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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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org