Musicians can benefit from the opportunity to speak both as members of the public and as artists. Music has always been a method of self-expression where ideas and emotions could be captured with poetic subtlety. Subjects of controversy do not need to be addressed directly – a message can be conveyed within the subtext.
Politically charged popular music released in the last few months has showcased examples ranging from stunningly sophisticated lyricism to cringeworthy wannabe-revolution-anthems.
Several musicians and bands have returned from long hiatuses; when was the last time we heard anything about Fiona Apple or Arcade Fire? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the factor uniting them all is the anti-Trump message. It’s thrilling to see the abundance of artists resurfacing in 2017, and there is undeniable excitement in anticipating their upcoming albums, but if their reasons to return universally revolve around commenting on their fears of Trump’s America, there is a considerable risk of individuality fading.
Gorillaz disappeared from the spotlight shortly after the release of “The Fall”, and their long-awaited return was finally brought to life in January’s “Hallelujah Money”. Featuring eerie vocals from the ever-brilliant Benjamin Clementine, the song sheds light on the indistinguishable symbiosis of business and politics, and criticizes capitalism in a music video featuring Orwellian all-seeing eyes as well as Ku Klux Klan imagery and snippets from the film adaptation of “Animal Farm”, among others.
The song has not been released on streaming services yet. After three months, the most accessible way to give it a listen is through the music video – this indicates Gorillaz’ intention to render the song to an audiovisual experience. “Hallelujah Money” divided fans, with some being impressed by its subliminal social commentary and others arguing that a potential new “Feel Good, Inc.” was lost on the way to deliver a politically charged expression of art.
Later singles such as “Ascension” and “Let Me Out” continued with the obvious, apocalypse-fore-telling hints at the corrupt nature of power, establishing the upcoming “Humanz” as a conceptual work revolving around current issues in politics.
Consequently, the question concerning soon-to-be-released music is whether the “anti-Trump” song is bound to become a formula and whether that would prioritise political commentary over quality.
“Hallelujah Money” is a black sheep in Gorillaz’ (and Clementine’s) discography. It’s some-thing they haven’t done before, and in terms of offering their point of view on the ongoing state of unrest and division, it is necessarily unique. If artists decide to make their big returns with universal anti-Trump messages, the later they plan to resurface, the harder the task will be to leave an individual imprint on the subject.
Almost five years have passed since singer-songwriter Fiona Apple’s last album was released. In December, she came back into the spotlight with a parody of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” titled “Trump’s Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” This was not intended to be part of Apple’s still unclear return, but as a standalone, pre-inauguration gag, it was undeniably hilarious. In January, she took another humorous, one-minute song to the Women’s March: in “Tiny Hands”, she chants “We don’t want your tiny hands / Anywhere near our underpants” over a loop of a sample from Trump’s leaked conversation with Billy Bush. Apple’s approach of the subject is funny and subtle, a noble effort in her musical career which has remained relatively unadulterated by politics for more than two decades. She responded to the urge to react as a musician and created an accessible (by uploading the song exclusively on Soundcloud), subtle, and funny take on the subject.
Another notable effort was Arcade Fire’s long-awaited return after their streak of success in 2013 with “Reflektor” and the soundtrack to Spike Jonze’s “Her.” The quirky beat under “I Give You Power” still reflects LCD Soundsystem’s influence on the band, and soul queen Mavis Staples’s low voice fits well into the song. However, similarly to “Hallelujah Money,” the single had Arcade Fire fans scratching their heads over the excessive repetition of its chorus (“I give you power / I can take it away / watch me”), resembling political chants and reflecting an oddly forced vibe. Nonetheless, Trump’s name is never mentioned; such subtlety can still be appreciated.
Alongside “Hallelujah Money” and “I Give You Power,” rapper Joey Bada$$ dropped “Land of the Free,” to overall positive acclaim. Part of the song’s appeal lies within Joey’s aim to detach himself from his breakout introspective musical style and provide a memorable, upbeat song to his fans.
“Land of the Free” bluntly addresses the election and enlarges its scope on racism with expected vulgarity and thoughtful criticism: “In the land of the free, it’s for the free loaders / Leave us dead in the street then be your organ donors / They disorganized my people, made us all loners / Still got the last name of our slave owners.”
The song’s funky melody and solid approach to the subject certainly makes it a highlight among other releases. His new album “All AmeriKKKan Bada$$” has since been released and was met with overwhelming critical acclaim. Incorporating a political message in music leaves a hard task to the artist: in an abundance of other musicians reflecting on the same subject, the successful delivery of a message carries the danger of succumbing to formula. Joey Bada$$ cleverly incorporated it into his career and took the opportunity to make a shift in musical style together with his lyrical subject matter.
Fiona Apple used it to connect with her fans at the Women’s March. Arcade Fire and Gorillaz pulled off risky projects that divided fans with their experimental nature. Other examples include Eminem’s “Campaign Speech”and Angel Olsen’s “Fly on Your Wall.”