More than ever, America is a country of haves and have-nots, that holding especially true when it comes to the world of pop music. Or, to put things in terms that the bluebloods of the most powerful nation on Earth will understand, there’s the one percent, and then there’s everyone else.
And it’s that reality that leaves one thinking that America is fucked in a way it never was in the ’60s with the antiwar movement. Or the ’70s with the No Nukes groundswell. Or the ’80s with anti-arms-race mobilization. Or the ’90s with the—actually, scratch the ’90s. Everyone was too whacked out on heroin in the first half of the decade to make any sort of meaningful change, and too blissed out on ecstasy in the second half.
But back to the present. Talk to any musician not named Katy Perry, Rihanna, Marcus Mumford, or Bruno Mars, and they’ll tell you there’s a class system in music like never before.
Because streaming services are pretty much the only way that music is consumed these days, the major-label system is pretty much in ruins. And like it or not, the major-label system is what has broken bands ever since Elvis Presley first terrorized white America. There’s a good reason why almost no one other than discerning record-store clerks and your cool older brother ever heard of Nirvana, Mötley Crüe, U2, Moby, Snoop Dogg, or Kendrick Lamar during their underground-indie years.
The sad reality is that most folks could not be bothered to dig deep. Either you can spend hours combing through Pitchfork, Stereogum, Spin, NME, NPR.org, and Gorilla vs. Bear when it’s time to put together a digital mixtape for your morning fixie commute, or you can default to what’s been flagged as noteworthy by gatekeepers at Apple Music and Spotify.
And that’s where the problem of what’s happening in America becomes doubly horrific.
In olden times, there was no instant backlash when Country Joe and the Fish declared the Vietnam War an affront to all things that Americans should hold decent. Or when, against the backdrop of Three Mile Island, Jackson Browne rallied the grassroots troops against nuclear power plants.
That’s changed in a profound way this decade. Clawing one’s way to hockey-rink-headlining status has never been more difficult, partly because of the sheer volume of product that’s now in the marketplace.
Gone are the days when single acts—the Beatles, AC/DC, Nirvana, or Eminem—spearheaded musical revolutions, making themselves instant icons in the process.
As the decade winds down, there’s no predicting what’s going to hit, and what’s going to stick. Pop music is the safest bet, which explains why the descendants of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber, and Pink will never have to work a day in their lives.
Hip-hop is a close second, the interesting thing being that—sorry, Chuck D—no one is demanding insightful political commentary from Travis Scott, Post Malone, Drake, or A$AP Rocky. Those who are choosing to take on the system are more focused on doing so from a personal-politics approach.
As for the rest of the crowd, why bother risking it all to take a swing at everything that’s wrong in the States when you’re Tame Impala, Ed Sheeran, the Black Keys, or Maroon 5? As hard as it is to get to the top, staying there is harder.
And no one’s going to expand their fan base by coming out and suggesting that everyone who owns a MAGA hat or a Send Her Back T-shirt is as fucking deluded as they are borderline evil.
Step up to the pulpit and suggest—quite rightly—that Donald Trump deserves to take a huge amount of the blame for the El Paso shootings, and you instantly get half of America against you. Because, sad as this is, half of the U.S. seems to think that America has been invaded by Mexicans, Muslims, and every Ontario senior citizen who’s ever gone 40 mph in a 55 zone on a Florida highway.
And what’s scariest about that is the trickle-down effect. There was a point in time when the platinum club wasn’t afraid to take on the establishment, mostly because there was no instant Twitter shitstorm to worry about.
What’s most glaringly evident today about Trump’s America is that no one—with the possible exception of Cher and John Legend—has the balls to risk everything by saying what they think.
Remember how during the reign of George W. Bush, heavyweight punkers NOFX were mobilizing the common rabble with campaigns like Rock Against Bush?
After weathering a relentless backlash for making a joke about the Las Vegas shooting last year, famously loudmouthed singer Fat Mike has seemingly learned that sometimes it’s better to keep one’s mouth shut.
NOFX is on tour this year, but not to convince America that Donald Trump is the biggest shitstain this side of Ted Nugent, Hank Williams Jr., and Toby Keith. Instead, it’s on the road for Punk in Drublic, a craft-beer-and-music festival.
When Rome’s burning, evidently drinking one’s troubles away is far more appealing than doing something about the fact that things couldn’t be more screwed.
God bless the new complete mess of America.