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Ear of Darkness: the Soundtracks of Steve Bannon’s Films

Not since last year, amidst the lightless heat of the presidential election, has your asbestos-suited Musical Patriot launched a sonic raid of such peril and urgency as this week’s special mission: Bannon the Beast’s Earbuds.

Back in January of 2016, as a vital service to the nation, I strapped myself to the Spottify mast for Hillary’s Playlist. Confronting that highly toxic focus-grouped hit parade made Odysseus’s bout with the Sirens’ song seem about as daring as grappling with a Muzak version of Hey Jude in the Gluten-Free aisle of the local supermarket.

After barely surviving the Hillary Playlist strike—codenamed Operation Dumbstruck—the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna awarded me its highest honor: the Eroica Medal for Musical Bravery, plus a sweet pair of top-of-the-line noise-cancelling headphones.

Yet the intelligence your Musical Patriot gathered was worth the immense risk. My findings confirmed the banality and opportunism of Clinton’s bid for the White House.  With each track, from The Authors’ “Believer” to Katy Perry’s “Roar,” HRC dug her political grave ever deeper. Both individually and in their lethal totality, her “favorites” revealed that she would not just do anything to get elected, but be anyone. These were the musical hopes and joys not of a real person but of an algorithmic hologram generated by programmers at the DNC.

As Plato long ago asserted, the ear is the portal to the soul. Through this conduit music works directly on the individual’s inner equilibrium and, more generally, on the wellbeing of the body politic.  The contours of melody and the timbre of instruments can either sap or strengthen moral character. The philosopher believed that the flute was a seductress and must be silenced. The Dorian mode was for him warlike and character-building. Plato argued that the guardians of his ideal state should be fed a diet of virile music, and that lascivious and corrupting songs he branded as effeminate should be banished for the good of all.

If music molds the soul, then it can also illuminate a person’s inner workings.  Thus Trump’s lack of interest in music reveals his soullessness. Trump’s yawns during America the Beautiful when done by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Capitol on Inauguration Day followed later by his leaden on-stage shuffling to Sinatra’s “My Way” at the ball—these were acts of a hollow man. Indeed, it would seem that no administration is as musically vacant as the present one.

But there is one figure in the White House whose dark soul thrums with musical vibrations. The threat represented by this apocalyptic temperament can only be measured by someone of tremendous valor. Enter the very same Musical Patriot in full combat gear! His report of what he has heard will be quick and clinical. Duck (see below) and cover: friendly favor can be lethal.

Over the last few weeks, I have watched White House chief strategist Steve Bannon’s grim oeuvre of nine documentaries. I hesitate to call them films since in their visual style they would more accurately be classified as extended political commercials, some running to nearly two deadly hours.  That these affairs are better viewed as advertisements is confirmed by the name of the production company: Citizens United.

Numb and convince : this is Bannon’s watchword. His typical shot lasts little more than a second, with long stretches of vertiginous cuts and dissolves between stock footage of marching armies, radical protestors, the demolition of glass-fronted bank buildings, the collapse of the World Trade Centers, atomic bomb tests, bearded terrorists, graphs showing plunging markets, and—his favorite image—automated bill counters. The incessant flutter of cash is meant to bring home the corruption of the Clintons (Clinton Cash, 2015), and other, lesser political elites, as in the paean to that great Alaskan reformer, Sarah Palin (The Undefeated, 2010). Greenbacks also whizz by to fan the discontent of conservative women in Fire in the Heartland (2010), as lucre for paid malcontents in Occupy Unmasked (2012), and to convey the skyrocketing national debt that led to the financial crisis of 2008 (Generation Zero, 2010). Perched in front of black backgrounds, arch-conservative talking heads appear from the miasma of found footage to hammer away at moral degeneration, the coming conservative revolution, and to identify the many guises of the same evil—the face of Hitler blending into bin Laden’s.

These images bludgeon the viewer, but even more dizzingly relentless is the assault of the music. It never stops: it grabs the audience by its earl lobes and funnels fear and anger into its soul.

In the Face of Evil: Reagan’s War in Word and Deed (2004) marks Bannon’s most unsettling exploitation of music as propaganda. Armies goose step; dictators bellow; radicals foment and fulminate; genocidal acts are committed. This sea of terrifying images is parted by Reagan’s clarion calls for freedom and resolve. Against the forces of godlessness he is a holy prophet wrapped in the raiment of the soundtrack. The glowering strings of the Evil Empire, lashing snare drums and explosions, heroic horns of destiny—all give way when Reagan takes to his pulpit accompanied by a massed choral Kyries that leave no doubt as to whose side God is on.

Underpinning these cut-and-paste jobs is an alarming theory in which eighty-year-cycles of history inevitably culminate in catastrophe: the American Civil War followed after a span of four-score years by World War Two, and soon by the next global conflagration, surely to be screened in a multiplex near you. Or maybe not, given that Bannon’s movies rarely get theatrical release, and if they do, of a very limited nature.  The ode to Sarah Palin, The Undefeated, played in all of a dozen theatres across the country.

In contrast to the shredded symphonic grandeur and lurching menace of the soundtrack of In the Face of Evil, Bannon’s subsequent efforts have favored electronic scores still more flagrantly pieced together from off-the-shelf cues. It is unclear exactly why a shadowy figure named David Cebert is given credit for “original score” in a couple of these concoctions. Nothing could be less original.

Across this deranged corpus the intent of Bannon’s musical choices remains unchanged: frighten and dismay. Thus we hear ominous, creeping strings above ponderous, portentous bass notes when Bannon’s latest prophet, Duck Commander Phil Robertson (The Torchbearer, 2016) appears resplendent in full biblical beard and priestly camo-headband, journeying across the globe to reveal God’s truths from his own Louisiana swamp to the Acropolis and Auschwitz.

What Bannon appears constantly to hear is the music to his own horror flick now in progress, and in which he and his men are the heroes. Only after the coming cataclysm can the next phase of renewal begin. In Bannon’s world the laws of physics do not apply: light and sound travel at the same speed. The mushroom cloud rises simultaneously with the final chord.

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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

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