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Fight Songs: Can Political Debate Make Good Music?

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ABC executives now say that the next season of Roseanne will focus more on “family” and less on “politics,” though one of the big lessons of the show is that the first can hardly be separated from the second. It was politics that gave the rebooted sitcom its initial gust of publicity, and the show probably stands as the most discussed pop-culture riff on the Trump era.

While the president himself attributes Roseanne’s ratings success to the sympathy the show holds towards his voters, there’s an argument to be made that what’s so quintessentially 2018 about it is not that it takes sides. It’s that it captures national disagreement. On screen, there’s a divide between the conservative resentment of Roseanne and the liberal frenzy of her sister, Jackie. Off screen, there’s a divide between the liberal-leaning writers of the show and its InfoWars-reading lead actor. The tension—off and on screen—might just be what charges the comedy.

Partisan tension can be a creative force in other arenas, too. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, I wrote about how pop culture, especially pop music, has lately addressed politics less through advocacy than through emotions. But there is a substrain of music that surveys the national landscape and decides to stage a gladiator match between red and blue America. These songs are structured as dialogues, making them part of a musical tradition that’s long and, it must be said, often grating, as previously heard in (shudder) “Anything You Can Do,” or (yikes) “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” or (double yikes) “Accidental Racist.” They fantasize about bringing both sides together, though they really just egg on the fight.

The most brazen recent example came from Kanye West, who has been hard at work to position himself as an impish referee of national discord. His recent pro-Trump tweeting claimed he was simply asking questions while also radiating contempt for his critics. The contradictions of his stated point of view have been much discussed. Some observers theorize that West’s MAGA phase is actually a performance art project, and if they’re right, his likely intended “point” is to show how dug-in the two political sides are nowadays. As if anyone needs to be reminded.   

As the controversy over West’s tweets was cresting, the rapper released two truly weird songs—one a straight-up trolling effort (a long instrumental segment followed by a verse of nonsense: “poopy-di scoop”) and


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