the Rust Belt. This time, one of the backlash’s biggest targets was Black Lives Matter, a campaign that simply asks that innocent people not be killed by police officers. You don’t apologise for trying to save lives. Nor for fighting to grant basic rights to trans people in the face of legislative atrocities like the North Carolina bathroom bill. Exactly which of these people was Clinton meant to throw under the bus so as not to rile the straight, white, male Trump voters? This argument originates from, and benefits, the right. Every time someone on the left endorses it, my heart sinks. As Jade Azim writes in her response to Burgon and Hodges: “Don’t imply that our life experiences are a distraction.”

 

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Another myth is the idea that liberals are behoven to give Trump a chance. Camilla Long again: “Throwing a tantrum over a democratic vote is pathetic.” As soon as Obama got into office, the Republicans were determined to thwart him. For the next eight years, their relentless obstructionism drove a coach and horses through the norms of government, from denying Obama the right to have his nomination for a new Supreme Court justice heard in the Senate to coming within hours of forcing the US to default on its debts. Meanwhile, the Birthers, led by Donald J Trump, questioned the very legitimacy of his presidency. How’s that for a tantrum?

This was Obama, an even-tempered optimist who campaigned twice on a message of national unity and left office without a single major scandal on his watch. Trump is a man who, before he took the oath of office, promised to ban Muslims from entering the country; who described the majority of Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists; who mocked a disabled reporter, then lied about it; who was recorded boasting about sexual harassment; who thought the best way to woo African-American voters was by describing their neighbourhoods as benighted hellholes; who demonised the press; who refused to disclose his tax returns; who threatened to jail his opponent; who chose Breitbart’s Steve Bannon as his Chief of Staff; who had so many conflicts of interest that he was arguably in breach of the Constitution’s emoluments clause; whose election victory was tarnished by evidence of voter suppression and Russian intervention; and who lied every time he opened his mouth. In what universe does he deserve the good will that the GOP refused to grant to Obama?

Ah, but the masochists say, we must understand the Trump voters. We must get out of our elitist echo chambers and understand the rage of the white man. With the same effort that Trump voters devoted to understanding the lives of black people in cities who voted for Obama? That wouldn’t take very long. Certainly any US politician should be concerned by the hollowing out of post-industrial communities, the health problems, the suicide rates, the stagnant wages. But there’s no obligation to buy into the noxious fable that these problems are down to political correctness and immigration rather than long-term structural failures. On the contrary, steering into the swamp of white populism will only make finding effective economic solutions more difficult. Liberals should resist the urge, in Britain as well as the US, to coweringly endorse a phony narrative in the hope of winning friends. Women and people of colour are at the forefront of the anti-Trump movement because they know full well that there is nothing to be gained from asking why people hate you and what you might do differently, because they will hate you anyway.

Liberals cherish their high-minded belief in the efficacy of open debate but that faith requires some reassessment when the new President actually lost three debates on national television, and when the facts on which fruitful debate depends are deliberately muddied on an industrial scale. There is no echo chamber bigger and more airtight than that of the right. For decades, talk radio, Fox News and now websites such as Breitbart have constructed a parallel universe in which liberals are to blame for everything and Hillary Clinton is a criminal mastermind, if not an actual murderer. In the dark corners of Reddit and elsewhere, the alt-right and Men’s Rights Activists have pieced together a galaxy of grievances, before taking their virulent white nationalism, aggressive misogyny and crappy memes to Twitter. They’re not up for a healthy chat.

Anyone who has debated politics on social media will know that a small percentage of people are open to rethinking their position while the majority won’t budge an inch. Likewise, in a country as polarised as the US there is no point trying to win over members of the Republican base who would rather eat broken glass than vote for a Democrat. Work hard to win over the undecided voters where you can but don’t waste your time trying to persuade the unpersuadable. Out-fight them, out-organise them and out-vote them instead. And fight a little dirty if necessary. When people claim that any less than spotless behaviour (like, say, punching a neo-Nazi) gives Trump and his allies an “excuse” to push back, I wonder where they’ve been this past year and why they think Trump ever needs an excuse. He won by bringing a gun to a knife fight (although he insisted that it was in fact a knife and that anyone who said it was a gun was “fake news”).

