Father John Misty, singer of the "best song to come out of the Trump presidency" Side Stage Collective

When Andrew Jackson was elected US president in 1828, he became the first American politician to take a truly populist message all the way to the White House. Jackson’s popularity among the working classes was so great that on the day of his inauguration a huge mob broke into the White House itself to celebrate his victory, breaking priceless chinaware and scraping their dirty feet all over the carpets. They only began to leave when the bar was moved out of the house and onto the front lawn. The mood was jovial, and why not? They were going to take their country back.

Jackson’s campaign is the perhaps closest historical parallel to that of the incumbent president. But Donald Trump received precious little of a hero’s welcome upon his inauguration last week, and certainly no mob. Unusually small crowds and bouts of rain dampened the mood of this day of national celebration. But perhaps the biggest embarrassment for Trump was his inability to find any decent musicians to perform for him. Where Barack Obama’s inauguration party had hosted the likes of Beyoncé, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Wonder, Trump was forced to enjoy ageing country star Toby Keith belting out his hits ‘Beer for my Horses’, ‘American Solider’ and ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue’. The man who spent years demanding President Obama release his birth certificate was surely gritting his teeth as Keith sang the line “he ain’t prejudiced, he’s just made in America”.

When Andrew Jackson ran for President, the singers loved him. But the music industry has changed in the years since 1828. Most of our popular musicians are wealthy liberals, and the advents of radio and the internet have given them an immeasurably more powerful platform from which to voice their political views.

Toby Keith, who performed at Trump's inauguration U.S. Army

So it’s not surprising that the protest songs have already started coming. If the message of Arcade Fire’s latest track wasn’t clear enough from the refrain “I give you power, I can take it away”, the song’s bass-driven urgency supplies a real sense of desperation. It is a song which cries out in frustration at the way things have gone. Also released on the final day of Obama’s presidency, the new Gorillaz song ‘Hallelujah Money’ is a more languid, gospel-influenced piece, but is no less clear in its intent: pointed references to “building walls” reveal the band’s politics before the end of the first verse.

No doubt there will be many more. Certain commentators have even suggested that 2017 might signal the rebirth of the punk movement, with a new tide of young bands expressing their anger as a politician they did not vote for begins to take America in a new direction. Maybe it’ll happen. Maybe it won’t.

But as music listeners, we must be cautious. Both the Gorillaz and Arcade Fire tracks were received in a rush of critical acclaim, but neither of them are all that good. ‘Hallelujah Money’ isn’t half as clever as it thinks it is with its quickfire references to mythology and the Bible, and it’s musically drab too: although its simple bassline does develop into a dynamic crescendo of synthesisers and choir vocals, it somehow never takes the song to a new place. Perhaps the lacklustre poetry holds it back.

‘I Give You Power’ is better, and quite pacy and exciting in its great vocal interplay between Win Butler and guest Mavis Staples. But it lacks the lyrical and musical eloquence which makes the band’s best songs so emotive and life-affirming. On those tracks, every member of the band is so immersed in their individual performance that you can easily focus on just one of them, but when you relax your mind their playing comes together to create a perfect, united whole. ‘I Give You Power’ is just bass and vocals.

I’m not saying that protest songs are bad, but there’s certainly a risk of the excitement of political statement distracting an artist from making sure that their song is musically compelling. This issue was palpable on Run the Jewels’ recent attempt to justify rioting on the song ‘Thieves’. Music critics must ensure that their reviews are not dictated by politics; anti-Trump songs should not get a free pass.

"Music critics must ensure that their reviews are not dictated by politics; anti-Trump songs should not get a free pass"

Moreover, there’s a lot to be said for avoiding the most obvious and aggressive responses to the political situation. This was surely in the back of Kendrick Lamar’s mind as he recorded To Pimp a Butterfly, an album which uses social issues such as police brutality as a context in which to explore issues of race in a more personal and idiosyncratic way.

Perhaps the best song to come out of the Trump presidency so far has been Father John Misty’s ‘Pure Comedy’, which barely alludes to Trump himself at all. Instead, the song thinks carefully about the populism, the hysteria of 2016, and uses those ideas to make a series of very funny, very pertinent comments about people and how they behave. If, in four or eight years time, we can look back and say that this was the moment when musicians truly realised how politics can make their songs more thoughtful, then perhaps the Trump presidency will have been worth it.

What am I saying? Of course it won’t

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