There’s no one playlist that can speak to everyone’s feelings during major historical moments. We are, if nothing else, a nation of very different people, with very different viewpoints, and very different tastes in music.
That’s why today, we’re running the first of two Inauguration Day playlists. This one’s about anxiety and despair. Tomorrow, look for a playlist of action and hope, in advance of millions of people around the country marching in the streets.
But today, as Donald Trump took the oath of office for the 45th President of the United States, all I can offer are the songs that I gravitated to, personally — based on my own listening habits of the last 41 years, and my own reactions to this moment. Anyone promising a ten-songs-fits-all playlist on a day like today is selling you something. Here’s what worked for me. — Gabe Meline
Marian Anderson, ‘My Country, ‘Tis of Thee’
At his widely pitied pre-inauguration celebration with 3 Doors Down and Lee Greenwood, Trump said that “I don’t know if it’s ever been done before,” referring to the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Marian Anderson begs to set the record straight. In 1939, unable to find a large auditorium that would host a black performer, she sang in front of 75,000 people at the Lincoln Memorial. Susan Stamberg has a nice, thorough piece about the concert on NPR here. Anderson opened with this song.
Jay-Z, ‘My President is Black’ (Live on Inauguration Night, 2009)
Like many others this week, I, too, got nostalgic for the election from eight years ago. My wife reminded me that in 2004, I’d ripped out a Richard Avedon portrait of Obama from the New Yorker and stuck it on our fridge, predicting he’d be president years before he even launched a campaign. Meanwhile, I was remembering inauguration night — Beyoncé sang “At Last” for Barack and Michelle, and later, across town, Jay-Z couldn’t contain his excitement while rapping “My President is Black” in a packed-to-the-rafters nightclub. I watched this video about ten times in a row that night.
D.R.I., ‘Give My Taxes Back’
Questions about taxes pervaded this campaign. If a man asking to be our president proudly doesn’t pay taxes, then why should we? If the president himself won’t release his own tax returns, how can we be sure he’ll use our tax dollars in our best interest? But the reason this song was in my head was the news yesterday that the Trump administration plans to cut funding entirely for the National Endowment for the Arts. Along with privatizing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, the proposed cuts add up to a measly 0.02 percent of federal funding. Here’s the pie chart. Can you even see the slice?
Bob Dylan, ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’ (Live, 1976)
The lyrical content of this song is well-known by now, and resonates at a time when political discourse on Facebook can be described as ten thousand talkers whose tongues are all broken. It came out in 1963, but I find myself returning to this live version, played by a ramshackle, ragged-but-right band that sounds like it’s gasping for its last breath at every measure. Weariness and malaise are written into every backbeat. How fitting is it that when Trump stepped up to the microphone today to deliver his speech, the clouds over the National Mall opened and poured down a hard rain?
Curtis Mayfield, ‘If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go’
It opens with an invocation of the Bible, a call to action mixed with racial slurs, and a pessimistic declaration of where we’re headed. Usually, anxiety, agitation, and anger poured out of Curtis Mayfield through a tremendous sieve of love and optimism, but this is one time where he said: You know what? We’re screwed. Sometimes you just gotta deal with that feeling.
Boosie Badazz, ‘Smile to Keep From Crying’
I’m not trying to conflate the nation’s problems with those of a Baton Rouge artist raised in public housing who’s been in and out of jail, but damn if this isn’t one of the most honest pieces of rap music in the last year — and one of the most resonant: “I’m looking for unity, I’m tryna make a better way for you and me / But people ain’t true to me, and honestly, I feel like they using me.” It was the soundtrack of my morning while running through all the Twitter jokes, looking for a smile.
MDC, ‘I Remember’
Something about the intro to this song, a litany of being attacked by bullies, reminds me of footage of Trump telling his supporters in no uncertain terms to beat up protestors. But the chorus is why I thought of it: “In the U.S.A. you gotta take a chance if you plan on stayin’ free” is, essentially, the same call to action that Obama has been telling the American people for the last week. There’s work to do. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to stick your neck out for each other. (You might even have to go on national TV and chant — look at that! — an MDC song.)
Common feat. Gucci Mane and Pusha T, ‘Black America Again’ (Remix)
It opens with Gucci Mane waking up in jail and having an epiphany that his life can be better; that he can be an inspiration to others if he turns things around. It has Common, the first rapper to ever mention Barack Obama on record, declaring that “We wowed the world with Black magnificence / A symphony for the divine and we the instruments.” And it ends with Pusha T saying, Yeah, I’m still failing a little bit. Acknowledging his flaws as part of the problem. Hoping to be better, like Gucci. Like a lot of us. It comes full circle.
Phil Ochs, ‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’
I know a lot of people who are going to the march tomorrow. I know a few people who don’t see the point. That’s a valid feeling. This one’s for them.
Charles Mingus, ‘Don’t Let It Happen Here’
The classic poem of resistance by Martin Niemöller, set to music by jazz’s greatest resistor. Jaki Byard, Dannie Richmond and Charles McPherson light a fire under it. A reminder not to slink into apathy.
John Prine, ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore’
If you saw his speech, you know that “America First” is Donald Trump’s new national motto. Historically, with any widespread jingoism comes a ubiquity of “U.S.A.!” chants and little plastic American flags; this John Prine classic suggests that the flags might be there to cover up something less desirable.
Born Against, ‘Set Your AM Dial for White Empowerment’
Presented without comment.
Okay, maybe one comment.
Kendrick Lamar, ‘u’
A friend texted me this morning during the inauguration: “I feel like a failure today.” Yesterday, a different friend texted: “I had a legitimately hard time getting out of bed this morning.” Maybe you’ve been getting similar texts too? Or sending them yourself? This song takes all that self-loathing and negative thought and lashing out at anything that’s nearby, drowns it in a fifth of liquor and a stream of tears, and just lets it all out.
Victims Family, ‘Liars, Pigs and Thieves’
“Surreal” was the Merriam-Webster word of the year for 2016, and this sluggish, slowed-down dirge could be seen as an audio equivalent. Made hazy and strange by an unprecise slide guitar, played through a chorus and distortion pedal, the song reminds me of DJ Screw’s concept of maximizing impact by running music in slow-motion. The lyrics, of course, speak for themselves.
Red Foley – There’ll Be Peace in the Valley (For Me)
Hey, today is just one out of 365 days in the year. You won’t feel this way forever. As Margaret Atwood once wrote, “I believe there can be no light without shadow; or rather, no shadow unless there is also light.” This recording is from 1951, but the sentiment stretches back centuries. Are you gonna lay down and give up? Of course not. Someday soon, there’ll be peace.
Tomorrow’s another day. We’ll have a playlist for that one, too, full of hope and determination.