A recent New York Times piece by pop critics—the two Jons, Pareles & Caramanica—on the playlists of Democratic Presidential candidates was an ode to posturing and opportunism. The computer-curated tastes of musical consumer/voters have long been turned into political capital. The algorithm is now democratic king-maker. With an unendurable year and more to go before the election, it all makes one yearn for simpler musico-political days like those of 2008 when the iPod still reigned, an age hymned in this piece from the archives of the Musical Patriot from October 31, 2008:
Palin’s Flute, Obama’s Voice
Before election day puts an end to this interminable song and dance, there’s one last chance to listen to the music — the candidates’ music. It is in light of their musical tastes and talents that politicians’ character is most clearly to be judged.
We begin with Sarah Palin. Much has been made of her affection for the rock band Van Halen, and that she and Todd gave their latest offspring Trig the middle name “Van,” thus providing the afflicted lad with the lifetime joy of rhyming Van Palin with Van Halen. What a thrill for Palin it must have been when McCain introduced her as his running mate at the Republican National Convention with Van Halen’s “Right Now.”
Palin perhaps did not understand—nor care—that the affection between musical star and devotee is not always reciprocal. In her case it certainly wasn’t. After the one-night stand of political and sonic bliss, rejection came swiftly. The aged rockers of Van Halen let it be known through their management that permission for the song’s use “was not sought or granted, nor would it have been given.” In this terse communiqué is reflected a total reversal in the cultural prestige attached to political leaders and cultural figures respectively. Imagine Mozart telling Joseph II to go screw himself after the Emperor informed the composer that his Marriage of Figaro had “too many notes.” In Mozart’s day—and before—many a court musician harbored enormous contempt for their overlords, they just didn’t have the guts or money to say it. Nowadays politicians have to take such abuse from those whose music they love. But that hardly means that the politically powerful will stop listening. But if Palin’s favorite band isn’t voting for her, why should anyone else?
More telling is Sarah Palin the musician. Her performance on flute at the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant is necessary viewing. Costumed in a faux-Victorian dress, Palin plays “The Homecoming,” originally written for a 1972 Salada tea commercial, and then re-used for the CBC version of Anne of Green Gables aired first in 1985. Flutist James Galway had already made a schlocky arrangement of the schlocky tune. Galway’s intervention transformed the piece into a favorite of student flute players the world over. I had the dubious pleasure of accompanying “The Homecoming” more often than I care to remember in the same 1980s when Palin was displaying her fluting talents for the Miss Alaska judges.
The pageant band backing up Palin on that fateful evening had soaring horns, tasty brush work on the drums, and mellow Fender Rhodes piano underlayment: it all has a very groovy feel, the lounge-like musical ambience working in weird counterpoint to Sarah’s period outfit. She plays from memory, engaging the audience by looking around as she blows into her flute. Rather than become lost in, or even transported by, the music, she assiduously courts the attention of the listeners. Like many commentators on performance, including the greatest flute master of all, Frederick the Great’s teacher Johann Joachim Quantz, Palin knows that deportment and stage presence are as important as the music itself. She is eager to please, and handles the pressure of the event admirably.
Undaunted by the out-of-tuneness of her playing, Palin soldiers on through the sentimental strains of “Homecoming.” (Given the time-constraints of the pageant, she probably didn’t have time to check her pitch with the band beforehand.) She has prepared and will follow it through, without heeding those around her. Even aside from the tuning, one hears her unyielding personality in the performance. Rarely has the flute been played with such an indifference to its greatest assets: subtlety. This is a woman who has made up her mind about everything.
Her running mate is proud of being Philistine, and in McCain’s case one believes this to be sincere, rather than an anti-elitist ploy to court votes, though I’m not sure how popular “Dancing Queen” of ABBA, his supposed all-time favorite song, is with this voting bloc? None of the names on McCain’s top-ten music list corresponds chronologically to his teen years, when most people form their musical tastes—or, indeed, were formed by the music they loved. Rather, McCain’s music is the most run-of-the-mill assortment, so hackneyed that it seems more like the results of a poll taken at the Mall of the Americas, rather than the emotional property of a real human being. His musical favorites are anything but maverick: “Good Vibrations” of the Beach Boys; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” sung by Sinatra; “What a Wonderful World,” performed by Louis Armstrong.
Two of ABBA’s greatest hits come in at McCain’s numbers one and three. “Dancing Queen” is an endearing choice for his number one. It is truly touching to imagine the military and political veteran feeling the thrill of this dance classic in his battered body. His love of ABBA converts McCain into a tragic figure. It is not that McCain is too old or feeble: his music makes it clear that he belongs to no generation, and as a result, too few of any age group will have him on their dance card come Tuesday’s vote.
Less endearing by a long shot is Joe Biden. When still a presidential candidate in the Spring of 2007, he and the other contenders were asked by the Associated Press about their latest musical purchase. Cagey as ever, Biden skirted the question by responding “My sister’s playlist.” This seemed like a rather incriminating response from this copyright and anti-piracy crusader, who had spun out of his previous presidential run after being unmasked as a plagiarist of political speeches from across the Atlantic. But it also showed that Biden’s alleged public sincerity, like his phantom music, is pure political calculation. Apparently, the simplest and most important of questions—what music do you like?—must be spun: focus-grouped, policy-wonked, and calibrated to the latest poll. Never was so much divulged in a non-answer. Trust Biden at your peril.
Finally, we come to Obama, the most musical of the candidates. In a 2007 appearance on the popular Mexican-American radio show out of Los Angeles “Piolin por La Manana,” Obama sang a few strains of “Mexico Lindo y Querido” (Beautiful and Beloved Mexico) [The YouTube video of this has been pulled in the intervening years] by Latin pop singer Maria Jose Quintanilla. Obama told the host, Eddie “Piolin” Sotello, that President Kennedy had been an excellent singer, and Sotello then asked Obama what his favorite song is. Clearly this was all set up beforehand. A guitar strums some chords and Obama sings in Spanish in an expressive parlando style, warm but tinged with melancholy. Obama breaks off after a few bars and we then hear Quintanilla’s version of her hit rendered in a pinched, pop-star soprano. Obama then says “It sounds a lot better when she does it.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. Obama is the better, more authentic singer. In his few plaintive measures one can hear a real gift for vocal nuance and a natural feeling for the communicative power of music—the same gifts that mark Obama’s oratory. In both it is the voice that appeals, far more than the message.
Earlier in 2007 Hillary Clinton had been caught doing a grim rendition of Happy Birthday. She then pledged not to sing for the remainder of the campaign. Obama’s Happy Birthday is much better, and his “Mexico Lindo y Querido” is a minor triumph, and was the clearest sign that he would beat Clinton. Obama defeated her with his speaking-singing voice, and it looks now as if this, his strongest weapon, will carry the day on November 4. If it doesn’t, let him sing the blues. I’d much rather hear that than his victory speech.