After his speech at the Boone County fairgrounds, Joe Biden stepped into the crowd and people engulfed him like he was their oxygen. I found a good tree and hid out in the shade, 100 yards from the chaotic huddle.
The frenzy of writhing arms and contorted bodies reminded me of Shark Week, when the hulking Great White breaks through the protective cage and how's the diver gonna make it out alive this time?
Joe Biden's suction energyPhoto by Kevin Ryan
The job of President requires a level of personality and charisma and intelligence that few people can offer or maintain. So we want a President who can storm a room with little more than a glance. We want gravitas. A hint of bravado, not too much. We want, at the heart of it all, a proper American.
The beauty is, being an American has nothing to do with race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality. You just have to believe in America.
--- Mark my words: Kanye's "Jesus is King" will usher in an entirely new era, a magical flash in human history. ---Looking at the eager circle of reporters and Biden fans, all the people lined up waiting, I felt an odd sense of admiration, like when you unexpectedly hear the "Star-Spangled Banner." Something about the entire scene affirmed my sense of America's natural humanity. The actualization of our hardwired desire to matter. As eternally as possible. In defiance of death.
Photo by Sean Ryan
We vanish into the depths of time. Hopefully, we go somewhere new.
What we leave behind will not matter in the grand scheme of it all, yet our each moment matters more than we realize. Because the tiniest molecule really is as important as the largest form of existence, whatever that may be. Something outside the enormity that surrounds us.
It's the idea that there are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on our planet. And did you that if you wanted to count each living person on Earth, counting non-stop every second, it would take you about 250 years? To count every human who's ever lived would take over 10,000 years. Yet at any given moment, our individual struggle is a crucial part of a far larger story.
I found it all comforting. A relief. A refocusing idea. Because maybe cosmic humility is the point. Maybe immortality is not a good expectation.
Either way you could feel this lunging nag at the Boone County Fairgrounds in Boone, Iowa. This deep need to always survive, to matter forever.
People stuck around for at least an hour. I have no clue how long. The line barely moved because nobody wanted to leave. Because nobody ever wants to leave. Eventually my dad and I shrugged and packed our equipment, having waited long enough for God's sake. Again, at a Biden event, we had more important places to go.
--- Lots of Bruce Springsteen. We're talking New Jersey bachelor party levels. ---As we were leaving, a Coldplay song burst through Biden's speakers. A newer one that I'd never heard. With an electronic drum-kick that pounded like a heartbeat.
You're a sky full of stars.
I'm gonna give you my heart.
Cuz you're a sky full of stars.The lines struck me deeply. I had just been meditating on our human desire to overcome the limits of temporality, which can possibly be remedied by turning outward and looking up, to the greatness and unknowability of the worlds that await us, or at least the peace of after, and here was this song that perfectly simplified that human struggle.
I crossed myself with Irish dignity, and sang the "Our Father."
But then I remembered that I was at a political rally, where the song was being used for surreptitious reasons. Worse, it was the opposite of a simplification of some greater human truth.
Here, it was a tool for the politician's desire to become immortal, at the cost of my own individuality, an exploitation of my own mortality. It was probably chosen because it tested well with the 18-to-40-year-old middle-class women-of-color demographic, or whatever specific group of voters Biden needed. It was about how I'm a speck of dirt and how many grains of sand does it take before you have a pile? And how much of a pile before you've got a dune? And how many dunes before you're smack dab in a desert, the ruler of all sand?
Because, to politicians, votes are far more important than any Coldplay song or any nonsense about stars or any presence that might guide us along.
Don't worry, I'll get to Kanye West, the musical genius and cultural magnet of our time. But, right now, just know that Biden's playlist was G-rated R&B and Bruce Springsteen. Lots of Bruce, as I have previously noted. We're talking New Jersey bachelor party levels.
Middle Class Joe, just like Springsteen. Just like you. And definitely not a career politician.
His playlist was designed to match his most vote-inspiring persona. It had to. All candidates do this, use music for persuasion.
Every time one of their songs comes on it's like sitting through a commercial. Volume always too loud. On repeat, on repeat, on repeat. A good song can lose its edge if it winds up in the wrong hands, a tool used to inspire anyone in earshot.
