Just as wallpaper sometimes tells you almost everything you need to know about the people who live in the house it decorates, so too can even the most banal soundtrack to a political ad reveal far more about the candidate than word and image. So it is with the Obama campaign’s opening salvo in the presidential race—“Further,” the seven-minute video unveiled at the beginning of May. For those foolish enough to hope that the title and political tag-line is a riff on Ken Kesey’s 1960s Merry Prankster bus of the same name—think again. Instead of dayglo colors and sounds in mind-bending patterns for the ear and eye, the Democrats have orchestrated their campaign in musical and ideological tonalities that extend from off-white to the lighter shades of beige.
The musical wallpaper of “Further” accords with a basic wisdom of modern political advertising, indeed of modern politics in general: keep it simple. The general style is an earnest, synthesizer Minimalism—highly repetitive with the clichés expertly calibrated to get the proper, focus-grouped emotional responses. The relentlessness is both numbing and weirdly gripping, and unfortunately, its insistence cannot be ignored. It’s a bit like a doctor tapping ceaselessly on your knee with his little rubber mallet, not happy with one reflex-kick but intent on getting hyperactive dozens.
The video begins in Bush Time. While an angry red line cascades downward on a graph marking job losses, we see superimposed images and hear commentary describing the economic calamity. A synthesized C-sharp, bell-like but muted, throbs in the foreground—that doctor’s damned hammer—as the other voices cycle downward along with the graph in a kind of lamenting bass-line. The signifier is unmistakably that of death and decay, though we’re a long way from Bach’s Crucifixus. Punctuating this prelude is Alan Greenspan’s pronouncement that the meltdown was a “once in a century type event” with the music not coming to a clear conclusion but instead wispily evaporating upward in a kind of befuddled, echoing mist.
With the sins of Obama’s predecessors taken care of in this forty-second introduction, we jump to Inauguration Day 2009 (for more on that musical false flag see here). After granting the new President a few unaccompanied words about resolving to face the challenges ahead, an agitated figure in the synth strings is spurred on by percussion kicks that give the President’s sound the direction that the aimlessly revolving harmonies cannot. The musical ambience is still minor and foreboding, but now energized and determined. As Obama saves Detroit and his policies create more than four million new jobs, angular melodic figures throw their elbows around as Wall Street, the banks, and insurance companies are brought into line to an ever-busier drum beat.
But this suddenly resolute tone is silenced when it collides with the next section depicting the Republican campaign to block all of Obama’s initiatives. Images of Rush Limbaugh flapping his appendages like an elephant seal and of the bespectacled Glenn Beck pounding his own palm are set to a naive figure that brings to mind a music box, that sonority later topped by a fairy-like bell that parodies the childishness of these pundits and their stooges in congress. Later, the light jingling of a tambourine evokes the malicious fun these bullies are having torturing the beleaguered president.
The crackle and fizz of a snare chases away the ruffians, and we see Obama walking pensively along a White House colonnade. Here is a true commander-in-chief, who is proud to execute his own citizen Anwar al-Awlaki and then gives us, as the huskily-voiced narrator puts it, “the victory no one saw coming” — the assassination of Osama bin Laden. In solemn tones Obama welcomes the troops home after ending the war in Iraq. These historic moments are underpinned by a beat that is earnest and electric at the same time—call it color guard disco. Between changes of scene that lead from a White House podium to speeches to the troops, the triumph-over-adversity music of the video’s second section surges across the Iraqi desert.
The “welcome home” offered by the President to the troops overseas brings the video to its final movement and back to the American Homeland where elections are won or lost. To shots of hay bails being thrown into the back of a pick up, a flag at sunset, old clapboard houses in a row, a dad playing ball with his kid, and a family walking down the sidewalk, the narrator tell us that the President “understands that America’s greatness is built on a strong middle-class.”
At the invocation of the hay-bucking middle-classes we hear for the first time the piano, that quintessential bourgeois instrument of yore, formerly the musical embodiment of hearth and home. Clearly you can still trust a piano, and it was therefore charged with revealing the true message of the Obama video. Rather than pursuing a covert musical operation like those launched against Limbaugh et al, the closing two-minute piano music brings everything out into the open.
In this euphoric coda the amorphous Minimalism of the video as a whole is supplanted by a tonally unambiguous plagal cadence repeated for what seem like an eternal two minutes and more.
By far the most frequent device used to bring closure to a piece of music in the Western tradition is not the plagal cadence, but the perfect cadence; the latter is a dominant chord succeeded by the chord of the home key, also called the tonic. In the key of C, for example, this would be G Major followed by C major. In various ways and forms, tension between that dominant chord and its resolution drives almost all of the classical and popular repertoires. The perfect cadence’s most important duty is to secure an ending. Listen to the conclusion of the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Fifth and you’ll hear a perfect cadence made a dozen times in a row in an attempt to bring the momentum of that colossus symphony to a halt. Some feminists have heard this kind of obsessive cadencing as a form of male aggression, and its energetic, forward-driving (arguably violent) nature cannot be denied.
The plagal cadence by contrast—subdominant to tonic, or F to C in the key of C—is most commonly used for the “Amen” of hymns. 99.9% of all hymns properly end with a perfect cadence; the plagal “Amen” can be tacked on or not. Plagal cadences are in this sense optional, only confirming what has already been said.
What is different about the Obama video coda is that the plagal cadence is grafted onto an anodyne pop-driven groove that allows it to repeat countless times as Obama’s successes are recapitulated. From the resuscitation of the auto industry to bin Laden’s death, the piano chugs along to the relentless beat, while a countermelody swoops above. Each “amen” cadence is a benediction for victories in the good fight at home and abroad.
For its closing images the video moves to a speech in which Obama appeals to the middle class and the American Dream. Like a preacher at his pulpit each victorious prayer is sealed by the cadence. Wondering whether we’ll ever be released from this plagal purgatory, we are relieved finally to come finally to Obama’s own benediction: “God bless you, God bless America!”
The soundtrack has already pounded that same pious message of American exceptionalism into its congregation. The eternal plagal cadence has prepared the way for the President’s “Amen” and already done the real work of trying to convert the so-called independents: Vote for Obama because he is a Christian.