When Switchfoot toed the line for their white Republican audience
There were a few days after Donald Trump was elected where artists formed themselves into two camps
There were a few days after Donald Trump was elected where artists formed themselves into two camps.
The first was the “Business As Usual” camp. They avoided overtly political takes on the election and opted for generic comments about unity despite difference or — in the case of the quasi-Christian or Christian adjacent crowd — something about God being in control.
It was a touchy time, and I appreciate the virtue of tact, one that I often struggle to cultivate.
The second camp was the “Take a Stand” camp made up of the artists who wrote paragraph-long hot takes that either explicitly called out certain political players or made it more or less clear which political party they sided with. It was generally harmless and toothless.
To my minor surprise, Switchfoot and Jon Foreman came down in the “Take a Stand” camp. Jon put out some kind of statement. I don’t remember what he said, but I remember rolling my eyes and feeling annoyed at what my Prager U-warped mind perceived at the time as coded digs at the right-of-center crowd.
His statement was very tactful and eloquent, and I have developed more respect for the courage it took to express his concerns to an audience that’s overwhelmingly white and Conservative. Experience and education have also changed my understanding of the Trump movement, and my own thoughts now would be closer to Jon’s. But at the time, I was annoyed. It added another complication to how I related to one of my favorite bands from my early teens.
I was part of a generation of churched Millennials who grew up feeling alienated from the music most of our peers listened to. We were hyper-aware of the negative stigma of “Christian” rock bands, but we also didn’t like the negativity that pervaded most of the music marketed to our age group. Ultimately, though, we wanted to feel like the artists we listened to were true artists — not sanitized versions of popular bands that served as mouthpieces for suburban soccer moms. We often came up short.
When I first became aware of them, they’d just had two back-to-back hits: “Meant to Live” and “Dare You to Move” both peaked in the top 20, and “The Beautiful Letdown” was on its way to selling 2 million copies. They were genuinely one of the hottest bands in their genre and that boosted their appeal to me. Based on their friendly image I felt I could trust them enough to allow myself to get lost in their art. They were kind of like U2 grounded with a Southern California kind of mellow, rooted in that one particular flavor of kindness and respect that you only find in upper-class evangelical households.
About 8 years later, I was in the basement of a military dorm in my first real band trying to play a Switchfoot song. Each band member had picked out two songs for us all to learn, four total*, and I’d made a terrible choice — “Always” from “Hello Hurricane”.
As I picked apart the mechanics of the song as a singer and pianist, I realized with embarrassment that the song I had chosen was by far the most boring and least satisfying to sing and play on our setlist. “Guys,” I said, “I don’t like playing this song. Let’s throw it out.” The other guys breathed a sigh of relief.
It was a wake-up call that subtly shifted how I felt about music. It was also the beginning of the end of my infatuation with Switchfoot.
I began to recognize the formula of a Switchfoot album: the repeated themes, the arbitrary lyrics designed to reflect the desires and biases of the listener. I realized Switchfoot had been a pop band the whole time. The philosophical references I’d once found so mysterious and esoteric became obvious and pedestrian, and the three-minute emotional arcs of their songs became predictable and tiresome.
I also discovered a genre of music that was more sugary-sweet and satisfying than the pop-rock Switchfoot was offering me: actual pop music.
So for a while there, Switchfoot was spoiled for me. Like many of the quasi-Christian whitebread bands of their era — Lifehouse, Daughtry, etc — they found a commercial formula that worked very briefly at a very particular point in time but produced results that quickly washed away. When the tide of public taste changed, there was very little for listeners to sink their teeth into and carry into adulthood and beyond.
Jon Foreman’s “Take a Stand” statement the day after Trump’s election drove this home to me because it contrasted so sharply with the image I had of the band. It revealed that he viewed his audience through a filter of privilege, and the content of his statement actually had some teeth, unlike his commercial art.
It was a strangely off-brand shift that I found jarring, mainly because I felt duped, as if the psychologist giving me the Rorschach test had sharply told me “no, that’s not a cathedral, it’s a Walmart, and this Walmart doesn’t see the world the way you do”.
How strange that some band filled with people you’ll never meet can elicit such an emotional and irrational response.**
Since then, life and experience have changed my feelings about Trump dramatically, and I understand Jon’s concern much more than I did back then. Going back to Switchfoot’s discography now as a 31-year-old, it’s easy to remember why I loved their music so much. I’m less cynical about them now than I was a few years ago.
“Nothing is Sound” is still a really great album — my favorite of theirs. When it came out in 2005, Switchfoot was at the pinnacle of their career. It’s dark, brooding, and it has teeth. The band seemed simultaneously cynical, weary, eloquent, and cocky at the same time — they seemed like rock stars, and the fact that the era of rock stars had ended gives the listening experience kind of a romantic mystique. The album culminates with “Daisy”, which provides some of the purest catharses of any album I’ve enjoyed over the years.
And “The Beautiful Letdown” is classic and iconic; it really did elevate the concept of Christian rock with its infusion of Southern California vibes, C. S. Lewis-like literary voice, influences from eastern and western philosophers, and a few spicy dashes of Hollywood and MTV.
I imagine if I had grown up on a rocky beach a little ways out of San Diego, I might’ve made music like that.
*I think the other songs were Hypocritical Kiss by Jack White, Seconds of Pleasure by Van Hunt, Evil by Interpol, Badfish by Sublime, 2am by Slightly Stoopid, Hold On, We’re Going Home by Drake (which we threw out too because it was so boring to play, I forgot about that), Lay Me Down by Dirty Heads, and Amber by 311, or some similar songs. My memory is a little rusty.
**I actually did meet Jon Foreman in Baltimore but I was very drunk and it went badly. I have a picture of it somewhere.