Listening in an Emergency

Listening in an Emergency

Big Thief makes protest music for a moment when even language, even stories, even voices, have betrayed us.

Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief performs in London in 2017. (Paul Hudson/Flickr)

After the last presidential election, a theory made the rounds that under the new administration, music would get really good again. It’s hard to track down this notion’s first appearance, but it was already widespread by the time Amanda Palmer voiced it to a journalist in December 2016, comparing the looming Trump regime to Weimar Germany as if she had no clue what had happened next, or perhaps considered it all a fair price to pay for Kurt Weill and fishnets. Plenty of other folks were suggesting similar things to their friends between sets at rock clubs or on Facebook, citing not Berlin but New York, waxing nostalgic for the punk scenes that had emerged in the recession-wracked 1970s and ’80s.

If the adherents of the Trump Great Rock Theory didn’t mean to imply that a certain level of suffering could be compensated for by some righteous anthems, this desperate musical silver-lining-ism did downplay the very real casualties that everybody knew were coming. Those who lionized Reagan-era punk (a genre that of course was mostly white) also ignored, in their implication that Obama-era music had underperformed, all the brilliant music made by black artists during the previous eight years—by D’Angelo, Kendrick Lamar, and Beyoncé, to cite just three examples. They similarly discounted the fact that there had been plenty to rage about in recent years, plenty of social tension to process, as songs like Lamar’s “Alright” and Bey’s “Freedom” attest.

Despite all these solid objections to the theory, something different does seem to happen to and in music in moments of social tension and political crisis. Listen back to the revolutionary anticipation in Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” the simmering laments of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the slicing anguish of CSNY’s “Ohio,” the cabaret outrage of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam.” Listen, for that matter, to the ferocious chaos of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues,” and think about how the whole corpus of recorded African-American blues grew out of 1919’s so-called Red Summer of lynchings and race riots, a connection Daphne Brooks and Adam Gussow have both traced.

That Red Summer of 1919 marked a resurgence of mob violence that had been gradually diminishing since its peak in the 1890s, when well over 100 African Americans were being lynched every year. Back then, the top-selling recordings by a black musician—the top-selling recordings by anybody, in fact—were George W. Johnson’s “The Whistling Coon” and “The Laughing Song.” These novelty tracks are important as the first commercial recordings by a black artist, but their shrill whistles and belly laughs are conspicuously different from the sentimental ardor that marked the era’s most popular white parlor songs. To become a star, Johnson had to perform a flat, self-mocking selfhood. He repeatedly tried to have other hits, but these two minstrel songs were the only ones that ever caught on.

History suggests, in other words, that even though pop culture can be a platform for challenging an era’s injustices, it can mirror and buttress them just as easily. In the bleakest times, many people want songs to tell them what they think they already know. Other people are too busy trying to stay alive to pour their terror and despair and even their relentless hope into works of musical genius.

We have no clue whether we’re now in a bleakest hour or a moment we’ll long for in retrospect. We only know that this feels worse than what came before. And that may or may not have made music better, but it has made it more urgently needed. I can scarcely stomach three minutes of NPR these days before the stress and fury kick in, and then I think of the limited allotment of time I have left in this body, and about the way stress and rage whittle down that time and attenuate the faculties, and off goes the radio. But the silence brings along its own hazards: racing thoughts, seeping dread. One longs for sound to buoy and objectify a defiant mind. Not entertainment to distract or soothe, but a work to recognize and hearten, a sound that promises company and understanding.

I’ve been looking particularly to new songs for help. Old music offers a lot, but lately it alienates too. W. E. B. Du Bois hinted at this dynamic back in 1903, writing about slavery-era spirituals: “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. . . . Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?” He was genuinely asking, and he couldn’t bring himself to answer with an unqualified yes. Similarly, most political songs from the last century seem to trust a benevolent arc of history, singing a faith that fails to comfort or inspire now. I pop in old folk CDs while driving my toddler around L.A.—Pete Seeger is her go-to request—but when I hear a 1962 audience of kids and parents at Town Hall sing, “It could be a wonderful, wonderful world,” the road before me begins to blur. Such optimism! Has it really been so long since then?

