2017 In Review

The Year In Musicians Antagonizing The Media

The President of the United States logged onto Twitter last week to declare journalists “a stain on America!” As has become increasingly common in 2017, this was both startling to read and not at all surprising. Donald Trump has made attacks on the media a cornerstone of his administration. Pushback against the Fourth Estate is a form of self-preservation for a president who’s spent the first year of his term watching a web of lies collapse around him, partially due to the perseverance of dogged reporters. It’s also a way of playing to his base, piggybacking on staunch conservatives’ longstanding attitude of mistrust and resentment toward mainstream political coverage — an attitude fueled by a right-wing media ecosystem that for decades has been trumpeting the evils of the so-called liberal media.

Trump has taken that anti-MSM dogma to new heights. This month he demanded one Washington Post writer be fired for an inaccurate crowd-size tweet he’d already apologized for. Last month he essentially accused MSNBC personality Joe Scarborough of murder. Speaking of murder, in August, the president retweeted a meme depicting a train with his name on it running over a person with a CNN logo for a head, which many feared would be interpreted as an endorsement of violence against journalists. Those who care about a free press find such unprecedented onslaughts against journalism from a sitting president deeply disconcerting — even more so considering the degree to which Trump has normalized such attacks. Just as disturbingly, by labeling any and every critique against him as “FAKE NEWS” no matter how much factual evidence is backing it up, he is slowly but surely undermining the public’s ability to trust any source of information at all. Meanwhile he seems happy to allow Russia to continue flooding our social networks with propaganda, and his administration just rolled back Net Neutrality protections designed to ensure the free flow of information. It’s a genuinely terrifying time to be an American.

I bring this up not to bore or infuriate you with another anti-Trump screed but to explain why it was such a bad look when Taylor Swift announced her sixth studio album, Reputation, back in August. The cover art, with its collage of imagined print news clippings headlined by Swift’s name ad infinitum, struck a defiantly anti-press posture that did not require explanation. There she was, the 2017 equivalent to post-makeover Sandy in Grease, sneering back at you (you know who you are and what you did) but especially at the media complex that has become her most deeply entangled frenemy. A lot of people made the same joke about how a working title for the album must have been Fake News.

Swift has faced unflattering comparisons to Trump in recent years, largely due to her perceived sins of omission. First, some criticized her for not endorsing a presidential candidate during the contentious 2016 race, suggesting she had a responsibility to use her platform as one of the world’s most famous people to influence important political matters. Although it would have been nice to hear her railing against Trump along with seemingly every other celebrity, publicly aligning yourself with a candidate for office strikes me as a gray area left up to a person’s conscience.

More reasonable were the widespread calls for Swift to speak out against overt white supremacists — a faction emboldened by Trump’s presidency and one that, in the online forums where this kind of societal rot festers, has adopted Swift as its very own “Aryan goddess.” Swift only ramped up the outrage when, instead of denouncing Neo-Nazis or even just doing nothing, she threatened to sue an obscure California blog that had cited “dog whistles to white supremacy” in her “Look What You Made Me Do” video and called on the pop star to make her views public. Some, such as my colleague Pranav Trewn, interpreted Swift’s silence as a cynical refusal to alienate a valuable segment of her coalition, similar to the way Trump wages endless crude personal feuds yet bends over backwards not to condemn the self-evidently evil factions who help him remain in power.

We can debate in circles about what it means when Swift stays quiet, but the messages she’s actively broadcasting into the world align her with our president in at least one capacity: his attitude toward the media. Reputation and its rollout struck an adversarial tone toward the info-tainment complex that helped Swift become a superstar but also has become her albatross — particularly as invasive coverage of her romantic life and cutesy fan interactions has given way to the aforementioned political business and her complicated war with Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. There was the album cover, with its implied contempt for the coverage that accompanies her every move.

There was Swift’s refusal to grant a single interview during the rollout, instead printing her own magazines to accompany the release (available exclusively at Target, of course), implying that the only reliable source for Taylor Swift commentary was Taylor Swift herself. There was the aforementioned legal threat targeting a relative nobody for daring to critique her. And there were lyrics like these on “I Did Something Bad,” which find America’s sweetheart rolling her eyes at her late-breaking villain status: “They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one/ They got their pitchforks and proof, their receipts and reasons/ They’re burning all the witches, even if you aren’t one/ So light me up, go ahead and light me up.”

Even if 2017 was not the time for such woe-is-media shenanigans, Swift’s attitude is understandable to an extent. Few of us understand what it feels like to be constantly surveilled in public and pelted with criticism online 24/7. Just weeks before Swift announced Reputation, I myself published a speculative preview of her upcoming album filled with condescending jokes at her expense. Many critics have taken a far harsher tone even though her gravest offenses — like, say, lying about her interactions with Kanye West and the aforementioned legal threat against a blogger — pale in comparison to those of Trump and his goons. If I was living Swift’s life, I, too, might sing “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.”

