In the Coen brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis, Oscar Isaac’s titular character, a musician in 1960s Greenwich Village trying to scrape by in the midst of what we can presume to be a recurring pattern of setbacks, eagerly jumps at the chance to earn a few hundred bucks by contributing guitar and backing vocals to an acquaintance’s original recording. The song, composed by Justin Timberlake’s endearingly ingenuous Jim Berkey as a sincere protest of the United States’ expanding space program, is, however, genuinely bad: entitled “Please Mr. Kennedy” and consisting of lyrics such as “I’m six-foot two, and so perhaps you’ll / Tell me how to fit into a five-foot capsule” and “Gotta red-blooded wife with a healthy libido / You’ll lose her vote if you make her a widow“, Davis realizes after only a few minutes that no amount of tweaking the arrangement will qualitatively improve the song. When he leans in and asks, “Who wrote this?”, Berkey, evidently harboring no qualms about the integrity of his art, claims – almost indignantly – authorship.
The scene is layered with dramatic irony: the audience of course enjoys a joke that Berkey is clearly not in on. However, similarly but more critically, Davis himself – who throughout the film proclaims with self-righteous insistence that he is a folk singer – also lacks awareness. Davis is in some respects an exemplary of the trope of the starving artist, an apparent fixture within the city’s Bohemian subculture, and he knows what constitutes good art. Yet he proceeds, even after the recording engineer apologetically admits that the song – a novelty, at best – is “not the most serious music [he’s] recorded” there. If only momentarily, Davis sells out, and, given his adherence to the supposedly serious work of singing folk songs, this is less excusable than Berkey’s ignorance. After all, Berkey – the presumed laughingstock – preserves an authenticity, as his actions confirm that he at least believes in something. Within the context of this exchange, Inside Llewyn Davis proffers a rumination on the nature of protest music: juxtaposing Davis’ inauthenticity with Berkey’s candor – as unsophisticated as he might be – underscores the requisite sincerity of the art form.
The tradition of protest music is an embedded, anthropological folkway of American popular culture, and Berkey’s real-life counterparts – from Woody Guthrie to Nina Simone to Kendrick Lamar – would no doubt attest to that sentiment, which effectuates their work. By its very nature, a protest song – even a song written from the perspective of an astronaut who, ludicrously, does not want to be sent into space – is borne of anger or anxiety or, at the very least, ambivalence toward some perceived injustice. Thus, protest music concerns itself with practicalities, operating under the principle that “popular culture” is not a realm unto itself but an influential dynamic in the real world. If art is a product of its time, protest music affords an especially empathetic lens through which we can understand a given cultural or political climate.
Just as the general ethos concurrent with the Civil Rights movement or the Vietnam War has since been inextricably contextualized in America by the music of those eras, the 21st Century aughts occasioned a spate of perceptive and – for audiences both then and now – interpretive protest music. In 2005, George W. Bush had just begun serving his second term as President of the United States, and by virtue of this office, of course, he would continue to oversee the nation’s efforts in two increasingly unpopular wars. Consequently, some of the most prominent musical artists of the time gave voice to his steadily declining approval rating: Green Day had just released American Idiot the previous year, and Neil Young, still very much rock ‘n’ roll’s most plain-spoken firebrand, would soon find himself furiously at work on the songs that would comprise 2006’s Living with War.
In response to those debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a host of accompanying issues he found ideologically problematic, Conor Oberst, frontman for the band Bright Eyes, subsequently penned and released online as a free download “When the President Talks to God“. Arguably, Oberst was enjoying both the creative and critical zenith of his career at the time of the song’s release: in the few years prior, more than one critic had conferred upon him the title of “the next Bob Dylan”, and his last several studio albums had garnered acclaim from circles far beyond those tuned in to what was then the relatively peripheral stratum of “indie rock”. But even despite the precedent he’d set with those records – especially I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, which contained more than a few lines of social criticism – the sincerity with which Oberst croaks out “When the President Talks to God” is particularly stirring.
The song is an unreserved polemic, boiling with vitriol and sparing no hallmark of Bush’s presidency: Oberst treats his outspoken spirituality (to which the title of the song is an obvious prod), his domestic and foreign policies, and even the 2000 election recount in Florida, with excruciatingly sardonic ridicule. With such direct lyrics and palpable disgust, Oberst effectively reduces President Bush to the caricature that much of the political satire of that time relied upon: a doofy, incompetent, out-of-touch good ol’ boy.