The task of finding new music presents its own difficulties. If the trouble with YouTube is that it serves up progressively more extreme ideological content, Spotify has precisely the opposite problem, where any song, no matter how brilliant, quickly leads to a chain of forgettable copies that degrade the first song in retrospect. To fortify against a scattershot culture where everything is interchangeable and evanescent, this faded algorithmic wallpaper does no good at all.

Out of this fog—not the algorithm’s fog, just the fog of now, of too much content and too little clarity, and my own misty nostalgia for an already expired dream of benevolent history—a guitar starts to strum a single chord. It’s suppler than a power chord but scarcely more full, with a timbre that hits a listener between the solar plexus and the postnasal passages. Its sense of time is loose. One bar later, taut sixteenth notes on a high-hat clamp down the beat even as the sandwiched cymbals rattle slightly open.

“It’s not the energy reeling,” a voice sings, part whisper and part whine, “nor the lines / in your face / nor the clouds / on the ceiling / nor the clouds / in space.” With audible breaths every three words, these are mid-stopped lines, cleaved by ancient-feeling caesuras and by the break in Adrianne Lenker’s voice on the word “space,” as she registers the labor of skipping upward and works it anyway.

The band is called Big Thief, the song is called “Not,” and its every note plumbs the drama of curtailed options, the howling vastness that underlies and overruns constraints. Two or three listens a day are fire cider for the soul. More than that, and the solidity of the world begins turning to vapor. This may not be a bad thing.

Who is this band? Where did they come from? They formed in Brooklyn. The members are all spread out now: L.A., New Mexico, Tel Aviv. Lenker, the singer and guitarist and writer who wore a grown-out buzzcut and a stark squint on The Late Show in October, graduated from the Berklee College of Music in Boston but was born into a Christian cult in Indiana. An insistent search for cosmic answers must have led her parents to join and then leave the sect; this search rings through Lenker’s music as well.

The guitar solo starts early. Too early, technically—we haven’t even hit a chorus yet, the relentless singing isn’t remotely ready to pause—but here comes that performance of what words won’t fully say, in this case a slid-in vault to feedback behind an onslaughting verse that keeps veering into the infinite:

It’s not the formless being
Nor the cry in the air
Nor the boy I’m seeing
With her long black hair

(The lover wavers into view: grave and thoughtful, uncoiffed, fluid gender appearing here as an elision of form, an outrippling circle of sound. The cry shakes the air, this is what a cry does, and as its waves decay in space, there’s no line to mark where it stops being sound and becomes merely sound’s memory. The cry, the fluid gender, flow in the feedback, which masses bulk from wave and air. Lenker hails that airy accretion as the verse goes on.)

It’s not the open weaving
Nor the furnace glow
Nor the blood of you bleeding
As you try to let go

The bass is Crazy Horse–plump, Lenker’s voice reedy and sure, the chords obstinate and stuck, oscillating over and over back to the opening minor triad.

Here’s what destroys me most. And by destroys I mean builds up, brings to life, dissolves all my cellular walls. Come and hear how it goes at 2:10, when the guitar drops out, the bass sounds like a rubber band on a shoe box, and then that feral, alien guitar swoops back in, and suddenly Lenker is feral too: “It’s not the hunger revealing,” she sings, tearing “hunger” from the back of her throat so roughly that I mishear the line as “hunk of revealing” every time, “nor the ricochet in the cave. Nor the hand”—another growl on “hand”—“that is healing, nor the nameless grave.”

Since she brought up Plato with that line about the cave, there are two Greek words that belong here. The first is anaphora, the tactic of starting multiple poetic lines with the same word. (You may have begun to suspect that nearly every line in this song begins with “[it’s] not” or “nor.” You would not be wrong.) The second is apophasis, a word for talking about something by pretending not to talk about it. The song “Not” is an obvious example of apophasis, but not in its most frequent and disingenuous guise (e.g., “I’m not even going to bring up my opponent’s dismal cooking skills”). It hints more at apophatic theology, the concept that God is so unknowable that we can’t make any positive statements on the topic. All we can do is say what God is not, and by doing that enough, we can veer up, backward and blindfolded, on something bigger than anything that’s possible to know. This trope is found in ancient Greek thought, in early Christian theology, in Jewish and Muslim bans on representation, and it shows up in the Buddhist Heart Sutra, which says that in “emptiness,” there exists “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind / no color, sound, smell, taste, touch, phenomena.”

