The return of the musical: The cultural response to Trump

From fantasy frocks to musicals, Suzanne Harrington looks at the cultural response to President Trump.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land.

A recent headline suggested how, at the Golden Globes, the frocks had gone fully Barbara Cartland — frothy, frilly, sparkly — in a bid to banish reality.

That in response to America’s most recent inauguration, the lady movie stars of Hollywood had Disneyfied themselves, in a visual distancing from villainous reality. 

So what will they be wearing at the Oscars? More of the same? 

And really, do we care and does it matter, given how our world is being driven to hell in a handcart by the new president? 

Do movies and music matter at the moment? 

And how is mainstream culture reacting to Donald Trump in the White House?

The impact of the election on the broader culture goes from high profile opposition — Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech, the #UnitedAgainstHate campaign signed by everyone from Jane Fonda and Kathleen Turner to Michael Moore, Lena Dunham, Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore and Dita Von Teese — to the less overt. 

Hygge, says Elle Interiors, is replacing minimalism in our homes, because we want comfort blankets and squashy cushions to hug when we get home from the latest street protest. 

Mass mobilisation has never been more widespread, because of social media. It’s not just Trump who uses Twitter.

Like every aspect of this unlikely presidency, the result is polarisation — from mass protests to daft musicals.

While Trump’s supporters took him seriously but not literally, the media took him literally but not seriously; now that he is actually in charge, we are reacting the way we always do when faced with the unacceptable — we simultaneously face it and run away from it. 

We face it on the streets, on social media, and escape from it in the cinema and at home.

While political reaction to Donald Trump has veered from magnificent outrage (Senator Aodhan O’Riordain, who quickly called the new American president a fascist) to Theresa May (who held his hand despite his ban on millions of people entering the US based solely on their birth place), the response from the world of arts and culture has been fairly uniform. 

Utter horror.

The Queen made me a knight, said British Olympic gold medallist and national treasure Mo Farah, who was born in Somalia, but Trump made me an alien. 


Musician Moby — famous for his uplifting dance tunes — has released a track of pure fury, ‘Erupt and Matter’, after writing in Rolling Stone how Trump is “an actual sociopath…. close to being a psychopath”.

Before the election, Michael Stipe of REM tweeted, “Go fuck yourselves, you sad, attention-grabbing, power-hungry little men. Do not use our music or my voice for your moronic charade of a campaign.”

Madonna has dreamed of blowing up the White House, Cher thinks he’s a “fucking idiot” and Neil Young repeatedly banned him from using Keep On Rocking In The Free World. 

Even corporate rockers the Rolling Stones refused to let Trump use their music. 

Such is the contempt for him from musicians, he had to ask a TV talent show non-entity to sing at his inauguration. Musicians and performers have swarmed to express their opposition.

But what about the film industry? How has the most conservative establishment arm of performing arts — Hollywood — reacted to President Trump?

We tend to gravitate towards fantasy and escapism in times of war and turbulence. ‘The Wizard of Oz’ was released the year World War II broke out.

The American movie industry has its own long-term unofficial bans in place — the non-youthful, non-white, non-generic tend to be at the back of the film star queue.

The hands which continue to hold power are white, male and middle aged. 

In the upper echelons of Hollywood, little power is held by women, blacks, Muslims; in this respect, it both mirrors and maintain the conservative status quo.

Yet Hollywood likes to think of itself as liberal, and so in the face of President Trump, it has gone to La La Land. Quite literally.

As pointlessly pretty as the First Lady herself, La La Land — unlike Meryl Streep — appears massively overrated. It is, however, gaining Citizen Kane levels of award nominations — why? 

Because it allows us to escape to somewhere as empty, shiny, and glittery as the interior of a Trump Tower lift? When the going gets tough, do the tough buy tickets to apolitical musicals and comedies?

The short answer is yes. We tend towards escapism when in the thick of it. 

As fascism marched in the 1930s, one of the most fairytale movies of all time — The Wizard of Oz — was released the year war broke out.

The other movie giant of 1939 was Gone With The Wind, all frou frou frocks and a desperate longing for things to be as they once were.

Musically, swing soared in popularity during World War II, because it was so jolly and uplifting, even Hitler liked it. (Would punk and hip hop have happened during the deprivations of wartime, or did they need boredom and and inequality to boil over?)

During World War I, theatres played lots of comedies and farces. Anything for a laugh. 

In Berlin, women played title roles in plays, reflecting the demographic of absent men, and on the stages of London and Paris, escapist musical comedies were as popular as La La Land. 

When the war ended, the Roaring Twenties embodied a glorious exhalation and after party, filled with flappers, gin and manic dancing. As though it could never happen again.

In the era of mass pre-digital communication — radio and telly — state censorship did its best to steer culture towards the party line. 

Actress Nicole Kidman at the Golden Globe awards on January 8, in Beverly Hills, California, wearing a dress in keeping with the prevailing fantasy, escape-from-reality theme. Picture: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images.

When the Cold War was in progress during the Fifties, the official American reaction was cultural oppression — McCarthyism — resulting in blackballing, career ruining, witch hunting, and some magnificent responses, like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

Protest became a cultural cornerstone during the American war on Vietnam; young people, still high from the Sixties, were appalled at the draft, at the killing, and the anti-war song came into its own. 

John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ and ‘Give Peace A Chance’, The Doors’ ‘Unknown Soldier’, and Edwin Starr’s ‘War (What Is It Good For?)’ became protest anthems, with the Vietnam movie genre — Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket — arriving later. 

Martin Scorcese’s 1973 film Taxi Driver was an early portrayal of the damaged Vietnam veteran – Robert De Niro’s psychotic Travis Bickle – while 1968’s The Green Berets glorified the Vietnam war, and starred John Wayne, one of its most famous Hollywood supporters. 

(Alongside, oddly, writers Jack Kerouac and John Steinback.)

When George Orwell wrote, in 1948, about “perpetual war” in his scarily prescient novel 1984, he could not have anticipated his accuracy. Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. 

The war in Iraq created a distinct genre of patriot rock, from Ted Nugent and Toby Keith to the hijacking of The Clash’s Rock The Casbah, but also more protest songs from the Dixie Chicks (who got mauled for their trouble, being female and Texan), Neil Young, MIA, The Killers, Muse, and more. 

Again, the movies — Jarhead, The Hurt Locker, Green Zone — came later.

And now President Trump. 

Last year, US novelist Lionel Shriver published The Mandibles: A Family 2029-2047, set in a dystopian America, where the handcart has already arrived in hell. 

For writers and film makers, the Trump era is a creative swamp waiting to be drained. 

For the rest of us, it’s tickets to La La Land and a comfort blanket — but please, as well protesting, not instead of.



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