The Memphis punk group Nots’ first album, We Are Nots, trafficked in smart hooks and smarter-mouthed observations, but their second album, Cosmetic, is less garage squall and more ominous and unhinged. It’s like a synth-heavy version of End Result. So it’s no surprise to learn that guitarist and vocalist Natalie Hoffmann found inspiration for Cosmetic in our present political dystopia. Her critiques of the function of entertainment in our society are sadly well-suited to a world in which a reality television star is, indeed, running for President.
We spoke with Hoffmann about her take on pop culture and politics in late July, just after the Republican National Convention. We’ve saved the conversation for the days running up to the election, because electoral cycle fatigue is very real—especially this year—but also because Hoffmann’s critiques are particularly poignant at the moment. Art’s ability to respond to and resist politically, and the rudimentary power dynamics at play in this election, are both topics that warrant another look.
Let’s talk about this new record, and what makes it so special. I know that you were definitely looking to the world around you on this one; can you tell me a little bit about your mindset in writing the record? What inspired you, and what are you kicking against?
Well, I’m sure it’s not hard to explain what I’m kicking against for anyone who watches any bit of what’s going on in—especially America, but also the world. Usually I write my parts on guitar, or if we play something in practice and it becomes a song, usually the instruments come first. And then I free write, and then what comes out of that—it’s like digesting what’s going on around me. So, inevitably, [Cosmetic] was about a lot of what is going on. It definitely came out of just keeping up with the news. I also wanted to critique it—I didn’t want to just regurgitate it. I mean, anyone can watch TV, or listen, or talk to any array of people, and get a taste of how everyone’s reacting. But I wanted to critique what I felt was really destructive about what’s happening around us.
Can you expand on that a little bit more, on what your critique exactly is?
I guess on a lot of the songs—I just felt so disgusted with the hate-mongering speech coming out of—it’s such a tired subject, I know everyone’s tired of talking about Donald Trump [laughs]. But it’s horrifying that it’s this tired subject, but also that someone with that amount of outright hate [has such a platform]. I mean, you could make the argument that all politicians want to be able to speak like he does, but they’re politicians so they sugar it up a little bit. But the hate that he encourages in people who will never benefit from having a billionaire present—he encourages hate in people who are working class, and who are now divided from other working-class people because of his blatant racism and fear of Muslims and fear of Mexicans. It’s just horrifying. The scary thing is that that hate is being endorsed by national news. And they play it up like, ‘Oh, my God, it’s so crazy.’ It doesn’t really matter what the exact number is, but the amount of free advertising he’s received from this is horrifying. So a lot of that really messed-up entertainment value to something that’s going to have such a strict and horrifying effect on everybody’s everyday life—especially people who aren’t rich, and people who are very poor—seeing it treated like a sideshow is really scary. So I think a lot of the songs have the simultaneous critique of our obsession with being entertained, and with reality TV. And that’s also a tired subject, because that’s just something we all live with now. People are portrayed in this [stereotypical] way, and everybody goes and acts like those people, because that’s what we see on TV all the time. But I feel like this merging of the reality TV attitude with a former reality TV star who’s now supposed to govern our country—it’s really especially horrifying. So I would say that a lot of the songs on the album contain elements of that critique in one way or another.
I can definitely see that. Did you happen to watch, at all, any of the Republican National Convention? I don’t blame you if you didn’t, it’s terrifying.
[laughs] No! I heard about it, but we just got back from tour. But I can imagine.
It was really interesting. The one person without a big name or a big profile who came out to endorse Trump, was this guy named Andy Wist, who was a pretty generic Trump-supporter small businessman. He claimed to be a Teamster [Trustee of Local 522; he appears to sit on the Local 522 Health & Welfare Fund—ed.]. And I kept thinking about how anti-union and anti-worker and anti-labor law Trump is, and I was so fascinated by having the one person who wasn’t a big name on that stage be someone who’s invested in saying that Trump won’t fuck over the working class.
Exactly! Absolutely. I need to watch it. That’s the most important thing about him to me. You look at footage of people at his rallies—they’re really regular lower-middle-class people. And you’re like, ‘You’re going to get fucked by this guy’s policies, 100%!’ But they latch onto these backwards things he says. He really speaks to their fear. It’s a horrifying cycle.