Have we not been paying attention? Have we learned nothing? Is the threat to progressive values not sufficiently clear? This is a promising start to the long, tough of resistance to the Trump administration. The pressing question for liberals is whether their priority is maintaining the high ground or winning. I think it’s time to drop the self-flagellation and focus on the fundamental values at stake. The right will never stop trying to kick liberals in the crotch. Don’t offer to hold their coat while they do it.

[Note: As a British citizen I feel a little self-conscious about writing about resistance to Trump. Unlike my American friends, I do not have to live under him, nor do I have a democratic voice with which to oppose him. But I felt compelled to write this for two reasons. Firstly, the Women’s March was an international event, reflecting worldwide anxiety about Trump. Secondly, when discussing liberal response to populist nationalism, Trumpism is a clearer case than Brexit. It is largely partisan phenomenon with a ready-made opposition in the shape of the Democratic Party. Brexit cut across party lines, dividing coalitions, and the Labour Party’s current contortions illustrate how much more complicated it is to mount a unified opposition.]

 

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“It’s a fucked-up time in America”: A Q&A with Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers about Trump, fake news and protest songs for dark times

 

 

The singer and songwriter Amanda Palmer aggravates people more than you’d think possible for someone who wasn’t actively trying to do so. Her latest snafu was telling an audience in Australia a week or so ago that “frightening political climates make for really good, real, authentic art”. While acknowledging that Trump’s election was “very scary”, she continued: “There is this part of me – especially having studied Weimar Germany extensively – I’m like, ‘This is our moment.’ Donald Trump is going to make punk rock great again. We’re all going to crawl down staircases into basements and speakeasies and make amazing satirically political art.”

Palmer was promptly shredded online by people pointing out that a government that actively threatens the physical and mental wellbeing of many of its citizens is not good for art, and that the potential resurgence of punk rock and satire is scant consolation for feeling scared and unsafe.

When you talk about protest songs you have to avoid phrasing your point like Palmer did. Obviously, a protest song only comes into being because something bad has happened, or is still happening. In an ideal world they wouldn’t exist. Much though I like Fortunate Son, Ohio and War, not to mention Apocalypse Now and The Things They Carried, I would trade them all in a heartbeat for a world in which the US never intervened in Vietnam. But, given that the war did happen, those responses made great art out of a terrible situation and that’s something. Protest songs aren’t unique in that respect. Your favourite break-up song wouldn’t exist without someone else’s pain but that doesn’t mean you actively want songwriters to be heartbroken. I don’t believe Palmer was rooting for a Trump victory just because we might get some good songs out of it but her need to identify a silver lining tipped her over the line from optimism to crass naivete. There are better ways of making the point.

Last month I interviewed Patterson Hood from Georgia rock band the Drive-By Truckers for a Billboard article about protest songs in 2016. I found him so wise, compassionate and articulate that it was a shame I could only use a couple of quotes in the piece, so I asked Billboard and Hood’s publicist for permission to publish a version of the interview here as a Q&A. Hood told me that he wished the group’s album American Band had lost most of its topicality after November 8. Instead, it’s become, alongside A Tribe Called Quest’s final album, one of the first essential musical statements of the Trump era. He is sensible enough to feel ambivalent about this.

We talked about how they made the album and how they feel about it now, as well as Trump, fake news, Black Lives Matter, the nativist backlash, Kendrick Lamar, Beyoncé, The Clash and the protest song tradition. I think he represents that tradition at its best.

The first song on the album that you wrote was What It Means. How did you end up writing a song inspired by Black Lives Matter?

“It was just eating at me. I keep up with the news pretty closely and I kept seeing all these different situations evolving, especially the Trayvon Martin story and the events in Ferguson. It made me remember an event that happened in Athens, Georgia back in ’95 when I was new in town. It was something that kept happening. Now that everybody has a camera on their phone it’s getting widespread attention but it’s always been going on and it bothered me so I wrote the song as a way of trying to process it. It was one of those things that I thought about for a real long time but I actually wrote the song pretty quickly. I think I wrote it in an afternoon.”

Every song on American Band is political in some way. Did that all stem from What It Means?

“I think it evolved from an emotional need to touch on these things. When I wrote What It Means I didn’t necessarily know if it would be a Truckers song. I thought it would be outdated by the time we made another record. I thought I’d record it on my phone and throw it up on the internet and be done with it. But I played it for the band a couple of months later and they responded to it really emotionally. When it clicked we knew we had something special. By that point Cooley had already written Ramon Casiano. Before you knew it, songs were coming from both of us. It kind of wrote itself. The whole band realised pretty early what kind of record it was evolving into and everybody was all in.”

