Thurston Moore (photo by Wendy Lynch Redfern) and Moby (photo by David Studarus)

A Season For Cynics: Musicians Contemplate a Lesser-of-Two-Evils Election

A Conversation with Billy Bragg, Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, Kristin Kontrol, Mew's Jonas Bjerre, Moby, Thurston Moore, Okkervil River's Will Sheff, Amanda Palmer, Henry Rollins, Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg, Superchunk's Laura Ballance, and Andrew W.K

Nov 03, 2016 Issue #58 - The Protest Issue
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[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2016 Issue, which came out in early September. This is its debut online as we keep our print magazine articles exclusive to the print magazine for at least one month or more. Obviously a lot has changed in the dynamics of the election since September, so keep that in mind when reading this article.]

On July 11, 2016, Democratic nominee for president Bernie Sanders officially endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, thereby ending one of the unlikeliest campaigns in American political history. It had been a remarkable run for the 74-year-old Vermont senator, going from barely registering in national polls to running neck and neck with Clinton throughout much of the primary. And, if public statements and Twitter endorsements are to be believed, the world of indie rock stood almost unanimously in their support for him. Vampire Weekend, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear-all performed for Sanders at his rallies. Killer Mike of Run the Jewels filmed interviews with Sanders to help spread his message. Sonic Youth legend Thurston Moore collaborated with Sanders on a recording, overlaying pieces of Sanders' speeches with his acoustic 12-string guitar. In a year of insurgent, outsider politics, it turns out that insurgent, out-of-the-mainstream musicians clearly recognized someone who was speaking their language.

The extent to which that holds true is remarkable, and the disparity between Sanders and Clinton supporters was stark. In fact, one would need to know little more than a musician's previous level of chart success to fairly accurately predict which candidate that artist would support. Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Stevie Nicks, Moby, Cyndi Lauper, Pharrell Williams, Courtney Love, and a whole raft of musicians who have sold millions of records were Clinton backers. There were indie supporters in Clinton's camp (such as Foxygen) but they were clearly in the minority among the avalanche of Sanders' fans that seemed to include just about everyone else who harbored an anti-establishment bent.

As for Republican nominee Donald Trump, don't bother asking. His supporters—to the extent they exist in the non-country, non-Ted Nugent/Kid Rock portion of the music industryare remaining silent. Only oneEagles of Death Metal frontman Jesse Hughesvoiced anything resembling support for The Donald. A second, Azealia Banks, endorsed Trump but did so while calling him "evil," which makes one suspect that her support was more in keeping with her history of making inflammatory statements as much as it represents any genuine agreement with his positions.

In the months since the Democratic and Republican primaries began, mass shootings and terror attacks have become a near-everyday occurrence. A wave of young black men was killed by police officers, and, in turn, a growing number of police officers have been killed in retaliation. The refugee crisis in Europe grew, Austrians nearly voted to install the anti-immigrant Freedom Party to lead their government, and the citizens of Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. As much you could look at the indie rock world as speaking in unison, you could look at the larger culture, if not the world itself, and see it being torn apart.

"I'm at a Ted Talk festival in Canada right now, and everyone is talking about all this xenophobia and racism in the world right now," says Amanda Palmer, singer/songwriter and longtime political activist. Having spent the last year becoming a first-time mother and reconciled with her previously estranged father to record an album of covers with him titled You Got Me Singing, she has thrown herself into projects both creative and political with a newfound vigor. "I don't know if dark times make for great art, but they do force artists to reach deeper. Everyone is worried. Donald Trump, the Brexit-people are afraid and angry. And history shows that when people are afraid, things can get pretty dark in a hurry."

If the 2008 election was one of soaring oratory and "hope and change" optimism, this one has had a totally different character. After eight years of President Obama having his legislative hands tied by a Republican Congress, the mood on the left is angry and bitter. Those on the right are no less disillusioned, waking up every day to a culture that makes little sense to them and an economy that no longer seems to provide opportunities for upward mobility. As the primary dragged on, Sanders and Clinton supporters dug in and sharpened their rhetorical knives for each other, while Trump supporters took aim at everyone who wasn't them. And as it became more and more clear that Sanders would not, in fact, be moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a certain kind of despair took hold on the activist left. 

