FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Palin’s Flute, Obama’s Voice

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Before election day puts an end to this interminable song and dance, there’s one last chance to listen to the music — the candidates’ music.  It is in light of their musical tastes and talents that politicians’ character is most clearly to be judged, not from their campaign trail bluster, not in their gropings in the Senate cloakroom, not from the smiles put on for the family photo shoot.

We begin with Sarah Palin. Much has been made of her affection for the rock band Van Halen, and that she and Todd gave their latest offspring Trig the middle name “Van,” thus providing the afflicted lad with the lifetime joy of rhyming Van Palin with Van Halen. What a thrill for Palin it must have been when McCain introduced her as his running mate at the Republican National Convention with Van Halen’s “Right Now.”

Palin perhaps did not understand—nor care—that the affection between musical star and devotee is not always reciprocal. In her case it certainly wasn’t.  After the one-night stand of political and sonic bliss, rejection came swiftly. The aged rockers of Van Halen let it be known through their management that permission for the song’s use “was not sought or granted, nor would it have been given.” In this terse communiquè is reflected a  total reversal in the cultural prestige attached to political leaders and cultural figures respectively.  Imagine Mozart telling Joseph II to go screw himself after the Emperor informed the composer that his Marriage of Figaro had “too many notes.” In Mozart’s day and before many a court musician harbored enormous contempt for their overlords, they just didn’t have the guts or money to say it. Nowadays politicians have to take such abuse from those whose music they love. But that hardly means that the politically powerful will stop listening. But if Palin’s favorite band isn’t voting for her, why should anyone else?

More telling is Sarah Palin the musician. Her performance on flute at the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant is necessary viewing. Costumed in faux-Victorian dress, Palin plays “The Homecoming,” originally written for a 1972 Salada tea commercial, and then re-used for the CBC version of Anne of Green Gables aired first in 1985.  Flutist James Galway had already made a schlocky arrangement of the schlocky tune. Galway’s intervention transformed the piece into a favorite of student flute players the world over. I had the dubious pleasure of accompanying “The Homecoming” more often than I care to remember in the same 1980s when Palin was displaying her fluting talents for the Miss Alaska judges.

The pageant band backing up Palin on that fateful evening had soaring horns, tasty brush work on the drums, and mellow Fender Rhodes piano: it all has a very groovy feel, the lounge-like musical ambience working in weird counterpoint to Sarah’s period outfit. She plays from memory, engaging the audience by looking around as she blows into her flute: rather than become lost in, or even transported by, the music, she assiduously courts the attention of the listeners. Like many commentators on performance, including the greatest flute master of all, Frederick the Great’s teacher Johann Joachim Quantz, Palin knows that deportment and stage presence are as important as the music itself. She is eager to please, and handles the pressure of the event admirably.

But the two-and-a-half minutes of Palin’s talent portion of the beauty contest are difficult to endure because Palin’s playing is so out of tune. That she is badly sharp throughout can perhaps be attributed to the fact that she probably didn’t have time to check her pitch with the band beforehand. Undaunted, Palin soldiers on through the sentimental strains of “Homecoming,” with neither the time nor the interest for such crucial refinements as tuning.  She has prepared and will follow it through, without heeding those around her. It is not just that she might have a tin ear; even aside from the tuning, one hears her unyielding personality in the performance. Rarely has the flute been played with such an indifference to its greatest assets: subtlety. This is a woman who has made up her mind about everything.

Her running mate is proud of being Philistine, and in McCain’s case one believes this to be sincere, rather than an anti-elitist ploy to court NASCAR votes, though I’m not sure how popular “Dancing Queen” of ABBA, his supposed all-time favorite song, is with this voting bloc?  None of the names on McCain’s top-ten music list corresponds chronologically to his teen years, when most people formed their musical tastes, or, more accurately, were formed by the music they loved. Rather, McCain’s music is the most run-of-the-mill assortment, so hackneyed that it seems more like the results of poll taken at the Mall of the Americas, rather than the emotional property of a real human being. His musical favorites are anything but maverick: “Good Vibrations of the Beach Boys; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” sung by Sinatra; “What a Wonderful World,” performed by Louis Armstrong.

Two of ABBA’s greatest hits come in at McCain’s numbers one and three. “Dancing Queen” is an endearing choice for his number one. It is truly touching to imagine the gimpy military and political veteran feeling the thrill of this dance classic in his battered body, yet unable to hoist his limbs into disco mode. His love of ABBA converts McCain into a tragic figure. It is not that McCain is too old or feeble: his music makes it clear that he belongs to no generation, and as a result too few of any age group will have him on their dance card come Tuesday.

Less endearing by a long shot is Joe Biden. When still a presidential candidate in the Spring of 2007, he and the other contenders were asked by the Associated Press of their latest musical purchase. Cagey as ever, Biden skirted the question by responding “My sister’s playlist.”  This seemed like a rather incriminating response from this copyright and anti-piracy crusader. But it also showed that Biden’s alleged public sincerity, like his phantom music, is  pure political calculation. Apparently, the simplest and most important of questions—what music do you like?—must be spun: focus-grouped, policy-wonked, and calibrated to the latest poll.  Never was so much divulged in a non-answer.  Trust Biden at your peril.

