My friend, Lidia, told me that the result of the elections and its implications and legitimizations hit her full on Thursday. She ran to her husband in tears, so very low and afraid, not for herself, but for people she has never met, people who do not enjoy the same privileges that we do. The worst part of the election of Donald Trump for her is that for myself, my husband, herself and her husband, our lives will continue largely unaffected because we read as white, the fact that we are heterosexual and married, and that we are healthy and able-bodied. The hardest part of this is that we are not minorities and we, as allies, will watch from the side lines as others fight battles we have never needed to fight.
I think the implications of our choices as a nation only finally hit me Sunday morning, and I think it’s because no one fully articulates how I’m feeling except musicians. I can read the words of authors and see clear messages, even those written between the lines, but there is something deeper inside me that can only be tapped by music. I’m not sure that just any type of music was going to truly express how I felt after the election. I was leaning toward Infant Annihilator, or something as equally destructive and anarchistic, but now I am certain that Leonard Cohen was the only artist that was going to deliver the crushing blow. I spent some time on Thursday sampling the best of his music. He was not only a lyrical genius, but a poet of the highest order, the son of Ginsberg and Whitman. If anyone last week had asked me who spoke the language of America, I would have said Leonard Cohen, and he was the last artist that did. Cohen, like Ginsberg, Whitman, and Kerouac, did not really represent America to the rest of the world. The rest of the world speaks Bad American: the language of spaghetti westerns, Second Amendment activists, the DOW Jones Industrial Average, Beyonce, Ford trucks, and the Kardashians. Leonard Cohen spoke American: the language of meager crops scratched from the dirt, gray water circling filthy drains, whiskey on the rocks, love affairs, dive bars, scratched floors, unbroken faith, and coming home. He was the only poet make High Romance available at the bottom of a shot glass. He wrote love stories involving bar stools and sticky linoleum. He was the last of American Naturalism. Leonard Cohen was the artist who could paint “Man Gets Shot Walking Down Sidewalk” in oil on canvas using only words. He wove brilliant tapestries out of cheap denim. He wore a satin suit, stained and dirty, but sharp and with class. Naturalism defined the Modern poet of America, and that was Leonard Cohen.
I’m not a fan of Hillary, but Leonard Cohen’s message on the lips of Kate McKinnon is perhaps the most hopeful thing I’ve heard all week.
SNL has always represented the best parts of America. SNL is a constant reminder that we have something a lot of countries do not have: an open democratic republic of the people who has no problem laughing at itself. Comedy is the highest form of social criticism. All over the world, comedians, comic artists, and satirists are imprisoned and silenced, and then silently erased, because they dare to mock and criticize leaders or influencers. In the United States, we praise these people, we elevate them, and we rely on them. The day we can no longer laugh at our president, our presidential nominees, our elected officials, and our leaders will be the day this nation truly crumbles.
I believe SNL was making a bold statement with their somber and muted cold open the other day. Kate McKinnon sat at her piano, singing the most iconic song from America’s last great poet, and presented herself gracefully as the figure of hope for women and gender-fluid sexes, and her message was that even though we might have lost faith in the system, and that we seem to be without hope, lightless in the crushing dark, that the voice of the comedians can still be heard, that the artists fill the quiet spaces between the raging proscenium of the media’s global stages with humble words. There might be a day when our country loses sight of what is most important, but Kate McKinnon, not Hillary Clinton, turned to the camera and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
The message was from a woman, an artist, sitting on a stage that for decades was dominated by men, in an industry that preys on women the hardest. That line hit harder than any raging battle cry. Until that moment, I had not truly mourned for Leonard Cohen, not even with the numbing cold that followed the death of David Bowie.
We find ourselves sitting on the front lines prepared to battle each other and die with our hands around each others’ throats, threatened in our own ways by enemies that have been created for us, fearful of the unknown horror waiting for us at the hands of the orange madman, emboldened by the legitimacy of hate and anger, enraged by the show of protest, or morally outraged. We have one thing in common: we are Americans, and we are free to speak in any voice, in any way, no matter how threatening and frightening, and until that right infringes on the rights of another, our voice will not be silenced for speaking whatever truth we happen to hold. No matter how afraid we are, no one has dropped the cage over us yet. No one has unleashed the dogs of war and we still outnumber our leaders a hundred to one (I’m not sure that’s accurate, but there are a lot more of us than there are of them). This lady told us, just by her presence, her persistence, and the will of the American people that there is hope.
I did not see Clinton, nor did I even see Kate McKinnon as Clinton, sitting at that piano. I saw Kate, the lady of a thousand faces, performing not only her tribute to the loss of the democratic party and the loss of Leonard Cohen, but also doing her job as a comedian.
If we don’t listen to anyone else, let us listen to the comedians. They are our voice. The ones most closely followed in the media may not represent your particular voice, but the collective voice of the comedians is the one voice that should never be silenced. That voice is freedom itself.