Skip Navigation

Resistance Music in the Trump Era

Donald Trump’s election has elicited resistance marked by activism and political opposition spanning the entire partisan spectrum, from all corners of the world, expressed by a multitude of media. Perhaps most interestingly, resistance has cropped up through music. Numerous artists of all genres have released songs since November that have implicitly or explicitly expressed opposition to the Trump administration.

Indie group Arcade Fire released their single “I Give You Power” on Inauguration Day with the message, “it’s never been more important that we stick together and take care of each other.” The song aims to remind the administration that power comes from the people and that the people “can take it away.” Meanwhile, on the eve of the Inauguration, the hip-hop group Gorillaz came out of retirement to release their first music video in six years for their song “Hallelujah Money.” The music video features jarring images that augur the nefariousness of a Trump presidency, and the lyrics mention the building of walls and questions the corrupting influence of power and money.

These artists are joined by the likes of Fiona Apple, Run the Jewels, Pusha T, and Father John Misty. Opposition from artists of virtually all genres and backgrounds is a recent phenomenon: Previously, resistance music has come from particular genres such as folk and rock in the 60s, punk in the 80s, or hip-hop in the 90s. The current phenomenon of opposition music from a wide range of genres — culminating in Trump’s struggle to get artists to perform at his inauguration — reveals widespread opposition to Trump among musicians.

Historians study popular culture to learn about the political and social climate of a certain time period and to understand mass sentiments of that era. However, it is clear that today’s popular culture is rarely an accurate reflection of popular attitudes. After all, even if most of the music and film industry opposes Trump, a large swath of the US does not. So why is it that popular culture, specifically music and film, are liberal, and what are the consequences?

Popular culture has not always been as left-leaning as it is today. The Motion Picture Production Code of the 1930s policed what could be shown on screen, in effect keeping films relatively conventional and conservative. Meanwhile, the House Un-American Activities Committee’s investigation of the entertainment industry not only destroyed the careers of the many blacklisted individuals labeled “communists,” but had immeasurable effects on the work produced by people who managed to stay in the industry. The investigation scared these artists away from producing art with controversial subjects given that it might have lead to the writer’s questioning, blacklisting, job loss, or even imprisonment.

It was not until the 50s that a liberal shift began to occur. When baby boomer parents were teenagers, they often had to work to contribute to their family’s income. In response, many of these parents gave their baby boomer kids more freedom and money as they grew up. When young people began to have disposable funds to spend on the things that appealed to them, their tastes began to dictate what was popular. Young people now had the independence and resources to go see movies and buy music, and these industries began to cater to a rising market. Youth culture began to emerge and quickly took full control of popular culture. More controversial themes emerged in music through the rise of rock and roll. And as the Hays Code was disbanded, movies began to show more controversial themes as well. Young people naturally tend to be more liberal, and so as the youth began to control popular culture, popular culture became more liberal.

With the rise of youth culture and its liberal influence on popular culture came the rise of resistance music. Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” in 1962 became an anthem of progress and anti-war sentiment. Aretha Franklin demanded “Respect” for the black community in 1966, in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. And in 1971, Marvin Gaye released “What’s Going On” as a lament against the seemingly endless Vietnam War.

The liberalization of popular culture makes sense. Artists tend to push against the status quo, inviting new ways to think about society. Gone the stringent rules imposed by those outside of the industry and with a swelling youth market, the music industry embraced its liberal tendencies. And as artists responded accordingly to the youth’s inclinations, the industry attracted more progressive musicians, creating a self-perpetuating liberal culture within the music realm. Over time, the music industry has only leaned further to the left, making it difficult to find openly conservative musicians besides country singers and notably, Kid Rock.

But such a liberal popular culture has the potential to alienate those who hold different views — and with substantial consequences. Despite the flourishing of resistance music and a popular culture defined by anti-establishment and anti-war protests during the 60s and 70s, the people who were coming of age at this time of burgeoning liberal pop culture are the same Americans who overwhelmingly voted for Trump. These were the first young people to have a major say in US popular culture and they played a part in giving it its liberal lean. Yet they voted conservatively in 2016. It is a well-known fact that age is a major factor in determining political ideology, but age does not seem to be the only factor at play. While the election of Donald Trump was shocking to many people, perhaps liberal-leaning popular culture has not only blinded young people to more conservative outlooks but has also fueled the antagonism among conservatives that led to the election of Trump. So while musicians express their discontent towards Trump, perhaps they themselves played a role in precipitating his election.