There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
I want to discuss De La Soul’s ingenious “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa.” As I write this, I’m keenly aware of the timing.
I don’t just mean the (perversely) seasonal aspect of the song, although I do enjoy that.
The timing I refer to is that a month ago, this country elected Donald Trump. I’m not a journalist, I won’t feign neutrality.
As an artist, the approaching Trump/Bannon/Pence surveillance state has led me to contemplate the concept of protest music and what role it will play in the future.
When most people think about “protest music,” I imagine they conjure the mental image of, say, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, or Joan Baez: Direct, topical, strummed folk songs. Or perhaps they picture frenetic hardcore punk rock with the singer’s neck veins throbbing, howling blunt polemics. Or maybe they picture Chuck D’s inimitable bellow delivering righteous, rhythmic, bullseye text over an aggressive, agitated beat.
The two commonalities shared between all these forms: Populism and confrontation.
But the protest music that most appeals to me works outside of those commonalities. The protest music I love is stealthy and sly and understated and sometimes even abstract. The Trojan Horse model of dissent.
Stealth is the mode favored by De La Soul.
Let’s get this out of the way: “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa” is not a Christmas song. Instead, De La Soul cloaks an upsetting and violent narrative inside a loping, ambulatory hip-hop beat; a sinister juxtaposition of pleasant groove and inexorable bleakness that causes you to bob your head even as the grimness becomes evident.
The lyrics tell a gruesome story of sexual assault, incestuous child abuse, and, ultimately, brutal vengeance. We trace this tale with parallel perspectives. Pos mostly speaks from the omniscient vantage—narrating what really happens—while Trugoy provides the subjective view, detailing what the community perceives and thinks.
With access to this array of viewpoints, we are shown how assault victims (and particularly young, vulnerable girls) are tossed into the merciless chasm between the Actual Truth and What Is Believed. It’s chilling—and subtly feminist. Therein lies the protest.
Millie is a teenage girl whose father Dillon is the high school social worker. Dillon is charismatic, hip, and well-liked at the school, but his outward warmth and affability belie the fact that he ruthlessly rapes his daughter Millie behind closed doors. We follow Millie as she desperately seeks help, but her friends reject her pleas: Dillon seems so nice and so cool! It’s implausible that he is a monster.
Within his subjective account, Trugoy admits he does not take Millie seriously. He’s unsympathetic and condescending. (The nuanced humility of this self-indictment—he basically says “I’m not the hero of this story”—is unusually delicate for the field of hip-hop and it feels radical to me.)
Because Millie is isolated, terrorized, and unsupported, she becomes unhinged and decides to kill her dad, who is playing Santa at Macy’s. She goes to the store, armed with the titular gun. In a cinematic way, the narrative goes into slow motion at the end of the song and you can almost see the bullet leave the pistol.
“And with the quickness, it was over,” rings the haunting last line. An abrupt, devastating conclusion. No epilogue.
The unflinching darkness and gravity of “Millie” is emblematic of the vibe of 1991’s De La Soul Is Dead, the band’s second album. Everything about it—the title, the dour album cover, the subject matter of the songs—was a pointed rebuke of its predecessor, the band’s playful, celebrated, psychedelic 1989 debut 3 Feet High And Rising.
Young artists who have a burst of early success do this sometimes: They have an impulse to undermine a persona they established. (Witness Nirvana’s shift between Nevermind and In Utero.)
With 3 Feet High, De La Soul had demonstrated its technicolor imagination, shot through a lens of light and joy. So when it came time to follow it up, the band felt self-conscious and cagey about being pigeonholed. Consequently, there was a mission underlying De La Soul Is Dead: The songs were tougher and discernibly scarier.
Do songs like “Millie” have social consequence? I think so. Speaking for myself, it was educational: it introduced me to the concept of victim-blaming.
But let’s be real: A quarter century after De La Soul Is Dead, we’re still coming to terms with how reporters of rape and abuse victims are shamed and mistreated in our perniciously misogynist culture. The honest anguish of “Millie Pulled A Pistol On Santa”—“The story is fiction. The emotions are real,” Pos said in an interview—registers both as dissent and solace. A perennial Christmas gift, if you will.
It may not be an obvious protest song, but in its own sly way, it speaks truth to power.
Happy holidays. Enjoy the season. Brace yourself for what follows.