How do you solve a problem like Donald? Like Nixon, Reagan and Thatcher before him, President Trump has been a great catalyst for protest in the arts but his villainy is so absurd and flamboyant that it is hard to attack him without stating the obvious. Assaulting him head-on is like staring into the sun. It is no surprise that his most effective satirist is the comedian Sarah Cooper, who lip-syncs to his own words rather than writing her own.
In music, to sing about the US these past four years is to allude to the elephant in the White House. Trump’s influence is often oblique: his presence seeps into records like poison gas. In songs such as Childish Gambino’s This Is America, Kendrick Lamar’s XXX, the 1975’s Love It If We Made It or Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Pa’lante, he is mentioned briefly or not at all. So who would have predicted that one of the most powerful songs about Trump – Demi Lovato’s Commander in Chief – would come so late in the day, and be so direct?
It’s not that it’s unusual for a mainstream pop artist to speak out at the risk of losing fans. The likes of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry have been moved to take political positions and even channel them into songs, such as Swift’s Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince or Lana Del Rey’s Looking for America. Lovato, who describes herself as “a queer, Hispanic woman”, has previously been vocal about issues such as mental health and body image: her most recent hit was called OK Not to Be OK. Still, there is something wonderfully unexpected and bold about the moral clarity of her latest song that she debuted at the Billboard music awards last night. I’ve listened to nothing else since.
Produced by Eren Cannata and Billie Eilish’s brother Finneas, the song sounds like a heartbreak ballad. In a sense that’s what it is, as it expresses the emotional pain of the Trump era, and 2020 in particular. While it’s not without lyrical flourishes (“Fighting fires with flyers and praying for rain”), it is largely plain-spoken and direct, conveying grief, resilience and disgust. Lovato has said that she has often thought of writing Trump a letter, or sitting down with him to ask him why he behaves the way he does, but that a song opens these questions up to everybody: “I’m not the only one / That’s been affected and resented every story you’ve spun / And I’m a lucky one / ’Cause there are people worse off that have suffered enough.” In the arrestingly stark video, a diverse range of Americans lip-sync the song before Lovato takes over for the final minute.
Commander in Chief opens with a wholesome, relatable line about the values that we are supposedly taught (unless our father is Fred Trump) when we are young. It’s not really partisan. Lovato the protest singer is an exasperated everywoman, interrogating Trump’s failings as a human being as much as a politician: his corruption, his vanity, his carelessness, his sadism. The line, “Do you get off on pain?” reminds me of Adam Serwer’s classic 2018 Atlantic essay, The Cruelty Is the Point. She gets to the fundamental incomprehensibility of Trump’s callousness: “Honestly, if I did the things you do, I couldn’t sleep, seriously.” The gospel-elevated bridge rises above the president’s toxic headspace and turns to the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests: “We’ll be in the streets while you’re bunkering down.” The final line of the chorus (“How does it feel to still be able to breathe?”) references both Covid-19, which has killed more than 215,000 Americans on Trump’s watch, and the BLM slogan “I can’t breathe”.
That formulation might be a deliberate callback to Dear Mr President, Pink’s open letter of a song to George W Bush in 2006, which asked “What do you feel?” and “How do you sleep?” But it also reminds me, oddly, of Crass’s 1982 broadside against Margaret Thatcher, How Does It Feel (to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead)? Both questions are moral condemnations but Crass’s song is all punk-rock venom, while Lovato’s is calmer. If you were to put these lyrics into a rock, hip-hop or folk song, the effect would perhaps be too familiar because that’s what protest music usually sounds like. Take, for example, Public Enemy’s recent election song State of the Union (STFU). While it is a thrilling call to “rock the vote or vote for hell”, we’ve heard Public Enemy take on presidents many times before. What we don’t usually hear is similar sentiments conveyed in the form of an aching, melismatic pop ballad by the former teen star of Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam. Not to make a hyperbolic comparison, but the potency of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On came from a previously apolitical artist deciding that he just couldn’t stay quiet any more. Commander in Chief is likewise the sound of someone’s patience snapping. Responding to the scolding of a Republican fan on Instagram on Wednesday, she wrote: “I literally don’t care if this ruins my career. This isn’t about that … I made a piece of art that stands for something I believe in.”
Lovato has timed the song’s release to encourage younger Americans to vote as an ugly election campaign approaches its conclusion. The single’s artwork depicts her in a mask with VOTE written on it. Commander in Chief skilfully captures the emotion that will likely drive more voters to the polls than any policy: a soul-sick exhaustion with Trump and what he has done to his country, and how he has squatted, rent-free, in so many heads for so long. You do not have to love Joe Biden to want to be rid of that – to throw open the windows and let out the poison gas at last. Lovato and her collaborators have created an extraordinary protest song that is perfectly of-the-moment, but I hope it sounds even better after 3 November.