In music and the culture it reflects, 2017 was predictably unpredictable: idols fell, empires shook, consensus was scarce. All this week, NPR Music is talking with artists, makers and thinkers whose work captured something unique about a chaotic year, and hinted at bigger revelations around the bend.
When music moves us, it’s often because it helps us to understand ourselves, articulating things about our lives that we can’t quite figure out how to say. The flipside to that introspection can be equally powerful: music that helps us understand things larger than ourselves, exposing us to the world outside our bubbles. It is especially precious — and instructive — when we find music that does both at once. As Katie Alice Greer, singer and lyricist for the Washington, D.C. band Priests, puts it, “Music, or any kind of art, creates this emotional thread that can connect all kinds of seemingly disparate issues — from very large-scale, community, civic aspects to very small thoughts that you have before you go to sleep at night, that you don’t tell anybody.”
That emotional thread lights up Priests’ full-length debut, Nothing Feels Natural, released in the early weeks of 2017 and included on our list of the year’s best albums. It’s a sharp collection of punk songs tinged with funk, new-wave and experimental leanings, and filled with lyrics that Greer says she hopes “speak to very huge things in a small way.” Often, that means considering what life-shaping forces like nationalism, sexism and gentrification can do to us on a day-to-day level. It’s one thing to say that capitalism strengthens itself by convincing us to shape our personal identities around the products we buy, and another to sing, as Greer admits on the single “JJ,” “I thought I was a cowboy because I smoked Reds.”
Priests has a reputation as a political band, one Greer says it didn’t ask for and can’t quite shake. It didn’t help that Nothing Feels Natural came out just a week after Donald Trump stood at the center of the band’s beloved hometown and was sworn in as president (“People couldn’t write about anything we did without talking about the inauguration”). On its past singles and EPs, Priests has taken explicit aim at consumer culture, elected officials and the American project in general — but Greer maintains that the question of whether her band, or any band, is political is missing the point. What’s more important to Priests, she says, is to demonstrate the ways power is embedded in everything.
At the end of a year defined by divisiveness, I spoke with Greer about how she integrates these perspectives into her lyrics, and why she thinks labels like “political art” can hinder more important conversations about what actions count as political, what place art deserves in society and what it takes to identify as an artist.
Marissa Lorusso: Could you tell me about the experience of releasing Nothing Feels Natural, which took several years to write and record, at this very pivotal and intense political moment? I imagine that had an impact on the way people received it and talked to you about it.
Katie Alice Greer: Absolutely. It’s that sort of yes-and-no thing: No, we didn’t write it about this — but yes, sort of, we did. Because we’ve been talking about these sorts of things that finally led to the horrible place that we are in nationally right now. We’ve been about that all along.
There’s a song that’s a little more surreal and absurd — and, to me, funny — on our EP called “And Breeding” that ends with the line “Barack Obama killed something in me and I’m going to get him for it.” I remember people used to kind of side-eye that lyric: “What do you mean by that? He’s the greatest!” And while he certainly seems a million times better than our current president, there were still a lot of problems with Barack Obama’s administration: We were still an imperialist country dropping bombs on brown people overseas. We still had the prison-industrial complex that literally murders hundreds of thousands of people every year. You know, we were still the f*****-up country that we are now.
I’ve seen you push back a lot on descriptions of Priests as political music. Could you explain to me what it is about that terminology that doesn’t fit to you?
To me, it seems like it does a disservice to people who are writing more topical protest songs. We’re good friends with Downtown Boys, and the way that our bands approach songwriting in terms of content is pretty different. There’s other bands who are trying to tackle, head-on, some specific issues. I think a lot of times, what we’re trying to do more is tie in a certain emotionality to the experiences that plenty of us have in our everyday lives.
It’s just very lazy, I think, to call any music “political” and not really expand on what you’re talking about. … I got frustrated recently because I read a new interview — it was with some kids for a writing class, so I’m not actually frustrated — where we were having this similar conversation with them. They ended up writing about it as, like, “Priests will be the first to tell you that they’re not a political band.” No! No, no, no. It’s more like: To us, everything is political. It’s what we keep repeating to people.
Do you wish people asked more specific questions about the politics behind your music?
Yeah, I do wish people would get a little more specific. If you think it is political, talk to me about that. A very politicized issue that we’ve taken on is the diminishing space for the importance of art in society. The music industry exists, but you see a lot more of the industry side than the music side. I think you could probably say that about any industry of art.