But, in reality, it's not inspiration at all. Inspiration is when a spirit breathes life into a body and the body moves forward and the world is clearer, if only for a moment. The deeper reasons for and greater meanings of inspiration are too complex for us to understand. But we do know that inspiration is by nature a force of good.
---Most of the time, we can tell when marketing psychology is at play, masquerading as true art. A fraud always collapses.---So by corralling songs into an ideologically-driven, tactically-fixed routine, politicians manipulate our physical and spiritual senses for their own benefit. They are corrupting artwork. They are sneaking influence and power and control through the Trojan-horse of inspiration.
Politicians, like advertisers, drain music of its spiritual power by co-opting it for strategic reasons.
Most of the time, we can tell when marketing psychology is at play, masquerading as true art. A fraud always collapses. Like how Fleetwood Mac played "Don't Stop" about a million times during both of Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns and now everyone just skips to "Go Your Own Way" when they listen to Rumours. Although, apparently Clinton still "lives by" the song. Which probably proves my point.
Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Nicks all in one bizarre photo.(Screenshot from YouTube)
Poet Garcia Lorca wrote, "Songs are like people. They live, they grow perfect, and some grow degenerate and come undone, until we are left with palimpsests, full of lacunae and senseless things."
After so much repetition, campaign-song music loses all meaning. But for politicians, it's about association. They want to sell themselves however they can.
For the first part of her campaign, Elizabeth Warren walked out to Queen's "Under Pressure," because she, Elizabeth Warren, a wealthy former Harvard professor turned Presidential candidate, is under pressure? Although in Iowa, among working folk, it was Dolly Parton's "9 to 5," obviously. Kamala Harris prefers Beyoncé or Aretha Franklin, or Mary Blige's "Work That." Bernie Sanders? It's not his playlist, it's our playlist.
The Ancient Egyptians revered music. They saw it as a pathway to the divine, to other realms. It drove the fervor of their religious events. It guided their priests. It rose with the Pharaohs and charmed snakes out of wicker baskets toward the rafters.
Pure music does not demand anything in return. It moves through us. It can be placed among those aspects of life that Oscar Wilde referred to as useless. Like wine, and love, and travel, it contains no promise and swears no profit. But it is more precious than any fortune. Its value transcends all capital.
In part because our essence is language, and language is by nature musical. Language is what makes us human. It's what allows us to create our own realized world. We could survive without language, but we could never be human without language. And who the hell wants that?
To paraphrase Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, a soul is a hidden orchestra: We do not know what instruments, what strings and horns, what cymbals and woodwinds, erupt and clash inside of us. All we hear is the symphony.
--- As always, the mythology of Trump complicates the matter. ---Nobody understands music. Not like other art forms. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer described the effect of music on the mind as "so penetrating, so immediate, so unfailing" that we could never fully capture it, especially "the after-effect that sometimes follows it." He wrote that, among the literary and dramatic arts, music is the greatest. That it soars above all other artforms "in a separate even higher heaven."
Beyond the authority of pitch and harmony and rhythm and tempo, music thrives as a social and cultural and spiritual force. With it, we awaken all aspects of humanity. We descend into the subconscious, collectively and individually. We activate our deeper being. We realize truth. We confront ourselves. We talk to God, whatever that may mean.
Great music arrives unexpectedly. It is forever passing through. You can search for years, but a perfect song will always surprise you. When the melody hits, it sharpens your emotions, your consciousness, your senses. You can try to force it, but a flawless song is patient. It finds you. At a stoplight or a party or in a bedroom on your own, it finds you, breathes into you, and gives you a glimpse of its origin, the place where music comes from, out beyond our grasp, where the worlds are pried apart.
This, my friends, is where Kanye West's unreleased new album currently lingers, ready to change music, and America, forever.
As soon as the Coldplay song ended — you guessed it — another Springsteen track. One of his blandest. One of the ones that always makes it onto the Greatest Hits but nobody plays it at their wedding. Is this how it felt to get no enjoyment from music?
