Political Art in 2018: Parquet Courts' Wide Awake!

It’s 2019, and for many Americans, current events are quite grim. The ever-worsening problem of climate change is going unaddressed; the White House is run by a reality TV celebrity who is considered racist by 49% of voters and makes almost ten misleading or false claims per day; mass shootings are committed on average once per day; a president accused of sexual assault has successfully appointed a Supreme Court justice accused of sexual assault; children are being separated from their families and put in cages; hate crimes continue to increase; and the list goes on. It’s tempting, especially for those with privilege, to ignore the news and avoid constantly worrying about it. At the same time, it feels morally contemptible not to stay informed, vote, and protest. The band Parquet Courts manages to strike a balance and work through this anxiety without veering into escapism in Wide Awake!, a cathartic, angry, political punk-rock record for disillusioned Americans. Andrew Savage’s strained, shouted vocals are the perfect vehicle for the political angst and biting social commentary of his lyrics.

Upon my first listen, the second song on the tracklist immediately jumped out to me as extraordinary. "Violence" is a chilling reflection on the normalization of violence in the news and Americans' complicity in the systems that perpetuate violence. The song covers everything from guns and police brutality to the media's role in glorifying the "pornographic spectacle of black death." Andrew Savage spares the listener from having to decipher complex metaphors. He tells you exactly what he’s mad about: “Savage is my name because Savage is how I feel / When the radio wakes me up with the words ‘suspected gunman.’” While the main lyrics are chilling enough, an ominous bass rhythm repeats itself over and over in the background, amplifying the listener’s sense of dread without necessarily being noticed. This bass riff gives an instrumental character to the phrase that’s beaten into the head of the listener by the end of the song: “Violence is daily life.” Topping off all of the outrage is a deep, sinister, laughing voice in the background, which leads into the haunting outro: “violence is so omnipresent / So engraved in your daily reality / You forget to notice it happens everyday.”

By the 5th track of the album it’s already clear that Parquet Courts are angry, but now the question is what to do with that anger. "Almost Had to Start a Fight” explores the fight-or-flight response to feeling outraged, and of asking: “what do you do when you are provoked?” In a media atmosphere punctuated by calls for civility by the same people who defend systemic violence, being told to calm down can just make us angrier. For Savage, “this perverted status quo” of putting manners first in politics is exhausting. He asks, “What if I’ve grown tired of being polite?” Just before transitioning into the second half of the fifth track, “In And Out Of Patience,” Savage gives an answer to the question of where to direct his rage:

And all I got left is

This shit attitude

At least music is playing in my head

If it stops I'm, if it stops I'm, if it stops I'm having an unshakable nightmare

For better or for worse, art, in this case music, lets us channel our outrage into something productive, or at the very least, it’s a healthy way to vent. Artists seem to have a little more wiggle room in terms of stirring the pot and being allowed to say what polite politicians cannot. There’s something refreshing about the honesty of this song, and the record as a whole. Art is not subject to the same performative politeness that reigns in other political media.

On the other side of performed civility is acceptance of whatever is presented as civil. "Normalization," the seventh track on the record,  is about politicians' shameless fabrication of reality and news organizations' enabling of obvious misinformation. Of course, the main target can be assumed to be the White House's never-ending well of "alternative" facts, but the blame is also on us for our "immunization" against critical thinking and fact-checking. The first verse dives right into the issue. In the current media climate, we’re all “Faced with a decision: what do I call bullshit?” We can’t say anything about the drastic, frightening new changes in politics. At the same time, it seems emotionally unsustainable to react to every single thing that happens on the news. The default result is desensitization:

Normalization, processed reality

Immunization of what goes on

Normalization, collective witnessing

Immunization of human sympathy

Normalization, prefab experience

Immunization, perceived autonomy

Not all of the songs on the album are explicitly political (or even particularly punk), but all of them pack a fiery energy and impeccable wit. As much as these three songs channel angst, the album offers a bit of hope. For a rock record, the album is highly danceable. Referring to the first and final tracks on the album, “Total Football” and “Tenderness,” Savage explained to NPR that “both songs are optimistic, which is important, because optimism is the beginning and the end of this record.”

This has been no more than a shallow dive into a few songs off of a rich and stunning album. Parquet Courts does not seem to be concerned about conveying their message subtly. They’re not afraid to beat the listener over the head with it, and especially as a punk-rock record, this pays off. As Savage puts it, we’re in “the chaos dimension.” We reserve the right to be pissed off about it.