Finally, we come to Obama, the most musical of the candidates. In a 2007 appearance on the popular Mexican-American radio show out of Los Angeles “Piolin por La Manana,” Obama sang a few strains of “Mexico Lindo y Querido” (Beautiful and Beloved Mexico) by Latin pop singer Maria Jose Quintanilla. Obama told the host, Eddie “Piolin” Sotello, that President Kennedy had been an excellent singer, and Sotello then asked Obama what his favorite song is. Clearly this was all set up beforehand. A guitar strums some chords and Obama sings in Spanish in an expressive parlando style, warm but tinged with melancholy. Obama breaks off after a few bars and we then hear Quintanilla’s version of her hit rendered in a pinched, pop-star soprano. Obama then says “It sounds a lot better when she does it.”  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Obama is the better singer by every measure. In his few plaintive measures one can hear a real gift for vocal nuance and a natural feeling for the communicative power of music—the same gifts that mark Obama’s oratory. In both it is the voice that appeals, far more than the message.

Earlier in 2007 Hillary Clinton had been caught doing a very off-key rendition of Happy Birthday. She then pledged not to sing for the remainder of the campaign. Obama’s Happy Birthday is much better, and his “Mexico Lindo y Querido” is a minor triumph, and was the clearest sign that he would beat Clinton. Obama defeated her with his speaking-singing voice, and it looks now as if this, his strongest weapon will carry the day on November 4. If it doesn’t, let him sing the blues. I’d much rather hear that than his victory speech.

Palin’s Flute Playing

Obama’s Singing

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 Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

 

 

 

 

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
December 02, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
The Coming War on China
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: The CIA’s Plots to Kill Castro
Paul Street
The Iron Heel at Home: Force Matters
Pam Martens - Russ Martens
Timberg’s Tale: Washington Post Reporter Spreads Blacklist of Independent Journalist Sites
Andrew Levine
Must We Now Rethink the Hillary Question? Absolutely, Not
Joshua Frank
CounterPunch as Russian Propagandists: the Washington Post’s Shallow Smear
David Rosen
The Return of HUAC?
Rob Urie
Race and Class in Trump’s America
Patrick Cockburn
Why Everything You’ve Read About Syria and Iraq Could be Wrong
Caroline Hurley
Anatomy of a Nationalist
Ayesha Khan
A Muslim Woman’s Reflections on Trump’s Misogyny
Michael Hudson – Steve Keen
Rebel Economists on the Historical Path to a Global Recovery
Russell Mokhiber
Sanders Single Payer and Death by Democrat
Roger Harris
The Triumph of Trump and the Specter of Fascism
Steve Horn
Donald Trump’s Swamp: Meet Ten Potential Energy and Climate Cabinet Picks and the Pickers
Louis Proyect
Deepening Contradictions: Identity Politics and Steelworkers
Ralph Nader
Trump and His Betraying Makeover
Stephen Kimber
The Media’s Abysmal Coverage of Castro’s Death
Dan Bacher
WSPA: The West’s Most Powerful Corporate Lobbying Group
Nile Bowie
Will Trump backpedal on the Trans-Pacific Partnership?
Ron Ridenour
Fidel’s Death Brings Forth Great and Sad Memories
Missy Comley Beattie
By Invitation Only
Fred Gardner
Sword of Damocles: Pot Partisans Fear Trump’s DOJ
Renee Parsons
Obama and Propornot
Dean Baker
Cash and Carrier: Trump and Pence Put on a Show
Jack Rasmus
Taming Trump: From Faux Left to Faux Right Populism
Ron Jacobs
Selling Racism—A Lesson From Pretoria
Julian Vigo
The Hijos of Buenos Aires:  When Identity is Political
Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano
By Way of Prologue: On How We Arrived at the Watchtower and What We Saw from There
Dave Lindorff
Is Trump’s Idea To Fix the ‘Rigged System’ by Appointing Crooks Who’ve Played It?
Aidan O'Brien
Fidel and Spain: A Tale of Right and Wrong
Carol Dansereau
Stop Groveling! How to Thwart Trump and Save the World
Kim Nicolini
Moonlight, The Movie
Evan Jones
Behind GE’s Takeover of Alstom Energy
James A Haught
White Evangelicals are Fading, Powerful, Baffling
Barbara Moroncini
Protests and Their Others
Joseph Natoli
The Winds at Their Backs
Cesar Chelala
Poverty is Not Only an Ignored Word
David Swanson
75 Years of Pearl Harbor Lies
Alex Jensen
The Great Deceleration
Nyla Ali Khan
When Faith is the Legacy of One’s Upbringing
Gilbert Mercier
Trump Win: Paradigm Shift or Status Quo?
Stephen Martin
From ‘Too Big to Fail’ to ‘Too Big to Lie’: the End Game of Corporatist Globalization.
Charles R. Larson
Review: Emma Jane Kirby’s “The Optician of Lampedusa”
David Yearsley
Haydn Seek With Hsu
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail