Culture Rover

#11 - Unconventional Sounds of Convention

The Music of the Democratic National Convention

Has anyone noticed the brilliant musical bits between speakers during the first two days of the Democratic National Convention? From recorded songs that sneakily comment on the speakers to a fabulous live band mysteriously located somewhere in the Fleet Center (I think from brief glimpses on C-SPAN that they are in an orchestra pit below the stage, but I could be wrong about that), the music has told a little narrative of its own.

There were the obvious songs, such as Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind" for Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Remember during her Senate campaign, when her handlers accidentally played "Captain Jack," with its line about masturbation? The Republicans feebly tried to smear her with that mishap.)

But more often, there were many sly references, commentaries, and some downright moving musical moments. Last night's closer -- the denouement to Bill Clinton's bring-the-house-down speech -- was Patti Labelle singing Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" for all it was worth. The lady can sing! But even more impressive was her diva outfit: a full-length affair with lots of d├ęcolletage and the half-moons of vintage phonograph records stitched on the dress like huge, sliced polka dots.

The second evening of the affair featured a wealth of more clever, if less moving, gems than LaBelle's gospel power. Best among them were the recordings surrounding Howard Dean's speech.

He entered to a righteous rock and roll shuffle that seemed at first like it might be "Johnny B. Goode," which is fast becoming the theme song of the Johns Kerry and Edwards. The delegates clapped their hands and stomped their feet to the beat, but it seemed odd for Dean to enter to the song that named his once-rivals in the primary election.

Then, just as the music tailed off, the guitar player (who are you, guitar player?) swung around the melody of the Beatles' "Revolution." It was a multifaceted musical quote: at once a nod to Dean's rallying of the Democratic base, his use of "revolutionary" new political techniques such as blogging and the internet, and a sonic labeling of his progressive, Ben-and-Jerry's, Vermont, liberal, wine, cheese, and Volvos wing of the Democratic party -- a wing most pungently full of the memory of the Sixties.

It also provided a subversive comment on Dean's defeat in the primary campaign. In "Revolution," the Beatles sing about counting them out of the revolution, or at the very least ambiguously in it. If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow. Maybe if you carry around photos of Chairman McAuliffe you might though? We'll see how Demos feel when the election is over and the results are in.

Then, after Dean's speech, on came The Pointer Sisters' "We Are Family," the song so full of good humor about past battles and a party tune for current unity. It was a brilliant musical sandwich that communicated as much as Dean's speech itself did about the recent state of the Democrats.

There were a number of other great moments. Barak Obama entered to Curtis Mayfield's majestic "Keep on Pushin'," with the live band insistently singing the song's title over and over again as if everyone in the room was thinking the next line -- move up a little higher -- about Obama's exciting, rapid ascent to prominence, but they weren't quite ready yet to say it.

So too, though it's not my favorite song, Tina Turner's "Best" ("Simply the best / Better than all the rest") resounded for Teresa Heinz Kerry in what was a perhaps a sly jab at Laura Bush (and also at Hillary? It was so tantalizing to see her face during Teresa Heinz Kerry's speech and try to figure out what she was thinking).

Tina made an indirect appearance again during a bizarre, lyrically-updated version of "Proud Mary" that included the rather unmemorable lines: "The Real Deal keeps on flyin' / John Kerry keeps on tryin' / Tryin' tryin' tryin' to make a difference." (It turns out this version was written by a flight attendant on Kerry's campaign jet.)

In general, the music has had a definite R&B/Soul edge to it. This isn't a country and western crowd for the most part. But the presence of a great live band (who are they? someone write an article about them!) among all the canned stuff has been a relief. For that alone, the Dems would get my vote.

27 July 04

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