Speaker of the House Paul Ryan slyly removed himself to the Heartland for the congressional recess and the outbreak of this week’s political firestorm in Washington. In truth, this latest chapter in political dysfunction is less the leveling blaze so many yearn for, than it is an anemic flicker limply fueled by off-gassing from the capital cesspool. Nonetheless, it was an opportune time for the Speaker’s white flight back to his People.
While the nation and the world debated the sacking of the tiresome James Comey, Ryan was gripping and grinning and flapping his muscular jaws about cutting taxes and dismantling regulation at a packaging plant in New Albany, Ohio, then touting job creation at an InSinkerator plant in Racine, Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. This swing through the Rust Belt in praise of stainless steel garbage disposals, soap labels, and innovations in fish bait speaks of simmering presidential ambitions that are now far more likely to be realized than they were when Ryan was Mitt Romney’s running mate back in 2012. As Speaker of the House, Ryan is second in the line of presidential succession in the event (hardly unlikely) that Trump has a heart attack, gets assassinated or impeached, and Mike Pence chokes on a Big Ag chicken bone. The wily Ryan then becomes the CEO of the USA without all the trouble of an election.
Ryan’s discourse is already presidential—in the sense it is coherent—in comparison to Trump’s. Yesterday’s Milwaukee Business Journal quoted Ryan as saying, “Manufacturers like InSinkErator are the backbone of our economy. I truly believe there is no better place to do business in America than the Badger State.” Unless, of course, you happen to be an actual endangered badger. Perhaps some climes of China would be more conducive to the renewed growth of the beleaguered species.
For the InSinkErator photo-op Ryan wore a crisply pressed shirt and tie, but kept his factory-issue earplugs-on-a-string draped around his toned shoulders. He wanted to make sure future voters knew that he was helping real people use real machines to manufacture other real machines in his very own Wisconsin district.
These noise-reduction necessities should be handed out at his own speeches, and even more urgently, at those of his current boss, Donald Trump, whose own intercourse with the English language bears a striking resemblance to the InSinkErator’s approach to the syntax of kitchen waste.
Ryan’s day-glow earplugs also reminded me that he’s an earbud politician.
Back in 2012 when he was Mitt Romney’s running it emerged that the Wisconsin Congressman was a devotee of the rock band Rage Against the Machine. Patrolling the corridors of the Capitol or pumping iron at the Congressional gym, Ryan was and is plugged in, likely at high decibel. Probably his hearing loss will rival that of the factory workers of yore.
That Ryan could turn a deaf ear to some of Rage Against the Machine’s politically radical lyrics and to its penchant for obscenity—as in the chanting repetitions of “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” at the close of their signature tune from the early 1990s “Killing in the Name” —means that, like so many others, he is skilled at hearing what he wants to hear. Ryan’s gifts for ignoring angry words directed at the establishment he represents means only that his listening practice hardly deviates from the norm. The skill of selective hearing is one ever more necessary out in an increasingly hostile America.
Such is the general haughtiness of most of pop culture princes that it was also unsurprising that the band’s guitarist Tony Morello rounded on Ryan in Rolling Stone soon after the disclosures about the politician’s listening practices. Morello claimed that the Rage ethos is diametrically opposed to the Wisconsin Republican’s credo: “Paul Ryan’s love of Rage Against the Machine is amusing, because he is the embodiment of the machine that our music has been raging against for two decades.”
Two years after the 2012 election, Ryan told the New York Times that Rage Against the Machine “was never my favorite band. I hate the lyrics, but I like the sound. Led Zeppelin has always been my favorite band.”
But if Ryan’s aesthetic pronouncements are to be taken at face value, rather than as the bitter grapes of a stilted admirer, these views follow on from the vibrant strain of German Idealist thought that brought as the concept of Absolute Music. That Ryan would praise the sound even given the name of band is itself testament to a weirdly admirably aesthetic consistency: the sonic qualities appeal to Ryan, even if he is at pains to get more machines made in his own state and, should he become President through the front door or the back, across this Great Land. His is a rage against the lack of machines.
Unwittingly perhaps, Ryan recognizes that among all the arts, music’s meaning is the most elusive. The fact that it lacks the power of unambiguous signification is both its greatest advantage and its greatest curse. This paradox explains, for example, how the unparalleled erudition, flamboyance, and pathos of Bach’s Goldberg Variations could be transformed into a cinematic symbol of calculating mass murder in the form of Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s film Silence of the Lambs. In the nineteenth century, instrumental music became the highest form of expression precisely because, lacking words, the meaning of musical sound could be freed from any semantic connection and concern itself with the conjuring of eternal truths. One could hear in a piece what one wanted to hear: from images of blonde heroes and buxom heroines to tableaux as sublime as the architecture of heaven.
Yet even for vocal music with a clearly conceived and delivered text, the meaning of a work can be mangled beyond recognition. When Wilhelm Furtwängler led a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth on the occasion of Hitler’s birthday in 1942, the joyful utopian vision of universal brotherhood that erupts in the symphony’s finale after the entry of the voices had been fully disfigured long before the performance concluded and Furtwängler sealed the crime with a handshake with the Führer.
When a composer lets music out into the world he or she relinquishes control over how it will be interpreted by those who enjoy and exploit it for purposes ranging from the humanitarian to the evil.
Morello acknowledged that Ryan’s affection for his band’s music could be explained by the fact that the politician has plenty of rage in him, but this anger was, in Morello’s view, wrongly directed at victims (women; immigrants; the poor) rather than the victimizers (Ryan himself and his Republican cronies).
Ryan’s enthusiasm for the band harmonic rants and his ability to ignore those words inimical to his own political vision shows how seductive even the most brutal of musical sound can be: love is nowhere more blind than in the realm of music. It can be very deaf, too. Even if Morello once felt justified in criticizing his one-time most prominent fan’s taste for his creative efforts he cannot control what was purchased fairly on the open market, especially when these raging riffs seem like the perfect aural stimulant for Ryan’s brand of mayhem.
Nonetheless, Morello and others must accept the fact that once one’s musical progeny has left hearth and home and is out in the world, it can consort with the most unlikely of pals—even rabid Republicans. Would Morello and Rage Against the Machine have been happier if Ryan were known to hustle into the House of Representatives listening to Beethoven’s Ninth? Let Ryan have his rage and enjoy it. Maybe it will eat him up—or InSinkErate him.