In a February 2011 interview with Marc Spitz for Vanity Fair, Oberst reflected on the process of writing such an emotionally charged song: “‘When the President Talks to God,’ was deliberate. I was extremely angry after Bush got re-elected. The whole point was to have like a commercial more than it was a song – I don’t think it’s a particularly good song. But just to say something that needed to be said.” He then expounded, “…I don’t ever write [a protest song] to finish one. A lot of protest songs end up that way, driven by some kind of emotional response”, which almost reads as an understatement in the context of “When the President Talks to God”: “raw” is probably an overused descriptor in music journalism, but – given the emotional response that evidently impelled this particular protest song – it’s certainly the first that comes to mind.
A few months later, TV on the Radio – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and fuming like many Americans over the bureaucratic mismanagement of the rescue and recovery efforts in New Orleans – vented their own grievances with a formal denunciation of the Bush administration. Cloaked in subtext redolent of Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail to the Thief (in its own right an unsettling meditation on the tenuous geopolitical climate of the decade’s early years), “Dry Drunk Emperor” (Live Session EP) is a diatribe much less direct than but just as relentless as Oberst’s. Over a heavy production value that the band would replicate with the impending release of Return to Cookie Mountain, lead singer Tunde Adebimpe wails, “All eyes upon / Dry drunk emperor / Gold cross jock skull and bones / Mocking smile / He’s been / Standing naked for awhile! / Get him gone, get him gone, get him gone!! / And bring all the thieves to trial“.
Granted, the song is decidedly less forthright than “When the President Talks to God”, but the allusions are transparent enough: memberships to both a Yale fraternity and secret society, past athletic endeavors (both on the ball field and the business end), the controversial 2000 presidential election (likened here to thievery) and (perhaps) well-documented past episodes of alcohol abuse. Even without the official statement that accompanied the song’s online release (the band wrote that they “were back in the studio thinking and feeling again and made this song for all [their] everybody… in the absence of a true leader we must not forget that we are still together…”), TV on the Radio ensures that we know whom they are targeting.
As with Bright Eyes’ invective, “Dry Drunk Emperor” is imbued with a tone of scathing contempt. The pointedness with which both artists articulate their vexation – Bright Eyes asks hard-hitting questions, TV on the Radio opts for metaphor – is bracing; consequently, the listener could understandably deduce from the face value of either song that a sentiment of crushing despondency informed its composition. However, to do so would be to undermine the function of the song as a work of protest: after all, to protest is, in essence, to hope. Even if protest does not always identify a solution or is not always driven by a rallying call to action, it at least acknowledges that things are not as they should be, which intrinsically requires some understanding of the ideal – even if it does not result in the explicit pursuit of it.
This is a construct that the artists themselves, of course, recognize. In the year following the release of “Dry Drunk Emperor”, a strain of resolve seems to permeate a number of responses that David Sitek – member of and producer for TV on the Radio – offered in various interviews. In regards to whether or not major label Interscope (the band had previously been signed to Touch and Go Records) would afford them opportunities to quickly and freely release music similar to their treatment of “Dry Drunk Emperor”, he told Pitchfork, “Our primary responsibility as an artist, is to produce work in our lifetime. And if it’s something that’s sociopolitical and immediate and we feel really strongly about it, we’re not going to wait until a release schedule, until a distributor says, ‘Okay, well, why don’t you guys sing about World War II now? Because we’re ready for it.'”
That urgency – to employ one’s art as commentary – suggests not only a sensitivity to those forces that pose some affront to an idealized state but also a degree of understanding what that idealized state might entail. This is borne out in another of Sitek’s responses around the same time, here in an interview with PopMatters: “I think that humanity is capable of so much good, so much harmony, and I hope that we are [in] this age of enlightenment but it is not about what humanity can do, it is about what humanity will do.” He then continued, “Think about this big erroneous, fabricated war and imagine if half those resources were spent on medicine for people who are your friends, who are your family, and imagine what sort of medical breakthroughs could be made with that money.” Even without the benefit of 12 years’ worth of retrospect, his idealized state sounds, of course, idealistic. But, like Jim Berkey readily claiming authorship of “Please Mr. Kennedy” before a deprecatory Llewyn Davis, these songs were driven by a sincere dissatisfaction with things as they were and an underlying vision of things as they could be.