About 4 percent of people suffer from a disorder called "amusia," which keeps them from recognizing and perceiving melodies and rhythms. As a result, they have no emotional or spiritual connection to music.
So what does it mean when a person doesn't like music?
On the August 29, 2019 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience, magician/author Penn Jillette described the unique power of music in connecting people. He quoted jazz legend Thelonius Monk, "A genius is the one most like himself."
Jillette was a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice in 2012 and 2013, and got to know pre-White House Donald Trump. Jillette told Rogan that, in all the time he spent around Trump, he never saw him "show any joy or understanding of music."
Penn Jillette on What Trump is Really Like | Joe Rogan
Funny enough, Trump used these exact words 30 years earlier in his book Art of the Deal, recalling that, when he was a second grader, he punched his music teacher "because I didn't think he knew anything about music."
First of all, that reads like a scene from "The Three Stooges." And, maybe, it's fabricated — anecdotal — which somehow makes it even funnier. Because, as always, the mythology of Trump complicates the matter.
In his double-colon-titled book, "Trump: Think Like A Billionaire: Everything You Need to Know About Success, Real Estate, and Life," Trump writes
In Trump Tower, we play a variety of music — anything from renditions of 'Moon River' to versions of Rachmaninov's famous piano concertos. Some people call it cheesy, but others love it, and so do I.Trump has described himself as a yuge fan of music, especially Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennet. Also Elton John, hence his "Rocket Man" nickname for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
He likes Eminem.
Eminem, however, supposedly hates his guts.
He finds Reggae soothing, if you can believe it. Even more bizarre and unexpected, he admires the experimental post-modern composer Steve Reich, who's first critical hit arose from a faulty tape loop of a street preacher screaming "It's gonna rain" for 18 minutes.
Until his Presidential bid in 2015, Trump was beloved by, and friends with, many musicians. Then, they hated him. At least 20 A-list musicians have ordered Trump to stop using their songs. Rihanna. R.E.M. Adele. Guns N' Roses. Queen.
Kid Rock, however, is still game.
Early in his campaign, Trump would strut onstage to Neil Young's "Keep On Rockin' in the Free World." Young, a Bernie supporter, did not like that.
Which, I get that Trump's use of the song is contrary to Young's deeper, tongue-in-cheek meaning. But if you take the song literally, it's perfect for a Trump rally:
There's colors on the street
Red, white, and blue
People shuffling their feet
People sleeping in their shoes
There's a warning sign on the road ahead
There's a lot of people saying we'd be better off dead
Don't feel like Satan, but I am to them
So I try to forget it any way I can.Then, Trump went with "You Can't Always Get What You Want" by The Rolling Stones, which is hilarious, and playful in that trolling, characteristically-Trump way. The Stones didn't like it either. They used the phrase "cease and desist." Frivolously.
In response, Trump said "I have no problem with that. I like Mick Jagger."
Meaning, he personally knows Mick Jagger, and Jagger knows him, personally and by reputation, as two cultural icons of the past century. Which is something not many people can say. And something, in my opinion, not enough people admire.
Trump has been name-dropped by nearly every major rapper of the last 30 years, starting with a reference by Beastie Boys on their iconic album Paul's Boutique, the Sgt. Pepper of hip-hop.
He's been mentioned by Jay Z. Ludacris. Young Thug. Nelly. Kendrick Lamar. Juicy J. Rick Ross. Eminem. Big Sean. A Tribe Called Quest. Scarface. Lil Wayne. The Coup. Master P. Ice Cube. Mos Def. Raekwon, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and various other Wu-Tang Clan affiliates. R. Kelly. Pete Rock. Nas. E-40.
And don't forget this surreal moment in our nation's history.
Then-candidate Trump on SNL ... dancing to a Drake parody.(Screenshot from YouTube)
When Bun B referred to Trump on the Chopped-n-Screwed anthem "Pocket Full of Stones," he was keeping with a tradition of rappers admiring Trump. This only changed a few years ago.
But then there's Kanye West, who proudly donned the red MAGA hat after discovering Candace Owens and being called "a jackass" by our nation's first black President. Then Kanye was hugging President Trump in the Oval Office? While wearing a Make America Great Again hat, supposed symbol of white supremacy, Nazism, hate, evil?
