In the early evening hours of November 8, 2016, Washington DC resident Maryjo Mattea was in good spirits, planning to spend an enjoyable evening with friends in a local bar celebrating what was looking to be the historic election of the first female president of the United States. "As the results started coming in," says Mattea, "the mood in the room changed very quickly. There was a palpable difference in the atmosphere. The volume dropped, smiles fell, people started embracing. Chills ran through me as I slowly started to accept the ridiculous reality that was unfolding."
Her reaction to this event? Write a song about it.
In New York, Michal McGuire first heard the phrase "President-elect Trump" when he happened to awaken at 3am on Nov. 9th. Later, a few minutes after watching Clinton's speech (wondering to himself where the feeling she then captured had been during the campaign) McGuire found himself writing a song. "It just fell out," he says, "I recorded it, strumming with a penny to 'try and wake up the ghost of Abraham Lincoln.'"
While you don't have to look far to see someone bemoaning that despite the political climate there is not much protest music happening, the intense activity in the Indie music scene would suggest that maybe those doing the bemoaning are looking in the wrong place. While it may be true that very few major label acts are tackling politics (we've mentioned a few), the Indie world is afire with stories similar to Mattea's and McGuire's. After our band Casual Rebels completed our "Political Trilogy," we went in search of kindred spirits. On bandcamp.com alone we looked through around 1000 songs that are tagged "political," "protest," "resist," or "anti-Trump." That's just one site, and considering that most bands don't bother doing much with their tags, it's safe to assume that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Below are 15 of those songs with a few words from the songwriters whose passion brought them to life. By the way, all of these songs are available on bandcamp.com and most of them are also available everywhere else, so if you support what these artists are doing, we hope that you'll swing by one of those sites and buy their albums!
For the politically inclined album "Retake the Middle Ground," Casual Rebels resurrected an obscure, vintage (and way cool) synthesizer from 1987, known as the Kawaii K5. Said resurrection breathed new life into the band and inspired several songs.
The song "Chaos and Drama in the White House" is a fairly direct statement on how the current US administration operates and is viewed by the world. The tune could definitely be used as a soundtrack of Bob Woodward's best-selling book "Fear" and reflects an opinion that is often repeated on social media and in editorials for the past few years.
It also features a pretty danceable bass line.
"Chaos and drama might fit Reality TV, but for a statesman something else is called for "
This is the song that Maryjo Mattea wrote about her election night experience in a DC bar. Interestingly, not only does "November 8, 2016" tell the story of her experience through the lyrics, the song also gets the point across amazingly well with the music, as if the song could serve as the score to a dramatization of the scene she describes. What starts out as a slow and sparse guitar strumming accompanied only by a few far off and spartan snare rolls keeps building and building and building until we get a full-on rock guitar assault.
Mattea and drummer Joel Wu knew that the recording of this particular song shouldn't be a slick affair, but rather should be a "single-take kind of thing; no click track, not a lot of production, just raw, unfiltered emotion," she says.
As the song ramps up Mattea runs through the list of folks for whom she is most worried "the people of color, the Muslims, the Jews. The women and the immigrants and refugees too. For the les, the gay, the bi, the trans.The poor and disenfranchised..."
But the most searing line of the song would have to be "Greatness is an aspiration, not something behind us."
One interesting thing about modern protest music is that it is happening in all different styles of music. There was a time when you heard the term "protest song" and you would think: folk. There was a time when you would think: punk. But today chances are that whatever style of music you prefer will likely have several indie artists who are making it political.
Paul Tabachneck's "New America" is a mellow guitar/organ groove, reminiscent of The Wallflowers, which makes you feel a peaceful sort of toe tapping that would likely lower your blood pressure rather than raising it. But listen carefully to the lyrics of the song which Tabachneck calls "an appropriately dirgey response to the T-shirt sloganeering of Trump supporters," and you'll notice some powerful stuff coming through.
Discuss the song with Tabachneck and you'll notice it even more. "What I hate about writing political songs, in general, is that by the time you get them released, the situation has almost always passed," he says, "In this case, every lyric in the song gained more relevance as time went on, because [Trump] kept leaning into these ridiculous behaviors and pushing everything and everyone as far as he could."
Asked if he thinks that music can make a difference he says, "Music only 'makes a difference' if that difference is ready to be made."
