America, a deeply divided and politically polarised country, has always had its politics portrayed in art culture. In music, there are increasingly prominent political statements and award shows have become a platform for artists to express their political displeasure or their support for ideologies and causes. Popular artists have always taken the burden of playing significant roles in the societal discourse of their time. While this can be problematic in the pressures placed on such artists, people will always turn to art in times of unrest and need.
One historic highlight of music that has impacted social discourse is the work of Tupac Shakur. Raised in Manhattan by his mother, Afeni Shakur, Tupac was living among political activists belonging to the Black Panther Party. By the early ’90s he had become a loud voice in west coast hip-hop, and was known for lyrics that had deep, conscious, moving qualities.
A more recent example is the rock duo Muddy Magnolias. A favourite track of mine that tackles 20th century feminism would be ‘American Woman’ (2006), a song challenging the changing attitudes towards women’s role in American society. It touches upon themes of unpaid labour, stereotyping, and self-worth. Politics is everywhere in music, from mainstream acts to small-time musicians.
While it would be unhelpful to compare political art from the past with contemporary art due to the ever-changing societal structures and transitional political landscape, in recent years there has been a purposeful push towards outward activism, political participation, and outspoken declarations. Political sentiment is as present as ever in modern music, and perhaps more encouraged than ever before.
One band in particular released a track in 2019 that summed up some of the key political issues that America faces in an emotionally soul-shattering use of poetic lyricism. That band is The Killers. The Killers use their music to express their political discontent and advocate for the change they believe is necessary.
The Killers have never been ones to keep politics out of their music, but this has become more of a focus over recent years. Initially, their observations were more social than political. Their first album, Hot Fuss (2004), featured depictions of young love and gave them their biggest hit and first single, ‘Mr Brightside’. Day and Age (2008) raised philosophical questions (‘are we human or are we dancer?’), and Battleborn (2012) asked and answered questions about what it means to be human, ‘what are you made of? Flesh and bone’.
Just two years after the band’s debut album, Sam’s Town was released. This second album delved deeper than the first. Sam’s Town started to paint a more political picture of the group’s experiences of life in America. The title track speaks about dreams and ambitions that are not supported or realised within small town communities. This is a theme that is echoed in the band’s latest album, Pressure Machine (2021). The track, ‘West Hills’ tells the story of a young woman who marries in early adulthood and accepts her life as it is. This story is told in a way that endears us to small town America, but is bittersweet in its display of stagnation, compliance, and lack of ambition. It is in the most recent two albums that the more political ideas have slipped firmly into The Killers’ music. The monologue at the beginning of the track gives us context and we immediately understand the meaning of the song, even before the first note.
Upon the release of Imploding the Mirage in August 2020, I first noticed that the lyrics of the music had taken a different direction to what I was used to hearing from The Killers. Where social and political issues had been peppered in before, they were now the focus points of each track. The words are combined beautifully with the catchy and lifting melodies that we have come to expect and the group. They have created meaningful music that also sounds intensely upbeat.
As anyone who is familiar with TK will know, frontman Flowers and his partner, Tana Mundkowsky, have spoken openly about her struggle with complex PTSD. Women’s rights and violence against women has always been an issue close to the group and this too is reflected in their music, especially in Imploding The Mirage, where the song ‘Blowback’ examines the consequences of violence against women and girls. The song ‘When The Dreams Run Dry’ features the line, ‘nobody wishing that they worked more’, and asks us to think about the American Dream and the unnecessary sacrifices made for an unattainable thing. Weaved intensely through both of these albums are strong links between the way that society malfunctions and the politics behind this.
In their most recent album, Pressure Machine, we hear an examination unfold of life in a rural American town. A bleak picture is painted of drugs, young marriage, negative family dynamics, and a general lack of aspiration. Despite this, it is obvious that the lyrics are being written with fondness and appreciation for this way of life. The people who live the aforementioned lives are content and feel satisfied. The statement is not, ‘this isn’t enough’, but the question, ‘should this be enough?’.
