Combat rocking the resistance

The president may be a-changin', but this soundtrack borrows from the past to motivate a better future

This is an extended version of a story that appeared in the January 19, 2017, issue.

At least the music will be good.

That’s the shoulder-shrugging sentiment that always gets dispensed during punishingly hard times. I’m not sure who coined the idea first. Maybe it was that conniving bastard Harry Lime from 1949’s The Third Man. After seemingly coming back from the dead in postwar Vienna, the silver-tongued smuggler tells his old friend Holly not to fret about the human toll of his criminal enterprise. No, see, it’s all about moral relativism, Lime rationalizes: “Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love—they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

In other words, peace is boring (remember all those homogenized boy- and girl-bands of the dot-com ’90s?); flirting with Armageddon means fewer Transformers movies and more Taxi Drivers.

It’s a faded silver lining, to be sure: “Hey, cops are beating black people in the streets and we’re barreling into an avoidable conflict that will slaughter hundreds of thousands and empower a paranoid autocrat who’s obsessed with his image into fueling the Cold War, but did you hear that Dylan went electric? So worth it.”

Yeah, that was the ’60s I was referring to, but you know what they say: Everything old is new and terrible again. The next four years are going to suck for anyone who isn’t already (a) rich, (b) white and/or (c) male, as Trump assembles his Cabinet from Dick Tracy’s rogues gallery, continues to lick the boots of international tyrants, appears increasingly unhinged in person and on social media, and plagiarizes his domestic agenda from every James Bond villain ever. (More nukes! Kill sick people! Cook planet!)

And since we’ve already decided to remix the worst of the past century into a poison cocktail of unimaginable consequence, there’s no reason we shouldn’t also recycle the soundtrack.

All the songs below were written during different eras and aimed at different crooks, conflicts and social upheavals. But that’s the cool thing about true art—it cuts across space, time and context to speak truth to power in every moment.

At the very least, this playlist will be something to hum during the resistance.

1. “Windowsill,” Arcade Fire (2007): Arcade Fire's entire second album, Neon Bible, is steeped in an emerging realization that our fathers mucked everything up. Toggling between despair and resolve, the galvanizing “Windowsill” builds to an inevitable question like a scream in weather: “World War III, when are you coming for me?” Current signs point to “soon.”

2. “Hostile Gospel Pt. 1 (Deliver Us),” Talib Kweli (2007): Kweli's blistering call to consciousness at the tail-end of the Bush era covers a lot of ground—mistreated veterans, mishandled natural disasters, discriminatory sentencing—but we'll pluck just one passage that resonates even more today: “We living in these times of love and cholera / Synonymous with the apocalypse, look up the clouds is ominous / We got maybe 10 years left say meteorologists, shit / We still waitin' for the Congress to acknowledge this!”

3. “Changing of the Guards,” Patti Smith (2007): Smith's shimmering take on the mythic Dylan song-poem bridges the Bush-Obama years by warning, “Eden is burning, either getting ready for elimination / Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.” We listened once. We can again.

4. “My Favorite Mutiny,” The Coup (2006): So many gems in this bumping challenge to get back on our feet, from, “The governments of the world is shark infested / They heavy on weaponry like Charlton Heston,” to, “If we waiting for the time to fight, these is thems / Tellin' us to relax while they ease it in. We gettin' greased again.” In other words, what the hell are we waiting for?

5. “List of Demands (Reparations),” Saul Williams (2004): Over a pulse-throbbing beat, this iconoclastic artist balls up his grievances into a fist and delivers a knockout punch.

6. “One Beat,” Sleater-Kinney (2002): From their essential post-9/11 album, SK's three furies unleash this atomic title track, which bemoans a world of “bloody arms and oil fields” and challenges the energy-dependent death spiral our politicians have locked us into: “If I'm to run the future / You've got to let the old world go.” We haven't been able to yet.

