When Trump outperforms Beyonce

In an alternative universe, last week’s music news would have dominated Twitter and Facebook. The Grammy Awards announced an impressive line-up of performers for this Sunday’s event. News broke that a hologram of deceased heavy metal icon Ronnie James Dio would front a live band on tour—a first for the controversial technology. Beyonce revealed she was pregnant with twins, which, in another dimension, would have been a constant trending topic on social media from the announcement to the kids’ birth this summer.

Instead, in our all-too-real universe, President Trump and his unprecedented, unpredictable impact swallowed up the week’s music news. Many readers skipped stories about pop stars and awards shows. Major outlets such as The New York Times and CNN ignored them as well or gave them only fleeting, compulsory coverage. More curious was that music and culture sites—from Rolling Stone and Spin to Pitchfork and Ultimate Classic Rock—rebalanced their homepages, pushing mentions of Trump into slots usually reserved for U2 and Rihanna. Often these posts overshadowed traditional music coverage.

On February 1, Rolling Stone tweeted the breaking news about Beyonce’s pregnancy to its 5.6 million Twitter followers. It generated 426 retweets. A couple of hours later, Matt Taibbi, the magazine’s best-known political writer, who has 300,000 followers, commented about a report that Jerry Falwell Jr. would lead Trump’s higher education task force. The offhand criticism about a relatively minor news item by the White House received 878 retweets. The world had been turned upside down: Jerry Falwell Jr. beat Beyonce for clicks. And music and culture sites are taking notice.

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Rolling Stone has a history of political reporting going back to Hunter S. Thompson’s work in the 1970s, so its focus on Trump’s endless string of controversies isn’t all that surprising. But Rolling Stone is no longer the exception; it is one voice in a huge choir of arts and entertainment outlets opposing the president.

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“There are music sites that two years ago would only say, ‘Here’s a new song, here’s a new band,’ and now they are telling you what’s going on in the Jeff Sessions confirmation hearings,” Pitchfork executive editor Mark Richardson says. “Now we haven’t done that and don’t plan to do that. We are more interested in how politics intersect with the music world.”

Each publication has to decide what tack they’ll take with Trump and his cronies. For Pitchfork, it is about the overlap between art and politics. For Spin, it has meant including political updates and features in its normal feed of pop, hip hop, and indie rock.

Spin almost exclusively concerned itself with music by the time I signed on,” says Brian Josephs, who started as a staff writer at the magazine in April. “I tried to use music as a lens to discuss wider issues. It’s a useful perspective, but it’s ultimately only one perspective. After a staff change in September, the Spin editors decided to reach back toward (the magazine’s) political roots and expand coverage, freeing us up to do pieces on Election Night in Clinton Headquarters and our excursions in Washington, DC during inauguration weekend.”

Much of the coverage comes when sites regurgitate news as click bait—Trump bumbling through his Black History Month announcement or Arnold Schwarzenegger taking the President down a notch for constantly focusing on ratings. But as Teen Vogue’s Lauren Duca proved early in post-Trump world, you can have intense, intelligent takes on both pop music and the alt-right movement (see her essay “Donald Trump is Gaslighting America”). This translates to Taylor Swift stuff bumping up against important, interesting stories on subjects even the giants of the news world miss.

Josephs wrote a feature in Spin about how Howard University’s Republicans plan to coexist with Trump’s very white, very right GOP. Paste created a “Trump Tracker” to explain and explore every fresh White House executive order. Pitchfork contributor Jesse Jarnow investigated how classic and modern protest music fueled truth and resistance at the Women’s March.

Of course, musicians—many of whom make art from political dissent—have helped usher in the transition from an obsession with Beyonce’s baby bump to Steve Bannon’s power grab. When Bruce Springsteen takes the stage in Melbourne, hours after a disastrous call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and says, “We stand before you embarrassed Americans tonight,” a music site has to run with it. The same goes for when hackers broadcast hip hop stars YG and Nipsey Hussle’s anti-Trump anthem “FDT” for 15 minutes on repeat on a South Carolina radio station. As more artists speak out against Trump and his policies, transitions from Beyonce to Bannon will only increase.

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Political coverage has also been pushed by writers. Upper management may officially distance itself from politics—MTV, which is owned by massive media conglomerate Viacom, didn’t return requests asking to outline their approach to covering Trump. But writers and editors on the ground have made their position clear (a recent headline from MTV: “Kellyanne, The Facts Slayer”). Many staff scribes and freelancers who typically cover the arts say writing about a rock band, no matter how great that rock band may be, feels hollow when green card holders have been detained for hours or deported.

“I’ve found it difficult to gather my thoughts and pitch things that don’t involve some sort of statement, whether that statement involves US politics, or issues about which I’m passionate, such as women’s rights or disability rights,” says Annie Zaleski, a regular contributor to Salon, The A.V. Club, Ultimate Classic Rock, and others. “For example, prognosticating about the Grammy Awards seems like such a frivolous thing to write about when there are senators to call.”

But knowing you have to pay attention to Trump doesn’t automatically equal partisan reporting. It is obvious many feel a moral imperative to cover the new administration, while others only feel a journalistic imperative. “We try not to hammer away at the same specific topic over and over,” Ultimate Classic Rock editor Matthew Wilkening says. “If we wanted to we could probably do a ‘Ted Nugent says…’ story every day, and a ‘Bruce Springsteen says…’ story every time he takes the stage. But we try to do so only when they, or any other major artist, addresses a new issue or reacts to a new current event that’s on everybody’s mind.”

“We would probably get more traffic short-term if we covered more political stories right now,” he adds. “But there’s a also a big portion of our audience that reacts to those stories by saying ‘just focus on the music, don’t talk politics,’ and we want to respect their opinions and not turn them away. Plus, we prefer talking about music ourselves, that’s why we work here in the first place.”

Ultimate Classic Rock generally devotes equal space to the Nugents and Springsteens of the world. The platform speaks to a wide demographic and can’t afford to slam any politician (or rock star) ad nauseam. But increasingly the site seems to be the exception.

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Alienating readers isn’t something magazines with long-established political views such as Rolling Stone and Spin worry about, and only one third of young adults voted for Trump, according to the Brookings Institute. This means most publications amping up political coverage have been greeted with cheers from their millennial-heavy demographic when they trash Trump (or Ted Nugent for that matter). For example, Paste only added a politics section a year ago—full disclosure, I was an early contributor—but has already brought on a second editor to manage the section and its stable of nearly 100 contributors.

Not to slight the impressive Beyonce, but the trend of music and culture writers and their readers eschewing celebrity gossip for detailed reports of judicial rulings and ACLU court briefs could lead to a more engaged and educated electorate. Whatever the outcome, writers and readers have a sense they’re living through an unprecedented era.

“I follow every other music magazine in the world so I have seen how each has responded to the election in different ways,” Pitchfork’s Richardson said. “I’ve noticed it’s impossible to compare this time to any other in the history of digital media and that it’s impossible not to have a response to the election. But what will that response be is the question everyone has to answer.”

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Jed Gottlieb spent a decade as the music & theater critic at the Boston Herald. He has written about arts, politics, and Back to the Future for Newsweek, Paste and many more publications. Follow him on Twitter.

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