Especially, because this is the first presidential election where facts really don’t matter.
Yeah. Facts are really just out the window here.
Right. There’s nothing debatable. While I’ve never been a Clinton cheerleader, her arguments are anchored in reality. You can’t combat that.
No, you can’t. It’s a show. You can outperform, but that’s all you’ve got. The thing about Trump is that he’s an entertainer. He knows exactly the buttons to push to make people clap for him, whereas Hillary is trying to talk facts, and she’s fighting a different fight. Which is really horrifying that we both have to sit here and say that like it’s completely normal! I always feel a little bit cynical about elections anyway, because there’s so much big money behind both candidates, so it’s like ‘What are you really voting for?’ But I guess [with most elections] you can see a shred of what the future might look like. But here, there’s one person trying to do that, and one person just spewing constant garbage and nonsense. ‘Build a wall and make Mexico pay for it!’ That’s not a policy.
Right. That’s not a thing. And Ben Carson literally said that Hillary is connected to Lucifer, via Saul Alinsky.
Oh, I know! I did see that!
It can make you feel absolutely destabilized, like we’re not even in the same reality.
No! It’s like you’ve exited the world, and you’re trapped in this horrifying funhouse. Weird mirrors everywhere.
Politics has always been entertainment, it’s always been a spectacle, but this feels above and beyond.
Yeah, it is. If you want to take a pretentious look at it, this election cycle is almost like a performance art piece. ‘Who’s the weirdest reality star we could get?’ It’s so insane. It feels like the most extreme thing that you can think of is part of the fabric of our lives right now.
Funny you bring that up. Sean Duffy, senator from Wisconsin, spoke at the RNC, too, and he was on The Real World: Boston. His wife [Rachel Campos-Duffy] was on The Real World: San Francisco. They were both there. And they opened their speech talking about being reality show pioneers.
I’m going to have to watch it. I’m going to have to save that for when I get off work and have a minute to really process it.
Where you can just put your head in your hands and rest.
I feel like that’s been the collective motion of human existence, especially in America, for the past year or so.
And now you see the material and economic effects of a very similar right-wing xenophobic platform in the UK, with Brexit.
It was almost hidden. It was hidden under this rhetoric of ‘We want to be our own [self-governors].’ And it’s already—getting into Britain is really tough. It took us a long time to get in, and we had all the appropriate paperwork. It seems to me like they’re already well on that path. But it does play off of people’s xenophobia; those fears of the other are instilled in people. And these politicians are good at manipulating them.
To be world-historical about it, this feels parallel to the Dark Ages in a lot of ways.
That’s a great way to put it. There’s some of this on the album, too. Now we spend so much of our time and energy fighting these people who want to go so far backwards that we can’t have any productive thought about going forward. And especially in a country like ours, where we’re so divided. There really are two Americas. That’s where our thoughts should be, on something that helps people’s lives become better. And not in a vapid way, but these systemic things that are holding half the country down—they are some straight up Dark Ages shit. They’re things that you think wouldn’t still be a problem for us in 2016. But of course it is, because it benefits a really select group of people who are invested in keeping it a problem. So we spend all our time being like, ‘Oh, look at this maniac who’s spewing horrifying shit at us,’ instead of the harder work of creating something constructive.
I saw a tweet the other day that was like, ‘Who would have thought in America in 2016 Black Lives Matter would be a controversial statement.’
Oh my God! It’s exactly that idea. There’s only one answer to that, and it’s ‘Duh’ [laughs]. There is no alternate viewpoint there.
‘All Lives Matter’ is such a ridiculous counterpoint, because it’s like, ‘Yes, but some lives don’t matter right now.’
Right, yeah. For all lives to matter, black lives have to matter. That’s the pressing issue. Can you imagine explaining to someone from the civil rights movement, or even just someone living in the ’70s, if you went back in time, ‘Oh, don’t worry, in 2016 we’ll be … here.’ It’s so depressing.
It feels silly to talk about touring plans and normal musical stuff given the trajectory of this conversation.
