Jack Antonoff, Kanye West, and the Conversations that Divide and Unite America

Screen Shot 2018-11-16 at 9.58.19 AM.png

A few years back I remember listening to a podcast titled, You've Got Issues, hosted by Anna David. In this particular episode, actor Josh Radnor, who you probably know from his popular TV role as Ted Mosby in the series, How I Met Your Mother was discussing the appeal of a really good conversation in an attempt to compare it to the podcast-listening experience. He refers to the podcast phenomenon as "one that speaks to our needs at a present moment to enjoy long-form engagements" with others. People are often drawn to these sorts of encounters because there's a lot of power in them. It's a portal by which we connect with the people around us. Discussing ideas with someone who has a completely different background can have a lasting influence on the way a person perceives the world around them.

The New Yorker Festival is a similar experience to listening to a podcast, only in person and on the stage. On Friday, Oct. 5, I took a subway ride to Brooklyn to see Bleachers frontman Jack Antonoff speak with New Yorker staff writer Andrew Marantz. The sentiment of this event was marked by a smaller, more intimate setting than some of the other panels I've attended in the past — although Lana Del Rey was among those in the audience. The discussion between Jack and Andrew felt less structured than the standard but was nothing short of quality substance. Portions of the event would simply derive from a question from the audience or a thought that would pop into Jack’s head. Everything developed very organically. Joined by Bleachers sax player Evan Smith, performances of "Good Morning", "Everybody Lost Somebody" and "I Miss Those Days" merged beautifully with Jack’s discussion on the writing process for his music. As the two continued to discuss topics ranging from growing up Jewish to music collaborations with other artists, Antonoff's recent disappointment in Kanye West and his support for Donald Trump came up in conversation. 

Following Kanye's bizarre rant on Saturday Night Live wearing a "Make America Great Again" hat, Antonoff explained that Kayne's recent political statements affected him to the point of needing to speak to his therapist about it. He said having someone who has artistically influenced him in the way Kanye did has really let him down. “There’s a crazy grieving going on because everyone I know — first of all, we so deeply disagree with his politics. Forgetting his politics, the way he’s using his position... It hurts.” 

I figured politics would be a topic of discussion. No criticism there — our current political climate is at one of the most divisive moments many of us have witnessed in our lifetimes. And the reminders of that exist everywhere. Profound feelings of anger, hurt and frustration have irreversibly been brought to the surface, reaching levels of contention that have woven a hyper-partisan, us-verse-them mentality within our culture. As Antonoff continued to speak on his experience with Kanye, it was apparent the feelings being expressed on stage were real and honest. But if Kanye and Jack were to sit down and discuss politics, could the creative appreciation of the rapper be restored? I don't know either of them personally to know for sure, but I've always believed that two people with opposing perspectives can discuss something and both leave the interaction having gained something of value. Lately, however, that just seems unrealistic.

Following the 2016 presidential election, the overall outlook Americans have toward the other political party has reached a historic low. According to data from Pew Research Center, over 40 percent of both Republicans and Democrats believe the opposing party is a danger to the overall health and safety of the country. Antonoff and Marantz veered off onto other subject matters but their conversation on Kanye left me feeling nostalgic for a time when our society felt more connected. We hear this a lot from politicians, activists and commentators; that we need to start having the difficult conversations on the issues affecting the lives of people in this country. And that by doing so, we’re told more unity will follow. Though Americans are engaging in these conversations, they are not finding any more sense of unity or commonality with the other side. It's actually making things worse. In the same study, researchers found that over 60 percent of Republicans and Democrats say that after having some sort of political discussion with the other side, they realize they have less in common than they originally thought.

This is representative of such a unique moment in political history. With so many Americans feeling their safety and rights are at urgent risk, does a simple conversation really solve the complex problems dividing the country? The aggravation stemming from the rapid social and political change underway is inevitable. But that's not to say there's no value in discussing the issues of today with that coworker you always argue politics with or in listening to a thought-provoking podcast on your way to work. These conversations do matter and do make a difference, especially on an individual level. Yet, it often seems the dialogue surrounding these interactions are aimed at bringing us back to a more connected time in the country. Perhaps the idea of "going back" to something is where the problem stems from. British economist John Maynard Keynes once said, "The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones." With a country that has only known tradition, there's no doubt that this is, at least to some extent, the present state of affairs. 

America is ready for something new. The way things have been done for generations now feels systematically outdated and inefficient. Though you might miss the old Kanye, his evolution was, as America’s — inevitable, we can know that and find solace in our ability to uphold a conversation that seeks something of value in the opposing side and vice versa. Still, amongst all the social media arguments and anxiety-driven headlines that exhaust us daily, there's a lot more energy and focus on the involvement of our democracy — and that will never be a bad thing. Because, although these conversations may not feel as unifying as they once did, they represent the reason America has become less complicit toward the actions of government. The 2018 midterm elections seem representative of that sentiment as both parties witnessed record-breaking voter turnouts and first-time historic elected officials. America is not the same country it was a few years ago and at this point, it shouldn’t be. The time for apathy is in the past and though the country feels hopelessly divisive at times, people still care enough to engage in the conversation in the first place.