Sound + Vision: Populist Music
We have a large public that is very ignorant about public affairs and very susceptible to simplistic slogans by candidates who appear out of nowhere, have no track record, but mouth appealing slogans.
― Zbigniew Brzeziński
Podemos (“We Can”) is the name of a Spanish political party founded in 2014 by political scientist Pablo Iglesias. The party’s fundamental aim is to address inequality and corruption.
#MAGA is a slogan used by real-life ‘80’s-teen-sex-comedy-villain Donald J. Trump. Trump’s fundamental aim is to be a fixer for an international cabal of sinister kleptocrats.
Though at first blush these two politicians couldn’t be more opposite, they do have at least one critical quality in common: both men are populists. If that’s true, then just what the hell is populism? At the most basic level, it’s an appeal to “the common man”, eschewing elitism in a bid to unite the uncorrupted and unsophisticated schmoes of the world. The language of the populist is engineered to excite, to light up the limbic brain and get fists pumping.
Whether you see populism as the true, unpretentious voice of the people or craven manipulation of base fears depends on if it’s your guy doing the rousing.
The same, it seems, is true of music. What scans as cheesy chauvinism in the hands of one artist is a masterpiece of inclusion in the hands of another. Why does “Roadrunner” make me want to punch a mountain while “North South East West” makes me want to go to sleep?
I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now, spurred by the new Japandroids album, Near to the Beating Heart of Life. I loved their last album, 2012’s Celebration Rock, despite myself. I knew that their anthemic carpe diem cheerleading was corny, but I felt that it was awesome. And that’s the whole point of populist music–it’s about feeling, not thinking. But as usual there’s some magical secret ingredient that separates the beer commercial also-rans from great songs that nevertheless boomers won’t shut the fuck up about.
I guess it’s possible that secret ingredient is hearing someone speaking* your language, enthusiastically and at top volume. I’m 37 years old and a father, by the way. My language is assuredly not weed, penury, and a poor attitude. On the other hand, by the time the Stones sang about waiting for a factory girl, they could have just bought the factory outright. Was it a crass appeal to working-class record buyers, or was it a great song that made you feel like a candle was burning inside you? Yes, it was.
The subject matter alone can’t make a song good, though. Modern bro-country seems hellbent on failure-testing the tensile strength of the listening public’s willingness to hear yet another song about doing things^ a certain way in the country while getting drunk. They also won’t stop name-dropping Hank Williams and various well-known rappers, which is an even lazier move than singing about girls or booze or paychecks. They’re not alone in this, but it appears to have reached epidemic scale in Nashville.
No, just singing about beer or being dispossessed of your agency won’t make it a good populist cut; it’s got to have that thing that makes you actively forgive how stupid it is**. There’s lots of truly awful tracks that prey on our predictable reaction to an easily recognizable chorus, childlike foot-stomping, and confusing feelings of fear and impotence. The truly great populists don’t rely on a single pressure point to make your idiot reptilian shadow-self capitulate. They use every trick in the book, and it rocks. It rocks so hard.
Sound and Vision playlist available here.
*I always thought it was pretty funny how similar this song is to this other song
^This might be the most embarrassing song I’ve ever heard [Ed. note: Us too]
**Do yourself a favor, and check out Sly and the gang just crushing the everloving shit out the Ohio State Fair.