This strange time is carved with many affective inflections: lonesomeness and frustration, anxiety and rage. Befuddlement. Mania. Among and against all of these, though, is a veil of political grief: that yearning for and mourning over a better communal life. Why can we not see new futures standing in this swamp of the present?
Answers, of course, don't come easy; and so we made a playlist. We asked our contributors to choose a song they reach for in moments of political grief, and to meditate on their selection. We hope you find something to hold in these songs.
St. Vincent, “Year of the Tiger”
When I was young/Coach called me The Tiger. So begins Annie Clark’s anxious ode to the American Con. Italian shoes/like these rubes know the difference, she sneers in the second verse, even though she’s the one running the grift, a suitcase of cash stashed in the back of her stick-shift. In the context of its appearance on the 2011 album, Strange Mercy, “Year of the Tiger” names a particular moment of historical crisis—the period of February 2010 to February 2011, during which the aftereffects of the 2008 financial crisis registered as everyday horrors and humiliations to the supposedly insulated middle class—even as the title gestures towards an uninterrupted cycle of economic and ecological disasters that dovetail with our lived present (the next Year of the Tiger is 2022). Living in fear in the Year of the Tiger, as the song’s refrain goes, describes a perpetual state of emergency even as it registers the remarkable elasticity of homo economicus to accommodate and contain the contradictions precipitating it. Clark’s tone throughout is wistful, almost elegiac: I always had a knack with the danger, she laments, and neither the seismic shifts of the gig economy nor the looming swell of homelessness, unemployment, and immiseration can dislodge her belief in her own heroic responsibility. Precarity is nothing new; it’s what Coach has always taught us. This is the psychological infrastructure of the American Con: even as it has taken everything from us, we nevertheless imagine ourselves as the beneficiaries of a gift we can never fully repay: Oh, America, can I owe you one?
Brittany Howard, “Stay High”
“Mourning,” Adam Phillips says somewhere, “is immensely reassuring because it convinces us of something we might otherwise easily doubt: our attachment to others.” Desire may be mobile and elastic, adept at labile substitutions; we ourselves, however, are not. Or so grief—with its painful insistence on the unexpiring tenacity of our wishes—is forever reminding us.
“Stay High” is nobody’s idea of a grief song. It’s three-plus minutes of the purest low-key exultation: bluesy swagger, a pulse of yearning, the absolutely virtuosic fashioning of something like intoxication into an entire joy-comprehending ethos.
But—and here is what fucking unravels me—its ethos is entirely social. Getting high is fine; exultation is doing it with you. You don’t need to see the video (though, dear god, WATCH THE VIDEO) to know this is a song glorying in all we must now do without: shows, shops, diners, classrooms, street corners, BARS. All the zones of being-in-common, the scenes of indiscriminate sociability, which disclosed to a lot of us our most revelatory, undreamt-of, nourishing solidarities.
There will be other solidarities, I know. But if you miss the singular bounding joyousness of those catalyzing encounters? Here’s a song for you.
Kirsty MacColl, “A New England”
I saw two shooting stars last night/I wished on them but they were only satellites. Kirsty MacColl’s cover of Billy Bragg’s “A New England” frames the end of a relationship within the larger, nation-shaping structures of the 1980s. You’d be hard-pressed to call it an overtly political song, but the world is right there behind the veil of its glossy production. MacColl’s unshowy vocals project a sense of weary optimism rather than resignation; she’ll get through it, as she has before. When she sings I’m not looking for a new England the line seems to come from an understanding of her inability to control the country around her crashing down, and to hold on in the meantime to a world she can shape. Bragg wrote an extra verse for MacColl, with four lines that encapsulate that mixture of hope, despair and survival and which take my breath away every time: Once upon a time at home/I sat beside the telephone/Waiting for someone to pull me through/When at last it didn’t ring, I knew it wasn’t you.
Elvis Costello, “Pills and Soap”
I’m finding “Pills and Soap,” Elvis Costello’s biting, hand-clappy indictment of Britain’s class hierarchies and tabloid papers, oddly cathartic right now. Released in 1983 it’s less well known than its gorgeous Punch the Clock, album-mate, “Shipbuilding” which paints a stark picture of the working classes at the time of the Falklands War, caught between a rock and a hard place, the return of their cancelled livelihood and the deaths of their own: Is it worth it? A new winter coat and shoes for the wife. (That “is it worth it?” is tragically topical in coronaviral times.) “Shipbuilding” is perfect, but “Pills and Soap” is Costello all the way down, more skewering than sad. The song is so enraged it becomes almost nonsensical: They come from lovely people with a hard line in hypocrisy/There are ashtrays of emotion for the fag ends of the aristocracy. Its main target is the tabloids’ emotional bloodsucking in the wake of catastrophe: They talked to the sister, the father and the mother/ With a microphone in one hand and a checkbook in the other. But it is about much more than that too. The chorus seems post-apocalyptic, like a nursery rhyme from hell:
What would you say?
What would you do?
Children and animals two by two
Give me the needle
Give me the rope
We're going to melt them down for pills and soap
What if all the potentially saving arks on offer lead back to some version of the death camps? If we are willing to let people die in order to maintain a failing economic system that can’t protect its own, hasn’t emotional fascism already won? Dive into this song and feel the needles.
S Club 7, “Reach (for the Stars)”
On 12th December, 2019—the night of the general election in the U.K.—I am with you under the covers in an Airbnb, heavily pregnant, in a room painted purple with flamingo scatter cushions. At 9:56, 9:57, 9:58, 9:59pm, I refresh and refresh and refresh and refresh the news and then stop refreshing. At 8:30am the next morning, I drop walnut Bach remedy on both our tongues and sing “Reach for the Stars,” which is my power song—but not yours—in a parody broken voice which is not a parody which is a parody.
The thing about “Reach (for the Stars),” as a salve for political grief, is that it purveys a version of happiness that is so banal, so uninflected by now that I find I can co-opt it for any moment that feels grievous and it remains unmarked by this moment—hence, usable for the next. Sometimes, I need my objects of hope to be smooth, produced (rather than over-worked), wearing cargo pants and the same age as me when I was that age, then. I need them to speak, simplistically, of rainbows and oceans blue and good friends, there for each other. I need them to be from somewhere so far away that their meaning barely reaches me at all.
The Dicks, “Hate the Police”
In these days of omnipresent grief, political and otherwise, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the vitriol of the punk and hardcore of the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is, of course, the nostalgia of a middle-aged guy too young to have experienced that moment. Which is to say, it’s almost the worst kind of nostalgia—next I’ll be dreaming of the 50s, that golden age of family values! Nonetheless, who isn’t occasionally thinking of songs like “Class War” by The Dils or Crass’s “Big A Little A”? For me, though, more than any other song, it’s The Dicks’ “Hate the Police.” In two minutes Gary Floyd runs through the dysfunction of the nuclear family, the structural racism of the police, and the casual deployment of “a bad day” as the justification for police violence. But in the end, justice is upended by The Dicks: Dicks hate policemen and it’s true/You can’t find justice it’ll find you. Where is justice in the time of political grief? Certainly not with the police, but maybe if we follow The Dicks we will find it.
Phil Ochs, “That's What I Want to Hear”
I admit to being weaned on a strange combination of musical genres, including both punk and folk. But so far as political grief is concerned, the former, punk, often feels like the more obvious answer to me whereas the latter, folk, often winds up feeling like the more cathartic one. This is where Phil Ochs comes in, who, in this song, insists that grief can never be enough. Even as he lists some of the worst crimes of 60s-era capitalism—joblessness, fears of automation, and political ennui—he offers an invitation to his grieving listeners, in varied fashion: If you want to get together and fight/Good buddy, that's what I want to hear. This invitation follows in the grand tradition of the labor organizer and union songsmith Joe Hill, whose last words, conveyed in a telegram before his 1915 execution, were “Don’t mourn, organize!” Ochs' life ended more or less as tragically as Hill's, a fact that doesn't negate the invitation that he puts forth in this song so much as underscore its absolute necessity.
Peggy Lee, “Is That All There Is?”
For any thinking, feeling person, political engagement is essentially and inevitably an experience of what Lauren Berlant has famously called “cruel optimism.” Even as the Obama administration cynically put lipstick on the prize pig of hope, we continue to hope against hope, long after any rational basis of such has been turned into political pork. (Insert eternally apposite Kafka quote here.) Political grief is different from the personal kind, in the sense that one can never even pretend to “work through it,” since there is always a technical chance that someone peddling even the weak fumes of potential progress and redress will start to sing their siren song, and return us to the masochistic jouissance of anticipating better things to come. Which is why I find Peggy Lee’s honest song, “Is That All There Is?” to be something of a bracing tonic. It unfolds in the allegorical space where personal narrative opens out into an impersonal polis. It’s a torch song, in which the torch is used to set fire to our well-meaning delusions. It’s a funeral pyre for cruel optimism, leaving in its wake the ashy taste of pessimistic solace. (I thought I would die, but I didn’t.)
Melanie, “Leftover Wine”
“Leftover Wine” charts familiar territory. A performer is left alone and lonely “when the show is all done,” except that she is not entirely alone. There is the leftover wine after all and with it the painful absence of people with whom to share it. It’s this rewriting of loss as excess—or maybe the awareness of their indissociability when it comes to our experience of others—that makes Melanie’s song strangely political for me. In The Elementary Structures of Kinship, Claude Lévi-Strauss cites the reciprocal pouring of wine into a neighbor’s glass in cheap, communal French restaurants as small-scale evidence of the “fact of community” despite the “norm of privacy.” In “Leftover Wine,” this fact is hazier but still felt as the music grows more propulsive and Melanie belts a pledge to drink some of yours/If you’ll drink some of mine. We, too, she insists, have something to give. And don’t we—the “we” hailed by the song, by this magazine, by the hope for some future let alone a mutually beneficial one? Even now, when so much feels lost, isn’t there more, a sort of uncathected energy, a drive fueled rather than spent by our communal exhaustion?
Gal Costa, “Milho Verde (Folclore Portugues)”
Originally written and performed by Portuguese folk singer Zeco Afonso, “Milho Verde” became the anthem of Portugal’s bloodless revolution in 1974. Pastoral and rousing, the song celebrated the proletarian pleasures of first love and green corn. Costa released her cover of the song in defiance of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which had arrested and exiled her artistic collaborators, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, sequencing it second on an album whose cover was a blatant ‘fuck you’ to the regime’s conservatism.
I love everything about Costa’s version of the song. Sensuous and half-mad, its melody rolls in like waves, each individual phrase tenderly conveyed on a gentle current of congas. Structurally, it is one of the most freeing pop songs out there, completely eradicating the boundaries between verse and chorus, composition and improvisation, all of them becoming equivalent, like discrete stalks of corn swaying together in the wind. Costa’s rendition reminds us that received structures, be they in state power or song, always imply a not-yet-arrived alternative, and that past revolutions always speak first and foremost to the present.
Songs: Ohia, “Hold On Magnolia”
Songs: Ohia’s 2003 release of The Magnolia Electric Co. wasn’t a rehearsal for our time. But when mumbling through my hand sewn facemask to Jason Molina’s speak-sing quiver, it’s tempting to think of it that way. The album draws on themes that characterized Molina’s milieu by the time he died in 2013: rusted landscapes of the working class; trimmed lamplight and friendship; a lone urban moon. Aching steel pedal strings open the ballad “Hold On Magnolia,” and the effect is meteoric. Night-dark blues fill the atmosphere under each bright twang. Then Molina’s drawl, fleeting and stark as blazing rock.
The Magnolia Electric Co., is largely hailed as Molina’s magnum opus, representing an arrival in sound, texture, and Americana world-weariness so distinctively Molina. But when I listen to earlier work typified by albums like Didn’t It Rain, I don’t hear preamble, Molina’s talent doesn’t equivocate along a linear timeline, but emerges again and again in surprising, unhemmed, and timely assemblages of haphazard vibrancy and dogged resilience. In “Hold On Magnolia,” we hear it as a sustained, raw-edged intensification that we experience as volume. The song does not get louder, but fuller. Under the mounting pressure of sound-burning fatigue, the lyrics wick stridency:
Hold on Magnolia to that great highway moon
No one has to be that strong
But if you're stubborn like me
I know what you're trying to be
Molina obviously wasn’t the first artist to aim for the authenticity of live performance. But his aesthetic ideals find expression in lyrics about the material realities of American workers, conditions that don’t allow for rehearsal. What surfaces can be electrifying and defiant and not unlike the gospel blues of Molina’s youth. What this man from the rustbelt notch of northeastern Ohio understood was that only the privileged get a rehearsal. For everyone else, the moment is a rugged, ragtag, blues-wailing now.
Silver Jews, “The Wild Kindness”
Instead of time/there will be lateness: It’s not hard to feel the strangeness of David Berman’s refrain these days, as routines either slipped away or suddenly crashed and we scrambled to build something like a livable rhythm. Between the pandemic and the planet and the crumbling institutions we cling to there is so much to grieve (not least the loss of Berman last August), and so much is so painfully late. This song knows the ache of delay, and its wavering, Dopplered keyboard indexes the grievous temporal derangement of our moment better than almost anything else I can think of.
But I also hear in those opening bars a bended-note invitation to consider how we might live otherwise, how, in a world drawn and quartered by capital’s twinned demands for austerity and efficiency, there could and should and will be lateness. What could we make and realize together if time wasn’t measured by productivity? Could we, as Berman sings, find time for the frivolity of writing letters to wildflowers, or for being wildly, belligerently kind to each other? This song tells me it’s possible.
Instead of time/there will be lateness. I’ve been thinking a lot about time and lateness, and the bizarre twists they've suffered. What looked like time—time at home, time to ourselves, time strangely warped by the new imperatives of production—became lateness. A gasping lag, an institutionalized refusal of care.
David Berman didn’t make it to this, our latest catastrophe. I won’t speculate as to what he would have made of it. Suffice it to say it would have been melancholic and weird, at turns pained and deeply funny. Instead, he left us a gnomic vision, one of those oracular assemblies of language he was so gifted at making: the wild kindness.
In the wild kindness I hear a world apart from our rote indignities, our learned and habitual meanness. I hear a world of feral togetherness, a messy little communion. It’s there in the song when Stephen Malkmus suddenly appears on the vocal track, offering ballasting, reedy harmony; and it’s there in the shaggy guitar lines that clamor ever-further up the neck.
But it’s in us too: in the ways we can see how our world was built for many, and not by our hands alone. It’s there in how we need one another, each in our own ugly little ways. The song knows this, and we might as well. I’m gonna shine out in the wild kindness/and hold the world to its word.