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Last Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize Concert resembled nothing so much as an all-star infomercial: smarmy and smiley, slickly produced, and about as believable as six-pack abs in one week or your money back. The product was Obama, wrapped tightly in the cellophane packaging of hope and change. The previous day’s speech was the fine print, the double-speak that legally protects the seller from the truth that he’ll deliver none of his promises and has no intention of doing so. Forsaking fact, the infomercial is all about feeling and fashion: in the Obama era politics has become a lifestyle choice.
Streamed live worldwide the concert was harder to take even than the speech. Rulers are expected to glory in the love of the subjects, even if with regal detachment, accepting the love of the masses with equanimity. It was with the celebrations that followed the Nobel enthronement that things became still more unbearable, with fawning entertainers singing and dancing and emitting the most obsequious tributes imaginable.
This abject posture has a long history: composers throughout the centuries have churned out works and performed them in honor rulers’ birthdays and namedays, weddings and jubilees. Such music has depicted inept general-kings as mighty warriors, and made men of peace out of merciless conquerors. To earn his keep, Bach made a good part of his career writing music that turned princes into gods. Handel anointed a debauched Hanoverian King with his Coronation Anthems. Haydn swaddled Emperor Franz in the holy hymn that would later become Deutschland über alles.
The dedications to such works groveled according to the time-honored precepts of the genre. The endless opening sentence of Bach’s dedication letter of B-Minor Mass to the King of Poland bows and scrapes as one would expect from an 18th-century functionary:
“To Your Royal Highness I submit in deepest devotion the present small work of that science which I have achieved in musique, with the most wholly submissive prayer that Your Highness will look upon it with Most Gracious Eyes, according to Your Highness’s World-Famous Clemency and not according to the poor composition; and thus deign to take me under your protection.”
The Nobel Concert hosts, Will Smith and wife, Jada, updated the diction of reverence with jokey asides and venacular shrugs. True, they were short on humility, knowing full well that movie and pop stars are the real royalty of the present age. Nonetheless, they said their solemn prayers to their leader with the proper actorly emphasis and ritual earnestness, thanking Obama “for the huge sacrfices he and his family are making for world peace” too many times to count. These on-stage paeans were intercut with prepared videos, as when Will and Jada interviewed the President. Before exploring the profundities of the Nobel Laureates’s conception of “moral imagination,” (indeed, it takes a lot of imagination to figure out Obama’s ethic), Will made some flirty comments about Michelle’s sexiness. The whiff of wife-swapping hung in the Stockholm studio air. If Obama was depicted in Stockholm as Mars the Bringer of Peace, Michelle was Aphrodite. Had Bach commented on the décolletage of the Saxon queen they would have chopped off his hand, or perhaps another appendage.
The ostensible reason for the Nobel concert, as the Swedish introducer informed the world-wide audience, was to have some fun after the serious business of the prize conferral and the speech. But it was pure royalty worship in the longest of European traditions.
The format, too, had an august pedigree: the Concert of Nations, a sort of musical precursor to the UN, another institution, which, according to the Nobel Committee and Will Smith’s scriptwriters, Obama has “significantly reinvigorated.” One of many examples of music of the gathered nations comes from the proceedings of the Treaty of Westphalia in the middle of the 17th century, where entertainments were staged for the conferees in which the various musical styles and dances of the formerly belligerent parties were presented in colorful array. Many operas are based on the same idea. Such spectacles always predicted that war would be vanquished by diplomacy. Music was the perfect metaphor for peace and prosperity, as it encouraged for indvidual expression even while working in concert.
The multicultural pageant of pop held in the enormous Stockholm auditorium bathed in blue light last Friday offered a stark view of what the Pax Obama will bring to the world’s cultural geography. It will be dominated by American entertainers and their imitators: three of the eight acts (four including the hosts) were from the USA. Europe also had three, two of the groups representing the British Isles: the folklorically tinged Irish chanters, Westlife and chirpy British chanteuse Natasha Bedingfield. From Eastern Europe came the evening’s opener. Alexander Rybak slashed at his electronic violin and let his icy tenor voice soar as a detail of crouching Cossack disco dancers kicked into the footlights. Rybak was the winner of last year’s Euro-Vision Song Contest, an event that parallels the aesthetic orientation of the Nobel Concert with its mass uniformity decorated with debased ethnic touches.