Big Thief’s lyrical negation clears out the chaotic mass of too many words, plans, stances, tweets, insults, outrages, lies. The cosmology of this song builds up to a dual guitar solo that erupts continuously for almost the last half of this six-minute song, tearing out of the lines “not the planet / not spinning,” metastasizing from the guitar waves that underswept all the verses that came before. I feel like I never cared if I heard another guitar in my life until this one. This is protest music for a moment when even language, even stories, even voices, have betrayed us.

Political music as mass singing took a lasting hit in the middle of the last century, as recorded music permanently replaced the mimeographed movement songbooks that once circulated freely on the left. When marchers in Mississippi in 1966, weary from the ongoing racist violence that had followed the passage of key civil rights laws, decided not to sing “We Shall Overcome” again, they performed another political truth: the truth of how hard it can be to abide in faith when even progress doesn’t look as good as it was supposed to. This past autumn, striking Chicago teachers took “Truth Hurts,” Lizzo’s sassy lament for romantic disappointment, and rewrote it to be about the disappointment of getting stonewalled by a progressive mayor whose election a mere six months earlier had seemed a major victory for an ascendant left. “Why’re mayors great till they gotta be great?” the teachers sang in their viral videos, tracking another disappointing romance, that of retail politics.

What if everyone could let go of that old desire for a protest song to unite thousands of voices? Let’s think of it instead as a set of things a song can do, and that in a bleak moment the greatest songs might do best of all. Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of us dying. Alabama’s got me so upset. Southern man, when will you pay them back? Protest music sets up a scene of address, offers a vantage on a set of lived conditions, declares something isn’t right, and emboldens listeners to oppose an unbearable reality. The part about emboldening listeners is rarely done as an explicit exhortation to action; the portrait of the conditions is understood to do that work, but the scene of address that frames the song is key as well. Other people see what you see, the best of these songs announce. You’re not crazy, and you’re not alone. When unlivable conditions are based in an assault on shared reality, just maintaining a collective sense of what’s going on is an important way to push back. I’ve found some of this in Big Thief.

Soccer Mommy is another newish, tuneful, guitar-driven songwriting project that feels pitched to how we live now. It’s the work of Sophie Allison, a young Nashville native who decided to drop out of NYU to make music. People praise her frank and unsentimental lyrics, but on her 2018 album Clean, there’s something structural in her songwriting that reflects contemporary conditions and can even feel like a protest.

The opening track, “Still Clean,” is an elegy for a summer of love. A tentative electric guitar offers the barest outlines of a song about what it’s like to treasure something that disappoints, and to take on that disappointment as a judgment on you: “I guess I’m only what you wanted for a little while.” In this, it’s the opposite of “Truth Hurts,” or maybe it’s voicing the actually painful truth at the core of Lizzo’s song, a pain that winds bravado and optimism and music around itself, even through virtuosic excess—I put the si-i-i-i-i-ing in single—to salve the abrasion.

What really passed between “Still Clean”’s singer and the addressed ex-lover soon wears as thin as the plucked guitar runs, and a broad shimmer swells in the background, building up the romance of what’s already lost. Toward the end of the song, the sound abruptly cuts out from the left channel and dips way down in the right. You’d miss the asymmetry if you were listening on a single speaker, but through headphones you clock an infrastructural failure that metes out the song unequally, unbalancing your body. Then the shimmer rears back up, painting away the inequity with fantasy, and the song ends.

The next track enacts structural breakdown again: after nearly three minutes of indie rock, the whole song detunes precipitously in fifteen seconds, sliding down the scale, losing its bones and sinews until the song collapses in a puddle. That collapse, it turns out, serves as the seldom-clocked build-up to the album’s celebrated third song, the one all the critics wrote about, the one that insists, “I don’t wanna be your fucking dog.” Defiance arises not from an ahistorical void but from the repeated, particular collapse of structure—and finally from the understanding that this collapse will keep happening unless you can put a stop to it. In the opening track on her previous album, 2017’s Collection, Sophie Allison had sung to herself, “Allison, put down your sword / Give up what you’re fighting for.” On Clean, the songs do the fighting.

There’s a piece like this one, a reflection on pop protest, to be written about any number of genres—R&B, hip-hop, Americana, probably ambient electronica. It’s interesting to note, though, the remarkable resurgence of guitar-driven indie bands, fronted by singers who present as female or otherwise non-hegemonic genders, that draw their palette and approach from the groups I was listening to in college in the 1990s. Soccer Mommy sounds more like Liz Phair than Liz Phair does these days, with some tinges of the unjustly forgotten Polvo around the edges. The last time this many bands sounded this way, the Bill Clinton years of letdown and accommodation were whimpering out into a haze of impeachment proceedings. Then the Supreme Court was ushering in the Bush regime. The music I listened to in those years was spare, loud, and straightforward, built of verses and choruses and bridges. Women, then as now, were at the mic. The anti-feminist and anti-LGBT backlash that had defined the 1980s was still going strong in the 1990s, Newt Gingrich was presiding over a right-wing Congress, and although things would later get much worse, it felt terribly dispiriting at the time. Noisy and jagged and frank, indie rock cut through the bullshit and gave our dejection shape and bulk in the air.

Then cities got expensive, punk neighborhoods cleaned up, the crumbling row houses that once housed a half-dozen twentysomethings and a practice space with egg-crate foam on the walls were renovated and sold to a couple of newlyweds who moved in with their full run of Simpsons DVDs. Conveniently enough, the very meaning of indie came into question around the same time. The early-’90s idea of “selling out” as a meaningful category of activity, as a thing you could be criticized for doing, had dissipated by the turn of the twenty-first century. As downloading MP3s obliterated the money a musician or label could make through selling records, the kind of label a musician was signed to ceased to be a particularly salient indicator of anything. And if you wanted to make any money at all, you had to license your songs to very un-indie concerns. Small-label bands were suddenly the sound tracks for Grey’s Anatomy and Dawson’s Creek; the Arcade Fire filled Madison Square Garden; Vampire Weekend became the first band to top a chart while signed to no label at all. Indie was no longer synonymous with underground, and the lines got harder and harder to draw.

Meanwhile, companies kept consolidating. The control exercised by a few behemoths felt both inescapable and distant. Coke bought Odwalla and the juices tasted basically the same.

The return of indie rock suggests that in an era of too much too-muchness, there’s something to be gained from paring down, getting close to the mic, using music to help us feel what it’s like when structures break down and the best way to approximate a full sense of our predicament is through a string of negations. We live in an age that stokes confusion and rewards the hyper-simple. Music that plunges listeners into clarified complexity can embolden us to oppose the easy answer, the one-trick chart-topper, the thing that feels obvious or comforting.

As fires exploded across California this fall, I drove an hour into the suburbs to see Big Thief play in the middle of an office park. The band started its set forty minutes behind schedule, and I stretched my hip flexors next to a big trash can while I waited in the dark with 900 fans—some, I was happy to see, even older than I felt. While runners set up pedals and cables onstage, the music playing over the club’s sound system was a sheer, endless drone. I found it difficult to track the passage of time.

Then Big Thief walked on stage and launched right in. The sound in the room was thicker and rounder than anything I’d heard streaming from my speakers all year. During a very slow song, a young woman in a tube top and combat boots crowdsurfed languidly while the band grinned in surprise.

Finally, the opening chords of “Not” shot through the room. Everybody put up their phones for half a minute to shoot video, then put them down, bested by the thick sound and their own bodies in space. The fiercest line of the song, when sung live, is different from the fiercest line on the record. I thought I knew this song; I had fused with it for weeks. And suddenly, onstage, Lenker howled “not dying,” which made the rest of the song, the rest of the concert, a commentary on that pair of words, whose meaning amid the other negations I couldn’t quite pin down.

My phone buzzed in my bag: new fire burning in Fullerton, take a different route home. Noted. The band played on. I was tired: I still had an hour’s drive home on unfamiliar highways, and my daughter would wake up at 6 a.m. no matter what time I got to sleep. So I drove back to the city, past the refineries, past the flames, fortified not with promises about what kind of world this could be, but with a keening about how to inhabit it. To protest by not-dying, attuned to flux, to howl, to void.

Sara Marcus, the author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution, lives in Los Angeles and is currently finishing a book on political disappointment.

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