1. Can’t Afford to Be Numb
Is it possible that a single song can capture the mood of the US this summer of 2016?
Trump continues to belch fear and fart hatred on his way toward the Republican National Convention in my hometown of Cleveland, Ohio, where the 52-year drought of national sports championships just ended with the Cavaliers’ miraculous comeback from a 3-1 deficit to beat the NBA-appointed golden boys of the Golden State Warriors.
A gunman opens fire in an Orlando gay nightclub, killing 49 and wounding 53, and Congress can’t or won’t pass legislation against automatic weapons or those on the admittedly problematic no-fly list from buying guns; Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the Civil Rights movement, stages a sit-in and is pilloried by the left and the right.
Brexit happens. Having voted against their best interests out of frustration at their estrangement from the neoliberal spectacle, working-class voters in the UK are mocked for it, accused of racism and xenophobia, and blamed for 2 trillion dollars vanishing from the globe. In the US we’re told the same concoction of economic disenfranchisement and anti-immigration fear-mongering can’t possibly drive Trump into the White House—or it can, and we should be afraid.
Alton Sterling, a black man, is killed by Baton Rouge police on 5 July. Philando Castile, a black man, is killed by a police officer on 6 July in the Falcon Heights suburb of St. Paul. Protests break out across the US, blocking interstates and marching to statehouses. A day later, a lone sniper, Micah Xavier Johnson, a black man, kills five police officers during a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas. On the morning of 9 July, Alva Braziel, a black man, is shot by police in Houston. And if I hear one more person say, “How did our nation come to this?” truly ignorant of or pretending to be ignorant of the United States’ long history of institutionalized racism in law enforcement, education, politics, and health care, I’m going to lose my mind.
It’s probably impossible for one song to tell the whole story, to contain the whole spread of emotions. “Plunder” by the Felice Brothers, from their new album Life in the Dark, is one candidate. Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar storming through “Freedom” on the BET Awards is another.
Then there’s “Two Dead Cops” from Parquet Courts‘ Human Performance, a song that skitters forward, droning anxiously over vocals that sound hysterical and yet stoned by everything singer Andrew Savage has witnessed:
Stained white sweater / fluorescent light
One quarter short / “Get me next time.”
Somebody shouted / “Get outside.”
And we fell in rank to/watch him bolt by
“Where the fuck is he?” / “Down the stairs.”
“What did he look like?” / “Dark and tall.”
Somebody shouted / “They had it coming!”
He’s on the fringe of an event, the December 2014 murder of two NYPD officers in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. In an interview with Spin, Savage described what went into the song: “…[T]his weird feeling that we all get whenever you hear about something like this in America, like that thing that happens so often that you can’t really appropriately mourn it or react to it. That feeling is the most alarming thing that drove me to write that song because I needed to find a way to mourn this sort of violence that happens all the time.”
The brutal refrain of the song, “Nobody cares in the ghetto / for two dead cops” might not sound like a way of mourning the violence, but the desperation in Savage’s yelps makes plain the link between helplessness and art, between feeling silenced and refusing to be silenced. Which is, in essence, punk music.
That refusal to be silenced emerges, though, with a belief in its own pointlessness. “Two Dead Cops” does not see itself as a way of changing things. The singer is at a remove, alienated from his own community. The “we all” Savage describes in the interview is not all of us, but rather those of us who are fortunate enough to experience police-related violence as a frequent mediated experience instead of a common firsthand nightmare. People who hear about violence rather than watch it unfold outside of their homes or die as a result of it. People who cannot afford to be numb.
2. The Choice to Say “No”
For me, the song of the summer is “Working Poor” by Fantastic Negrito, from his full-length debut album The Last Days of Oakland.
A single stroke of a slide guitar is interrupted by a flair of Hammond B-3 organ and the song’s groove kicks in. “The workin’ poor / their mind is on vacation,” sings Negrito. “That man, he cracked that whip / he beat you down.” The groove and lyrical pattern create a clear homage to The Beatles’ “Come Together”, or more likely, since John Lennon swiped that song’s opening line, sort of, from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me”, it’s a subtle nod to the rampant love and theft of African-American music at the heart of rock ‘n’ roll. One group of people, Negrito implies, tend to come out on the losing end of that equation more often that not.
