Danny Elfman Is Here to Remind Listeners "It's Always Been About Politics"

The guy who wrote the theme from 'The Simpsons' is back with a big "fuck you"
Danny Elfman Is Here to Remind Listeners 'It's Always Been About Politics'
Photo: Jacob Boll
A lot has changed since Danny Elfman released his last solo album way back in 1984. The onetime Oingo Boingo leader became one of Hollywood's most sought-after composers, notably writing the theme song for The Simpsons; he developed an interest in heavy industrial music; the 67-year-old's voice dropped with age, turning into a gravely snarl. But, perhaps most importantly, he became really pissed off.

"I was so overflowing with venom and it just had to come out," he tells Exclaim! over the phone from Los Angeles. "And then when I started writing, I couldn't shut it down."

So what was he so angry about? The obvious, really.

"I never could have imagined that we would be handing over our democracy to this crazy madness," he says, the bewilderment audible in his voice as he reflects on the last few years of American politics. "It was this very conscious understanding of how fragile democracies are, and what it must have felt like in 1929. Germany handed over their democracy in an election. And, like, today, it was an election founded on a lie."

He's quick to clarify that he isn't likening former U.S. president Donald Trump to Hitler; rather, he's comparing the apparent ease with which a demagogue threatened a democracy.

"My anger really wasn't even directed at Trump, because the world is full of sociopaths ready to grab control of the wheel. They'll do it," he says. "It was the ease with which the [Republican] Party embraced that and enabled him — that was the frustrating part. He should have been like a fringe character. I get it: you've got QAnon, you've got Trump, you've got these fringe conspiracy things. But don't hand over the keys to to that demagogue just because they've got a popular base. But they did."

Throw in the depression and isolation of the coronavirus pandemic and you've got a recipe for some seriously angry music. The result is Big Mess, an industrial rock double album that will be a major surprise for anyone who knows Elfman for, say, his Edward Scissorhands or The Nightmare Before Christmas scores. He wrote it in 2020, using a minimal setup while quarantining in a house outside of the city with his family.

Beginning with the skronky guitars, menacing drum fills and eerie choirs of "Sorry," Big Mess takes listeners through creepy orchestrations on "In Time," hypnotic acoustic chants on "Dance with the Lemurs" and stomping hard rock on "Just a Human." He even tackles his political foe head-on with the industrial electro strut of "Choose Your Side," which samples a speech from Donald Trump himself.

It's strange, challenging music with an overt political perspective — but if some listeners find it alienating, Elfman is fine with that.

"When I became a film composer, every other composer hated my guts because I came from a rock band, and they didn't like that," he remembers. "A part of me is coming from the punk days, just like, 'Well fuck you!' As a composer, I was literally for 10 years driven by: 'I'll show those motherfuckers.'"

Rather than ruffling feathers just for fun, Elfman thinks it's time to make a stand for the good of society, regardless of the consequences. When he first spoke out publicly against Trump, he got hate mail telling him to stay out to politics and stick to music.

"You just can't sit in the middle," he argues. "You've got to declare, you either are or aren't with this shit. You can't just sit quietly and go, 'Well I see good people on both sides,' like Trump did during the white nationalist thing. Uh-uh. No. That just won't fly. Now we're talking about big issues of lying and cheating and falsehoods. You just can't sit and do nothing. I felt like I had to declare myself, for better or for worse."

In a world where basketball players are told to "shut up and dribble" and football players are blacklisted for kneeling during the national anthem, Elfman is lashing back.

He asserts, "Anybody who's in a public place, what they do affects people as part of the culture. They have an obligation — or a right, certainly, if not an obligation — to try to do something to make their culture better. And so 'shut up and dribble' or 'shut up and throw the ball'? It's like, fuck you! It's always been about politics. Everything is always about politics."