(Screenshot from YouTube)
People flipped. Everyone did. Longtime critics suddenly — and bizarrely — embraced Kanye as an ally, while longtime defenders disowned him, abandoned him like nail clippings, often mocking his struggles with mental illness and labeling him, if you can believe it, a white supremacist.
Then, in a moment that changed music history, Kanye released the single "Ye vs. the People."
Ye vs. the People (starring TI as the People)
In it, he challenges what he sees as the unspoken rule that black Americans have to vote Democrat. He had hinted at the idea on his track "Black Skinhead," from the hauntingly gorgeous album Yeezus, but now he was addressing it head-on, with the passion of a man going to Confession for the first time in a decade.
Why should black folks have to abide by any set of cultural or political or artistic guidelines to begin with? And, he argues, the pressure to adhere to this longheld framework is itself undergirded by a subtle and cleverly masked racism, imposed by a group of people who portray themselves as the champions of race and enemies of white supremacy and destroyers of dumb yokel rednecks with their Rebel flags and monster trucks and fully-automatic AR-15 assault weapons. All of which, it turns out, is some next-level projection.
Kanye also confronts the presence of these expectations and stereotypes in hip-hop. The idea that rappers must invoke a negative persona in order to succeed. And the moment they deviate from that image they are rebuked or ignored, even though the persona is damaging to the black community as a whole. Which is especially ironic given that the people who voice the most outrage tend to be highly privileged, supposedly progressive white folks who love to rant about white privilege and black oppression.
Is it better if I rap about crack? 'Cause it's cultural?
Or how about I'ma shoot you? or f**k your b***h?
Or how about all this Gucci, 'cause I'm f****n' rich?Best of all, Kanye has answers. And they differ from the erudite solutions offered by, say, A Tribe Called Quest, who, like Kanye, have modeled a healthy, positive image of blackness for the black community.
A central theme within "Ye vs. The People" is empathy as power, rebellion, freedom.
Make America Great Again had a negative perception
I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction
Added empathy, care and love and affection
And y'all simply questionin' my methods.This concept is an extension of the powerful devotion to positive energy that Kanye adopted around that time, a purview he has cultivated into a wild new form of electronic gospel.
But his personal transformation was tough.
That [MAGA] hat stayed in my closet like 'bout a year and a half
Then one day I was like, "F**k it, I'ma do me"
I was in the sunken place and then I found the new me.This is a struggle that many Americans undergo. Researchers call it the spiral of silence. The idea that the news media and social media present biased opinions as though they are fact, and when the message conflicts with a person's opinions or values, they feel isolated, alone.
Kanye and T.I. during the making of "Ye vs. the People"(Screenshot from YouTube)
As Kanye raps in "Ye vs. the People"
A lot of people agree with me but they're too scared to speak up.Because we have an incredible ability to sense public opinion. So when we suspect that we hold a belief that rails against acceptable thought, we tend to keep quiet about it. That silence makes the opinion seem even more taboo, resulting in a more widespread silence.
In reality, many of these supposedly taboo opinions are not only popular, they are normal and practical and logical. Healthy, even. And the real danger is in demonizing them. But too many people are afraid they'll be ostracized for expressing their beliefs.
Like how — despite what we've been led to believe — most Americans cannot stand political correctness.
But the small minority of people who champion it are powerful and loud.
Their grift usually starts one of two ways. One, an activist masquerading as a journalist pens an article about a political cause, usually something that many Americans disagree with or don't care about. Yet the writer presents it as news, as something that Americans agree with and care about. Or two, fringe activists congregate on social media like fire ants, trumping a cause and attacking en masse.
In reality, there aren't very many of them. They're like that cardboard city in North Korea, just visible enough from the border to make it seem like a thriving community.They're the Wicked Witch of the West, or Iago from Othello, or Plankton from Spongebob Squarepants.
Then these tantrums are picked up by other journalists and framed as part of a legitimate trend. Those stories are posted on social media as proof of the trend, which journalists report on further, and the whole mess grows and grows like Jabba the Hut at a seafood buffet.
