“But the trouble with our sagas is not that they cannot see the answer; it is that they cannot even see the riddle”. GK Chesterton
With one eye on “Brexit” and what it means for the world stage and the other eye on this years presidential race here at home, not to mention the turbulence of the Mideast, this should prove to be a very interesting year.
I am crediting Simon Morrison, a music historian and the author of Bolshoi Confidential for his interesting perception of the playlists of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders:
Though I loath to join the political snarkatariat, I feel compelled (as a musicologist specializing in cultural politics) to comment on music in the US presidential election. Each campaign has a playlist that presumably reflects something about the candidate and the voters he or she is courting; after all, the music we love at once mirrors our deepest desires and projects our individual as well as collective imaginings.
Yet for as much attention as the three remaining hopefuls have paid to the sound of their campaigns—as much time as they have spent considering the aural as a part of their image—they seem, if not unaware, then at least a little unsure of the power of music to move, motivate, and mobilize.
Consider Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee and now standard-bearer of the GOP. His playlist, is eclectic, which is a polite way of saying nonsensical. The Beatles (“Hey Jude”) and Rolling Stones (“Start Me Up”) rub up against the chromatic fire and brimstone of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera. Puerile hits like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” no longer voice the frustrations of irrational teens, but rather the angst of the surprisingly loud “silent” majority.
The title means what it says, but not in a chest-thumping, fist-pumping sort of way. Given that “Born in the U.S.A.” has so consistently and perniciously been misunderstood, I would suggest that the music actually works against the message. Everyone is happy to chant the chorus but conveniently forgets the words, which actually offer a searing indictment of America’s failures after Vietnam. “I had a brother at Khe Sahn/Fighting off the Viet Cong/They’re still there, he’s all gone.” This was Reagan’s campaign song in 1984.
Conservative columnist George Will admitted at the time that he had not “a clue about Springsteen’s politics, if any,” but insisted that Springsteen was “no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation.” So somehow then the song becomes about making America great again? Springsteen himself, while playing a concert in the perennial swing-state of Pennsylvania, pointed out that the Reagan obviously hadn’t listened to the lyrics.
The music intends to herd us together, march us into line, and enforce sonic submission. perfect campaign slogans that, repeated often enough, congeal as truth. A year ago, Trump and his campaign pretended to be “rockin’ in the free world,” playing Neil Young’s Grammy Award-winning 1989 thrash metal parody of that title. Young protested. He backs Bernie Sanders, the avuncular runner-up in the Democratic contest.
Bernie’s playlist is dominated by the gut-and-wood, pseudo-acoustic sound of indie groups like Vampire Weekend, which once released a recherché song dissing the Oxford comma. One of Bernie’s early campaign ads featured, predictably enough, Simon & Garfunkel’s symphonic epic “America.” It’s the kind of song that therapists love, saturated in melody and sentiment. The original folk revolution in the 1960s might have accompanied a radical critique of the hegemony, but now the music of the era sounds like just another soundtrack to a PBS documentary. “America” celebrates a place no one really knows. (What family laughs and plays games on a bus traveling the NJ Turnpike to New York City?) “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why,” Paul Simon sings, ever in earnest. The song feels real, true to some immigrant experience, to the longings of a nation. But actually it’s about Simon & Garfunkel’s journey to fame on a major record label. Authenticity always sells.
By the time Trump takes the stage, Hillary Clinton will doubtless have secured the democratic nomination, and her current market-tested playlist will likely shift. The cutesiness of Pharrell Williams’s “Happy,” from the Despicable Me 2 soundtrack, won’t play well against Trump. The song is fantastically repetitive, but the melody is less important than the rhythms, the fillip that keeps the snare drum just ahead of the beat and the high hat just behind. It’s the music of publicly educated, properly vaccinated children clapping with delight, while the gospelesque (not too black) interjections affirm that the “I” of “Because I’m happy” really means we. Like the candidate herself, “Happy” represents the work of an insider, composed by someone who knows how the bureaucracy of the music industry works, yet it represents itself, in the various official videos, as an interactive experience—a spontaneous happening. The other tunes on the Clinton playlist are also recent—nothing betrays her age—and exemplify that most curious contemporary cultural phenomenon: the instant cliché. The melodic hooks, like the primary punch lines, are time- and market-tested. But the musical sheen of these pop hits was produced not in America, but the democratic-socialist dream-world of Sweden. (Two of the artists on Clinton’s list, Kelly Clarkson and Katy Perry, have enlisted Swedes as record producers.) The assemblage is pitch perfect from a Democratic demographic perspective, with Latin pop nudged up against the inoffensive feminism of Perry’s “Roar.” Jill Scott’s “Run Run Run” provides some street-cred with working moms: “I’m Superwoman/Flying through the city/There’s only one way to make baby go and get it/Overworked. Underpaid./Lord knows I need a raise.”
Sure it’s all calculated. But we live in the age of the simulacrum, of the pretend made real and the real made pretend. To wit: Disney World realizes the animated imaginings of Cinderella and her realm, while Donald Trump’s convention manager asserts that the presidency is but “the ultimate reality show.” Even in the world of music, the representation substitutes for the real. We find lyrics online, listen online, hear sounds created and played and recorded entirely online.