The War on Kitsch


Among the music left in my grandmother’s piano bench is a “war edition” from 1917  of a sentimental love-song entitled “K-K-K-Katy” composed by Army Song Leader Geoffrey O’Hara. On the back page of the single-fold half-folio—a small format adopted says the publisher “to co-operate with the Government and to conserve paper during the War” since “Save! Save! Save is the watchword today”—is an advertisement for some other war-time offerings.  Among my favorite titles are the catchy “Just like Washington Crossed the Delaware General Pershing Will Cross the Rhine”; the forthright “We Stopped them at the Marne”; and my own favorite, “It’s a Long Way to Berlin, But We’ll Get There,” which turned out to be something of a hit when recorded by Arthur Fields that same year.

To judge from the songs, 1917 was  an optimistic year in the United States, far from the realities of Europe: no lyrics about No-Man’s Land, mustard gas, trench warfare.  And no, they didn’t get to Berlin.

The Second World War’s first popular anthem, at least as far as the U.S. was concerned, was “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition and We’ll All be Free”—words and music by Frank Loesser; the text was based on the supposed utterance of a chaplain named Howell Forgy aboard the U.S.S. New Orleans at Pearl Harbor. This song may be more hard hitting than its World War One predecessors but it, too, seems hopelessly, laughably quaint now.

One is tempted to think of those as simpler times, to imagine that we would smile condescendingly at my grandparents if they were alive today, expecting similarly buoyant songs like, say, “I’ve Got a Sweetheart in the Northern Alliance” or “Daddy’s a Delta Force Hero.” But who can now deny that the American belief system appears miraculously to be intact?  Love of God (ours) and Smart Weapons (also ours) will deliver us from the forces of darkness.

Such are the prevailing surrealisms that one would hardly be surprised to see a renewal of similarly absurd and catchy lyrics updating the words and melodies 1917: “Rollover Mullah Omar, and tell Ossama the News/Uncle Sam gots a Daisy Cutter that’s Gonna Give Taliban the Blues.”

The mixture of naïve optimism, garden-variety patriotism, and bad taste is the fail-safe and seemingly eternal recipe for propagandistic war music: the grisly business ahead heralded by light, pattering melodies, imminently danceable rhythms, comfortable harmonies.

This is what we expect from the music that accompanies us to wars.  Tin Pan ally would hardly have welcomed a lyric such as Wilfred Owens “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?” set so unsettlingly by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem of 1962, a work first performed for the rededication of the new Coventry Cathedral, a building bombed by the Germans in the Second World War.

Indeed, it is entirely appropriate that Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America“— a cancerous paean that had been in fairly stable remission in the body politic with only intermittent and predictable eruptions—should have metastasized into every corner of national civic musical life since September 11, from the 7th inning stretch of Game 7 of the 2001 World Series to Madonna on her Drowned World Tour to aged British rock stars staggering around Madison Square Garden.

Berlin first concocted “God Bless America” in 1918 as a chorus to one of his musicals, then exhumed it for Kate Smith in 1938 in advance of the second big war of the last century. It is a song whose harmonic and melodic profile— particularly the goose-stepping bass-line of the chorus—has always reminded me of the marginally more dreadful “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a hymn  extruded from Arthur Sullivan on a day off from the Savoy. Oh how I hate both tunes, these two steaming musical cesspools! And what a grim sight it has been to watch every musikant from Daniel Barenboim to Roger Daltry jump in with such apparent conviction.

It has to be admitted that “God Bless America” is more singable than the ungainly “Star-spangled Banner,” whose tune is anyway an English drinking song. Many prefer Berlin’s nationalist hymn to the similarly derivative “America”, which takes it melody from the British national anthem “God Save the King.” (Actually the shared ancestry of both sets of pieces nicely symbolizes the seemingly unshakeable geo-political alignment of Britain and the United Stated, an alliance so crucial to the War on Terrorism. “America” is the perfect musical encapsulation of the fact that the sun has still not set on the great English-speaking empire.”)

In the aftermath of September 11th The U. S. Army bands have been busy and Berlin’s ascendant national anthem has been the lynchpin of their repertoire. October 4th and 5th the Army’s marquee band traveled to New York where it received a rapturous reception at their Lincoln Center concert. The Army Chorus with soloist Tenor Staff Sgt. Steve Cramer sang “A Hero for Today” on the today Show, with the audience in Rockefeller Center plaza breaking into a chant of “U. S. A., U. S. A.” before the last of these rousing strains had faded. Tenor, Sergeant 1st Class Bob McDonald sang “God Bless America” at Ground Zero, describing how “the whole place had a sacred feel to it. It’s a burial ground with an element of otherworldliness.  There was also an element of humanity that was so strong.”

Another member of the Army Band claimed that Ground Zero reminded him of his first trip to the Grand Canyon.  “I knew it [Ground Zero] was there,” said Johnny Turpen. “I’d seen photos in magazines, film and video but I was still unprepared for the awesome vista before me when I was actually there.”

(This discourse goes back to Edmund Burke’s mid-eighteenth century account of the Sublime, that uplifting mixture of terror and awe with which European elites first aestheticized the geographies and forces and of the natural world, from the Alps to Earthquakes. The comparison to the Grand Canyon and the ubiquitous descriptions of the sanctity of the site begin to confirm my belief that Ground Zero should be left as it is. Ground Zero is already thronged with memorabilia hawkers and tourists with digital cameras. Terror-tourism could be very good for the New York economy.)

Yes, the early phases of war are filled with musical bluster and banality. A lone tenor emitting the ghastly strains of “God Bless America” over the hallowed hole in Lower Manhattan is the ultimate proof of the centrality of kitsch in propaganda.  Tiny Pan Alley could never have dreamt that one of its penny sheets would be taken up into the national liturgy.

The final gloss added to the Psalm 23 by Todd Beamer, leader of the assault on the cockpit on the doomed September 11th flight 93 that crashed in Pennsylvania speaks to the new lyric sensibility:  “Though I walk through the valley of death/ I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me, they rod and thy staff, they comfort me. … Let’s Roll!” It’s as if the greatest of Judeo-Christian musicians, the psalmist King David, puts down his lyre and takes up Rambo’s M-1. In his most recent national address, George Bush adopted that final motto with the utter lack of originality that is his trademark.  “Let’s roll!” now suffices for a declaration of perpetual war.

As for our present-day psalm at the top of charts: yes, I’m afraid we will continue to have to endure “God Bless America”—written at the piano by the Russian-born Berlin in the only key he could play in, F-sharp. (Noel Coward mistakenly claimed Berlin could play only in C major.) 

Even without Homer having told of the seductive voices of the Sirens, the attentive among us recognize the transgressive potential of song.  It is this furtive power that led the Army of the Potomac to ban the singing of the popular “When This Cruel War is Over” midway through the America Civil War. As always, truthful music will be a vital delivery system for dissent in the grim years ahead, in the endless, borderless War on Kitsch.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omni. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu  


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