He then ads thoughtfully, "I really hope that difference is ready to be made."
"Can't drain a swamp by digging deeper
Can't save the world and burn it down
Can't have all three: there's better, faster, cheaper
Can't tame the lions by sending in the clowns"
Future accounts of this period of American history will undoubtedly include the incident which happened in Charlottsville, VA when a "unite the right" rally of white supremacist groups turned violent, resulting in one death and many injuries. It would be only natural for a Charlottsville-based band to be inspired to write a song about this tragedy. However, that doesn't necessarily mean it would be a good song.
Harli and the House of Juniper have written a great one. It scores very highly for two important indie criteria: heartfelt emotion and intelligent lyrics. Somber, powerful and smart, this song really rockets to the stratosphere due to Harli's incredible voice which rises above churning guitars and a scratchy viola part whose wail feels like a mournful mother's cry in the distance.
"Many of our songs consist lyrically of political content and border on themes of musical protest," says Harli, "Is This Life...' was such a passion-filled song to write and record, and it continues to be one of the most emotional to perform."
"Racism is back on the streets
And all the mixed kids
Songwriter Robi Polgar refers to Thug Nation as "a high-octane acoustic guitar strum-fest in four-four time with thumping punctuation marks by my mate, Kelly J. Rath on lead guitar." The song's driving acoustic guitars, sparse arrangement and a chorus so hooky that it just begs you to sing along are reminiscent of one of the greatest quirky bands, Violent Femmes.
"About a week after the catastrophe that was the 2016 presidential election, I stopped fuming long enough to put my angst to music," says the Austin, Texas-based Polgar, "I had been drumming a particularly insistent beat on my steering wheel all year -- election season'll do that to you -- and it turned into the bass line that serves as the intro for "Thug Nation." The words came pretty quickly, music too. I had the thing ready to perform within days."
"A good (protest) song is a sword and a shield," he says. "Yeah. Music can make a difference."
"Executive orders, deportations
Thug Nation, Thug Nation
Why resent when you can hate them
Thug Nation, Thug Nation
Making it great for American racism"
The pounding thump-clap percussion at the beginning of this tune definitely puts the 'rock' into the folk rock of "Tell Me." And while the chant of "Fight. Resist. Fight. Resist." feels like a real battle cry, Portland, Maine-based singer/songwriter John Nels certainly wouldn't classify himself as a protest singer.
"I work within the performing arts and music playing as well as handling the back end production. It's a touchy subject and line to cross," says Nels, " Everyone is going to interpret politics differently but if I'm hired to play a gig at a brewery playing covers, I definitely am not in a place to verbally tell people who are trying to get away from that anguish. If you'd like to talk about how bad things are -- then absolutely."
It's obvious that Nels is a big fan of talking things through rather than shouting and would consider music as a gateway into a discussion. He describes "Tell Me" as "one part lyrical disparity and one part honest frustration open for help. I feel that I am basically asking others for a hand while at the same time offering to reciprocate the favor."
"Heard about the troubles- let's get together real soon
Talk about our issues- the elephant in the room"
L.A.-based Emily Elbert is an incredibly talented guitarist and vocalist who has recorded and toured with well-known artists, garnered praise from the music press and produced several great albums. Her song "True Power" features some amazing blues guitar work and highlights her fantastic voice. But none of those things are why she's on this list. She's on this list because she has written some powerhouse lyrics which recount the tale of a certain political figure as told from the first person.
For this song, Elbert has gone through the sort of transition that produced some of the classic music of the Vietnam era. Musicians who had been writing love songs and rock songs and what-have-you were faced with a social issue about which they felt strongly. They responded by writing some really great political songs. On her website, Elbert eloquently describes that transition for her:
"I've spent most of my musical life writing about the things that make my heart sing. Love, in its many forms; nature, human connection, the search for the divine; finding glimpses of it in places big and small. It's been my goal to provide a source of joy and reverence through music. However, I trust that sometimes the most loving choice is not just to focus on the positive, but to look fear and hatred in the face when they arise, and call them out for what they are."
