Defensiveness, Vengeance, and Unashamed Self-pity, or, Trump Music

by Christopher John Stephens

14 February 2017

Some troubling common themes in songs from the Trump administration.
Image from video, "A Little Trump Music"  

In a December 2004 town hall meeting with soldiers at Camp Beuhring in Kuwait, then President George W. Bush’s Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered a new jewel in his crown of what would become one of his longest-lasting legacies: the quote of a lifetime. Here was a man who’d offered transparency about his perspective as Chief Warrior (“Death has a tendency to encourage a depressing view of war”), relativity (“Well, um, you know, something’s neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so, I suppose, as Shakespeare said”), and sage advice (“Learn to say ‘I don’t know.’ If used when appropriate, it will be often.”) It was at this town meeting where he indicated that supplies are important when entering any battle:

As you know, you go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.

It’s during these first days of the Trump administration that many of us find a sort of relief when reaching back to characters like Rumsfeld who might be able to provide context about the musical culture tastes and directions being shaped in the halls of power. If Obama was driven by inspiration taken from his Spotify playlists and the many artists who performed at White House Functions (Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keyes, Bruce Springsteen, and others), we do not clearly know how Donald Trump might allow lyrical inspiration to motivate policy and direction. What we do now are some of the songs performed at the 19 January 2017 Lincoln Memorial Inaugural concert and one featured at a Ball the next night. A close reading of themes they share might offer another version of Rumsfeld’s quote:

As you know, you compile a playlist by surrendering to base impulses and primal needs. You don’t make one with a long-term vision of inclusivity.

God Bless the USA

Lee Greenwood’s 1984 single might have been harmless and forgotten, played only by earnest singers in remote honky-tonk bars, had it not been for Ronald Reagan and that summer’s Republican National Convention. Its unswerving and blindly patriotic sentiments helped put the man into office for a second term. The nation stumbled through the decade untouched by the song only to have it resurface in the Gulf War of 1990-1991 as a morale booster. The overwhelming strain of post-9/11 patriotism gave the song yet another life, culminating in a 2003 re-recording / re-release shortly after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The 2011 capture and execution of Osama bin Laden gave it another shot, and now it’s back with us.

The idea of this song is certainly not original. Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” was shorter, stronger, and more general. By no means does that mean it was inclusive. The imposition of a “God” that may or may not exist and who will have time to bless this country is cloying, but concepts are harmless so long as they’re not imposed as the rule of law. Berlin’s song is mainly the booming and familiar chorus, but at least its opening acknowledges a world beyond its borders:

While the storm clouds gather far across the sea / let us swear allegiance to a land that’s free

Note that this consideration of allegiance is an invitation, not a requirement. Additionally, the claim of “freedom” seems to be supported by a sense of humility. The problems with Greenwood’s song are numerous, with the most glaring being the abrasive defensiveness of the chorus:

And I’m proud to be American / where at least I know I’m free.

We imagine a petulant child engaged in a xenophobic shouting match with a foreign classmate. The child is overwhelmed by his classmate’s argument that the United States has bad health care, abusive police, and the illusion of a free press. Inside, the child might concede some of these points, but finally he grabs at the closest straw he can find and sputters out “yeah, well at least I know I’m free!”

Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)

It doesn’t help singer/songwriter Toby Keith’s case when he notes (with apparent pride) that he wrote this song in 20 minutes. Inspired partly by the death of his patriotic father, and as a response to the 9/11 attacks, the song certainly doesn’t practice bait and switch tactics. It’s angry. He’s enraged. As an electric guitar-slinging performer, Keith probably wants to market himself as “country” to the core. Note the use of “market” as a verb. From the twang in his deep singing voice to the limited color scheme variety in his red, white and blue wardrobe (scarves, hats, jackets, more), Keith is on a mission. As with most narratives that have a specific target for their anger (Iraq, Osama bin Laden, generic terrorists), the problem comes in the chorus:

Justice will be served and the battle will rage / This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage / And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way

Again, inclusion of this song that night should not have been a surprise and the rage inside it is certainly an American tradition. It’s here, though, that an observer might want to dig deeper. Is immediate and decisive revenge and vengeance an American way (intrinsic in our shared cultural DNA) or is it an historical tradition? If this song is a mission statement for the direction our foreign policy might take in the next four to eight years, then some of us need to take shelter because the forecast for Global harmony does not look good.

My Way

Some observers have already conceded that Trump might have gotten the best, last laugh when he chose this as the song to accompany his maiden dance with wife Melania as President and First Lady of the United States. It’s a cringe-worthy tradition no matter who takes office. After a brutal campaign and a controversial outcome, the highlight of the main Presidential Ball occurs when they take their first dance, in effect symbolizing that this elected leader is not only committed to a spouse, but also to each of us. The wedding is over, the swearing-in has taken place, and now the swooning honeymoon begins.

Here’s the problem: Frank Sinatra’s beautiful, heartbreaking 1969 rendition of “My Way” is either a brilliant satire or the most unashamed tribute to ego and self-absorption ever committed to audio. Here, as the President and his wife take their first steps on the dance floor and we watch them bond with each other, we hear the opening lines:

And now the end is near / so I face the final curtain

At no point does the song ever leave the first person perspective: “I’ll state my case… I’ve lived a life that’s full / I’ve traveled… I did it my way… I planned… I ate it up and spit it out… I faced it all and I stood tall…” Paul Anka’s boastful lyrics reflected the myth that the man had created for himself at the end of the ‘60s. The era was not his. Time had passed him by. The song was a hit, but apparently, he hated its popularity. “The song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe,” said daughter Tina. “He always thought the song was self-serving and self-indulgent.”

If “My Way” was meant as a representation of Trump’s commitment to his wife, it was an enormous failure. Beyond any consideration of his commitment (or lack thereof) to matrimony, which is irrelevant to his qualifications as a world leader, the song failed to prove that this man might build coalitions, create bridges, assemble his own team of rivals to work for the common good. Sinatra’s version was too beautiful, his silk voice booming through Producer Don Costa’s string arrangement.

If Trump’s not the master manipulator here and pulling an ingenious act of passive-aggression on the American public, then it might be his staff that’s doing it. They might have been thinking about Sid Vicious’s punk rendition of the song; hateful, homophobic, snarling speed punk, a sonic disembowelment and a perfect match for the solipsistic philosophy of the lyrics.

***

Music will continue to matter. Art will never disappear. Fear that cultural institutions like NPR, PBS or the National Endowment for the Humanities might vanish could have some validity, but their loss could make way for new outlets, different options, and perhaps a clearer path to the creative Promised Land. The argument that hard times create great songs is valid, but it fails to consider its own flawed logic. There are never universal hard times. There has never been an absolute paradise on Earth for this work in progress we call a country. We all have a playlist in the cloud, on Spotify, old CD mixes now moved to so many Mp3 files. We will continue to compile them, unashamed if they’re out of fashion and irrelevant because they’re who we are.

If these songs are indicative of who Trump is, then maybe we should go back to Donald Rumsfeld for some wisdom from his February 2002 Department of Defense News briefing:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.

Somebody should put that to music.

 

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