"What I find really odd is the circular firing squad that is happening in the progressive movement right now," says electronic music legend and longtime political activist Moby. "And it's so irrational and disconcerting to see some of my progressive friends saying that they'd rather Donald Trump be president than Hillary Clinton. It's just baffling to me. It just reminds me too much of 2000, when Ralph Nader supporters tried to say that Al Gore and George Bush were basically the same person. I forget who had the quote, but basically if you don't learn from history you're doomed to repeat it. Because the truth is, if you look at Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, 99 percent of their policy positions are the same. So the irrational vitriol on the part of some of the Sanders supporters seems really misplaced."

Moby should know. After endorsing Clinton on his Twitter in April, calling her "smart, experienced, principled, and also funny" and a "friend," the reaction from his followers was not enthusiastic. "Until she starts caring more about the poor and less about Wall Street and Monsanto your endorsement stinks," wrote one. Another called her a "killer." Many expressed disappointment that Moby could be so clearly duped by a career politician. And though he has been adamant in pointing out that he greatly admires Sanders, as well, the idea that an uncompromising progressive such as Moby could actually favor Clinton was unthinkable to many of his fans. What about Sanders galvanized his supporters in such a way that they balked at the notion of even considering another candidate?

"Honestly, I didn't know anything about him [before his presidential run]," says Kristin Welchez (the Dum Dum Girls frontwoman who now records as Kristin Kontrol). "I'm not super political publically or personally, but I had reached that point in my life where I was like, 'Okay, I have a tiny platform where if I feel strongly about something I might as well take advantage of it, because why not?' Becoming aware of Bernie was the second wave of trying to be a little bit more involved, trying to send off any huge Republican backlash for the two Obama terms. But I think if you talk to any of his younger supporters, the enthusiasm that he has is really appealing. He comes across as very honest; I believe him. He's really articulate, which I clearly am not," she says, pausing. "I think I have never really felt like there would be somebody like him in my corner."

Artists throwing their support solidly behind liberal politicians is nothing new, of course. But their support for Sanders feels different, more intense in some ways than even their near-unanimous support for Barack Obama eight years earlier. Obama was a political upstart who managed to break down the doors of the establishment, the equivalent of a cutting edge artist  that somehow captures the zeitgeist and suddenly finds himself with a chart-topping record. Sanders was more like a long-running underground cult act that somehow, against all odds, found himself with a massive audience after spending his whole career on the margins. Perhaps when artists look at Sanders they see one of their own more than they see a politician.

"Artists feel stuff really intensely; that's kind of the job," says Okkervil River's Will Sheff. A native of New Hampshire who has lived in Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, Sheff has performed at fundraisers for Sanders. "You have to have a certain sensitivity, and what Bernie is saying feels so right if you think about what's fair. If you think about the fact that in the United States and in the entire world, some people are worth hundreds and thousands of times more than other people. And once you start thinking about it, you start to feel frantic about how unfair it is. And musicians are idealists. If you're a musician, you're a dreamer and you're a feeler, so you see Bernie and you're like, 'What a beautiful dream.' And when I say 'dream' I don't necessarily mean a dream that won't come true. It's a dream that could come true, and it's beautiful and your heart responds to it. And someone like Hillary is much more down-to-earth and has a compromised political path, so there's more reason to fear that it's more of the same. And it's discouraging."

Given the support for both Trump and Sanders, it appears that a majority of Americans aren't satisfied with more of the same. Despite the fact that the two candidates and their supporters have little in common ideologically, their campaigns appear to have given voice to the fears and frustrations of those who believe that American democracy is fundamentally broken. For liberals, it's easy to look at the Obama years as providing mostly unfulfilled promise and unexpected heartburn. Guantanamo Bay is still open. Drone strikes are still being used to unilaterally kill suspected enemies in other countries. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international trade deal that critics say will undermine environmental protections and increase income inequality, was negotiated in secret and promoted by President Obama. To what extent were Sanders' supporters motivated by the notion that he represents someone who wouldn't compromise in the ways that Obama has and that Clinton would?

"I think to a great extent. I think that is the it of it," says social critic and former Black Flag lead vocalist Henry Rollins. "I also think that in many ways, Sanders is perhaps naïve. If there were other ways President Obama could get things accomplished in some instances, I think he would have. I am willing to bet all presidents go in with one idea of how it's going to go and find out that it's not going to be that way."

While Rollins admits that there's a lot he doesn't like about Clinton, he sees stark differences between potential Trump and Clinton presidencies. Clinton might not be the most inspired or inspiring choice, but under Trump, Rollins says, international relationships would suffer, delicate negotiations with allies and enemies would fall apart, and everyone from Vladimir Putin to Bashir Assad would play Trump for a fool. Clinton might be cozy with Wall Street and essentially a neocon on foreign policy, but Trump is a walking embodiment of all of the racism, sexism, and classism that liberals associate with Republicanism. But can all left-leaning musicians swallow their disappointment and support Clinton in November?