Favorite Lyrics (and remember that first person thing):
"Silence the scientists; I'm sick of their sad opinions
Who needs clean air or soil when you've got bigly billions
That Mother Earth's like all those other nasty women
I try to repress; nevertheless, they are persisting"
For several years Benjamin Shult had an anthemic drum pattern rolling around in his head, basically waiting for a song. He had scribbled down a few cynical lyrics, a few ideas, but nothing that he really wanted to run with.
Then the Trump "zero tolerance" policy started tearing families apart and, like many people in this country, Shult couldn't get the issue out of his mind. It was then that he went back to this old drum pattern and knew that he had found the song for his anthem.
According to the Portland, Oregon based songwriter, "'Yell & Scream' is a song about wanting to make a difference and finding a way to cope with things that are seemingly beyond our control. It's about sadness, fear, rage, and hope -- about finding the courage to stand up and fight, to help those in need, and asking ourselves where we stand in difficult times."
"I personally feel that my two jobs as an artist are to make myself vulnerable and to tell the truth," says Shult, "I think much more important, my job as a human being is to have genuine empathy for others, and to strive throughout my life to leave this place better than when I got here."
"I have no idea
What I can do
But I know it's time for us
To build something new"
"Gather All Your Fables," which songwriter Dave Howard refers to as "a clarion call type of song" has a driven combo of guitar and synth -- reminiscent of Depeche Mode's "Songs of Faith and Devotion" -- that can really get your blood going.
Howard wrote an album's-worth of lyrics while on a long plane flight in the days just before the election. He had realized that said election might just turn out the way that it eventually did, and decided to convey his reactions to that possibility in song. This song "is about [Trump's] lying and his propaganda techniques; the things that made the majority of voters vote against him," says Howard, "It also lays blame on us for letting our neighbors, friends and colleagues fall for his empty promises and fallacious diatribes."
Though the album which eventually came out of the words written on that long trip is decidedly political, Howard's first aim, it would seem, is simply to write good songs. "I think as songwriters and artists we need to stick to our craft; compose music that people will consume and write lyrics that flow well and evoke some emotion in the listener," he says, "and if you fit some type of idealism or political view in there then more power to you."
"Barking orders at the queens and
Poking fun with generals
Let the lawyers out the cage,
Your daughters out the kennels"
...And back to November 9, 2016 when Michael McGuire found himself confronted with the reality of the election -- "I was a wreck, as was most everyone," he says -- and grabbed his guitar to write out a song expressing his feelings.
"The Day After Election Day" is an interesting juxtaposition of a fairly happy sounding tune combined with not so happy lyrics. One could easily envision the bouncy guitar part being paired with lyrics about having a lot of fun on a particularly sunny day. But those are not the lyrics that the tune is paired with.
The interesting percussiveness of the guitar part was achieved by McGuire using a penny in place of a guitar pick. He says, "I knew it had to really thump and the explosive sound is me hammering with my fist on an empty suitcase. But the lyrics say it all."
"I'm just a singer with words, but no way
To make sense of the day...
All the days after election day"
This song and its accompanying album has the feel of one of the old-time storytelling ballads, such as Roger Williams' "King of the Road," but the story which is being told is one of a Hillary voter living in a Trump neighborhood.
Says songwriter C, "I don't live in trumpland now but grew up there. The sadness of seeing my sensible hometown folks get suckered is a part of this song. I put myself in the shoes of the oddballs there now and imagined how I would handle it if I lived there. My heart goes out to them. I don't know if I could be brave enough."
"I'm getting so many bad looks,
So many shaking heads.
I'm getting more cold shoulders
Than I get in my bed. "
Old Flame of Northampton, Massachusetts is a band which personifies the subject of this article. The group was formed in the wake of the 2016 election with the specific goal of creating music as a vehicle for social change. "Old Flame is a fervent believer in the power of a song and its ability to move and change the world," says the band's vocalist Emma Ayres, "Words build their own worlds. Words can dismantle fascist dictatorships, false information (words) can change the course of history is one fell swoop. Recognizing the powerful lineage of words and their impact is integral to my outlook as a songwriter."
The song Paris Accord 2017 protests Trump's decision to pull the US from the Paris Accords (a global pact attempting to reverse climate change). The song starts with a dreamlike quality based around a gently swirling guitar part -- Ayres describes the song as a "post-apocalyptic lullaby" -- and builds into a rocking climax.
