Always Riled Up: Protest Music For A New Era, Part 1

This is part one in what will be an ongoing series of takes from artists across several genres as we explore what effect the changing political landscape in the US and abroad will have on music; the way we listen to it, how we listen to it, and who we look to for guidance, solace, or simple release in what is already proving to be a deeply challenging time, as well as how it relates in the larger context of society and history.

As a jumping off point to discuss anything political in the metal/heavy music realm I think this MetalSucks piece serves that purpose. I won’t reiterate it here. That said, as Dorian Linskey wrote in this piece from the Guardian about Thatcher’s ascendancy and its effect on punk, could we see a renaissance in political punk and heavier music with the inauguration of Trump and a new Presidency truly beginning in earnest?

Throughout the last four decades, since Black Sabbath cranked out “War Pigs”, heavy music has taken on the task of addressing the chicanery of political leaders and what it means to us plebeians down below. Some would argue that the political underscoring of heavier music truly hit its zenith during the confluence of the Reagan (his legacy with punk can be read about here) and Thatcher years in the US and UK respectively. However, the thread has continued to run throughout this period in some form or other no matter who has occupied 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Since 2000 and the controversial election of George W. Bush, outside of artists occasionally praising the efforts of police and military soldiers (particularly in the wake of tragedy), conservative political viewpoints have been fewer and further between. Fat Wreck Chords, a label led by Fat Mike of NOFX, released the Rock Against Bush compilations in 2004 during the Bush re-election campaign and seemingly firmly claimed the ground of punk for neutral-to-left political thought within the popular punk scene. One prominent Fat Wreck band, Good Riddance, in 1995 released For God and Country, one of the more ear-catching punk albums that addressed many of the topics we find ourselves re-hashing now. So, when singer, Russ Rankin, says “We have been screaming our lungs out for decades and yet we believe our country is regressing, not moving forward” there’s something palpable to learn from.

At the same time, we have already seen many mainstream actors and musicians voice an opinion of some kind on the new American President which would indicate the arts as a whole are feeling some kind of way about it. We spoke with Russ Rankin, Jared Grabb, and Jason Hall to get their take. Rankin is the lead singer for Good Riddance, one of the more political bands that has graced Fat Wreck Chords, and has gone on to establish himself as both a producer and a hockey scout. Their 1995 debut full-length, For God and Country, is one of the most catchy political punk albums of all time and proved influential to developing punk scenes around the country. Grabb headlined the Peoria, IL-based Scouts Honor for several years with his gutterall yelps, low key melodies, and honest Midwestern American scenes-as-songs providing a unique view of what’s going on with people outside of America’s metropolitan areas. He is also a relentless artist and promoter for his hometown scene. Jason Hall is the vocalist and guitarist for Fat Wreck band Western Addiction. The band has intermittently focused on personal politics and more typical fare for the punk scene. Their sound has been described as a throwback to 80s hardcore. The father of two also works for the label which gives him an interesting sense of where the punk scene is at during any given time.

We started off with a basic set of questions for all three:

  • Politics has been a fertile ground for your subject matter, do you see that intensifying with the change in Presidency? How might it change for your music?
  • As an artist, are you at all concerned about seeing a chilling effect on how politically charged music is received or responded to in the US?
  • Do you think music like yours will serve as a call to action or a vent for the masses? What would you like to see audiences do with your message?

One of the most common refrains we found was a certain cynicism and actual sense of fear or outright speechlessness and disappointment.

When speaking about the changeover in Presidency, Grabb had this to say: “The election has left me largely without words.  I am frightened for my family, my friends, and the people of this country in general.  I fear the rising normalization of racism.  I fear persecution of people due to gender identity or sexual orientation.  I fear the effects of upcoming legislation regarding the environment.  I fear the attack on rights and health options for women.  I fear that the incoming administration will be the reason that I lose health care for my own family.”

Hall went a little further dubbing the new Presidency “extremely undesirable” and added, “You can disagree with someone’s political beliefs but I find misogyny, racism and being a deplorable bully just plain unacceptable.” He also spoke to the mentality that brought this about, “If you thought deeply about what having this person, as a representative, signals to women, and the world in general, then you would surely reconsider.”

Rankin spoke less of fear or a general distaste for this particular President but more from a sense that Americans brought this upon themselves. “I remain as dissatisfied as ever, and we, as Americans, deserve 100% of the blame for the current state we find ourselves in.” And when asked about any difference of feeling from one president to another said “I have just as many policy issues with President Obama as I did with his predecessor.”

As far as what it will do to their art, Grabb had this to say, “While I am sure that all of this will inform my art, my writing is currently focused on local subject matter.” He continued, “I suppose that I am struggling to make sense of the bigger picture at the moment.” As are so many other people around the world.

Rankin reminds us that the issues Good Riddance have been speaking about are all still in play after over 20 years in the punk scene. “The issues addressed in our music are ongoing. Inequality, injustice, disastrous foreign policies, and an idiotic obsession with celebrity, have plagued Americans for decades, through administrations of both corporate political parties.”

When it comes to what the future may bring, Grabb says “I expect to see a rise in the popularity of aggressive music in the next four years, from punk to hip hop.” Whereas Rankin thinks that the industry writ-large keep political protest music out of the limelight. “I am not concerned (about a chilling effect), because the culture industry has always been able to successfully marginalize anything remotely resembling protest music in this country.”

Hall cited his band’s new single “Masscult, Vulgarians, and Entitlement” saying “we’ve had some good feedback on the message and style being more appropriate than ever.  We’ve never been overtly political but that song is about the state of the world and our hometown and the words are ringing true.” When asked about the effect on their approach he added, “I don’t know if it will have a direct impact on making our music more intense but the unrest becomes a bit more amplified now because the words take on new meaning.”

So clearly these artists all reside in the same general vicinity with regard to the new President which belies a larger truth about the punk scene particularly. To many, though, a revolution without song, while not meaningless, is at least somewhat hard to imagine. Each person had thoughts about what they hope people will take from their music.

Grabb urges listeners to “take in information from as many sources as possible, while checking their authenticity, and then decide for yourself what the next step is for a brighter future.” While Hall has similar sentiments. “Those actions (protests and demonstrations) are great, but I think you can make a difference every single day by just trying to be pleasant to each other and consider how someone might feel.” He add “being kind is free.”

Rankin takes a slightly different view after over two decades in the business. “This has been perhaps my biggest struggle with our band, our music, and the punk/hardcore scene as a whole. I have very specific ideas about what I would like people to do with our message, but that’s fascistic thinking.” He went on to say, “Maybe it inspires some, perhaps it’s simply entertainment to others. It’s all legitimate, regardless of how I feel or what I think. Until somebody in a position to shape policy asks me what I think or what I’d do, my opinion means nothing.”

Perhaps, as people find their voice through music and/or protest those who may shape future policy will start asking questions of artists like Rankin and so many others. Then again, I don’t doubt some of the people out there in the American political landscape are also fans of the bands who would stoke a fire to burn it all down if they could. After all, even Paul Ryan once claimed to love Rage Against the Machine.

Please clap.

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