7. “Combat Rock,” Sleater-Kinney (2002): Another time-capsule treasure from the same album. Mixing shrapnel-sharp satire about warmongering political machismo and bravely questioning America’s holier-than-thou victimhood so soon after tragedy, the lyrics should have been reprinted on every op-ed page leading to the hasty Iraq invasion. Here’s just one passage: “Show you love your country, go out and spend some cash / Red, white, blue hot pants doing it for Uncle Sam / Flex our muscles show them we’re stronger than the rest / Raise your hands up baby, are you sure that we’re the best?”

8. “The National Anthem,” Radiohead (2000): It usually takes years for the rest of us to catch up to the band's ever-evolving sound, anyway. Listen to this frantic psychodrama from the underrated Kid A and tell me Thom Yorke & Co. didn't anticipate our post-9/11 anxiety one whole year before the towers fell.

9. “Come On Up to the House,” Tom Waits (1999): A rousing barroom ballad urging all of us to stop feeling sorry for ourselves—“Come down off the cross / We could use the wood”—and get back to being among the people. Message received.

10. “He Got Game,” Public Enemy (1998): Chuck D fuses an ingenious sample of a '60s protest anthem with the sober perspective of a revolutionary in the winter of his age. We can relate.

11. “White, Discussion,” Live (1994): More than two decades ago, these forgotten alt-rockers imagined the political polarization that fed the ugly nihilism and masked impotence of the racist alt right: “I talk of freedom / You talk of the flag / I talk of revolution / You'd much rather brag … All this discussion though politically correct / Is dead beyond destruction / Though it leaves me quite erect.” The song culminates in an angry crash of punching guitar riffs, semi-auto drum-pops and indecipherable howls. So 2017.

12. “Hallowed Ground,” The Violent Femmes (1984): As in, the first place the bombs land. Ripped from Ronald Reagan's first term, this one feels like an ode to Aleppo.

13. “Life During Wartime,” Talking Heads (1979): A bouncy art-house fever dream from inside the resistance, hinting at vague domestic crises—"Heard about Houston? Heard about Detroit? / Heard about Pittsburgh, Pa.?"—and letting the enemy know we could be anyone—"We dress like students, we dress like housewives / Or in a suit and a tie.” It's like David Byrne is reading my emails.

14. “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” The Clash (1978): A great example of art transcending its context. This slow-bobbing fusion of reggae soul and punk harmonies is a call for musical diversity in Thatcher-era England, but actually feels more vital today. Check out Joe Strummer's swipe at people who elevate celebrity regardless of how it was attained: “All over people are changing their votes / Along with their overcoats / If Adolf Hitler flew in today / They'd send a limousine anyway.” Actually, I believe it was a private jet.

15. “Guns on the Roof,” The Clash (1978): I could have filled this whole list with Clash tracks, so appreciate the restraint. I included this one for its climactic vision of a globe in free fall, starring two powers that just can’t quit each other: “'N I like to be in U.S.S.R. / Makin’ sure these things will come / ‘N I like to be in U.S.A. / Pretending that the wars are done.” Déjà vu, anyone?

16. “Heroes,” David Bowie (1977): After Bowie performed this live in front of the Berlin Wall in 1987, he famously remembered being able to hear the East Germans on the other side singing along defiantly to lines about two lovers at the wall, guns shooting overhead, “And we kissed, as though nothing could fall.” When Trump tries to build his gated community along the Mexican border, let's play this one loud as we participate in one epic makeout session protest.

17. “The Time Has Come,” The Melodians (1972): Injecting some much-needed love into these proceedings, the Melodians remind us of the best reason to hit the streets and march is each other.

18. “Powerman,” The Kinks (1970): Exposing that up-by-the-bootstraps nonsense and showing the blue collar what happens when they elevate the rich and thankless, thinking they'll leave anything behind.

19. “Fortunate Son,” Credence Clearwater Revival (1969): Trump was just a 23-year-old trust fund brat who hadn’t gotten to his first bankruptcy yet when this seminal protest song came out, but who else could CCR have meant by these lines: “Some folks are born silver spoon in hand / Lord, don’t they help themselves / But when the taxman comes to the door / Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale”? Make with the tax returns, Mr. President!

20. “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Otis Redding (1965): Redding's agonizing take on the Sam Cooke classic weeps for us all, and then tells us to keep moving. Will do, Otis Blue.