"The song is written from place of fear and hope for future generations and the world they will inherit," says Ayres "The culmination of the song is an act of resistance, inciting the listener to stand-up, fight back, and be the revolution instead of passively accepting the consumerism, greed, denial and irresponsible politics that have lead us to the present moment."
"It's a crime reaching
In the ground for wealth
The dollar birds soaring
While we're swimming
In the glacier melt"
What a lot of the songs on this list have in common is that they are a lament over the 2016 election and its aftermath. "We're Still Here" from Madison, NJ's Above the Moon is no different in that regard, but what really sets this song apart is that the chorus is hopeful, a reminder that things can and likely will get better.
Says guitarist Shawn Murphy, "It came from a place of disbelief and uncertainty, but also one of hope. The chorus, in particular, was inspired by the Women's March and the protests against the travel ban, where people of all backgrounds, ages and experiences came together for what they believed was right. While the song as a whole is somber, it has an underlying strength and persistence, which ties into the idea of losing a battle, but not the war."
It also has a very melodic mellow acoustic guitar groove -- you know that type of groove that you can just lean back and let yourself fall into it. The song can be enjoyed on different levels for, as Murphy says, "Music is an important art form. It can make you feel better in times of despair and give you hope when things are difficult. That goes for political and non-political songs alike. "
"It's all right to feel defeated
Just keep fighting 'cause we need it
Houston-based chamber rock duo Mystery Loves Company has a really cool sound. For one thing it prominently features cello (and it's also really cool to see a cellist who also sings) and the interesting harmonies add a great feel to their tunes.
The band also tends to write non-standard lyrics, certainly more philosophically inclined than pop inclined. A while back, an email announced that they had written and recorded a song called The Wall, which considering the band's history and geographic location, definitely aroused interest. Yet unlike a lot of the songs on this list, The Wall is not an overt protest song, rather it is more subtle than that: a tale of Big Bend National Park and the people who live on the other side of the border from it.
As the band describes it: "A lot of these stories inevitably involve issues concerning the border, but often the border has nothing to do with politics. Like one who waits for the consequences of a hurricane or a wild fire, in these border towns they brace for impact, awaiting the consequences of the national discourse on their land."
"We wrote this song to lend them our voices. We hope you will make it to Big Bend in your travels someday, to touch the stars, to taste the food, and to hear the stories. Until then, we hope you can picture yourself there for a few minutes during this song."
"a story's told, of simple lives of simple folk
who settled down, before the borders had been drawn,
their children born in sin because they didn't know
the maps had changed
There was the day when Erik Jarvis received an early morning voicemail from a neighbor. "She just sort of whimsically rambled about how we need some more 'troubadours for the movement' because music and songs are what make resistance FUN!" So Jarvis set out to write a song of resistance that was both uplifting and fun.
"In Order" is a quirky little tune which accomplishes that goal. The sparsely produced acoustic song is fun, hummable and even ends with a "cha, cha, cha" riff. And you have to love the use of the laundromat as a metaphor for a safe zone where different sorts of people can simply live and be.
A believer in daily acts of resistance, Jarvis says, "You don't have to write protest songs all day. Find some way to make positive change. Is the bill your playing all cis-het-white-dudes? Find a queer POC to get on the bill. Does the venue have a confederate flag sticker in the bathroom? Rip that shit down. Everything makes a difference."
Unlike some who often get discouraged that we may be near the end of our civilization, Jarvis is confident that we will make it through this period of history, "and," he says, "we're gonna provide a damn good soundtrack along the way."
"I don't want a wall across no borders
They're just imaginary lines
I just wanna keep my home in order
So I can keep my piece of mind "
Since we had written a Political Trilogy -- 3 albums (40 songs) worth of material -- there are a lot to choose from for this list. But in the end we've chosen to talk about the song with the fewest words in the collection.
Although there are several things about our current political climate that could be considered troublesome, perhaps the saddest thing about the situation in America is that racists have become emboldened to crawl out from under their rocks and that certain politicians have either explicitly or implicitly encouraged this behavior.
It is mind-boggling that after all this time we still have people who believe that skin pigmentation -- something over which we have absolutely no control -- would make one person superior to another.
We don't care to be associated with that sort of thinking. And it only took seven words to make that statement.
"I don't wanna dance with the Nazis"