Did you feel it was essential to release the album before the election?

“We really worked our ass off to get it out before the fall of the election. The thought was that it would be timely for fall and hopefully hold up well enough for us to continue to play it. It didn’t occur to us that it would remain timely after the first week of November. I’m kind of disappointed that the record has a new shelf life. I guess it’s good for the record but it’s not necessarily good for the people.”

There’s that line in What It Means: “Standing on the precipice of prejudice and fear.” Well we’re off the precipice now…

“Yeah, now it’s just prejudice and fear! It’s a fucked-up time in America. I guess it’s happening elsewhere, too. There’s parallels with Brexit and the elections in France and a whole lot of other countries. There seems to be a movement towards electing more right-wing, isolationist governments. Everything is based so much on prejudice and fear — fear of the other.”

I don’t normally feel naïve but the speed of this trend has shocked me…

“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt naïve but maybe I was. I sure didn’t think so!”

Do you feel that there are other artists putting themselves out there politically like this?

“I figured there would be a flood of records coming out around the same time as our record, talking about the same things, and I’ve been really taken aback by how little there has been, especially in rock’n’roll, which is the genre that led the charge on social issues in the older days. Obviously hip hop has been the charge-leader in politically relevant music for the last couple of decades but right now even pop music. What Beyoncé did with her record and her film and her performance at the Super Bowl is a much more politically charged statement than I’ve been hearing from any of the rock’n’roll bands. I’m happy that anybody’s speaking up because I think people need to speak up.”

You’ve said that you were inspired by London Calling and To Pimp a Butterfly while making American Band…

“I keep making a parallel between To Pimp a Butterfly and London Calling. To me, London Calling was the quintessential statement of its time. If I think of 1980, I can’t think of anything more relevant than The Clash. And the fact that it’s still relevant so many years later is testament to what a great job they did. It was our touchstone in making this record. Whenever there was something we were questioning it was like, What would they have done? To me, To Pimp a Butterfly is the London Calling of our decade. Those are probably the two most influential records on our album even if it doesn’t sound like either of them. And Solange’s record [A Seat at the Table], too. That’s probably my album of the year. I love music that makes me think. People say, ‘Shut up and sing, don’t make me think.’ Well go see someone else, then. I’ve never wanted to make mindless music.”

A record this outspoken was bound to be divisive. What kind of reactions have you had?

“The positive has way outweighed the negative. It’s been our highest charting record and, I think, our most successful record in Europe. It’s gotten some of the best reviews we’ve ever gotten. People seem to really love the show we’re playing right now. All of that’s been great. There has been pushback too, especially online. If you bother to look at the comments on social media you’ll probably wish you didn’t. It’s fired people up on both sides and that’s fine. Just don’t be complacent. I’m not naïve enough to think that I can change the way people think; I just want them to think. Maybe if people think enough, then they’ll come to some pretty decent conclusions. But maybe not! Especially when you can look on the internet to find someone to back up your version of the ‘truth’, whether it’s true or not. That’s a danger that I wasn’t anticipating. For years I’ve railed against Fox News but really that’s just a small piece of the puzzle now. There’s so much online that’s perpetuating untruths and myths just to back up a specific political side. I like to know what all sides are saying but there’s so much bullshit out there. It’s just become noise. It’s getting harder and harder to vet it. I try so hard before I repost anything to make sure it’s not bullshit first, and I still occasionally fuck up.”

Do you think there will be a lot more musical responses to Trump once he takes office?

“I would think but I don’t know. I suspect it will from us. I was on tour when the election happened and I voted absentee before I left. It was an off night in Philadelphia and we all sat on the bus together watching the results come in until it got too depressing to watch anymore. The next night we had to figure out how to play a show. We had a show built around the idea that that night was going to be a celebration but all of a sudden it went in a different direction. Over the course of the day it started coming to us and that night we played one of the best shows we’ve ever played. A lot of fans who didn’t agree with our view probably didn’t bother to come but it was a sold-out show and the people there seemed to need what we did. It was one of those nights that reminded me why this is what I always chose to do. Then for the next two weeks we had some really special shows in places that were very much red states. These are probably some of the most powerful shows we’ve ever played. There’s a lot of work to do and we’re going to be out there doing whatever we can, trying to raise awareness and find other ways to help the cause.”

