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Misguided Minstrelsy

January 18, 2008

In Monty Python's The Holy Grail, the famously "fearless" Knight of the Round Table, Sir Robin, is constantly dogged by a wholly unsuitable theme song, sung by a minstrel who just won't shut up and go away:

Bravely bold Sir Robin
went forth from Camelot.
He was not afraid to die, oh brave Sir Robin.
He was not at all afraid
to be killed in nasty ways.
Brave, brave, brave, brave Sir Robin.

He was not in the least bit scared
to be mashed into a pulp.
Or to have his eyes gouged out,
or his elbows broken.
To have his kneecaps split
and his body burned away.
And his limbs all hacked and mangled brave Sir Robin.

His head smashed in and his heart cut out
and his liver removed and bowels uncleffed and his nostrils raped and his penis...

I was reminded of this scene while reading a terrific article in The Washington Post about the often completely misguided relationship between politicians and the music that accompanies their campaigns.

Reporter Paul Fahri begins his story with the following assertion: "If we can tell anything about the candidates from their campaign theme music, it may be this: They (or perhaps their aides) aren't paying much attention to the lyrics. If they were, they might change their tune."

And then the reporter goes on to describe the ways in which politicians have chosen songs that send out the wrong message if you listen closely enough to the lyrics (e.g. Mitt Romney's use of Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation" which is meant to convey his can-do style but doesn't take into account the line "close your mouth and . . . satisfy me, baby") or have otherwise been misinterpreted by a politician and/or his staff (e.g. Ronald Reagan thanking Bruce Springsteen for the "message of hope" in "Born in the USA," a song which, far from being jingoistic, is in fact about as cynical and desperate as you can get.)

One particularly interesting point that the article makes is to do with a general trend towards inoffensive musical banality on the campaign trail in recent years. This is something I noticed when I went to hear Barack Obama speak in Oakland last year. Lots of boring, peppy pop songs with inane lyrics that made me feel like I was at a baseball or football game eating hot dogs and drinking beer, rather than listening to the thoughts of America's potential next President.

Things were apparently very different in centuries past. Far from simply playing well-known tunes of the day, politicians' aides would make up campaign theme songs from scratch or at least put witty new lyrics on famous melodies. As Fahri puts it: "They often tweaked the candidate's opponent, or played up the campaign's themes. A verse in Abraham Lincoln's song in 1860, "For Lincoln and Liberty," went, "Our David's good sling is unerring/The Slavocrat's giant he slew/Then shout for the freedom preferring/For Lincoln and liberty, too.""

Isn't it ironic that politics and entertainment have never been more closely intertwined than they are today, and yet creativity and artistry are at an all-time low. This is depressing. Here's another exchange from The Holy Grail to cheer me up and remind me that somewhere underneath all the stupid Celine Dion and Billy Joel songs rattling across the campaign airwaves there is, apparently, a democratic process at work:

Arthur: I am your King.
Peasant woman: Well I didn't vote for you.

Arthur: You don't vote for kings.

Woman: Well how'd you become king, then?

Arthur: The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water, signifying by divine providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur. That is why I'm your king.

Woman: Listen. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.

Arthur: Be quiet!

Woman: You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you!

Arthur: Shut up!

Woman: If I went 'round sayin' I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!



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