Hear Us Out: How the Music World Geared Up for the Election This October
Plus: Jeff Tweedy and Bruce Springsteen return with a pair of excellent records
This is Hear Us Out, a column charting the storylines and releases that mattered — to us, and hopefully you — in the world of music over the past month.
Last month saw musicians — and all of us — bracing for a fall spike in COVID-19 cases and wondering when we’ll ever be able to get back to live music. Now here we are headed into November, and we’re in the thick of it: the pandemic is surging as case numbers across the country continue to climb, and the possibility of safely seeing a show inside a small venue still feels months and months away. And now, with the Senate adjourned until Nov. 9, independent venue owners are forced to continue to wait for government assistance to stay afloat.
Things may feel bleak, but that hasn’t prevented artists from staying engaged and using their platforms to speak out leading up to next week’s election. Whether it’s in politically charged tracks urging people to vote or new albums simply highlighting the beauty of human connection, there was a certain hopefulness in music this October. With that in mind, these are the biggest storylines and most notable releases from the past month.
In the Final Month Before the Election, Artists Make Their Voices Heard
As October comes to a close, we’re just days away from one of the most consequential elections in our nation’s history, and this month saw many artists taking the opportunity to speak out and let their fans know where they stand one more time before they head to the polls. Graham Nash released the to-the-point “Vote,” originally penned during the Nixon era but never released and recorded until now, to urge people to do their civic duty.
“In 2016, 48% of the American people who could vote, didn’t,” Nash told Rolling Stone. “Now, maybe they thought Hillary had it sewn up. Maybe it was snowing that day. Maybe the kids were driving them crazy and they couldn’t get to the voting booth. But 48% of the people didn’t vote and look what happened. We must use the most powerful voice that we have, which is our vote.”
Cass McCombs released “Don’t (Just) Vote,” a reworked version of his 2009 track “Don’t Vote,” clarifying his position (which is that you should, in fact, vote) and enlisting the help of Angel Olsen, Bob Weir and Noam Chomsky. “I was compelled to write something for the election and I thought of no better way than to troll myself, laying waste to a much-misunderstood song of mine from over a decade ago, ‘Don’t Vote,’” McCombs said in a statement. “Most people never made it much further than the title, anyway. For this new song, ‘Don’t (Just) Vote,’ the message is clear: Vote, yes, but when you do, imagine the world you would like to see, beyond what appears on your ballot. Harness your imagination and justice becomes inevitable.” Proceeds from the track benefit Elevate Oakland, an organization that supports music education in and around Oakland.
De La Soul take it a step further with “Remove 45,” which urges fans to vote and tells them explicitly how they should vote. “When it comes to this president and his administration we need to exercise our right to vote and REMOVE him from office,” Pos explained in a press release. The track samples audio from Trump’s speeches and features Styles P, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, Mysonne and Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
Singer-songwriter Edith Frost, who recently returned with her first new music in 15 years, offered up the hopeful and timely “Little Sign” this month. “I wanted to make a song about how much I fucking hate Trump and what he’s done to America,” she said in a statement. “The last four years have been a hellride. It’s beyond me why anybody wouldn’t see him the way I do, as an evil, malicious black hole of greed and ego. Fuck that guy!! But anyway, that wasn’t going to be a very good song, so I wrote this one instead. It’s a little more oblique and uplifting. It focuses less on the misery and hatred, and more on the optimism we can hold on to.”
But if you’re not feeling particularly optimistic, there was also Terrell Hines’s soulful-but-grim “We’re All Gonna Be Killed,” as well as “Miracle of Life,” a new track from Bright Eyes and Phoebe Bridgers rooted in the fear that Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the Supreme Court will result in Roe v. Wade being overturned. The latter track, which benefits Planned Parenthood, tells the story of a young woman who dies of complications from an illegal abortion because she doesn’t have access to a safe one performed by a medical professional in her state. “Get cured with a coat hanger,” they sing. “Girl, you’re in America now.”
“This song should not exist in 2020 America,” Conor Oberst wrote in a statement. “It is a protest song, I guess. Or maybe just a little story about what was, what still is in many parts of the world and what could be again here in this country if the GOP is successful in reshaping the Supreme Court and rolling back all of the hard fought progress made for reproductive rights in the last 50 years. Hopefully, if we all work together and vote, it will make this song sound as irrelevant and outdated as it should.”
Is Buying Up All the Independent Venues the Way to Save Them?
With government relief not likely until after the election and no end to the pandemic in sight, independent music venues still find themselves in grave danger as they struggle to stay afloat. According to a survey by the National Independent Venue Association, 90 percent of independent venues — again, that’s 90 percent — will have to close permanently by the end of the year if they don’t receive federal assistance.