 

33 Protest Songs From 2016

 

 

 

 

 

It’s time to go left and not right
Gotta get it together forever
Gotta get it together for brothers
Gotta get it together for sisters
For mothers and fathers and dead niggas
For non-conformists, one hitter quitters
For Tyson types and Che figures
Let’s get it together, come on let’s make it
Gotta make it to make it, to make it, to make it, to make it
To make something happen, to make something happen

– A Tribe Called Quest, The Space Program

 

 

I recently wrote an article for Billboard about protest music in 2016 and beyond but I’d like to add a playlist and a couple of thoughts here. I hope we’ve seen the last of the “Where have all the protest songs gone?” thinkpieces for a while. It was a fair question five years ago but the length of this list alone shows how much has changed as the world has become harder and crueller.

There are two major trends at work. One is the proliferation of songs about Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland and all the other African-Americans whose unjust deaths have fuelled the Black Lives Matter movement. These songs started arriving a couple of years ago but there are more than ever this year, from T.I. and Common to Kevin Morby and Drive-By Truckers. Black Lives Matter also provides the subtext for more personal and subtly political albums by the likes of Solange and Blood Orange. The other is Donald Trump, whose campaign an unforgettably blunt response from YG and dozens of contributions to the 30 Days, 50 Songs project. The two streams converged in the year’s two best politically minded albums, both of which gave me some comfort after the US election: We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest and American Band by Drive-By Truckers.

Here are 33 powerful recent protest songs, in no particular order. I’ve created a playlist featuring the 27 songs available on Spotify and chosen two clips of post-election performances which dealt with Trump’s election in very different ways. Plus, courtesy of Beyoncé, the year’s most memorable collision of pop and protest. I’m sure we’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more like this in 2017. Where have all the protest songs gone? They’re all around us.

 

What the hell, what the hell
This thing’s got us all in its grip
The economy just don’t explain this
This unfathomable, nameless rift
Who knows if it even exists
It just some highly effective rhetoric
Used by perverts who get off on it

But all my friends
Yeah, I’m talking to you
The world won’t end unless we want it to
There’s no one in control
And it’s our life to choose

 

– Father John Misty, Holy Hell

 

33 Protest Songs

 

YG feat. Nipsey Hussle – FDT

A Tribe Called Quest – We the People…

Prophets of Rage – The Party’s Over

Green Day – Bang Bang (Live at the AMAs)

PJ Harvey – The Wheel

Bastille – The Currents

ANOHNI – Drone Bomb Me

Blood Orange – With Him

Michael Kiwanuka – Black Man in a White World

Swet Shop Boys – T5

T.I. – Warzone

Vic Mensa – 16 Shots

Sad13 – Coming Into Powers

Jim James – Same Old Lie

Neil Young – John Oaks

Drive-By Truckers – What It Means

Moor Mother – Deadbeat Protest

Kendrick Lamar – untitled 05 09.21.2014

M.I.A. – Borders

Kate Tempest – Europe Is Lost

Jamala – 1944

Solange feat. Lil Wayne – Mad

Common feat. Stevie Wonder – Black America Again

Kevin Morby – I Have Been to the Mountain

Ed Harcourt – The World Is on Fire

Nicolas Jaar – History Lesson

Moddi – Punk Prayer

Franz Ferdinand – Demagogue

Beyoncé – Freedom

Muse – Drones (Live)

Jamila Woods feat. Noname – VRY BLK

Father John Misty – Holy Hell

Kate McKinnon – Hallelujah (Live on SNL)

 

True Colours: Why Leave deserves to lose

 

The Leave campaign could have been different. It might have been the honourable debate that Giles Fraser wishes it was, and that Vote Leave initially promised it would be, concentrating on legitimate concerns such as the EU’s decision-making process, TTIP and the ways in which it has fallen short of its ideals. It might have been honest about the economic risk, arguing that the gamble was worth taking. If it had lost, then it would have lost with dignity, and without poisoning the well of political discourse.

That is not, of course, the campaign we saw.

Rather than risk losing on the facts, Leave chose to try and win on lies. Lies like the utterly discredited £350m-a-week figure that they were brazen enough to print on the side of a bus. Lies like the claim that Turkey’s EU membership is imminent (it’s not) and that the UK will have no veto (it does). Lies like UKIP’s instantly notorious Breaking Point poster of refugees in Slovenia who have no legal right to enter Britain. Huge, shameless lies. Professor Michael Dougan of the University of Liverpool Law School calls it “dishonesty on an industrial scale”.