Can you explain what you mean by that — seeing more of the industry side than the art side?
Decisions are made that benefit the bottom dollar more than they are taking consideration of artistic ideas. I think a more healthy culture would really deeply respect artists for the incredibly vital visions that they bring to the table.
I’m very excited about the new Bjork record, called Utopia. She’s given interviews talking about how, as an artist, she feels it’s important to be presenting people with a vision for the future. A healthy society would appreciate that kind of work that Bjork is contributing, rather than her celebrity or something like that. Especially in a time like this — this year, everyone is incredibly freaked out and probably, in a sense, grieving over this uncertain future that we have and what might be going on in our country. I just see less and less of a place for art in all its different forms in society and that, to me, points to a culture that is taking a further direction towards fascism, where free speech is not encouraged. Or gets confused — like when people do talk about hate speech, it’s just Nazis talking about their right to spew hate.
I’ve been visiting the Kennedy Center a lot recently to see some of their free programming. And while JFK, there were plenty of issues with his administration, too, it’s so surreal to be in this gorgeous building named after a president that people thought really cared about the arts and made that a priority of his administration. It’s just so absurd when you compare it to what the Trump administration seems to think about the funding that the NEA needs.
With women musicians, I often want to hear about their experiences as women — but I also want them to have the chance to talk about their craft in a way that’s not totally hemmed in by their gender. That feels analogous to the role of politics in your band: I’m sure you feel compelled to speak to that aspect, but you might also want to talk about making a record and the challenges of songwriting and performing.
Absolutely. We want to talk about being artists. We want to talk about being musicians. But that is more difficult for people to wrap their heads around. I also think there’s something that feels pretentious or embarrassing to some people to hear people talk about themselves that way.
As artists, you mean?
Yeah, totally. There are plenty of people who are like, “You’re just a f****** person in a band; stop calling yourself an artist, you self-important dummy.” But to me, that’s just a symptom of a culture that does not respect the power of art the way that a healthy culture should.
So it’s taken a long time to have social conversations about sexism and racism and homophobia and transphobia, and it’s wonderful that we’re able to have those conversations right now. [But] everyone is like, “Yeah, and you’re a woman artist!” It’s like, “Yes. Also, we have brown hair.” It’s not the same thing, obviously, because misogyny is hatred of women, and that influences most of our lives; there’s no widespread brown hair hatred. But you just want these conversations to be a little bit more nuanced.
Again, for writers, when you write about something that’s a little more complicated, it’s harder for people to engage with that. It’s harder to keep your audience. The same thing goes for musicians: People want to complain about how music isn’t interesting or challenging enough, but we don’t have a culture that rewards asking your audience to think critically, no matter what kind of artistic field you work in. I would really love for us to turn into a culture that asks one another to think critically, instead of coercing each other into doing things by force.
This idea of a diminishing space for art, as you put it, and the way that so much art seems driven by capitalism, has been around for a long time. My guess is you’d say Priests has been tackling these topics since well before the 2016 election.
Right. And we’ve kind of taken a step back from that. I think it’s because we recognize that we exist in capitalism. We recognize that the problems that you and I are talking about right now are a product of capitalism, and so we recognize that, to a certain extent, you don’t get to opt out of having a personal brand. That’s kind of thrust upon you, whether or not you want it.
But there are certain people who are learning the performative language of, let’s say, “politics with a capital P,” and are performing that because they recognize that it’s trendy and it will sell right now. And that’s not really something that we’re interested in.
Do you feel there’s an attitude that those issues began with this administration? Is it frustrating to say, “We’ve been talking about this stuff for years?”
As a person, sure. Not so much from a band perspective. I feel like people who identify as a capital-L liberal — which, I don’t personally identify that way — are like, “This is not the country that I once knew.” Yes it is! It absolutely is. And I hope that those people are taking a long, hard look at how certain privileges masked the reality of our country to them for a long time, until this year, and how maybe that is part of the problem.
We’ve always been really insistent on not making art that feels like propaganda, where you’re kind of having the facts thrust upon you. To us, the importance of art and its power is presenting people with something captivating on a pedestal, and letting them come to it on their own and wrestle with it, or sort of surrender attention to it. It should be like a magnet that pulls you towards it, not something that’s taking you by the collar and pointing a finger at you like, “This is reality!” You should be the one constructing that for yourself.