Inadvertently, however, the mode by which both Bright Eyes and TV on the Radio released their songs – consigning them to the internet for free and immediate consumption by the general populace – renders a snapshot of our early 21st Century cultural temperament that is just as telling as their lyrics, and not simply because in 2005 sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud were not yet around to normalize this practice. Apart from the fact that by doing so, each artist was subverting our most basic capitalistic precepts (again, this was when physical media was still handily outselling digital music), both Bright Eyes and TV on the Radio channeled the communal bricklaying that the nascent Web 2.0 promised to enable.
While the smoldering, real-world upheaval of post-9/11 hysteria predominated daily headlines, our expanding acquaintance with the utilitarian advantages of the World Wide Web – a moniker that at the time seemed to accurately represent the inclusivity that it promised to facilitate – generated an undercurrent of real optimism. In 2005, the recent advent of Facebook and Myspace and YouTube launched a trajectory that all but assured a promising logical end. Our newfound capacity to interact and network in previously unforeseen ways would no doubt bring out the best of the so-called human experience: cross-cultural awareness, empathy, social progress.
By the end of 2006, when the editors of Time magazine were deliberating over potential candidates upon whom to bestow its annual “Person of the Year” honor, the impact of this shift was pervasive. As such, the magazine proclaimed that “You” were most deserving of the title, noting the supposed reader’s role in this new contexture of social media and participatory culture. In his write-up for the year-end feature, Lev Grossman wrote that the year was characterized by “community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. [The story of 2006 is] about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people’s network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It’s about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.” Twelve years ago, readers would have had little reason to dismiss such claims as hyperbole: the new function of the web – fundamentally populist, fundamentally egalitarian – would dismantle barriers and foster connection. In this light, the release of “When the President Talks to God” and “Dry Drunk Emperor” as free online downloads almost imbue these protest songs with an additional nobility beyond the ideals their lyrics espouse: essentially, this was music truly for the masses.
Of course, 2019 is now just around the corner and things look far less rosy than they did back in 2006. The empathy that such progress was supposed to have engendered is hardly the most apparent sentiment informing our dialogue (if we can still refer to whatever we’re doing as “dialogue”), and the average individual (i.e. “you”, according to Time) is probably not feeling particularly empowered. When Grossman lauded the generic you for “seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy”, Facebook was not trying to regain the confidence of its users with its “Here Together” advertising campaign and people who had never read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four possessed an insufficient understanding of the phrase “Big Brother”. When he closed his article with, “This is an opportunity to build a new kind of international understanding… citizen to citizen, person to person. It’s a chance for people to look at a computer screen and really, genuinely wonder who’s out there looking back at them”, reactionary politics certainly did not characterize our personal – much less our national – rhetoric. In short, it’s hard to imagine that our present climate was anybody’s version of “ideal” back in 2006.
Granted, Grossman also cautioned in that same article, “Sure, it’s a mistake to romanticize all this any more than is strictly necessary. Web 2.0 harnesses the stupidity of crowds as well as its wisdom. Some of the comments on YouTube make you weep for the future of humanity just for the spelling alone, never mind the obscenity and the naked hatred.” Unfortunately, this – and not the anticipated “new kind of international understanding” – has since proven to be the most percipient of his observations. The hatred was always there, yes, but did it not seem, too long ago, like it was generally sequestered to sites like Stormfront and those other dark, dubious corners of the Internet that most people would have generally regarded as, say, “deplorable”? Nowadays, however, the hatred feels a lot more naked. One could easily wonder how – in hindsight – this had not been a more predictable upshot, but the innovation and ostensible progress of the mid-aughts felt too new and too exciting to portend the destructive tendencies that Web 2.0 would evince.
Since the US presidential election in November 2016, more than one comedian has joked about the wistful, comparatively halcyon days of the Bush administration. Others have assumed a slightly sunnier perspective with the certainty that these next few years will at least yield some decent protest music. And they certainly have, but the current sociopolitical climate might also demand songs that aim for targets broader than those at which “When the President Talks to God” and “Dry Drunk Emperor” took aim. Generally, the protest music of the early- to mid-aughts operated on the implicit premise that a powerful few could be called to task by the masses. But, being that we look much less progressive, much less empathetic, much less ideal in 2018 than we once hoped we might, anybody writing protest songs today would be wise to consider how their art might call to task the masses – having proven capable of such naked hatred – as well.