The biggest lie, the Death Star lie from which all the other lies are launched, is the claim that everything wrong in Britain is down to the EU. Can’t find a decent job? Can’t get the school place you want? Can’t get a GP appointment the next day? Can’t get on the housing ladder? Brexit, they say, is the silver bullet that will fix them all. It was astonishing to hear free-market libertarian Nigel Farage pretend to care about those issues on the Today programme yesterday when all he really wanted to do was pin them on EU migrants. He has no serious plan for the future. When Farage says he wants to take his country back he really means “back”: back to an idealised past before foreigners spoiled everything. But you can never turn the clock back, least of all with a single decision. Another lie.

You see a version of this on the left as well. Left-wing Brexiter Lisa McKenzie writes: “In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything,” from affordable housing to pub closures. But it is not a referendum on those things, nor will Brexit solve them. One can respect with the anger and frustration of people who feel left behind by globalisation without endorsing the wrong solution. If someone tells you they’re ill, you don’t insist they feel great, but nor do you prescribe the wrong medicine with terrible side effects. McKenzie says a lot about working-class unrest, all of it true, but nothing about why Brexit is the right answer. Nothing about how it will ameliorate the adverse effects of globalisation and neoliberalism. I can see why the right wants workers to vote against their own economic interests — that’s an old strategy — but it’s dismaying to see people on the left selling a similar brand of snake oil.

Unfortunately, lies work. A recent Ipsos MORI poll recently found that Britons vastly overrated the number of EU migrants, the number claiming benefits and the percentage of the EU budget spent on bureaucracy, while seriously underrating the amount of EU investment the UK receives. According to the LSE, far from being pushed around the UK got its own way over EU laws 87% of the time between 2009-2015. Many Brexit supporters admit they haven’t been adversely affected by immigration and live in areas with relatively low levels but fear it anyway. Of course, the Leave campaign can’t claim all the credit when for years tabloids have been seeding the ground with distortions and scare stories while politicians have glibly blamed the beast of Brussels for their own failings.

 

Ipsos MORI

For all these reasons I believe the left-wing case for Brexit has become untenable. Giles Fraser claims “It’s not who you vote with — it’s what you vote for.” He writes: “A vote to leave is not a vote for Farage or Johnson. It won’t make Nigel an MP or Boris the PM. This is not a vote about the next government of the UK, or whether the NHS is safe in Johnson’s hands.” On the contrary it is all of those things and it’s self-indulgent to believe that conscience liberates him from facing up to the consequences. (Paul Mason, an instinctive Brexiter but a realist, recognises this.)

One should at least feel queasy about voting for a result that will delight Vladimir Putin, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, the BNP and the EDL, empowering demagogues, nativists and charlatans. More pressingly, if British voters choose to leave the EU on Thursday they will be handing the keys to the country to the people who ran this shabby, mendacious, hateful campaign.

A post-EU Britain will not be shaped by Giles Fraser but by a government of dogmatic neoliberals whose ideal is Thatcherism on steroids. For all their faux-populist rage against “the elites”, the Tory Brexiters are simply a different brand of elite. These are the people — Johnson, Gove, Grayling, Duncan Smith, possibly even Farage — who will be responsible for the divorce settlement. They will be in charge of the following:

 

  1. Guiding the economy through what nine out of 10 economists predict will be a traumatic, self-induced shock that will hurt the low-paid most of all.
  2. Maintaining, let alone improving, public services amid a likely fall in GDP and an extension of austerity.
  3. Negotiating years of new trade deals, including ones with former EU partners who they have spent a long time trashing.
  4. Deciding the precarious fate of EU citizens currently resident in the UK.
  5. Making up for the loss of EU subsidies everywhere from farming to the arts.
  6. Investing in hospitals, schools and house-building, because none of those shortfalls will be solved simply by blocking EU migrants.
  7. Preserving the countless rights and protections for workers that will no longer be guaranteed by the EU.
  8. Taking leadership on international crises such as refugees and climate change.
  9. Holding the UK together after England has decided the fate of the more pro-Remain Scotland and Northern Ireland.

