FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Painful Paeans to America

by DAVID YEARSLEY

Panic set in not for the obvious reasons: the blinding white stone of the Capitol dome, ramparts and columns resembling nothing so much as Albert Speer’s Hall of the People after a full-on peroxide scrub down; the huge American flags draped behind the podium with their ever-increasing number of stars tracing the brutal conquest of a continent; the howitzers, whose saluting blasts to the retreadPresident could easily have been mistaken for an action to quell a spontaneous revolution against the clichés raining down from the dais; and the fact that so many thousands went out of their way to act as a living backdrop to a spectacle that at every turn found new ways to violate reason.

No, it was the music that made me want to run to the nearest bridge and jump. Yet so creepily fascinating were the sounds and sights emanating from the television, that I, Odysseus-like, strapped myself to the couch and listened to the siren song of mortal schlock. The horror, the horror!

First came the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir, the women in their red jackets with fake-fur ruffs and cuffs, the men in blue coats and red scarves. It’s an ethnically diverse megachoir from an ethnically diverse megachurch whose message is pure whitebread. (The latest sermon available on the church’s website is entitled “The Sword,” the latest installment in the pastor’s Spiritual Warfare Series. Do not expect profound theological thought.) The chorus’s faces and voices are of the earnest, not of the ironic Brooklyn hipsters more often in national view. In January the choir released its recording of The Battle Hymn of the Republic on iTunes—a canny marketing move that came less than a week before Inauguration Day appearance.

The choir was introduced by emcee New York Senator Charles Schumer, who was so out of himself with joy at having the national attention focused on him that his grin threatened to spin from his face and slice through the crowd like a tire flying into the stands at Daytona Speedway. Schumer mentioned only the choir and its director, not the accompanying band.  That was the giveaway—as if any were needed—that the back-up was pre-recorded, presumably lifted wholesale from the aforementioned track now available for a mere ninety-cents on iTunes. The orchestral accompaniment had martial trumpets, Hollywood strings, and angelic bells that chimed, most preciously when soloist Alicia Olatuja let loose her angelic clarion of a voice. The instruments were being piped in without the pretense of suggesting live performance. All accepted, if tacitly, that this was choir karaoke.

As for the hackneyed touches of the arrangement, they were unremarkable in their opportunistic flourishes and general lack of imagination, but the lounge-hustle back-beat drum track reached a new low even for such mass exercises in the maudlin.

In spite of the half-live—and therefore half-dead—performance of the Tabernacle choir, they gave an accurate account of the musical state of the nation, a fitting soundtrack for politics lite. That saccharine beat is a defining feature of Christian Praise Music as practiced in the megachurches of this land. On the Mall on Monday John Brown’s truth didn’t go marching on, but instead shuffled by with a sexy swish of the hips. The fury of the Abolitionists has been reduced to easy listening.

The Charge of the Lite Brigade continued when James Taylor limped up to the mike, was handed his guitar, and began to croak out America the Beautiful. He added in a few mildly piquant harmonies—as if even heaping tablespoons of musical spice could have made this bland anthem to Manifest Destiny palatable.  Fortunately, like a tooth pulled expertly, it was over quickly. This performance appeared to be real—inasmuch as that designation has any meaning at a Presidential Inauguration—as could be heard in the ecstatic straining for which Taylor’s voice is celebrated and reviled, depending on one’s tastes. I guess Taylor was supposed to channel Woody Guthrie and his songs of the downtrodden, but there was none of Guthrie’s grain and guts. It may have been live but it was still lite.

After Obama’s address came yet another painful paean to America:  My Country ‘Tis of Thee sung by Kelly Clarkson. A decade ago she was crowned the very first American Idol, and has gone on to sell many millions of records.  She embodies the rags to riches myth. Schumer now introduced the Marine Corps band as her back-up, and the camera duly showed the decorated conductor conjuring sound from his troops. Kelly then started in with her husky come-hither brand of singing marked by its smoochy diction: “Sweed Land uv Liberdee.” She’s like Doris Day on valium and martinis. One can still hope against hope that Kelly is the songstress vampire who with this frankly frightening rendition has finally driven a stake through the heart of this undead anthem.

At least the inaugural impresarios got one thing right: they saved the worst for last: Beyoncé. Here again Schumer introduced the musical marines and the camera gave them some time. But they were simply going through the motions, like good soldiers. Beyoncé then went into routine. Though with limping scansion, she played the first bits straight, letting the Marines buttress her with rustle of snare and the swell of brass that imbued this musical benediction with seriousness of purpose. As she got to those bombs bursting in the air she let loose her own rockets of ornament, dramatically yanking her earpiece from beneath her highlighted tresses as if it were a shackle.

Of course she was lipsyncing it. People continue to attempt valiantly to be outraged that performances at these ceremonies are regularly faked, forgetting somehow that the late lamented Whitney Houston did the same at the SuperBowl half-time show two decades ago. It is almost quaint that even pop fans can still muster any indignity at this longstanding normality. Patriotic types tried to work themselves into a lather that the fakery was done to the nation’s sacred song, but that, too, is by now the standard operating procedure of hyperreality.

Four years ago the music for Obama’s first inauguration at least made an attempt at creative ambition and grandeur with the commissioning of John Williams’s classical chamber music quartet “Simple Gifts.” As only emerged after the fact, that performance was also faked, recording in the same Marine Corps studio used by Beyoncé for her latest covert musical operation.

This time around the repertoire consisted exclusively of patriotic hymns, reformatted according to what is held to be the lowest common denominator of prevailing taste.  The generically awful arrangements all shared a penchant for the deceptive cadence where  expected harmonic closure is skirted and deferred. It’s a technique used to great effect by many composers over the last few hundreds years. So frequent and foolish was the device at the inauguration that the unexpected became the expected. These musical feints provided a useful metaphor for America: What we had on the Mall on Monday is a music and politics of deception. To those gathered in Washington it may all have sounded like a celebration of new beginnings. To me it sounded like the end.

DAVID YEARSLEY s a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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