"Well, if you mean voting [for Clinton], no," says Deerhoof's Greg Saunier, a Sanders supporter. "I think under normal circumstances somebody like that would be hard-pressed to get any kind of support from me. There are two levels to war. One, you started the war. Two, you're also a war criminal, and that goes beyond creating war but breaking the laws of warbombing hospitals, killing innocent people, creating power vacuums, etc. I consider her to be extremely terrible in that regard, and I'm always shocked when I get in conversations with my friends and family, who even like Bernie Sanders a lot, but they insist that surely we agree that Hillary Clinton is really smart, right? Well, I guess she's smart, but maybe you can be smart and stupid at the same time. She's smart in the sense that she has been able to accrue a lot of power and money both. But when you're talking about a politician, she appears not smart. Stated goals are not reached. Stated problems are not solved but exacerbated by her actions. I'm hard-pressed to support someone like this."

As Saunier continues, explaining that Trump appears to be a man with no core convictions, he concludes that he has to take him at his word that he'd pursue an even more aggressive foreign policy than Clinton, perhaps increasing use of torture techniques and even deploying tactical nuclear weapons. By the end of his explanation of Trump's shortcomings, he seems to have come to a different conclusion, laughing to himself as he admits that he'll probably vote for Clinton just to keep Trump out of the Oval Office. Just because the election boils down to a battle between the lesser of two evils doesn't mean that all evil is created equal.

"The distance I have from U.S.A. has been a way of viewing the demise of intellectual regard, at least in the conservative Republican Party, with some sort of buffer," says Thurston Moore, founder member of indie rock pioneers Sonic Youth. Having relocated to London, he says he's optimistic about the future of his home country but is "mortified" by the rise of Trump. "I think if I was still living in NYC I'd be in jail for spray painting 'People Have the Power-The Power of Love' on McTrump's plane."

But perhaps something deeper and more subconscious is going on in the hearts and minds of Americans who support Trump. As former Obama Senior Advisor David Axelrod noted in a January, 2016, New York Times editorial, people voting for president often don't want a replica of the current holder of that office. History shows that in times of unrest they often opt for someone who, in temperament and style, is the opposite. "[Trump's] almost the polar opposite of Obama in every way that you can think of," says Jonathan Meiburg of Austin, Texas, indie rockers Shearwater. "He's a completely baffling character. Well, he's not baffling. He's an entertainer, and one thing you learn as an entertainer of even very modest size is whatever power you have in that moment is entirely derived from the audience. If you allow yourself to or know how to do things that are going to be what they want, their energy multiplies. Whether that's what a politician should do is a good question, because I don't think they're there just to amplify their audience, necessarily. But a campaign is more entertainment than politics. I think Trump understands that better."

Meiburg goes on to explain how he actually trusts Clinton more simply because she has so little of Trump's natural charisma as an entertainer. Like Al Gore and John Kerry before her, Clinton's struggles to overcome her public awkwardness make it difficult for her to connect with voters in an era when Americans appear to want their presidents to be bigger-than-life figures. We want something akin to a monarch or an emperor, Meiburg suggests, and many voters are less than captivated by voting for someone who is basically, by all appearances, a fairly boring bureaucrat. The risk here, then, is not that such voters will chase the shiny object of voting for Donald Trump but that they won't be enthusiastic enough to vote at all. For Superchunk bassist and Merge Records co-founder and co-owner Laura Ballance, a self-proclaimed cynic, there are warning signs among the younger generation, illustrated by an experience with the babysitter she hired to watch her children.

"She's in college, and she said that a lot of her friends are saying they aren't going to vote because they're upset that Bernie was cheated out of being the candidate," she says. "But regardless of whether or not Bernie should be our candidate, you can't just disengage from the system. You certainly won't change it that way. If you think it's wrong, engage with it and do what you can to effect change. But doing nothing is just irresponsible. Choosing not to vote is not a protest; it's just throwing your hands up. If you don't give a damn about the planet that you're going to inherit as a college kid, then just do nothing. I think the planet and the future will be better if we don't have Donald Trump as our president. He's like Hitler."