Everyone’s everyday life feels crazy right now, I think. It’s hard to be like, ‘I don’t know, what are you going to do tonight?’ when this is your reality.
And of course music is one of the ways we keep from losing ourselves.
I would imagine for you guys it’s kind of an essential catharsis, as well?
It really is. And I feel like in this time, it’s so hard to digest everything, because it’s so much all the time. Everything is so extreme right now, so writing music is a way to digest it. And, like I said, it’s important to critique it and have a voice against it. It’s really important to all of us. It’s definitely a form of catharsis.
What are some of the other things you do in your daily life to stay level and resist?
I just try to stay as educated as possible. That’s kind of a cliché, but it is so important. I’m not in school. I graduated six years ago. I had some really great teachers who were really great at recommending things to us, like, ‘Oh, you’re into that, you should check this out.’ So now I try to keep that attitude with myself. I’m really interested in cinema and film, so I try to read a lot of film critique, and I’m interested in—well, I went to art school, so I’m really interested in how art can be used as a form of resistance. I think it’s an incredibly powerful form of resistance. Like the John Berger book, Art and Revolution. It’s incredible. I try really hard, but sometimes I catch myself and I have to sit down and watch a movie or try to disconnect for a minute. But, to answer your question, I try to keep myself as educated as possible. Because if you don’t have the vocabulary to resist, it’s very hard to.
It just occurred to me, thinking about the things we’ve been talking about and thinking about John Berger and Brecht and performance and revolution, that in a world where facts don’t matter, emotional response is so huge, and that means there’s a lot of potential for art to reach people.
Absolutely! It’s so important, using imagery and especially music, where you’re using multiple mediums, it’s really important. It’s a language, too. Imagery, in words or not, is a language that everyone can speak. And you’re right, Brecht would be having a field day with our situation right now. Emotion is the only thing that matters, but the people saying that are the most Brechtian facades of characters you could ask for. There’s no emotion in them; they’re using our emotions against us. There’s that one Brecht play [The Threepenny Opera]; there’s a group of people [Peachum’s beggars] who pretend that they’re worse off than they are, using guilt to manipulate people into donating to them. They have a whole room of casts and crutches. It’s this group of people who are trained to get money for someone else as a means to an end.
Sounds a lot like Trump’s self-made man narrative that’s meant to appeal to a very specific demographic who have no means of accessing the same resources he has.
It’s so much bullshit. It’s so crazy that that narrative appears so many times in so many different forms in every Presidential campaign, because it’s a narrative designed to keep Americans thinking, ‘If he made it, we can too.’ The individual myth of the American dream; there are extreme reasons why the rich are rich, and it’s usually because their families are rich—and they’re usually rich because of something fucked up historically.
Right. Like the slave trade. And the only time the American Dream has ever worked outside of that model was in the ’50s and ’60s when white, or really non-black, people were really benefiting from New Deal and post-WWII policies and extremely strong governmental structures.
But you can’t talk about that without someone calling you a socialist. Which isn’t even right!
And those structures don’t even exist any more, because they’ve been taken apart very purposefully by Republicans since Reagan’s day.
Right. They don’t exist anymore, and all those structures are completely stripped. And the sad thing is those things don’t exist any more—we get fed this sugar of, ‘Don’t worry, you’re fine, if you buy, buy, buy, and work, work, work, you’re going to be successful like this other guy.’ And it just sets us up for failure. Because our schools are going to shit, and public schools are becoming unavailable to so many people. Everyone deserves a really good education. It’s supposed to be part of the American promise. But it’s been completely stripped. It’s really horrifying, under the ‘facts don’t matter’ idea. I don’t remember which news source does it, but whatever source checks their statements—they find that that both parties lie, but the Republicans are lying way more often. And it’s sad that we’ve been taught from the time that we’re little that news is truth—Truth, capital-T—is told to you from these sources, but then you start to question, ‘Where does the money come from for these sources?’ Because you have to follow the money. And there are alternatives—I watch Democracy Now, and I think it’s great, and I watch the regular news afterwards, and it’s so different. We do have to question everything, but we’re really not taught to be critical. We’re not taught to question.