Photo by Lior Phillips
First, PJ Harvey is not Elton John. That is to say, she didn’t write “Tiny Dancer”, the heartfelt ballad that has become an unofficial theme of sorts at the Republican presidential candidate’s rallies (in spite of its creator’s best intentions). Second, Harvey is a provocative, politically charged musician with a long history of critiquing Western identity and the institutions shaping it: capitalism, Christianity, toxic masculinity, and bloodlust masquerading as diplomacy.
Growing up in Dorset, England under the hyper-conservative Thatcher administration, the musician bore witness to (and found muses in) these intersecting forces, with the most recent manifestation being 2011’s Let England Shake. The album is a carefully constructed meditation on England as Harvey knows it, in all its flawed, messy majesty. Framing the world’s problems as societal shortcomings (read: the fault of white dudes)? Sad!
Harvey’s latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, finds her working not just as a musician, but as an investigative journalist. It also finds her shifting her focus abroad to expose the price Americans pay for their complacency — along with their SUVs and McMansions, of course. She may lack White House press credentials or a space on the junket, but she’s a political reporter nonetheless, shining a spotlight on Washington’s underbelly using a guitar and microphone as her pen and paper.
The Hope Six tracklist is essentially a 12-part indictment of the status quo: real-estate developers eager to demolish a low-income neighborhood for a new Walmart; trigger-happy Pentagon officials; pharmaceutical companies; even the thousands of pedestrians striding down the National Mall, ignorant to the cries of pain ringing out from the throats of those who don’t look like us, from Kosovo, to Syria, to the Capital itself.
Photo by Nina Corcoran
As you’ve probably noticed by now, Trump doesn’t take very kindly to reporters, especially when they paint him unfavorably or, as Trump correspondent Katy Tur revealed in a recent op-ed for Marie Claire, when they happen to be women. “It is not ‘freedom of the press’ when newspapers and others are allowed to say and write whatever they want, even if it is completely false!” the prospective POTUS recently fumed on Twitter, infuriated by the media’s relentless “attacks” on his good name.
Keeping this in mind, I can’t help but wonder how the candidate might have reacted if he had been in the room at Terminal 5 on Monday, when Harvey first laid eyes on the cheering crowd that had gathered for her first American concert in five years. In that sterile, cavernous space, a 20-minute walk from Trump Tower’s gilded arches, some foreign reporter with a guitar stood ready to judge his America, and by extension, him. Surely, he’d be disappointed to learn that Harvey didn’t mention his name once — and for good reason. The man’s an orange-tinged symptom, and like all good reporters, Harvey was here to diagnose the disease.
The secret to good journalism, or good storytelling for that matter, is zooming in on the unflattering minutiae: the blemishes specking the whitewash, the hairline fractures in the ironclad façade. True to its title, The Hope Six Demolition Project details Harvey’s concerns with America’s crumbling moral infrastructure in terms of literal destruction. It’s appropriate, then, that she opened her set with “Chain of Keys”, an unflinching look at some old, dusty town on the verge of obsolescence, paralyzed by time’s march onward. “The dusty ground’s a dead-end track,” she sang, “The neighbors won’t be coming back/ 15 gardens overgrown/ 15 houses falling down.”
Photo by Lior Phillips
As Harvey’s set raged on, the screed intensified. The musician took a needle to inflated American pride on “Ministry of Defence”, defining the nation’s victories against terrorism in terms of garbage ( “Broken glass, a white jawbone/ Syringes, razors, a plastic spoon”). “The Wheel“ rolled around, forcing the crowd to reckon with “a tableau of the missing/ tied to the government building/ 8,000 sun-bleached photographs/ faded with the roses.” The song offered a snapshot as reminiscent of the scramble for survivors post-9/11 as it is of the current refugee crisis. Harvey sang of amputees and pregnant hounds sprawled out on the street, of displaced families living off horse hooves, of poison pouring down the overpass and into the Anacostia River, just over 200 miles from the stage upon which she stood. “They’re gonna put a Walmart here,” she insisted repeatedly as the guitars swelled during “The Community of Hope”, her tone landing somewhere between sardonic excitement and sober lamentation.
So it goes.
However sharp-tongued, Harvey’s most resonant message remains one of hope and empathy. She wants her audience to know that, just like her native England and the world at large, America has the potential to be a bastion for social justice, tolerance, and peace. Harvey expressed this wish early in the evening during a passionate rendition of “The Line in the Sand”, a song whose central message boils down to one of the most common thoughts racing through people’s heads during this 2016 election: Enough is enough. “If we have not learnt by now/ Then we’re a sham,” she declared, before pondering how the whole mess got started in the first place. Even so, she ended the song with an affirmation: “I believe we have a future.”
America has lost its way. On that, Harvey and Trump can agree. The only difference is in their convictions and prognoses, and if a grizzled, eagle-eyed skeptic like Harvey thinks America can come together to Be Great Again without sticking to its old, rusted guns (literally and figuratively), something tells me we’ve got a fighting chance. Trump’s track record with honesty notwithstanding, I’ll take Harvey’s projections over his any day.