The Hitler comparisons have been repeated often enough throughout the campaign to become a bit cliché, but it's telling that they also are repeated by those who live in countries that were actually invaded by Germany during World War II. "Hitler" is the name that also comes to mind for Jonas Bjerre of Mew, a Danish band that's not known for its political statements. As much as Scandinavian countries are often held up as a socialist ideal by American liberals, those same countries are experiencing more than a little Trump-ish anti-immigrant fervor themselves, with Austria's Freedom Partyan organization founded by a former Nazi officer in the 1950scoming within fractions of a percentage point of being chosen by voters to lead the government. Denmark, Bjerre says, is not immune from the appeals of Trump-like populists, either.

"In Denmark we have a very rightwing party who is part of the government now, and they're pretty much just racists," he says. "I think people vote for them because they are scared. They are scared that someone is going to come and take away all that we have. But it's not surprising that the people who vote for these parties are the people who live in cities that don't have any immigrants. Of course, I find it very hard to trust any news source. One reason that I hate being on Facebook a lot of the time is that you are always bombarded with this misinformation. People just read it and they share it and they believe. But it's a cesspool of misinformation."

These are depressing times, Bjerre says, so much so that he often wonders what's the point of writing songs when there are so much more pressing concernsclimate change among themin the world. ("Who is going to care about a song when their house is flooded?" he asks.) However, that is not a sentiment shared by Billy Bragg, the legendary British singer/songwriter who has been carrying the mantle of activist songwriting for over 30 years. On the night of the Brexit vote, Bragg was performing at the Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, England. The mood in the crowd was palpably different that night, as if everyone gathered there was waiting to see how Bragg would react to the news. He responded by offering them songs that spoke to what they were feeling that night-the anger, the frustration, the despairall with the intent of making them know they weren't alone in that moment.

"And that's why I painted on my [protest sign for Under the Radar], 'Death to cynicism,'" he says. "A cynic is someone who has given up, and they want you to give up as well to make them feel better. A cynic wants you to think no one gives a shit. A cynic wants you to think that nothing will change. A cynic wants you to think all politicians are the same and everyone is only out for themselves. And I feel like that sometimes when I watch the telly, and I see machinations of politicians. And that's where it gets really down to the most dangerous kind of cynicism. For those of us who really want to make the world a better place, the worst kind of cynicism is our own cynicism, our own sense that nothing will change and no one gives a shit. My job is to take people who want to change the world and punch through their cynicism and find their empathy and hopefully inspire them to activism. The only antidote to cynicism is activism. And that's even more important now that we're in this post-Brexit period and there is an election year in the United States."

Cynicism, though, is at least an understandable response to the current state of American politics. When 70 percent of Americans believe the country is heading in the wrong direction and even more disapprove of the job Congress is doing to address the nation's problems, cynicism is inevitable. Though Clinton and Trump are popular enough to have won their respective primaries, polling also indicates that they are, by a comfortable margin, the least popular candidates to ever secure their parties' nominations. For everyone who has given up on the broken political system in the United States, Andrew W.K., inspirational speaker and guru of party-rock, offers an alternative. You can join The Party Party, a serious political movement he started with the intention of bringing people together to solve common problems through focusing on what unites us instead of what drives us apart.

"As much as ever before, we have to allow the darkness surrounding us to bring out our best, rather than our worst," he says. "We have to take a breath and not let our calm common sense get twisted by exaggeration and inflamed emotions. We have to remain vigilant about realizing the consistent and inherent beauty of lifeeven at its most painful and grotesqueand not give into despair and overwhelming anxiety that would otherwise have us give up and tap out. We can rejoice in the fact that even as intense as the world may seem, a real power still resides in usright nowto improve, starting with improving our own character and living in good faith and with humility. We can still party and celebrate life with one another, even when we can list a million reasons why we shouldn't or why we think we can't."

Though he admits The Party Party is short on specific policy recommendations, he hopes his message of inclusiveness and self-empowerment will encourage people to work on improving themselves and their little corner of the world instead of spending their energy attacking their political enemies. In a bruising political season that has veered from outrage-to-outrage, insult-to-insult, and no candidate seems to be without significant character flaws, he provides an alternate vision, however blurry. Perhaps the end result of this election will be to push voters away from the sideshow of American politics and towards the practical, everyday concerns in our homes and communities.

"A few years ago, all that is going on right now could have made me really bitter, but I don't have time to be cynical anymore," Palmer says. "I've been moving away from cynicism for the past couple years, because I have a lot to do. I've got a baby now and I have other things to worry about, like finding a place to breastfeed," she laughs. "It actually takes more energy to be cynical."



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