Blue in a Red State: Learning to Live in an Us vs. Them Country

A Conversation with Cursive's Tim Kasher, The Mynabirds' Laura Burhenn, of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, Okkervil River's Will Sheff, and Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburg

Nov 10, 2016 Issue #58 - The Protest Issue Photography by David Studarus, Ray Lego, and Azuree Wiitala (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share


There's a quotenow considered apocryphalfrom legendary film critic Pauline Kael that for years stood as damning evidence of the extent to which people could exist in their own cultural and social bubbles. Kael, the story went, couldn't accept the election of Richard Nixon in 1972 because she didn't know a single person who had voted for him. This was, after all, an election where Nixon had won 49 states and by 20 percentage points. The truth was Kael never uttered those exact words, but what she is reported to have said is no less striking. "I live in a rather special world," she is quoted as saying in The New Yorker. "I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don't know. They're outside my ken. But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

Replace "Nixon" with "Donald Trump," and you'd likely find no shortage of artists who would express a similar skin-crawling disdain for anyone who would consider wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat. Whether the product of gerrymandering or a polarized media, the political culture in the United States has become increasingly divisive since the mid-'90s, with very few purple areas left to contest between the blue coasts and the red heartland. As a result, it often appears that we're becoming two distinct, and often hostile, cultures that can hardly fathom how the other understands the world. For most artists who find themselves in red states, the decision to surround yourself with likeminded spirits in Brooklyn or Portland becomes an easy one. But what about those who stay behind?

The evidence suggests that very few musicians have to worry about that tension, because most of them have already fled from red state America. How many nationally-touring indie acts can you name that currently operate out of Mississippi? Alabama? Arkansas? Wyoming? North Dakota? (We looked; we couldn't find any.) And outside of an occasional cultural enclave in Austin, Texas, or Chapel Hill, North Carolina, there appear to be very few places in red states where indie acts feel comfortable putting down roots. For Shearwater's Jonathan Meiburgsomeone who has lived much of his life in the Southeast and Texas but now also spends part of his time in Brooklynthe differences aren't as clear as they might seem.

"I've never felt like living in a red state is a hostile place," he says. "On a macro scale it seems quite different. On a micro scale, it's hard to tell. Person to person, the differences are never as great as they seem when you're on the Internet or in the news or reading polls. People in New York talk about Texas like it's some hostile, foreign state where you're going to get gunned down in the street, and that just wasn't my experience living here for 13 years. But I also lived in Austin, which is quite different from some parts of Texas. But it's not not Texas; it's Texas, too."

As a normal looking white man with a slight Southern accent, Meiburg says that he recognizes that he can live as a progressive in a deeply conservative region without calling much attention to himself. For someone who embraces a certain degree of androgyny in his personal style, such as of Montreal's Kevin Barnes, that luxury isn't always guaranteed. A longtime resident of Athens, Georgiaa town that has served as the home base for several generations of notable indie rock bandsBarnes has learned to seek out kindred spirits, a community within a community.

"It makes likeminded people gravitate towards each other," he says. "We find clubs that feel cool to hang out at, bars that feel cool. In Athens, there's basically this one little triangle, this little block, of cool clubs and cool bars and a movie theater and a good restaurant. And you try to hang out in that little area, but if you venture anywhere outside of that it would get pretty crazy. The frat and sorority scene is pretty huge, so there's a ton of dumb, drunk college kids and pretty fucked up rednecky people. It's scary. I don't ever go on that side, because I'd probably get punched. A lot of people do get fucked with, and luckily [the people who do that] don't come into our little area. It's kind of segregated in that way."

The downside of living and working in a safe, insular community is that doing so makes understanding the perspectives of those who disagree with you difficult, just as it keeps them from ever having to challenge their own thoughts by hearing yours. That sentiment is echoed by Cursive's Tim Kasher, a longtime resident of Omaha, Nebraska's thriving Saddle Creek community who recognizes the difficulty in creating dialog when each side isolates themselves into exclusive communities. Even in a deep red state such as Nebraska, Kasher says he doesn't know a single person who is a Trump supporter.