World Music came in the form of the blind pair, Amadou & Mariam of Mali with their gorgeous back-up singers echoing the Supremes. In logging less than eighth of the air time, Africa got more than it usually does on the diplomatic stage. But the engaging pair played second fiddle even to the ridiculous Rybak.
Outweighing this American-African music from the Southern Hemisphere in importance and duration were the African-American contributions. A bone was thrown to the older generations in the form Donna Summer, Will Smith overdoing his admiration for her groove after “Last Dance.” Singer and guitarist, Wyclef Jean represented, as he put it in his video interview, the New Jersey ’hood. His improvised Nobel rap enumerated the injustices in the world, lamenting among other horrors, the murder of Prince Diana by those French paparazzi. It was an evening to feel good about being able to feel bad when the moment called for it.
Jean’s first tune was accompanied by Asia’s entry in the Concert of Nations: Chinese classical phenom, pianist Lang Lang. He had already exchanged Mandarin with the Smith daughter, Willow, before breaking into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, a performance demonstrating that none are more American than the Chinese. Don’t be fooled into thinking that music speaks a universal language: this is American product for world consumption. Executives at United Airlines, who colonized Gershwin’s tune back in the 1980s, were thrilled at this free advertising. Lang Lang flies free from here on out.
For Jean’s entry, he and Lang Lang joined together for some sentimentally strummed harmonies, as the American intoned “Stop the Violence”. Later Jean launched into the crowd and fought his way up to the royal box in a low point in the history of royalty, not only because it show yet again that kings and queens are now one notch below celebrities and performers, but that they can’t dance, as their predecessors always could. Louis XIV made his political debut as a dancer. The House of Bernadotte better get its butts in gear if it wants the dynasty to last through the 21st century.
The other side of the coin of America’s black-and-white ethnical profile in the world of pop came from Toby Keith, who had been criticized even by Swedish parliamentarians for his gung-ho, support-our—troops, root-out-evil pronouncements before his concert appearance. I found his tough-guy pose preferable to the unctuous praise doled out by Smith et al to Obama the Peace Maker. At least the Neanderthal Keith is honest. The opening line of his signature song came as gust of savage Arctic air ripping through the climate-controlled reverence generated for the Nobel winner:
Winters gettin’ colder, summer’s getting’ warm.
Tidal wave comin’ ‘cross the Mexican border.
Why buy a gallon, it’s cheaper by the barrel.
Just don’t be busted singin’ Christmas carols.
This rowdy Humvee patrolling the Rio Grande squashed the concert of nations under its left front tire as if it was a white-helmetted Armadillo. The chorus of Keith’s tune makes no apologies, nor reverts to the transcendent discourse of world peace and American altruism:
That’s us, that’s right
Gotta love this American ride.
Both ends of the ozone burnin’.
Funny how the world keeps turning.
With these words still ringing in his ears, Will Smith would later send his new friend, Barack, off to climate talks in Copenhagen.
The finale raised the stakes of sentimentality to giddy heights. Smith’s kids came out singing Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror, and were joined by the rest of the pop stars at the front of the stage. This was a global anthem that paid simultaneous tribute to the dead King of Pop and the New Man of Hope:
I’m Gonna Make a Change,
For Once in My Life
It’s Gonna Feel Real Good,
Gonna Make A Difference
Gonna Make it Right …
If Posthumous Nobel Prizes were awarded, it would have gone to Michael, to be accepted by his chimp. In his speech Bubbles would introduce quotations from the great sages of peace, like Coca Cola: “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony …”
The most telling aspect of this Concert of Nations was who was not there. When musicians from Afghanistan or Iraq make it onto the Nobel Concert with an ethno-pop sexed-up by an American backbeat, we’ll know that Obama deserved his prize after all.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. 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