It’s the utter confidence and slow-burning fire of the performance that makes “Working Poor”, though, not its subtle music history lesson, and at the center of the performance is a crowd of voices. The song is a street festival of sounds — the Hammond B-3 and slide, stinging electric leads, a tambourine here and there, a riff doubled on fuzzed-out guitar and piano — but it’s those voices that keep me glued to this track. Negrito, a.k.a. Xavier Dphrepaulezz, wields a raspy falsetto and steely common voice that convince you everything he’s saying is true, whether you want to agree with him or not. Different folks speak, confide, shout, orate. “I got a job: panhandling,” says one man. A woman says “Working just to survive” like it’s a question — the question.
Splicing together spoken-word clips into a song is a clichéd way of signaling “social commentary” to the listener, a way of being topical and contemporary and positioning the artist within the community speaking. But “Working Poor” rejuvenates it simply because the subject at hand — class, poverty, working but barely getting by — is so forbidden in contemporary pop discourse. As I’ve written before, the concerns of the working class are marginalized in American popular music, trotted out occasionally for a jingoistic ruse by any number of pop country stars, but normally reserved for any genre with an “alt” prefix. In 2014, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as lower middle-class, which means that 40 percent of America most likely doesn’t hear its reflection in popular music. But for many of us, “I keep on knockin’ but I can’t get in”, the refrain of “Working Poor”, probably sounds familiar.
With or without spoken-word sound bites, a topical song can amount to little more than a gesture, an exploitative move in and of itself in which the artist thinks he’ll earn points simply by speaking to the concerns of today. In this version of art, even popular art, the work is reduced to a neutered journalistic function: music that keeps pace with the times rather than changing them, music that yields to defeatism.
“Working Poor” is not that kind of art. It’s an angry song, a documenting of an outrageous social condition, but the energy of its music sounds like it’s made to last. A song, if you will, that plays the long game. The lyrics are despondent, true. Early in the song Negrito sings, “I feel like it’s over”, and he bitterly acknowledges the “evil genius” of the man who’s “turned working people into the working poor”. But the key line is a simple one: “Don’t sell your life.” This isn’t fate, destiny, or “just the way things are”. It’s the first choice, maybe the hardest one to make: the choice to say, “No.”
As victorious centrist Democrats write the history of what Bernie Sanders’ campaign actually meant, “Working Poor” could remind them if they bothered to listen. But they probably won’t. They, like Trump’s followers, are beholden to the rules and false promises of neoliberalism in which the only value is profit and the only system worth a damn is competition, not cooperation. Antagonistic individualism rules the day.
Clinton promises more of the same economically; Trump’s supporters are mistaken in thinking that he’ll change the prevailing oligarchy. We’ll continue to wage a cultural civil war over greater individual rights and equality — rights worth fighting for — but we’ll also continue to ignore that those rights and that equality function primarily, overwhelmingly, in a system in which our greatest freedom is considered to be the freedom to buy anything we want.
And we can’t even do that. In America, the “recovery” since 2008 is defined by job creation, but wages and income have stagnated after plummeting in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2014, the average American adult’s total wealth was $31,688. According to a Bureau of Labor and Statistics report in 2013, “Women were more likely than men to be among the working poor. In addition, Blacks and Hispanics continued to be more than twice as likely as Whites and Asians to be among the working poor.” More work for less, saving nothing, and, as the late-night commercial says, “drowning in debt”.
What do they get for it? Political philosopher Michael Sandel put it succinctly in a New Statesman interview, reflecting pre-vote on the prospect of Brexit:
A large constituency of working-class voters feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labour, have been eroded and mocked by developments with globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties.
The working poor exists as a shadowed population created by the harsh light of prosperity for few. The power of Fantastic Negrito’s “Working Poor” is that it insists on speaking from those shadows, insists on creating light within that space of its own making, and insists on being heard.
Whether or not anyone hears it is another question altogether.