Moby empathizes with musicians who are disinclined to speak out about politics — he’s single and doesn’t have to worry about a Dixie Chicks-style backlash crushing his ticket sales and destroying his financial future.
“There are probably a lot of middle-aged musicians who have families to support, and they have in-laws to take care of, and maybe they have tuition to pay,” says the outspoken electronic-dance-music pioneer, on the phone with Billboard from his home in Los Angeles. “They maybe have to be a little bit more cautious about how they represent their worldview.”
As he gets going over 20 minutes, discussing his distaste for President-elect Donald Trump, the 2016 election and the non-voting “millennial complacency” and “living in this Obama bubble,” Moby tempers his empathy. “If musicians are not being outspoken, they better have a pretty good reason why — and if the reason why is they need to pay for their mom having dialysis or need to send their kids to school, [then] by all means be milquetoast and don’t have an opinion,” he says. “But if the choice becomes using your audience to affect important change or buy a bigger house in the South of France, then the house in the South of France can go fuck itself.”
For most musicians – regardless of how attainable a pied-á-terre in the South of France may be — the decision to speak out politically, and risk alienating audiences, has always been complicated. (After campaigning for Barack Obama in 2008, Bruce Springsteen put it this way: “If I was ever going to spend whatever small political capital I had, that was the moment to do so.”) But the calculus may be shifting as the Trump era begins, with his tweeted threat to jail flag-burners, unprecedented, China-provoking phone call to the president of Taiwan, the top advisors who’ve been sympathetic to white-nationalist groups and the bizarre Twitter attacks on Hamilton, Saturday Night Live and The New York Times.
“Vigilance and protest is going to be more important than ever before,” says Hilary Rosen, a Democratic consultant, CNN personality and former chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America. “Now is a good time to raise the question about what kind of country we want to be — the creative community leading on that front has always been important.”
Being politically active has always been risky for rock and pop stars — the FBI and CIA tracked John Lennon for years, and red-state fans of the Dixie Chicks boycotted their music when frontwoman Natalie Maines criticized the Iraq War on stage in 2003. It may be even more so in the coming months. “Look, the president-elect’s best friend is Vladimir Putin. What did he do to Pussy Riot?” asks Simon Renshaw, the Dixie Chicks’ manager, referring to the Russian president’s incarceration of the punk trio for its critical songs. “I don’t know whether you’re going to be scared, but artists have to be even more vigilant, and even more concerned, about the freedom to express your opinions and views in this country.”
Since the election nearly a month ago, not-always-vocal pop stars have been tweeting harsh criticism towards the president-elect and his proposed administration. Pink, John Legend, Garbage and Ingrid Michaelson were among the celebrities who supported the Hamilton cast in its confrontation with Vice President-elect Mike Pence. (Trump would demand an apology from the cast for its “terrible behavior.”) Green Day singer Billie Joe Armstrong led a chant of “no Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” during the American Music Awards. Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose, a Trump critic all year, called fans onto the stage at a Mexico City gig to whack a Trump piñata.
“From the beginning of time, singers and songwriters have always had a special role to play in alerting the public in current affairs,” says Howie Klein, a former Reprise Records president who now runs the ultra-liberal Down with Tyranny blog. “This isn’t just a regular situation, of a Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan, or, for a Republican, a Barack Obama. This is something unique in American history. Donald Trump is an anomaly.”
Veteran Democratic consultant Joe Trippi, the engineer of Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, worries musicians who spent their Springsteen-style political capital during the Trump-Clinton campaign will be gun shy to continue that advocacy. Beyonce and Jay Z headlined a star-studded rally in Cleveland a few days before the election, drawing intense criticism from Trump, who said in a speech: “I am here all by myself. Just me. No guitar, no piano, no nothing.” (He would later hold a rally with right-wing rocker Ted Nugent.) Neither half of pop music’s reigning power couple has made a major political statement since the election.
