The importance of music can only be truly gauged by its absence. A bride walking down the aisle in silence is an act that thunders more loudly than a hundred trumpets and timpani. Likewise, watching the first presidential debate on YouTube’s election hub introduced by the vacuous third-string junior varsity ABC news team literally twittering their way through the pre-game hype, was like entering an oxygenless chamber and quickly realizing that the only escape from the dire lack of sustaining content was to wait for the mercy of the big sleep—or at least take comfort in the hope that one might be able to enjoy an evening of slumber on the sofa. Staying up for this snoozefest was more difficult than remaining awake for a reading of Goodnight Moon after drinking a couple of valium-laced whiskeys.
Where was the opening snap of the snare drum to remind us of the disciplined rhetorical skills about to be required of, and demonstrated by, the great statesmen now striding to the garishly veneered particleboard podiums? Where was the free-range, Coplandesque concerto evoking the vast American spaces the candidates had ceaselessly traversed during their campaigns in order to meet the people of this great land? Where was the stentorian march marking the earnestness of the occasion, and encouraging us—against all the evidence—to believe that this election, like all before it, is the most important in American history? Where was the trumpet fanfare reminding us of America’s imperial reach and responsibility in keeping the world safe for democracy?
We know that these debates are thoroughly staged: third-party candidates are excluded; the questions are vetted by the respective candidates’ advisors; the harmless duels are set up by the bogus Commission on Presidential Debates headed exclusively by Republicans and Democratic fixers, with a token Kennedy (Caroline) made to grace the penthouse organizing party in a transparent attempt to lend a kind of regal legitimacy to the show.
If the debates are going to be staged, then stage them: give us a soundtrack that might somehow lend the soporific event at least the illusion of relevance and provide some dramatic interest. Remaining vaguely attentive for this dreary spectacle without the necessary music is asking way too much of those average Americans incessantly invoked by Obama and Romney over the grinding 90 minutes of the debate.
The organizers anticipated 60 million viewers, though I can’t imagine that number was reached, and if it was, that even half who tuned in stayed the dreary course. Even so, the broader viewing public is vast compared to the miniscule audience in the University of Denver auditorium, an audience only dimly and occasionally seen at Jim Lehrer’s back. The event was one for the screen, ranging in size from home-cinema mainsails to palm-held postage-stamps. Maybe a few luckless souls even streamed the debate on prototype Google glasses, thereby testing a potential form of torture for Guantanamo terror suspects.
Since the debates are in essence a screened phenomenon we expect and deserve a soundtrack. Few movies are without them, since so few filmmakers dare to let action and dialogue speak for themselves. Consider for example, the Dardenne brothers, two-time winners of the Palme d’Or at Cannes; they are exceptional in their general refusal to add a musical soundtrack to their films. Their most recent movie of 2011, The Kid with a Bike, is a rare counterexample in which the filmmakers introduce music that hovers somewhere far beyond the world of the film; this music seems to represent the emotional needs of the twelve-year-old protagonist, abandoned by his father. It is probably no coincidence that this film is also the Dardennes most optimistic.
In their other work, most unforgettably The Child of 2005 (one of the Dardennes’ Palme d’Or-winning films), the absence of music amplifies the relentless on-screen realism; they dispense no sonic salve that might ease the discomfort of viewers watching helplessly as the course pursued by characters leads to a black fate—the sale of the baby; its harrowing retrieval; and the break-up of the low-life nuclear family, just reunited against terrible odds, when the father is shipped off to prison for his crimes. To be sure, many great films are made great, at least in part, by their soundtracks: think of Bernhard Hermann’s scores for Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Welles’ Citizen Kane. More generally, however, Hollywood’s heavy reliance on the emotional manipulations music is capable of masks the poor quality of many of the movie industry’s creations. Without a soundtrack, such productions threaten to engender boredom, indifference, puzzlement—or a combination of all three. Such is the frequent result when image and action assault us without the covering fire of musical sound.
And so it was with the Wednesday’s Denver debate: the numbingly repetitive slogans and auto-responses unalloyed by music tended to focus the mind on the reality of the rhetorical situation and how devoid of substance it really was. Without the spooky diminished chords from Bach’s Toccata in D Minor (preferably in the Stokowski arrangement for orchestra made famous in Disney’s Fantasia of 1940) we could not be made to take seriously the candidates’ Sword-of-Damocles pronouncements on and prescriptions for the federal deficit. We could have used some of the Barber Adagio (think Oliver Stone’s Platoon) or maybe just Onward Christian Soldiers when Romney repeatedly said he wouldn’t cut the military budget. The obvious—and necessary—musical cue for Obama when, as expected, he boasted of his execution of Osama bin Laden was Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (as in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). The former Massachusetts Governor’s read-my-lips-no-new-tax-cuts refrain needed the galloping optimism and resolve of the Credo from Mozart’s Mass in C minor.
Musical cues were more crucial still in the evening’s most excruciatingly maudlin moments. Never was Henry Mancini’s theme from Love Story more called for than when the candidates hugged their wives at the opening of the broadcast. It’s true that the Love Story theme is minor-keyed and tragic in a saccharine sort of way, but therefore all the more suited to the circumstance, since the men are heading immediately into a mortal war of words against one another. The cringe-making anniversary wishes sent by beaming Obama down to his front-row wife cried out for There Will Never Be Another You as done by Dexter Gordon in his magisterial reading of the song on his 1967 album Body and Soul. That hip touch would have struck the right pose for the supposedly cool President. On the other end of the evening, we would have welcomed the jangling Appalachian guitars and soaring trumpet of the theme from The Waltons when the Romney generations thronged the stage after the flaccid words of the closing statements echoed limply into their own oblivion.
But the most important musical segment would have been the commemoration of fallen Jim Lehrer. Set in a deeply-lined face that resembled a heavily gerrymandered electoral map, Lehrer’s gentle brown eyes, already large, grew to unprecedented circumferences of disbelief at the moment he was crushed under the treads of the twin tanks Obama and Romney. As the corpse of his journalistic career was carried from behind his semi-circular anchor’s desk, I imagined the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Not that Lehrer had ever made for even half of a hero, but given the utter lack of courage and ideas on Wednesday night in Denver the tiresome ritual of the debate could have only been saved by recourse to sublime kitsch, the banal elevated to the entertaining by means of fabulous exaggeration. For now, however, the monotone of American politics will have to be relieved purely by the self-preserving instincts of the individual musical imagination.