Ed. note: As long as humans have been making music, it’s been used as a form of protest. Each week, as part of KQED Arts’ 100 Days project, documenting artists’ responses to our new administration, we’ll be posting a new song that responds to our current political climate.
John Elliott is the only person I know who, in October of 2016, unequivocally believed Donald Trump would be elected president. I heard him state it calmly a few times, including once at a party full of fellow Bay Area musicians. Everyone laughed nervously, or shuddered for a moment, then changed the subject.
“I knew Hillary Clinton would lose, no matter who she faced,” he says today, simply, when asked for an explanation of his prescience. A Minnesota native who’s lived in California since the turn of the millennium, Elliott is a songwriter’s songwriter: known for his wry, literate storytelling and wordplay, accompanying himself simply on guitar or piano, there’s something a little bit mystical about how powerfully he holds a room’s attention.
Certain of the election’s outcome, Elliott spent the early evening hours on election night on a bike ride in the Outer Sunset, not checking his phone, taking in “the end of the era.” And, though he wasn’t pleased with the night’s conclusions, he says, “I won several bets.”
Perhaps it’s unsurprising, then, that while some of us were assuming we’d never have to think about Trump again after Nov. 8, Elliott was pondering the president’s past in preparation for the future. Taking its name from Trump’s 1987 memoir/business how-to — the very book Pres. Trump cited during the campaign as his second-favorite book, after The Bible — Elliott’s song “The Art of the Deal” appeared on a seven-track song cycle the singer issued in October, called It Doesn’t Matter. (Other song titles include “The Most Qualified Candidate In History,” “Diminishing Numbers” and “ISIS.”)
“This song was a three-minute stream of consciousness improvisation and it was done,” says Elliott, “but I watched hours of Republican primaries to get there.”
With the election in the rearview mirror and Pres. Trump’s priorities unfurling in policy decisions nearly every day, the wheelin’-and-dealin’ business tycoon that Elliott describes on the “The Art of the Deal” seems less cartoonish and more worthy of consideration; a person who boasts about valuing money, arm candy, and ostentatious displays of luxury in the 1980s does not, shall we say, become an entirely different person by 2017. So far, being given an enormous amount of power doesn’t seem to temper these tendencies either (go figure).
Following the election, Elliott says studying American history has helped add some context and perspective about how we got here.
“The population of the United States when the Constitution was signed was 4 million. Today it is 318 million. We need to upgrade our system software. We need a new Constitutional Convention. Let’s get together and see what we can figure out.”
And in the meantime?
“This is not normal and it is not acceptable. Read the poem on the Statue of Liberty. To dissent is patriotic,” says Elliott. “Anyone with a platform, including musicians, should keep talking about it and not shut up.”
John Elliott has a new record forthcoming in July. Until then, here’s my favorite song of his recorded live: