How Grandson Tackles Social Activism and Politics through Alternative Rock, by Ilsa Miller
Throughout my life, I’ve always leaned into political awareness, civil duty and sociological observations. I grew up around a lot of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones: artists whose lyrics often comment about the goings-on around the world. The format of a song can convey a hard-hitting message in a way that standard speech or text somehow cannot. Sometimes it could be the instrumental accompaniment or simply a singer’s delivery of tragedy in a poeticized form. In a sense, music resonates with each of us in a way other media fails, and when focused on an impactful event — from a governing body to systemic injustice — it can shift our entire worldview.
As I branched out in the musical world, I came across an artist known professionally as grandson, Jordan Benjamin. Eager to bring awareness to ongoing problems, he hardly ever fails to reference a recognizable social or political issue with his releases. While some tracks connect to an event forgotten by public memory, others speak on issues individuals encounter every day. Written mostly in an alternative rock style, a genre I dearly enjoy, grandson’s songs that do deviate from his repertoire are no less impactful.
CW: grandson’s songs frequently mention impactful subjects, so police brutality, drugs, gun violence and school shootings (general) are subjects discussed herein, among others.
Some may recognize his songs Rain and Oh No!!!, which were featured in The Suicide Squad. Others may know Blood // Water from its appearance on CW’s Riverdale. Or more yet, if you’ve seen Batwoman, you’ll likely have heard his Stigmata. Despite his presence on the screen, not many people know the artist by name.
“Rain” acts as a commentary about accepting one’s negative emotions, specifically sadness as a result of a broken heart, and being able to move forward. It is a change of pace stylistically compared to his usual work, which compliments the topic quite well. Instead of inspiring action, like most of his rock pieces, this ballad focuses on reflection of one’s emotional well-being.
“Oh No!!!” is a take on the struggle encountered by the younger generations reaching adulthood, gaining a formal societal presence, and enduring the conflict that originated with older generations who have been in control until very recently. The song explains the idea that our generation has encountered so many more crises than the generations before us, which has led to burnout and a desire to escape reality, often through substance use.
“Blood // Water” in no way veils its conversation about individual greed; it expresses the message of sacrificing one’s own family for monetary gain. The song does not have any hidden depth to it, like some of the others that require information of historical events to understand in full what is being highlighted. Instead, grandson plainly states that chasing after money or status will bring ruin to one’s personal life, often by their own hand.
“Stigmata,” a personal favorite of mine, deals with the world of scapegoating and how the truth is a threat to a higher authority. Its official music video makes direct reference to the infamous Milgram experiment, which tested just how greatly people would harm another if told to by an authority figure. All volunteer participants were made to believe they were really shocking another person, who only acted like they were being hurt. All participants turned the shock to 300 volts before refusing to go further, while two-thirds made it all the way to 450 volts, the highest surge possible.
Away from the screen, grandson has addressed many important discussions. I remember driving up the road for band practice the first time I listened to his thoughts & prayers, a song that begins with a choir of children before delving into a criticism of the government. It provides a take on how politicians receive more benefits for allowing violence to continue than if they were to put policies in place to instill preventative measures. It brought chills then, and to this day, the inclusion of the West Los Angeles Children’s Choir still creates a haunting impact. At the time, though, the school year was going to start in two weeks, and in the back of my mind, I was already worried.
Later on, when I encountered Darkside, I was yet again forced to confront what it means to go to a public school in this age, as well as the near lack of progress made to protect those of us in attendance. However, in this piece, grandson takes an approach I have yet to encounter by any other artist who uses their music to tackle school gun violence. Here, he describes a child who endured ceaseless bullying from his classmates with little support from his father, leading the child to bring a gun to the school in an act of revenge.
The song addresses the media’s need to justify a child shooter’s actions by blaming bullying or other harassment from figures at school. It also ties in the lack of familial support that has more recently been brought into focus. As a parent, shouldn’t they have noticed a change in their child’s behavior, or paid more attention to what was going on with their own kid? It’s a complicated matter: to decide if the parent is partially responsible for not preventing this atrocity.
Drugs are another topic in grandson’s repertoire, particularly in Overdose, in which the glorification of the hard drug scene is brought to a front. The desire to fit in with a fun crowd (in this case “Was trying to feel like a rockstar,”) or the desire to live like famous idols can have dire consequences and require a reflection on if chasing a progressively further high is worth the cost of one’s life. As a weed user, grandson has gone on record about how there are substances worth staying away from, as his song puts it, “All fun and games 'til I hit the floor, comatose.”
Furthermore, grandson has also released music drawing from the presence of police brutality in America. 6:00 is a stalwart record of what we see on the news so often about yet another officer “mishandling” a confrontation with a civilian, disproportionately people of color. This song directly references the killing of Eric Garner, a Black man who was murdered by several officers in 2014. It is theorized that the song title of “6:00” refers to the 6 p.m. news.
His most current album, Death of an Optimist, heavily deals with mental illness, as well as a person's concept of themself. There is also a heavy commentary on US politics within the album.
In the song WWIII, the glorification and justification of war is addressed through the lens of a young soldier who is lied to by the government and faces the horrors of the battlefield.
The first full song on the album, In Over My Head, addresses the drain of remaining positive while you come of age with no notable progress. It deals with a personal sense of understanding what to do with the rest of one’s life, but also with navigating the surrounding world.
Many of these songs are gritty, and a lot of them aren’t all too lighthearted in the way they feel; they convey frustration with the very roots of our society. But not all of his songs are this way. One of grandson’s more lyrical pieces, Drop Dead, takes an optimistic look at rolling with life’s punches while enjoying yourself throughout it all. It details grandson taking pride in who he is as a person and refusing to throw in the towel despite the challenges that are inherent in living.
In a similar vein, Dirty is a song that asks for people to take action about the things that bother them. The repeated lyric “Do you have enough love in your heart to go and get your hands dirty?” is an inquiry to inspire action from the masses. it essentially asks: Do you care enough to actually do anything about the injustice you observe? Instead of singing about the wrongdoings of society and different policies, he sings to the listener in an attempt to motivate them to actually insight change.
As a lover of rock music and as someone who can’t seem to detach myself from the world of politics, I frequently find myself listening to any number of grandson’s songs given the opportunity. It always seems that no matter the story on the news there’s a callback that can be made to one of his songs. When I’m in class discussing complex social issues, lyrics from grandson’s various EPs will come to mind. In this age, any good song about reworking the system or calling out its flaws is something I’ll lend my ear to, and it seems grandson won’t be dropping off my playlist any time soon.