That would be a tall order for the most noble and gifted politicians you could imagine. Have the Leave campaigners given us any reason to believe that they can be trusted with those tasks? That they are fit to remake Britain?

The damage they have done will last long beyond Thursday. The Leave campaign is a grim example of post-truth politics and the atavistic roar of “paranoid populism” that also animates the continental far right and the Trump campaign. It’s Michael Gove saying, in the face of evidence from economists, businesspeople, scientists, environmentalists, artists, trade unions, universities, charities and world leaders, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts.” It’s conspiracy theories, smears and demonisation. It’s blatantly courting racism, then feigning outrage whenever anybody calls it out. It’s exploiting the anxieties of the poorest citizens with xenophobia and lies. It’s stirring up rage and hatred for short-term gain and damn the consequences. If they win it will send a message that the basest form of politics works.

Thanks to this wretched referendum, says The Economist: “The currency of facts will be debased, that of stunts inflated, that of conviction sidelined. It will be de rigueur to question an opponent’s motives before his arguments, sneer at experts, prefer volume to accuracy and disparage concession, compromise and moderation.”

That’s why it is sickening hypocrisy for Leave to whine that the murder of Jo Cox will lead people to vote with their hearts rather than their heads, having shamelessly appealed to the heart’s worst instincts.

Over the past few days I’ve heard about a lot of Leave voters and undecideds switching to Remain because they don’t trust these people. They don’t want to reward this ugly, debased, destructive kind of politics. They don’t believe that it will lead to a happier, more confident Britain. They sense that they are being taken for a ride. Like Sayeeda Warsi, they have had enough. I’ve also spoken to many Remain supporters who are more determined than ever to go to the polling station and be heard.

The Brexiters had a chance to show us what country they want Britain to be and they have shown it at its very worst. If they lose, the Leave camp will complain that they have been misrepresented. On the contrary, I think they will lose because a growing number of people know all too well the kind of people they’re dealing with. As with Zac Goldsmith’s sordid dog-whistle campaign for London mayor, it would be appropriate if Leave’s own gutter tactics cost them victory.

Say it loud, she’s black and she’s proud – Beyoncé’s Formation

One reason I’ve let the weeds grow over this blog over the past couple of years is the sense that there are enough opinions already. The intersection of politics and pop music has never been as thoroughly examined as it is now and I often wonder what I can add. Miss out on the initial online feeding frenzy and you’re left with nothing but bones and scraps and the feeling that everything has already been said.

There’s certainly no shortage of opinions about Beyoncé’s song Formation, which she performed at the Super Bowl on Sunday. I’ve read gushing hagiographies that left me thinking she was getting too much credit and snarky dismissals (primarily, inevitably, from older white men) that convinced me she wasn’t getting nearly enough. The second reaction annoyed me much more. By any metric, one of the world’s biggest pop stars performing an unapologetic celebration of blackness in one of the citadels of mainstream American culture is a big fucking deal. This level of debate around a protest song? It just doesn’t happen. If you think it matters less because she’s rich or because she wears hotpants, then you’re just not paying attention.

Sceptics say that Formation is too simplistic and self-aggrandising to be radical, but they miss the significance of firmly stating: “I am a black woman and I am powerful.” That assertion has weight and heritage. You can hear it in Jesse Jackson’s Wattstax chant “I am somebody”, or Kendrick Lamar’s chorus “I love myself” or the name of Black Lives Matter — simple claims really, but radical in the context of American life. (Something clearly lost on white people who reply: “All Lives Matter.”) Even in the early days of hip hop, when very few rappers were engaging with politics, every song had the subtext: “I am here. We are here. Listen to us.” Beyoncé isn’t fastening onto a new issue but digging deeper into who she is and what her success represents, tapping into her own dormant power. She states the obvious because it still needs stating.

In The Blacker the Berry, Kendrick itemises his black features through the lens of a racist: “My hair is nappy, my dick is big, my nose is round/You hate me don’t you?” Beyoncé does it with joy: “I like my baby hair with baby hair and afros/I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” Note the historical weight of “negro” in 2016, and the implied reference to the racial psychodrama of Michael Jackson’s ever-changing nose. There’s pride in those lines, and the shadow of the opposite of pride. (Note also that those lines come from a woman who just the other week was attacked for having “blonde hair, green eyes and seemingly bleached-out skin” — for insufficently black.)

