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.”