As we creep closer and closer to that harrowing possibility, William Morris Endeavor Chief of Music and Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger has announced his plan to save live music with a new, aptly named venture he calls SaveLive. “One of my favorite things in the world is to go to a club, be treated well and see an incredible band,” Geiger told the New York Times. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to raise a bunch of money and I’m going to backstop all these clubs. I’m going to be a bailout solution for them.’”
His plan is to use the $75 million in capital he’s raised “to invest in dozens of clubs around the country — buying at least 51 percent of the equity in those businesses — and help them expand into regional forces once concerts return at full steam.” It’s an interesting idea, and of course on the one hand it’s encouraging that someone is trying to help preserve these small, independent venues, but the concern is whether swooping in and buying a controlling stake in these businesses while they’re desperate to stay alive is “saving” them or simply taking advantage of tough circumstances to scoop them up at a discount.
“Geiger’s solution on some level scares me,” National Independent Talent Organization co-founder and High Road Touring founder Frank Riley told the Times. “He is going to buy distressed properties for money on the dollar and end up owning 51 percent of their business. Is that independent? I don’t know. But it does save the platforms on which things grow and where artists are sustained.”
This month at InsideHook, we put together a spooky Halloween playlist for you, reflected on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers, took a look at Bruce Springsteen’s decidedly non-toxic masculinity and the way he often gets misinterpreted, and tipped our caps to Vince Guaraldi’s timeless soundtrack to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. As always, you can check out all of our music coverage here.
But we don’t want to just toot our own horns; there was plenty of excellent work this month from a variety of outlets, including some of our favorites: Julien Baker confronts her new, complicated relationship with sobriety and discusses her forthcoming album in this Rolling Stone profile; the thoughtful “Rethinking Appropriation and Wokeness in Pop Music” by Pitchfork’s Rawiya Kameir; and Keith Jarrett “confronts a future without the piano” after a pair of strokes that left him partially paralyzed in this New York Times profile.
Key Album Releases
Jeff Tweedy, Love Is The King
“Pandemic albums” written and recorded during the COVID-19 quarantine can sometimes feel a bit cobbled together, but Jeff Tweedy’s latest solo album feels like it’s been in the works for years. Its tracks are all somewhat centered around the basic concept of human connection — something we’re all starved for these days — whether they’re in the form of moving tributes to his wife on “Even I Can See” and “Guess Again” or the more cynical, country-tinged “Natural Disaster.” Quarantine angst creeps through on the relatable “Bad Day Lately,” but for the most part this is a warm collection of tunes that reminds us what’s really important when we need it most.
Kevin Morby, Sundowner
Kevin Morby’s follow-up to last year’s Oh My God is shorter than that record by four tracks, but it somehow feels more sprawling, inspired by the expanse of his home in Kansas. At times it’s melancholy and lovely, as on “Campfire” when he pays tribute to late friend Jessi Zazu of Those Darlins, who died of cervical cancer at the age of 28 in 2017. At times the Midwestern imagery is overt, like on the aptly titled “Don’t Underestimate Midwest American Sun,” but even when he takes a brief sojourn out west on the evocative “A Night at the Little Los Angeles,” his roots are clear: “Put your hands around my throat and ask me what’s my name,” he sings. “Look me in the eye, I’ll tell you Kansas.”
Bruce Springsteen, Letter to You
Bruce Springsteen’s latest (and its accompanying documentary on Apple TV+) is his best work in years. Some of it was written in the ’70s, while the rest of it was penned recently, while the Boss was mourning the loss of former Castiles bandmate George Theiss and thinking about his own mortality. It’s rooted in death and aging, but it never feels dour. There’s an underlying optimism and appreciation that runs through Letter to You, especially on tracks like “I’ll See You in My Dreams.”
Honorable mentions: Sturgill Simpson, Cuttin’ Grass; Death Valley Girls, Under the Spell of Joy; Low Cut Connie, Private Lives
Songs You Need to Hear
Julien Baker gives us the first taste of her highly anticipated new album due out next year; Karen O and Willie Nelson team up to cover a Queen classic; The Kills release a new version of their “I Put A Spell On You” cover just in time for Halloween; Kendrick Lamar makes an appearance on a new Busta Rhymes track; surf/garage rock group 3LH draw inspiration from The Shining on “Here’s Johnny”; Local Natives and Sharon Van Etten join forces; Lana Del Rey longs to leave L.A. on “Let Me Love You Like A Woman.” You can listen to all those and more in the playlist below.
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