Beyoncé’s not just saying she’s black — she’s Southern black, born and raised in the former Confederacy. Hot sauce, cornbread and collard greens are signifiers of a heritage she has rarely addressed (the 2006 B-Day bonus track Creole is a little-heard exception), while the New Orleans bounce rhythm nods towards her mother’s Louisiana heritage. The video, without which the song wouldn’t be half as effective, drives this home with historically resonant images of black women occupying an old plantation mansion, like the joyful victors of a non-violent coup. On NPR the writer dream hampton cleverly describes the video as a “visual anthem” and says: “It’s about a black visionary, a black future [where] we are imagining ourselves having power, and magic. And I think it’s beautiful.”

During the current controversy around the lack of racial diversity among Oscar nominees, it’s been noted that movies about black people only get recognised by the Academy when they’re about slavery or civil rights. Black characters have to be struggling and overcoming and delivering a tough but ultimately uplifting message to white viewers. They can’t just be living their lives in all their complexity. The Formation video acknowledges the struggle — the floodwaters of Katrina, the small boy dancing defiantly in front of steely-faced riot policemen, the graffiti reading “Stop Shooting Us” — but it shows so much more, from the church to the hair shop. There is celebration as well as resistance. In fact, the celebration is a form of resistance. To quote Syreeta McFadden’s wonderfully lyrical piece in the Guardian US:

“It’s old and new south; it’s dark and dirty south; it’s Chantilly lace and denim jacket south; it’s baby afro, baby hair and pink and purple wig south; it’s second line and pentecostal holy ghost south; it’s southern gothic and bounce south; it’s my granny, grandaddy, auntie, uncle, cousin south. It is us, it’s for us, and it’s not concerned if white people understand.”

Another criticism of Formation is that it’s only about Beyoncé but that’s not true. She certainly trumpets her own achievements but she also celebrates her parents, her daughter and her husband and “I slay” mutates into “We gon’ slay” as she moves towards the Black Panther-echoing rallying cry, “OK ladies, let’s get in formation.” (Or “information”.) I confess I’m not quite as excited by Beyoncé’s obsession with flexing her economic muscle as Alex Macpherson in the Guardian. It’s true that black artists celebrating their wealth and power is inherently political in America (aka the Watch the Throne defence) but it isn’t inherently new or provocative. The implication here, though, is that the power isn’t hers alone. Unlike Kanye’s lonely, locked-in boasts, her bragging opens the door to other black women. The video makes this explicit, turning the camera on all the people around Beyoncé to make the celebration communal.

The Super Bowl performance added another layer, bringing Black Power salutes, Black Panther berets and an X (as in Malcolm) formation to America’s shop window. I couldn’t help thinking about the FBI’s relentless harassment of the Panthers in the 60s and 70s, or the famous use of the salute at another sporting event, the 1968 Olympics, and marvelling at how slickly Beyoncé brought that history onto the playing field. She’s canny enough to make a subversive statement while still ostensibly playing by the rules, unlike MIA and her middle finger (you can valorise the Black Panthers but by God don’t disrespect the NFL). This was blackness as pageantry.

If you wanted to sum up the song, the video and the performance in one phrase it could be an old one: “Say it loud — I’m black and I’m proud.” Like Beyoncé, James Brown was accused of not being black enough, of being an arch-capitalist, of treating his hair instead of letting it grow naturally, of pandering to white people, of being too self-involved to put his career on the line by taking a stand. He recorded Say It Loud as a slightly grudging sop to the Black Power movement and late complained that it alienated his white fans. The point is that he did it anyway, and that song meant the world to his black listeners. He meant it when he wrote it: maybe not a year earlier or a year later but in that moment he was telling the truth and being courageous. Before then, black artists didn’t feel able to commit the simple words “I’m black” to record. After Say It Loud, the floodgates opened. Do Brown’s myriad character flaws and compromised motives make that galvanising statement any less valuable?

I wouldn’t compare Beyoncé, as some people have, to Nina Simone. Simone threw herself wholesale into the civil rights movement, driven by volcanic anger and painful self-doubt, and she paid a high price for her outspoken black pride, ending up as a lonely and disillusioned cult figure. Beyoncé is an immensely powerful megastar and businesswoman who visits the White House and isn’t going to let politics derail her career . She’s far more James than Nina.

