Designer Tom Feltenberger, aka Creative Space Cadet Credit: Connie Chu

At 10 PM Chicago time on October 28, Los Angeles experimental rock trio Autolux closed the anti-Trump design contest they’d launched two days earlier. Late that afternoon, local artist Tom Feltenberger (aka Creative Space Cadet) had started sketching his submission while still at work— he ran home and finished it minutes before the deadline.

For the members of Autolux—drummer Carla Azar, guitarist Greg Edwards, and bassist Eugene Goreshter—the contest didn’t feel like a political act so much as it did a defense of humanism. At that point, most of the world thought a Trump win was impossible, and the band were looking forward to watching him sink into irrelevance. But ever since the sobering morning of November 9, Feltenberger’s design has felt more relevant than even he wanted it to be.

Feltenberger's winning T-shirt design
Feltenberger’s winning T-shirt designCredit: Courtesy Autolux

Autolux’s contest challenged artists to create an anti-Trump T-shirt using elements of Anthony Lister’s cover art from the band’s third and most recent album, Pussy’s Dead—a painting of a skull with a detached jaw and a single gold tooth, floating against a black backdrop and shooting sparkling rainbows from its empty eye sockets.

The artwork for the 2016 Autolux album <i>Pussy's Dead</i>
The artwork for the 2016 Autolux album Pussy’s DeadCredit: Courtesy Autolux

The band quickly decided on Feltenberger’s design, in which a nude cartoon woman shoots a similar sparkling rainbow from between her legs at a skeletal profile of Trump. For Azar, the decision was easy—Feltenberger’s submission was the only one that addressed the misogyny Trump had expressed and condoned, and which now seems likely to produce toxic, anti-woman policies during his presidency.

“I was inspired, more than anything else, by the power of femininity,” says Feltenberger. “The movement supporting Trump has been that of a hypermasculine culture, and I felt the best way to deconstruct that was to make Trump visually submissive to the power of this woman.”

But Feltenberger knows that sexism isn’t the only entrenched problem that a Trump administration could make much worse. He grew up in Geneva, Illinois, and moved here to escape the cultural bubble of that overwhelmingly white middle-class town. He acknowledges that Chicago already has its share of problems with race and class, but he says the day after the election still felt like a funeral. At the height of the Trump campaign, Feltenberger had a run-in on the Red Line with a drunk man shouting slurs at passengers, and it’s encouraged him to speak out more and fight back against hate.

Autolux: Greg Edwards, Carla Azar, and Eugene Goreshter
Autolux: Greg Edwards, Carla Azar, and Eugene GoreshterCredit: Elliot Lee Hazel

Autolux didn’t start playing music to become another Rage Against the Machine, but even when most people still treated Trump’s campaign as a joke, Azar wasn’t laughing. When Trump began raising the stakes and doubling down on the hate, the band began to use their social media platform to speak out against him. They put together the design contest as an extension of those efforts.

As soon as the Brainwasher T-shirt (named after a track on Pussy’s Dead) hit the Daylight Curfew webstore, Autolux started to get pushback. One of the most disappointing comments was “Stay out of politics. Play for us, monkeys.” Edwards wrote back and tried to engage that commenter, but realized it was a lost cause when he got an even less helpful response: “Don’t vote, buy a gun.”

YouTube video

The pushback hasn’t just been from right-wingers or Trump supporters. Some fans have asked the band to be “above politics” or to preserve their music’s place as an “escape” from the current political climate. Edwards admits that celebrities sometimes use their platforms to “preach to the choir,” making their activism more about ego than about real change, but he also feels there’s a proper, humble way to go about it. Azar thinks the danger of silence is too great: “I think there are certain points where someone crosses a line and you can’t ignore it,” she says. “And most of our fans, probably 99.9 percent of our fans, feel the repercussions of lawmakers and other people that are creating a negative landscape out there.”

America has endured just two weeks of Trump as president-elect, and he’s already proved himself one of the most terrifying people yet to hold that position. The notion that artists have a responsibility to react to political disasters needs to be embraced more widely and urgently than ever before. It’s not musicians’ job to be political spokespeople, but they can hold a mirror to reality—and the best can do it subconsciously.

Pussy’s Dead was written before Trump’s victory, but it still feels appropriate now—not just its title but also its haunting, dystopian lyrics and its oppressive atmosphere, which pulses anxiously like a sky full of drones.

“We didn’t start a band to hold a torch and do the battle cry,” says Azar. “But when it starts affecting us all, we can’t help it. I’m a female; I experience sexism. I’m from Alabama; I know what racism is like. And when someone rises up and you become really emotionally affected, it’s hard not to say something. It’s hard not to speak up.”