What Do We Do with Music in Trump’s Meme America?
A few weeks ago, I was sitting second chair (note-taker/”keep your mouth shut”-er) in a “business meeting” between two pretty significant “music industry” outlets. I was half-asleep, saying nothing, occasionally pretending to write something down. Both parties tossed out casual references to bands, scenes, and musical movements – saying things like “I’ve heard of them,” “Oh yeah, that’s about standard for that market,” “I think I saw them live in high school.”
They excitedly discussed prospects of doing business together – potential sponsorships, paid content, and “influencer” partnerships.
Midway through, I zoned back in. This was a meeting of two pseudo-businessmen (after all, we’re talking about music industry people here lol) feigning a conversation about counter culture, not addressing the elephant in the room: neither of them knew what they were talking about. And equally hilarious, neither of them gave a shit.
This was a meeting where the participants neither knew nor cared about why they were meeting, eager to move forward on future projects of not knowing or caring, to earn an essentially insignificant profit. Hunter S. Thompson is often quoted as having said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” It’s a misquote – he was actually talking about TV – but this meeting made me think how that sentiment hasn’t changed all that much in forty years: it’s just now the plastic hallway is short and stout.
Short and stout – like this Lemmy doll! Available wherever toys are sold.
This meeting underscored for me that in 2016, every subculture is an open field for content farming. And meanwhile, the media-consuming public is scraping away at the bottom of the barrel for how to talk about bands; how to decide whether they actually liked a movie they are supposed to like; and whether or not they saw that Game of Thrones / Stranger Things twist coming (hint: you surely did…).
And I was reminded of this, of course, during the presidential debates.
CONTENT TRUMPS TRUTH IN THE USA
Because Trump has proved, more than anything, that if you have a clear message that you communicate in a catchy, immediately recognizable way, it won’t matter whether or not that message is a lie. Trump is like one of those dime-a-dozen hardcore bands that get jocked by certain media outlets: even when they suck, if they execute a genre and image just right, they will achieve popularity and media coverage. Trump is branded content.
Hillary, by contrast, is a human being- a tremendously complicated one who has worked in multiple sectors on a lot of messy issues. She’s an actual politician, while Trump is extremely adept at conveying simple, clear messages. The efforts by campaign strategists at branding Hillary have been so ineffective that at this point, her brand is that she can’t be branded (which is actually pretty punk tbh).
Lying is nothing new in politics, but it’s fascinating to watch this particular election play out in the context of our “data”-driven culture that is so obsessed with checking moral boxes.
But what data do we even turn to? Who do we trust?
Nate Silver already knows who’s won, Zero Hedge has solid arguments that the debate fact-checkers manipulate their facts; your friends on social media post statistic-filled propaganda “memes” to morally shame you. There are so many tiny conspiracies buried within this election – like the manipulation of fact-checkers, the third-party firms that organize polling – that it’s easy to get lost.
Here’s my favorite statistic: there’s simply no precedent in American history for Trump coming back from this far behind in the post-Access Hollywood fallout. Trump is gonna lose this battle.
But he’s already won the war – because along with branded media outlets’ refocused strategy in 2016, Trump has ushered in the era of content trumping truth. We’ll give him the verb in that catchphrase as credit.
When Ken Bone stood up to ask his tremendous question about energy policy, I looked on in horror – because no matter what words came out of his mouth, to me they sounded like…
You’re not hallucinating: that’s The New York Times, CNN, MarketWatch, and Time Magazine reporting on the decision-making process of a Midwestern coal industry professional.
I think the public is so confused, rallied up, and upset about the state of things (and, of course, the perceived state of things) that they use the only power they have to cope with it: they meme.
This is because memes are fun – we laugh at them, enjoy them, and talk about them in the workplace!
In Trump’s America, where content rules all, everything is fair game for memeing. Coal workers, gorillas, 90’s nostalgia cartoons, shoegaze black metal – if you can name it, you can meme it. Ken Bone wore a cute red sweater – meme it! Trump sniffled so he must’ve been on coke – meme it! A fly landed on Hillary’s nose – meme it! Deafheaven dress funny – meme it!
We can’t trust the fact checkers, the media, the politicians, or the artists, so we’ve decided to trust the memes. And we’ve done so without ever asking the question, is this the right thing to do? Are memes truly the closest thing to truth we have?
FAME FIRST, ART SECOND
What does this have to do with metal? With punk? With art?
There used to be a time when idiosyncratic people made idiosyncratic art, and then by whatever strange twist of fate, became famous. Now, people who are already famous create art designed for the fame bracket. Trump is the ultimate example of this, a famous person who demolished the rules of an art form (politics) with memeing flair to purposefully piss off everyone: the press, other politicians, voters, normal people, etc.
Are we missing the taboo? Now it seems like when a freak goes out into the world in Trump’s America, they are punished. Often they don’t even look like “freaks,” but are just normal people (Ken Bone), mammals (Harambe), nostalgic media for millenials (Arthur, Spongebob, etc.) or average bands (Deafheaven, Nothing, etc), they are treated to a world of navel-gazing, ironic memeing, and forced celebrity.
I can’t will myself to be invested in art like a modern-day vinyl-buyer is because I know deep down that odds are, there isn’t all that much worth investing myself in, in a world where the truth is Trumped and me is memed. Musicians, filmmakers, and TV showrunners who truly pursue an artistic vision executed with years of finely-honed craft exist in dwindling numbers, and their efforts are often hidden in plain sight by the meme news.
I don’t care if “X Grindcore Band Will Jam Their Savage-Soaked Riffs” in my face. That’s a journalist memeing a band – and odds are they’re just a crappy punk band that doesn’t practice, doesn’t care about being musicians, and just want their own tiny bite at the fame apple. They are memers who want to be memed. And the second they get that coveted headline from a branded-content outlet, their existence is famed, memed, and dissociated from their music.
This causes younger musicians, who only know about bands through this twisted, Trumped-up cycle, to force investment in what they do – just like the meme-creating public. That’s why so much art sucks. It’s built for disposability and styled for headlines from its birth. Most people who get into music now want to be in a famous band first, and musician second (if not at all). At least in the ’60s and ’70s, before content Trumped truth, those fame-hungry musicians were actually tremendous songwriters (Lennon and McCartney), bandleaders (Jimmy Page) and musical badasses (Robert Fripp).
But now, everything’s a meme, every artist free to be mined for sponsored content. And I say we embrace it! We have no other options at this point. Let’s just make sure it’s done well, please? Like this cute Chance the Rapper commercial for Kit Kat: