There’s a popular consensus that 2016 has been one of the worst years in recent memory. The country feels terminally divided and on the brink of some unknown awful new direction. Pop culture spectacle and crassness seem to have infected political life. Greed, heartlessness, hypocrisy, arrogant stupidity, selfishness and reckless obliviousness appear ascendant. If you feel this way, you’re eager to be proved wrong by events in the world, as opposed to being shouted down about your perspective from those who think everything is dandy. It’s hard to know what kind of consolation and healing there is to be found in music. This past year wasn’t a great one for music-lovers either — so many geniuses and giants died: David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Phife Dog, Sharon Jones, Lemmy, Leon Russell, Glenn Frey, Paul Kantner, and on and on. It’s depressing.
If there’s a connection to be made between music and politics, or art and the state of the world, it’s that artists are often ahead of the curve when it comes to decrying injustice or registering a general swell of popular feeling. As longtime musician and veteran Winston-Salem music journalist Ed Bumgardner told me back in June for a story about concerts to oppose HB2, he considers musicians to be the early-warning system, sounding the alarm on key issues and helping to shift popular consciousness.
“Music has been proven time and time again as one of the most powerful healing forces on the planet. And right now the state of the human race needs healing more than any time,” Bumgardner said back in June. The sentiment seems even more on-the-money now. “I can’t believe the amount of hatred and anger.”
Musicians are already figuring out new ways to react to what many see as a new era of human rights abuses, crackdowns on freedom of speech, anticipated defunding or hobbling of key federal programs and departments pertaining to public health, the rights of workers and the environment. Expect organized live-music protests and fundraisers to generate cash for organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood in 2017. Expect a vocal outcry from musicians about efforts to create a Muslim registry. Expect songs recorded and sold with proceeds donated to causes.
But beyond activism, music and music communities provide a sense of shared struggle. It’s not like one needs to be an outspoken Trump opponent to engage in the music community, not to generalize, but musicians, who tend to work day jobs in order to fund their creative efforts, are often in favor of things like health care, income equality, equal rights and clean air and clean water. Musicians collaborate, they travel, they experience the talents and gifts of others, and so their work enforces a sense that we’re all in this together. And the nature of playing, making and listening to music is based on hearing what other people are saying. You can’t just blast out and over the sound of other people’s lives and concerns; that’s obnoxious and artless, musically speaking. There’s a reason the Trump inauguration organizers have struggled with finding musicians to play at that event: no musician wants to play for a politician whose candidacy and popularity is based on not listening to other people. Sure, it might be that everyone hates Trump’s politics, too. Losing the popular vote by 2.8 million votes and insisting you have a mandate is like the ultimate example of tone-deafness.
James Fallows wrote something in the Atlantic recently about how Americans seem to have lost faith in their national institutions, but that loss of faith on the national level has coincided with a growing optimism about local communities. People have hope and faith in their city and their neighborhood. Local musicians are central to creating that sense of optimism and community. They’re also central to helping us in Winston-Salem and Greensboro and High Point to connect with like-minded people in Charlotte and Asheville and Wilmington and Chapel Hill. Music can be the thing that helps us stitch together a sense of shared concerns from coast to coast as well.
In 2016, I got introduced to a lot of inspiring music being made in the area. Victoria Victoria’s debut album Coastal Beast, which came out in August, showed how a soul-gospel-synth-pop hybrid could make perfect sense. This is a suave and accomplished record. Talking about the collaborative spirit that went into the record at the time, singer/songwriter and frontwoman Tori Elliott touched on the idea that working together is how good things happen.
“My songs are at least 70 percent better when other people have input on them,” said Elliott back in the summer.
Another impressive young area artist is Greensboro’s Imani Pressley who released an E.P. called Feelings Like These in October. Pressley is a performer/singer and producer, part of a growing number of female artists who take control in the studio and see much of their work through from initial conception to final recording. Pressley makes rhythmic club music with lots of peculiar touches — detuned vocal samples, abrasive synth sounds and minimalist beats. Like Victoria Victoria’s Elliott, Pressley came from a church music background, and she wants to bring that spirit of joy and connection outside the worship setting.
“It’s sad to say this, but your music can affect a larger amount of people in the secular world,” said Pressley back in the fall. “I wanted to go into another realm and touch that world.”
Musicians don’t always overtly want to change the world or to spur political action. For some, the role of the entertainer is to take people’s minds off of the struggles and anxieties of politics and the 24-hour news cycle. Audiences may seek music to relieve the tension of current affairs, keeping plenty of performers busy in the coming year.
Jamil Rashad is a young Triangle-based North Carolina artist who released an excellent full-length solo debut in 2016. Rashad performs and records under the name Boulevards and his record Groove! can stand alongside Prince and Cameo with its winking elastic sex-grooves.
“I wanna make music that’s fun and not so uptight,” says Rashad. “Especially with everything that’s going on in the world, I feel like people just want to dance.”
But for everyone seeking escape, there are also those musicians steeped in the language of resistance and defiance, those fueled by outrage and anger, ready to protest and make noise.
Greensboro’s Totally Slow released its second full-length record, Bleed Out, in the fall. It’s solid and heavy, focused on maintaining a sense of focus, drive and purpose even when the world conspires to undermine those things. The band makes punk-tinged rock with muscle and force and the right amount of beefiness. Frontman and songwriter Scott Hicks told me at the time that music-making was, for him, a way of channeling his energies. Writing rowdy music might not solve anybody else’s problems, Hicks seemed to be saying, but it helped him process his own.
“The music is still angry, but I guess a lot of the anger has been replaced with anxiety,” said Hicks back in September.
As I wrote of Totally Slow in the fall, music and art don’t necessarily solve the great mysteries of life, but it’s almost like making music helps you have something to do with your fidgety hands, with your arms and your voice and your mind, while you’re preoccupied with life’s chasms of potential meaninglessness.
“I wake up with an existential crisis just like everybody else,” said Hicks.
If the connecting-with-others element of making and listening to music offers a bit of hope for the coming year, there will be plenty of community-directed music to soak up in 2017. The impeccably curated Phuzz Phest will be on tap again in the spring. The summer series of live shows and Sunset Thursday events will bring people together in the open air. And the third and final year of Greensboro’s tenure hosting the National Folk Festival will, if 2017 is anything like the 2015 and 2016 lineup, bring phenomenal national talent to the area.