The Music of Politics

In my previous blog, I expressed a fear that some disturbing acts of violence either inside or outside the convention halls might take place.  Fortunately, I was wrong about this.  Law enforcement in both Cleveland and Philadelphia should be commended for keeping the peace, and both events lend credence to an optimistic view that we as Americans are capable of disagreeing without shooting at each other.  Then again, the fact that disagreement without violence is expressed as optimism, may be pessimism in and of itself.  A recent article I read suggested that in their respective acceptance speeches, both major party candidates seemed to be speaking to two entirely different Americas.  To this I say, let the war of ideas begin, and let the ammunition in this war be restricted to just that…ideas.


I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a household where the evening news was regular TV viewing, and anytime two or more were gathered at that time, thoughtful discussion of the issues presented often ensued.  Even in my teens, when both parents worked long hours, my older sisters were out on their own, and I had the TV all to myself, I usually watched the evening news.  This is partly because by that time I knew I wanted a career in broadcasting, but also because I was genuinely interested in learning about the wider world.  It is from this background that I have become a regular viewer of the televised coverage of the major party political conventions throughout my life.  Now that I’m a sextagenariun (now there’s an oxymoron!), I continue to find the conventions, and their television coverage required viewing.


Of course, as I mentioned in my previous blog entry, the conventions have evolved over the course of my lifetime from an event that was covered by television news to an event that is staged for a prime-time television audience.  Which brings to mind the movie Network, a winner of 4 Oscars back in 1977.   If you’ve never seen Network,  it stars William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Peter Finch, and I would highly recommend seeking it out.  In it, the idea of television news as entertainment is taken to its furthest extreme, or at least the furthest extreme imagined in mid-1970s America, which made it a very successful comedy.  Today, the movie seems almost frightening in its prophetic accuracy.  


With a sense of bemusement following this year’s primaries, I listened to the conventions speeches and CNN commentary, or at least most of it.  Being a broadcaster responsible for the “imaging” of a top 100 market radio station, I paid close attention to the production elements of each convention telecast.  At Sunny 92.3, most listeners identify us by our music, our personalities, and our service elements (i.e. news, traffic, weather).  But our identity as a radio station also includes things like jingles and promotional announcements.  Basically, it’s the stuff that appears between the songs other than our on-air personalities.  These production or imaging elements generally enhance the sound of our station.  Someone has to produce this material, and at Sunny 92.3 that job is mine, and it is some of the work from my career that I am most proud of.  


With this in mind, I found it somewhat interesting this past Monday night when it occurred to me the speakers at the DNC were being introduced and brought to the podium with a different style of background music than those at the RNC.  In order to maintain continuity and flow, speakers do not abruptly appear at the podium and begin speaking, but rather they are introduced, and the delegates are allowed to applaud or otherwise react as each speaker appears on stage and makes his or her way to the podium.  Background music is added as a “production element” to enhance the moment.  It is a format to which we have become accustomed after years of watching guests introduced on The Tonight Show, Late Night, and similar entertainment vehicles.  I soon recognized the music used at the DNC had its roots in jazz, and its cousin, disco, in stark contrast to the music of the previous week which was primarily classic rock.  Then again, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised.  Cleveland is home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and TSOP (The Sound Of Philadelphia) was the first disco record to reach the top of the American pop charts.


But what, if anything, does this contrast in musical styles say about the contrast of ideas among and the personalities of the two major party candidates?  Rock is typically bold, hard driving, and aggressive, whereas jazz tends to be more nuanced, reflective, and thought provoking.  Rock can be raw and crass when emotion is laid bare, while pure emotion in jazz sometimes leads to tangents that are far removed from a composition’s basic structure, that are often complex and difficult to comprehend.  Visit a bar where a rock band is playing, and the atmosphere is likely to be loud and raucous.  Visit a bar with a jazz band, and the crowd is likely to be more mellow and subdued.  When I listen to rock and roll, I want to hear power forged from drums, bass, lead guitar, and cowbell much like the strength of steel forged from coal, iron ore, and steel scrap subjected to intense heat.  When I listen to jazz I want to hear each individual player interpret the music with his or her unique variation on a theme, and then weave those interpretations together in a way that the value of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  When I listen to rock and roll, I drink beer.  When I listen to jazz I drink bourbon.


The fact is, I couldn’t imagine life without either one, and other types of music as well.  Just as our airwaves feature some radio stations that play jazz, some that play rock, some that play country, some that play R&B, some that play a particular variation of each, and some, like Sunny 92.3, that incorporate elements of all forms of popular music, because there is a definite need for “the one station everyone at the office can agree on,” our political parties produce leaders with differing agendas.  Chances are, if you work in a shared environment, your workplace contains a lot of individual music tastes.  Unless earbuds are allowed, office politics likely dictates the choice of a station like Sunny 92.3, and we’re proud to provide that option.  Similarly, the political arena requires compromise.  For commentators like the one I mentioned earlier who described the candidates’ audiences as two separate Americas, such compromise seems to be a daunting task.  


Our electronically connected communication system doesn’t make it any easier.  One of the issues I heard discussed at both major conventions was a need for America to rebuild its middle class.  The middle class that sustained my parents’ generation was largely made up of middle management.  Major manufacturing as it existed back then required substantial numbers of middle managers.  However, a couple of things happened.  First, plants closed as cheaper labor became readily available outside our borders.  Then, as business owners sought more ways to cut costs and operate on leaner budgets, the internet came along allowing those at the top to communicate directly with those at the bottom.  Our political parties seem to have adopted the same strategy with regard to communicating with individual voters.  When was the last time you even heard the term, precinct captain?  When the message comes directly from the top, there is no filtering mechanism to add local context.  Conversely, those in the middle back then gave a human voice to needs and concerns as they were expressed to party leaders.  Outside of the political parties, we no longer discuss our own ideas with our neighbors, we simply find a meme that expresses the feelings of those we agree with on a particular issue and post it to our Facebook page.  In other words, compromise is becoming harder and harder to achieve, because fewer are left in the middle to encourage us to compromise.


But compromise we must.  We are not two separate Americas regardless of to whom the messages from the two major party political candidates appear to have been delivered.  Otherwise, our country will simply be like an office whose choice of background music is made by the person with the loudest sound system.  


In the end, the jazz of one and rock and roll of the other must together morph into a style that may not be pure versions of either, but one that is no less inspiring, and no less accommodating to fans who find favor with elements of both.  Kind of like Steely Dan.


Yeah, maybe I’ll vote the Fagen-Becker ticket this year.


Categories: Robin Daniels