"It's an echo chamber for certain," he admits. "I have to be honest: I don't tend to raise my voice on political issues in Nebraska, as the conservative climateoutside of the arts communitycan be a bit stifling. It can leave me a bit nervous; I suppose, as a Midwesterner, I worry about ruffling feathers, agitating people face to face, though I am more than comfy doing this from the safety of a stage, or on an album. This is my confession, I should be more vocal."

Though she has since located to Los Angeles, The Mynabirds' Laura Burhenn had no trouble finding her voice during her five years in Omaha. A D.C. native, Burhenn was a veteran of progressive activist scene from her years of protesting Bush-era policies, but she was nonetheless taken aback by the political fights in Nebraska's largest city. She became active in the local community, joining a social action group and making friends in urban development and planning, all the while studying the machinations of the city council. But battles over ordinances that would allow gays and transgendered individuals to be fired for their sexuality soon disavowed her of any notions that everyoneeven in a city as cosmopolitan as Omahashared her views. After five years, she was ready for a change of pace.

"When I moved to L.A., I remember driving across the California border and breathing this big sigh of relief that a lot of the basic rights that I was fighting for for my friends, I didn't have to do that anymore," she recalls. "I have friends who are gay that moved to Portland, and they said a lot of the same things, like, 'Thank, God. I realized after I moved away that as much as you want to be a part of the solution in places that need it, you are spending so much energy just to get people to listen. And nothing changes and they're not listening.' It's frustrating, and I have so much respect for my friends who are still doing that difficult work of trying to change hearts and minds and saying, 'Hey, we're all people here. We can find solutions. This doesn't have to be about us versus them. It's just us.'"

Such sentiments clearly aren't shared by everyone in the indie rock community. In early July, Wavves frontman and California native Nathan Williams posted a letter on his Twitter account to explain to his political and ideological enemies that they are not welcome at his shows. "People are suffering every day and the way I see it, you are either part of the solution or part of the problem," he wrote, then named police defenders, rape apologists, homophobes, white people who use racist language, and Donald Trump supporters as those who he didn't want to see in his audience. Read the Twitter accounts and blogs of other artists, and you'll see similar, if not quite so pointed, proclamations. But even in an increasingly us versus them country, there are still olive branch optimists.

"I think we have to be really careful about shaming other people," says Okkervil River's Will Sheff, a longtime Austin, Texas resident who has since relocated to Brooklyn. "If someone says, 'Oh, you like Donald Trump? You're an idiot. What's wrong with you, you stupid idiot?' then they'll say, 'Well, fuck you! How dare you. You're the idiot!' That's because there is shame and confrontation and finger pointing. I just think that it's so much more important to say to everyone that you love them and that you're glad that they're there. You don't care. You still love them, even if they're going to vote for Donald Trump. Even if they are Donald Trump! You continue to say, 'You're welcome in the human family. I love you, but I don't agree with you.'"

Sheff acknowledges that he's an incurable idealist at heart, and one assumes most artists fall somewhere on the spectrum stretching between him and Williams in terms of their willingness to engage the enemy. But it's easy to imagine a future where the sorts of tensions that have dominated the 2016 election cycle could continue to increase, where red and blue state America continue to divide and subdivide into their own communities. Will artists be able to create work that will become a repository of a culture and how it changes over time if they don't understand how roughly half of the culture thinks? How can artists be expected to keep their finger on the pulse of a country where few are willing to venture outside of their own ideological backyard?

"That's just America at the momenta series of echo chambers," Meiburg concludes. "It has been funny watching the places that bands play. It's very rare to see a routing that includes almost anywhere in the Midwest anymore. It has always been somewhat of a circuit around the outskirts of the country, but it's even more now. The country seems to be regarded by bands as almost a no-go zone. I feel like I've been able to see in some ways how the country is..." he says, pausing to search for the perfect word, "'reorganizing' would be one term, but another would be that it is falling apart. I don't think the United States is falling apart," he says, then sighs ominously, "yet."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's August/September/October 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]



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