The song ‘Terrible Thing’ is about a boy who is struggling desperately with his mental health, and follows him one evening as he contemplates suicide. This is a reflection of the mental health crisis facing America, and indeed the world, in the present time.
But by far the biggest political statement made by the group is the song, ‘Land of the Free’, released as a single and not featured on either of these subsequent albums. This track was the turning point beyond which politics became a central pillar of The Killers’ songs. I first heard this song in February of 2019, just a few weeks after its release, and was immediately struck by the emotion pouring out of the lyrics and the melody. It caught me right away and I spent minutes just thinking about and feeling what I had heard.
The second time I heard this song it moved me to tears. The passion behind Flowers’ lyrics and the ferocity with which he sings them were all-encompassing. I have never heard a more heartbreak-driven nor politically desperate song before. It is a plea to all who hear it.
Every few lines tackle a different, devastating, and uniquely American political issue, and each chorus reminds us that America’s branding as ‘the land of the free’ is, at best, off-base. With the largest number of incarcerated people per population, beating El Salvador by 67 people per 100,000, America is far from free. And, taking a closer look at these figures, it is clear that something is broken.
It was with this track that the band cemented their reputation as the feel good guys who are also good guys. Demanding that Americans stand up for themselves, their rights, and those less fortunate, there is a deep passion behind the words of this song.
The opening verse describes a man who came to Pennsylvania as the son of a slave and who is now free to live as a citizen in his old age. He is washing the truck he owns at the garage and the narration leads into a chorus that praises America for being the “land of the free”.
However, this statement becomes more sinister as we delve deeper into the track.
The second verse talks to us about race. Flowers speaks of the wariness and the distrust of law enforcement that is so prevalent in racial minority groups. He reminds us that America has the largest incarcerated population in the world and makes profit from running busy prisons, and sings, “it’s harvest time out on the avenue”.
The final verse tackles gun violence and right-wing extremism, two things that have been a huge issue in the USA for decades. We begin with a poignant question about how many children must be shot before gun violence is faced head on. Gun related death is the leading cause of death to US children and teens, each day an average of 40 children are shot, 8 of whom die.
Ever since (and even before) the Sandy Hook shooting of 2012, which killed 28 people, mass shootings have been in the spotlight as an American political issue. In the 10 years since, American schools have experienced 18% of the total 1,316 school shootings since 1970, and have seen this cause the of death of 212 students and staff, including the biggest single event death toll since Sandy Hook, occurring in Parkland, FL, on the 14th February 2018. In 4 out of 5 school shooting cases, a second person was aware of the attack before it happened but failed to report, and in 68% of school shootings the weapon is taken from the home of a friend or relative (Vossekuil, et al, 2002).
These statistics paint a very bleak picture of violence in American schools, and underline why this issue is so important. Despite desperate calls from many for tighter restrictions on lethal weapons, policy to increase controls on the purchase and distribution of guns is yet to become bipartisan. The Killers’ are making their position very clear. In their own words, “just break down and face it, we’ve got a problem with guns”.
The ultimate few lines before the ending chorus delve into the border wall idea that was popularised by, and may have contributed to the rise of, D. J. Trump three years before the release of this song. We are reminded that people who wish to become US citizens have the same aspirations as the people who are birth citizens, and the line, “high enough to keep all those filthy hands off of our hopes and dreams” shames and challenges the opinions of ‘better than’.
This final verse and subsequent chorus have backing singing repeating, “I’m standing, crying”, to remind us of the tone and the devastation that this song represents.
We are left with many moral questions to answer about America declaring itself the leader of the free world but no doubt that the politics of the country are being called out.
So, does politics have its place in music? Of course it does! Music is a way that humans have always expressed the deepest and most emotional parts of ourselves. Politics is the framework within which we live and are constrained by those we give power to. Creating art which reflects the way that we live and the way that we are treated is a natural expression of a human society. The Killers have made some of their best work centred around political themes, and no doubt will continue to do so as they watch their home country struggle with homicide, oppression, and extremism.
Editor’s note: The May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo, NY occurred after this article was written, as did the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. The May 24 shooting was the second most fatal school shooting in U.S. history; our thoughts are with the victims of this attack.