“We had a lot of musicians, and others, take stands and get out there in 2016, and take on the risk of impacting their craft, in terms of how people look at them. And the question is: how much good did it do?” Trippi asks. “I could see a lot of people say, ‘It’s not [worth it], I’ll go back to my craft.’ That’s a mistake. With fragmented media, 500 cable channels and the Internet, it is increasingly tough to reach people with any kind of value message, and increasingly, musicians and artists are, frankly, sporting events.”
The music business has been struggling to turn a post-election “what-should-we-do-now?” feeling among liberals into action. Jordan Kurland, manager of Death Cab for Cutie and Best Coast, has spent the last two elections organizing artists for song-a-day campaigns on behalf of the Democratic presidential candidates. “Death Cab is a well-known band, and not all of their fan base is progressives or Democrats,” he says. “But it’s never once been, ‘I’m not sure we should make this statement because it might piss off people.’ Because they speak from a place of conviction.”
Immediately after the election, Josh Cheon, owner of Dark Entries Records, a goth-inspired label and store in San Francisco, started a 25-percent-off sale, donating 15 percent of all proceeds to Standing Rock protesters, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU. “More people should speak up,” he says. “I don’t think it’s time to just sit back and watch the shit hit the fan.”
Some musicians may be uncertain about how to make a political statement for the first time. It may seem like an obvious point, but according to Jessica George, executive director of Revolutions Per Minute, an 11-year-old group that helps artists contribute efficiently to charities and causes, the key is authenticity. For some, this means donating a dollar out of every ticket sale to a charitable cause; for others, it’s finding a voice to speak out politically. “It doesn’t actually change hearts and minds to alienate half of your fanbase,” she says. “My goal is to build a meaningful partnership between an artist and an organization.”
Of course, many artists have had no qualms over sharply criticizing the president-elect: Questlove, Public Enemy’s Chuck D., Janelle Monae, YG (who put out a song earlier this year called “FDT (F–k Donald Trump),” Young Jeezy and Pussy Riot (which released a video in October for “Make America Great Again” and this week drew parallels between their treatment by Putin and a Trump administration) lashed out against his Election Day victory. It’s a little too early for new President Trump songs (Fiona Apple notwithstanding), but Greg Saunier, drummer for Deerhoof, which has been speaking out against the president-elect via Twitter, says it’s unlikely the band will comment musically. “If art is just a frantic reaction to each ludicrous utterance by the new people in charge, then it’s limiting himself,” he says.
But Saunier says Americans are in a unique moment of political awareness — and artists should take advantage where they can, mentioning unifying festivals and rallies such as October’s Roots Picnic in New York. “I like the idea of making energetic music for young people, because Trump/Bannon’s strategy against all of us is to wear us out and fatigue us,” he says. “In order for that not to prevail, it’s important to maintain an extremely high level of energy and concentration.”
Political activity comes naturally to some musicians, of course. Since the election, Alynda Lee Segarra, who leads New Orleans band Hurray for the Riff Raff, has campaigned for Foster Campbell, the Democrat in a run-off for U.S. Senate in Louisiana, and played a Brooklyn benefit for the Standing Rock protesters in North Dakota. “Art and music are the only things that can change people’s minds. I don’t know if politicians can do it,” says the singer-songwriter. “There’s been a culture shift where white nationalism and just straight-up Nazi groups are feeling very emboldened — and artists are the only people in the culture who can lead us in a way that’s focused on peace and learning to live with each other. I take it very seriously.”
Segarra points to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” and Woody Guthrie’s oeuvre as examples of songs that have helped people weather political storms in the past. Several sources pointed to the growth of ’80s hardcore in the Reagan Era as an example of a balm in challenging political times: “A couple days after the election, I kept listening to Husker Du’s ‘Divide and Conquer’ over and over,” Kurland says. Segarra agrees. “I’ve been saying this whole election season, Jello Biafra [of the Dead Kennedys] warned me about this when I was like 14,” she says, by phone from her New Orleans home. “He kept telling me about this stuff.”