Painful Paeans to America
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.