Some people expect too much from Beyoncé. I read some of the pieces calling for her to be more of a radical activist, even to reject capitalism, and I think of the 60s protesters who expected the Stones and the Who to write anthems for the coming revolution. That’s not how megastars operate. They work within the system and their occasional political statements are powerful precisely because they take place on an enormous, unignorable platform. A lot of people can write a protest song but how many get to perform it at the Super Bowl and start the whole country talking? That’s risky enough, and her and Jay Z’s donations to Black Lives Matter show that it’s not just a rhetorical posture. She’s not as fearlessly direct as Kendrick but that’s OK.

I get the sense from Formation, like I did from Flawless, that Beyoncé is testing the limits of her power, seeing how tough and provocative she can be, and that’s admirable. She doesn’t have to be a revolutionary superhero, any more than James Brown or Marvin Gaye had to be. She just has to make the right statements at the right time and signal-boost important conversations about race, gender, power and identity. That’s why I have contempt for people who claim that Formation is no big deal and suspicion for those who want to smother her with excessive praise. Neither gives due credit to the brave, imperfect experiment of Formation, which feels like a way station rather than a destination. Let’s be patient and see just how far she’s willing to go.

beyonce-formation-2016

2015

Nobody’s short of lists in December but why hold back? Here are my songs, albums and articles of the year.

First up, my songs of the year (minus Joanna Newsom and other streaming refuseniks) are on Spotify in a three-hour highlights version and the full six-hour marathon.

My Top 40 albums of 2015:

  1. Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
  2. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
  3. Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
  4. Joanna Newsom – Divers
  5. New Order – Music Complete
  6. Chvrches – Every Open Eye
  7. Carly Rae Jepsen – Emotion
  8. Laura Marling – Short Movie
  9. Tobias Jesso, Jr – Goon
  10. Vince Staples – Summertime ‘06
  11. Django Django – Born Under Saturn
  12. Julia Holter – Have You in My Wilderness
  13. Tame Impala – Currents
  14. Belle & Sebastian – Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
  15. Miguel – Wildheart
  16. John Grant – Grey Tickles, Black Pressure
  17. Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment – Surf
  18. Kacey Musgraves – Pageant Material
  19. Blur – The Magic Whip
  20. Destroyer – Poison Season
  21. The Chemical Brothers – Born in the Echoes
  22. A$AP Rocky – At.Long.Last.A$AP
  23. Jamie Woon – Making Time
  24. Wire – Wire
  25. FFS – FFS
  26. Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
  27. Baio – The Names
  28. Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
  29. East India Youth – Culture of Volume
  30. Panda Bear – Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper
  31. Hudson Mohawke – Lantern
  32. Kurt Vile – b’lieve I’m goin’ down…
  33. Grimes – Art Angels
  34. Blanck Mass – Dumb Flesh
  35. Guy Garvey – Courting the Squall
  36. The Libertines – Anthems for Doomed Youth
  37. Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again
  38. Four Tet – Morning/Evening
  39. Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs
  40. Shamir – Ratchet

 

Some articles I enjoyed reading:

Swoonatra by Ian Penman (London Review of Books)

Lady Gaga Goes to the Middle by Lindsay Zoladz (New York)

We’ll All Go Down Together: Billy Joel Says Goodbye to Nassau Coliseum by Maura Johnston (The Concourse)

Taylor Swift Is Definitely in Her Zone by Jia Tolentino (The Muse)

The Franzen of It All: ‘Purity’ and the great American Novelist by Brian Phillips (Grantland)

The X Factor review by Julia Raeside (The Guardian)

Was Banning Tyler, the Creator the Victory International Feminism Needed? by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd (Jezebel)

Age of ‘Compton’: NWA With Artifical Sweeteners by Wesley Morris (Grantland)

The death and life of the great British pub by Tom Lamont (The Guardian)

Unfollow by Adrian Chen (The New Yorker)

The Third Revelation of Father John Misty by Sean Fennessey (Grantland)

 

Some articles I enjoyed writing:

Attack of the feminist superheroes (The Guardian)

Kendrick Lamar interview (The Observer)

Remembering Amy Winehouse (Billboard)

The Libertines interview (The Guardian)

“A Public Menace”: How the fight to ban The Birth of a Nation shaped the nascent civil rights movement (Slate)

The stagnation blues (The Long + Short)

How the compact disc lost its shine (The Guardian)

Chuck D interview (The Guardian)

 

The sound of the year:

 

 

#SayTheirNames

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