Torch Songs for Joe

Politically packaged, extended-play infomercials (i.e., conventions) make abundant use of music. Partly this has to do with the necessity of cleansing the palate and the ear of the monotone of presidential promotion and the same-old pitches (i.e., speeches).

Even if the underscoring for the ads and personal-interest filmlets that flooded the virtual Covid convention this time around is as predictable, manipulative, and tiresome as the talk, it can be instructive: the way the piano mourns the assault on our democratic institutions; synths and strings pacing and fretting at how dire our situation is; oboes promising to restore the middle class; horns sealing the deal with the call to build back better.

The heaviest musical lifting comes in the interludes when celebrity muscle is flexed in order to prove that the Democrats have the better lineup than the other guys. Republicans instead face scorn and lawsuits from pop stars demanding that their candidates cease and desist from using their tunes. In the infamous Tulsa rally held on a Saturday night in June, Trump walked out into the near-empty arena to Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting)” and also helped himself to Neil Young’s “Devil’s Sidewalk.” Sir Elton, who turned down Trump’s invitation to sing at the inauguration, has called pro-Brexit British voters “stupid, colonial idiots.” His views on the intrepid MAGAites of Oklahoma have not yet been recorded. Young went to court this month to make The Donald understand that his Sidewalk ain’t wide enough for the both of them.

If Republicans are the Party of Business, then Democrats are the Party of Show Business. Some of these True Blue entertainers are so deeply enmeshed in the political gears that the shards of their melodies will never be cleared from the machinery. The grind and scrape of diehard Democrat Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” was already old by pop culture standards when, in the 2008 election campaign, it made the rounds from subsequently disgraced John Edwards to Hillary Clinton and finally to Barack Obama after he had secured the nomination.

By now the “The Rising” is indispensable to the Democratic brand. The Boss lent “The Rising” to a new Corona-Convention video that premiered on Monday night. The imagery and editing was off-the-shelf Americana updated with scenes from the pandemic: belching factories; tractors working the fields; lots of flags; old brick main streets with an American-made pick-up bumping by; riot police embracing protestors; a deserted Yankee Stadium; and front-line workers trying to save people. Billboard reported that downloads of “The Rising” immediately surged. The song’s refrain—“come on up for the rising” suggests “uprising” and tries to kindle a revolutionary spirit albeit in wispily plaintive tones.

After the video was shown, fragments of “The Rising” continually emerged when the next pre-recorded spot was getting cued up, or one actor/host or the other was hitting her next mark on the studio floor. In the most frequently recycled snippet, the word “rising” was pulled downward by the melody as if the air were going out of a Corona-Time sourdough starter. Thus “hope” was bathed in melancholy. In some not-so-distant dystopian future when human delegates, having learned the lessons of 2020, enlist androids as their surrogates, “The Rising” will be intoned by armies of flag-waving Dem-Bots in tattered jeans and kerchief headbands in a Convention Center built just for them.

“The Rising” has now taken its place alongside venerable elements of the American patriotic liturgy. After Night 1’s convening prayer to the One God and an open-range horn concerto introduction, a tiny bell and strum of an angelic harp ushered in the National Anthem done by a kids choir, its members gathered together but each in their own constantly-reconfiguring ZOOM boxes. It was an ethnically and geographically diverse ensemble that shone with the promise of the Digital Age: the Algo-Rhythms! Auto-tune the electorate! Download the RUN DNC software and the Swing States will be swinging your way! As the Anthem built momentum the chorus was reinforced by galloping cavalry strings, then brass cannon fire and cymbal explosions. Duck and cover—your ears!

The Chicks—their name now cleansed of the appalling “Dixie” so that the suffragette-themed “Chicks” can stand proudly alone—did the opening musical honors on the last night in a tour-de-force of musical triangulation: their rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner in three-part harmony was armor piercing, honing in on the pitches with the precision of a trio of cruise missiles.

The American musical arsenal is so richly diversified that some of its most effective weapons didn’t even have to be deployed. (Thankfully, Bill Clinton’s saxophone has been banned by international treaty.) Across the convention’s four nights I heard nary a drone. Such strikes are best kept secret from the public.

This strategy allows conventional musical means “to get the job done.” Countless hearts and minds can be conquered by boots on the grounds and a few tasty licks. Keep it simple. Grab the go-to political power chords: “greatest nation on earth”; “[not] who we are”; and “battle for the soul of America.” Occasionally allow a new spin on an old riff, but really there is nothing as static as “change”; “for the children”; “our democratic institutions”; “God bless our troops.”

I suppose we should thank the just-mentioned Abrahamic God (that adjective eruditely brandished by the nun who did the last night’s prayer) that the Pledge of Allegiance has not yet been musically weaponized. Troublingly, however, rumors from within the Pentagon suggest that John Legend has trained his Weapons of Mass Musical Destruction on the target.

Charged with bewitching the Obama voting bloc with his radically centrist musical charms, Legend was beamed in to close out Night 2. “Oh-ho, yeah … ” he began, succinctly capturing the essence of his candidate’s political vision. Avid seeker of the Springsteenian mantle, Legend offered up a love song to the Democratic Party: “We won’t lose our way because we both know who we are.” Even in the safety of my own home I reached for my ear masks: that italicized cliché has thoroughly infected political discourse and its superspreading songsters. The vaccine of originality won’t be developed during this campaign season—or any other.

The Legendary self-buffing, with the rapper Common spraying on the sonic Turtle Wax, continued early on Night 4 with “Glory” from his 2014 album Selma. “One day when the war is won, …” Legend strained. What was meant to be a paean to fallen Civil Rights hero John Lewis unwittingly became a hymn to Endless War.

An aesthetic and architectural highpoint was reached at the conclusion of Night 3 with Jennifer Hudson belting out Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come.” Hudson was accompanied not by one, but two giant grand pianos, these landing crafts having somehow beached themselves way up under the cupola of the Harold Washington Cultural Center in Chicago. An enchanting soprano saxophone invited the camera up the stairs as Hudson let her resplendent voice echo off the gaudy marble and mosaiced vaulting. Was it a giant mausoleum to the former Chicago mayor who died on the job back in 1987, or a tomb emptied of political ideas and action? With her last note, Hudson began her descent of those same stairs. The choreography could have been meant to suggest that she would be taking the fight to the streets or, more likely, that it was all downhill from here.

The most telling performance was offered up by singer-songwriter Billie Eilish. Pin-striped host Kerry Washington assured us of the young star’s activist bona fides, among them her 2019 oxymoronically “eco-friendly” World Tour. Here are Eilish’s uplifting words on that bold international initiative: “So there’s no plastic straws allowed, the fans are going to bring their own water bottles, there’s going to be recycle cans everywhere, because it’s like, if something’s recyclable, it doesn’t matter unless there’s a recycle bin.”

For her DNC appearance Eilish, who is just old enough to vote, premiered “My Future,” something that, according to the song, she’s “in love with.” Mist and music swirled across the set like sea smoke rising up from vanishing Arctic ice—or perhaps like the contrails of a jet transporting Eilish round the globe so she that can recycle straws. In a season of fire hers was a torch song to Joe.

Then the beat dropped and Eilish found her resolve:

But I know better
Than to drive you home
‘Cause you’d invite me in
And I’d be yours again

Yet there she was at the wheel with the older man at her side.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at