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There is no more crucial music in politics than the music of arrival: the procession, the overture, the fanfare. Just as the first glimpse of the public figure is the decisive one, so too is the music that marks that figure’s entrance. Political entrance music not only urges on the crowd to jubilation, but more crucially, tells these supporters how to feel. And in the current slog towards the presidential election, feelings are far more important than issues. Packaging is everything.
That the Republicans eschewed music for the live entrance of their candidates seemed shockingly sober in the aftermath of the dubious antics of the Democrats. The manipulative soundtracks of the biographical videos notwithstanding, the money shot of the actual arrival of McCain, Palin and the others was accompanied only by the crowd’s rapture. This very different approach to the taking of the stage was perhaps the biggest difference between the Republican and Democratic National Conventions.
The most obvious interpretation of the music-less entrance of the Republican speakers is that their candidates and party grandees are more interested in content than packaging. The sweetest music to any Republican’s ears is the cheering of the party faithful. Better to ride the groundswell of thronged enthusiasm than to mold it with a soundtrack.
But the covert efficiency of music in manipulating massed and individual sentiment should never be underestimated. Plato certainly didn’t underestimate it, and neither should we. The Republicans don’t.
One might initially be inclined to think that the Republicans, like Plato, are simply frightened of the transgressive nature of music now that American politics has moved away from the era of the brass band and on to canned country and pop, where the devil lurks.
I suspect that by avoiding entrance music altogether, Republicans were simply playing it safe. While the right music can whip up millions of people into hysterical support, the wrong music can just as quickly alienate them, especially in conjunction with the unattractive image the majority of American politicians present to us. Many have still to recover from election night 1992, when the Bill, Hillary, Al and Tipper boogied to Fleetwood Mac’s “Can’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” reprised this time around in Denver for Silver Bill’s appearance. Watching Rudy Giuliani swing his hips to some pop hit would be enough to frighten away millions of swing voters. Rather than embarrass their patently un-hip speakers with some transparent attempt to be youthful, the Republicans showed a rare moment of restraint, and even taste.
The Democrats were not so my high-minded and could never be accused of being tasteful. Still molded by Bill Clinton’s love affair with Hollywood and the liberal cultural industry, the Democrats continue to rely on pop music as the undergirding of their party platform. Watching Hillary saunter around the stage to Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ hit “Blue Sky” blaring out over the sound system was difficult to take without a stiff drink in hand. The band is from Colorado, which fit in well with the New Heartland setting for the convention. The music is young, energetic, idealistic, and its lyrics foregrounds that ubiquitous non-theme of the Democratic challenge: Change. It is simple music, easy to understand and to be swayed by. The chorus runs: “Oh yes, you can change the world” and we heard this many times as Hillary patrolled the stage, working the crowd. The music doesn’t require much thought, nor should it be expected to. It’s simplicity is its message.
But it all requires a massive suspension of disbelief, even greater than that required for the convention spectacle as a whole. “Gonna make it real, gonna make it shine, gonna keep it grooving on”: this is Hillary?
In her defense, there are only a very few politicians who can seem comfortable listening to a younger generation’s music, especially when doing so before thousands of convention goers and millions of viewers. The main consequence of the Hillary’s entrance music is not the encouragement of vitality and optimism, but sheer embarrassment.
It got even worse in the hands of the network. As the chorus went on with the words “There is no other one” the cameras cut back and forth between the beaming Bill and the buoyant Hillary, thus beggaring any residual belief in the credibility of the whole show. Never were more ironic images fitted to a paean to true love. Republicans must have been chortling the whole time.
Joseph Biden’s entrance to John Mellencamp’s “Only in America” suffered from a less extreme generation gap, but at least it did not founder on the same dissonance of word and image cleverly delivered the world by the networks to the detriment of the Clinton legacy.
Obama’s entrance music for his acceptance speech did not commit such an overt lapse in judgment. It was far more insidious than that. Basking in the cheers of 80,000 fans, Obama walked out onto the stage to synthesized instrumental music: layers of sound swirling out above the throng at a gentle but insistent tempo. A halo of electronic stardust hovered above the fake-urgency of the harmony. A slightly distorted guitar imbued the sound with an edge of desire. I did not recognize the melody, such as it was, but the genre seemed clear: this was Christian Praise music, as healing, as superficial, as conservative it comes. Get rid of the placards and balloons and what you’ve got is a massed Christian revival: a Promise Keepers gathering with women along for the ride.
Unexpectedly, Obama’s apotheosis was enacted to a textless music, which unashamedly indulges in its own indistinctness. There is a good deal of overlap in the musical vocabulary of the New Age and the conservative Evangelical Right, an irony that goes to show how much the two constituencies actually share with one other.The harmony changes but without purpose or meaning. It is the modern evocation of pure ecstasy, offering everything but delivering nothing.
The fade out of the entrance music into the pure rapture of the crowd’s jubilation underscores the painful truth that Obama’s vision of change is as impotent as the music which promises it.
Obama’s exit music confirms this lack of substance. After his speech, Obama wallowed in the heartland sentimentality of Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” which had been used by George Bush after his speech at the Republican National Convention in 2004. This choice marks an updating of the Clintonite strategy of triangulation into the iPod Age: download the playlist of your opponent. The axiom is: You are your music. The vital corollary: if you like my music, you’ll like me. You’ll vote for me, too. Hugging your opponent musically is the final proof that American politics has ended. Sadly, the music plays on.
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
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