Similarly, if I had to face some of the mind-numbingly rote interview questions routinely foisted upon musicians, I might respond the way Leslie Feist and St. Vincent did this year. Throughout the Pleasure album cycle, Feist required interviewers to fill out “The Pleasure Questionnaire,” a series of 16 Proust-inspired prompts such as “Who do you trust most and why?” and “What are 10 words to describe the way you experience joy?” This at first appeared to be a playful turning of the tables forcing the question-askers to take their own medicine, but further examination showed Feist was genuinely invested in forging deep connections and gathering meaningful data. Rather than critiquing journalists themselves, her survey was tweaking the larger framework of rock-star press days — a series of back-to-back interviews that often add up to “such a strange conveyer belt of people.”

A post shared by St. Vincent (@st_vincent) on

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Annie Clark’s approach was far more biting. Early in her MASSEDUCTION rollout, she posted a series of videos to Instagram parodying the interview process. Responding to such Carrie Brownstein-scripted cues as “Insert light banter,” “Insert question about the advice she would give to young musicians today,” and “Insert question about what it’s like to play a show in heels,” she deadpanned replies to an invisible interviewer in front of a green screen. (Ask her about Mexican food next time, I guess?) The series was a fairly scathing condemnation of the interview process and maybe this year’s most openly hostile gesture toward the press by a musician.

Behind closed doors, though, some musicians were far harsher. Chance The Rapper, for instance, chipped away at his relentlessly positive reputation by privately threatening to never again appear on MTV unless MTV News deleted one critical concert review amidst a long archive of effusive praise. (I guess Chance’s signature song “No Problem” is literally a threat veiled in buoyancy, but given all the favorable press he’s benefitted from, “If one more blogger tries to stop me” doesn’t have quite the same juice.) Similarly, Kings Of Leon said they’d pull out of the MTV Europe Music Awards unless MTV News deleted a negative blurb about their single “Waste A Moment.” The stakes were much lower when Lana Del Rey slid into SPIN’s DMs to write “Go fuck yourself” in response to a post analyzing some of her insubstantial interview quotes, but as musician attacks on media go, it doesn’t get much more combative than that.

Anger toward media was so prevalent that even the seemingly unflappable Father John Misty got in on the trend, taking to Facebook to excoriate an Uncut writer for falsely attributing some descriptions of FJM’s next album to Josh Tillman himself: “i may as well announce i am retiring from interviews, so the mutilated dadaist refrigerator poetry that is that uncut piece will be the last word on all things LP4.” It was aggression where we’ve come to expect passive-aggression; normally Tillman only demonstrates contempt for the media with a knowing wink, as when he satirized Swift’s white-supremacist predicament by writing a faux-sanctimonious Facebook post denouncing music bloggers.

Arcade Fire could learn a thing or two from Tillman’s troll game — or rather, they’d be better off leaving the trolling to the experts next time. The indie-rock veterans’ entire Everything Now rollout was designed as a parody of our current informational dystopia, with elements ranging from Russian Twitter bots that teased the initial announcement to a series of actual fake news articles produced by the band (including one attempting to preempt our own Premature Evaluation). As Win Butler told Vulture, “When you make a record in this modern context, it instantly gets refracted in the media. There’s all this side content, this trail that follows everything. So we thought that maybe we’d just make all that content, as opposed to just making the art. That stuff was going to get made anyway, so why not make it ourselves?” Unfortunately, what was intended as a savvy critique played more like a failed attempt at self-protection, cynically contributing to the same noise it sought to lampoon. We do give them props for at least one successful effort to troll Stereogum.

Ultimately, no musician trolled the media this year as successfully as Trump’s sworn ally Kid Rock. In July the Michigan redneck-rocker announced he was considering a run for the US Senate. Even though he was clearly unfit for office and his campaign website was basically just a Kid Rock For Senate merch store, given Trump’s success despite his own unfitness, the press had little choice but to take the idea of Sen. Robert Ritchie (R-MI) seriously for a while. This naturally provided fodder for a series of blog posts haranguing the press for allegedly misinformed coverage of his prospective Senate run. Rock kept up the charade for more than three months, finally admitting to Howard Stern in October that it was all a publicity stunt to promote his latest album launch.

That’s one of the most aggravating aspects about all this animosity toward journalists: These artists (and this president) use their anti-press stance as a tool by which to enrage and engage the very media they purport to reject. They condemn those controlling the spotlight as a way of demanding it be shone even brighter on them. There are rightful criticisms to be lobbed at the media; by no means are the music and political news industries above reproach. News outlets (including this one) often enable this cycle because their survival depends in part on the same economy of celebrity that fuels these people’s egos. But at a time when facts are under fire, propaganda prevails, and access to information is endangered, it would be nice if the world’s most famous people considered factors beyond their own narcissism before shooting at the messengers.