These also happen to be many of the people who seethe about Kanye West and Dave Chappelle and Christina Hoff Sommers and Bill Burr and Jordan Peterson and anyone who they deem an enemy.
So far, they have been successful. Although "success" by their metric is anarchic and primal, all destruction and loudness and people nervous to speak their mind. They cancel. And the cost of rebellion can be devastating. In other words, activists control the institutions of public opinion. They decide what we can and can't say.
By the time Kanye West wrote "Yay versus the People," he had gotten sick of this power dynamic. So he broke the spiral of silence."
In the words of German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, "Whoever has language has the world."
Humans alone have it.
But in order for us to know freedom in our world, our language has to be public, shared, active. Because each of us thrives constantly with language, a stream of it always in our mind. Aristotle defined "thought" as the infinite dialogue between the soul and itself. Conversation is the exchange of thought between people. When we converse, we simultaneously release our infinite dialogue and accept the other person's. By speaking, we shape the world and free ourselves.
Another way to say it is that Donald Trump might have inspired the song that could very well signify the end of Hip-Hop, which is not only the most popular genre of our zeitgeist, it's the most popular, and successful, form of music in American history, which is the most important era of musical history.
If the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, and Drake literally outpaces the Beatles, then, well, you get the point God forgive me. And Kanye is bigger than Drake. So who better to have the final word on the capacities of Hip-Hop than Kanye West?
Every genre must come to a close. There's a reason why people aren't eagerly awaiting the next great disco album, or flocking to arenas to hear the newest bluegrass superstar, or asking to get their hair done like the latest syringe-armed guitarist of Guns N Roses.
(Screenshot from Instagram)
The great era of Rock 'N' Roll ended roughly about the time Radiohead traded their guitars and drums for synthesizers and sequencers, not long after Kurt Cobain took an insane amount of heroin and cradled a shotgun in his guesthouse, only to be discovered several days later by an electrician. Even worse, Nickelback soiled Cobain's legacy with godawful anthems, and who have their own weird and contradictory and hilarious connection to President Trump.
These days, Rock N' Roll lives mostly via nostalgia, as evinced by the explosion of cover bands. Notice how you don't see any hip-hop cover bands. You will, someday. But, for now, Hip-Hop reigns supreme. And Kanye is the King.
The brilliant Nina Simone once told a reporter that "An artist's duty, as far as I'm concerned, is to reflect the times."
Because music accords itself to the gravity and creative truth of the era. And currently we entrust hip-hop with this complicated maneuver.
But the past year, Kanye has been crafting a new sound through his Sunday services, weekly jam sessions with acoustic musicians and a choir and everyone dressed in white, praying through song, herding us into a better place, looking above for guidance. If it's anything like his track "Ultralight Beam," it will bring calm to our divided culture.
Mark my words: The resultant album will usher in an entirely new era, a magical flash in human history.
So far, hip-hop has been the defiant child of R&B and Electronica, the grandchild of Spoken Word and Steve Reich Minimalism, with tinges of Punk. Not for much longer. Kanye will see to that. And, weirdly, President Trump has helped inspire this transformation.
Meaning, Donald Trump will have had a hand in reinventing music as a whole, in spreading a movement of positive reformation. Love him or hate him, it does not matter. What other politician can make that claim?
There's an optimism to this that Dave Chappelle captured in his now-infamous Saturday Night Live monologue, just days after Trump was elected, asking Americans to at least give the man a chance. And again in his special "Equanimity," when he said that Trump
might be the lie that saves us all. Because I have never felt more American than when we all hate on this motherfucker together. Jesus Christ. It's good. And when it happens, I can see everybody that's struggling ... Cause I swear no matter how bad it gets, you're my countrymen, and I know for a fact that I'm determined to work shit out with y'all.At the moment, we are a country that is — everywhere, secretly — hurting.
Easily solved, my man. A matter of belief. Now is an incredible time to be alive. Now is beautiful. We should never forget that, no matter how petty or outrageous daily life gets. We are Americans. Together. So open your heart and listen. Say what you need to say.
Speak, revolutionary, speak. The next song is about to play.
New installments of this series come out every Monday and Thursday. Check out my Twitter.