Across four nights, the televised program of the Republican National Convention had all the drama of an interminable student piano recital in which one put-upon pupil after another trudges dutifully to the bench of doom, soldiers through “Für Elise” or “The Entertainer,” takes a sheepish bow and then hurries back to the seat next to mom and dad, praying that that’ll be the last time ever having to go through such an ordeal.
The analogy ends there. The RNC was, until its final moments, devoid of “live music”—an increasingly elastic concept in the age of hyperreality. In the propaganda pageant preceding the Republican conclave, the Democrats served up plenty of entertainment, from the sublime Jennifer Hudson delivering her echoing ode to freedom, to the ridiculous Steven Stills’ anthem to 60s unrest, the bearded guitarist tickling his frets while an intergalactic visitor named Billy Porter chanted from beneath his space-age robes. But getting a famous musician to sing for his or her Republican supper has never been easy, but in Trump Time it’s nearly impossible.
The RNC organizers and many of the convention speakers explained away their song-less program as a steadfast refusal to court “Hollywood elites.” That posturing ignores the fact that Trump’s inauguration invitations to A-list performers were all refused. Come convention time, the smacked-down Repugs were left with no choice but to scurry towards the rapidly crumbling higher ground. Instead of decadent entertainment they offered up an angry hymn to Middle America. In Trump’s concluding speech he referred to a “[tired] anthem” that was “spoken” not sung: he was referring to the Democrats, but the slur ricocheted back on him.
Deprived of music, those who tuned in to the tuneless proceedings were left to endure the numbing qualities of American political speech, none more discordant and dull than those of the Trump family soloists. Sure, this bunch of choristers explored a razor-thin band of variation in volume and affect, from the incel petulance of Don Jr., to the listen-to-me-dad meanness of Eric, to the sibilant carping of Tiffany and, at last, the bullying bel canto of Ivanka that will in the years to come deflate to the smug, spent breathiness emitted by her dad.
The most musical speeches came from African-American recitalists. Unlike the godless Trumps, many of these folks had put in their time singing in church and listening to real religious oratory with cadence and ring. Alice Johnson, whose life sentence for a drug offence was rightly commuted by Trump, came the closest to singing her hymn of thanks to the Commander-in-Chief.
Less extrovert but no less affecting, was Herschel Walker, the former Georgia football star who claims a close thirty-seven-year friendship with Trump. Walker spoke from home, his Heisman trophy in the background, the bronze’s stiff-arm clearly meant for Joe Biden—himself a defensive back in high school, though an asthma diagnosis got him out of Viet Nam.
On the gridiron Walker rolled over would-be tacklers. The super-athlete went on to pummel opponents as a mixed martial artist. Yet on Monday night he was as gentle as a lamb in his praise of the president, assuring the world that Trump was not a racist. Walker’s voice stroked the ear, lulling listeners. It was if the cage fighter were reading a bedtime story to dozy toddlers. However unsettling that experience may have been to some familiar with Walker’s diverse and violent sporting heroics, his gently modulated voice provided much-needed comfort before the Vince Lombardi pitbull snarl of Kimberly Guilfoyle assaulted ears later in the evening. By then the cuddly Bulldog Walker was in pajamas on the sideline, watching the action with a warming mug of Ovaltine in his sledgehammer hands.
While live performers were absent from the RNC, there were snatches of music amidst the prevailing monotony of the spoken word. The succession of speeches was somewhat mercifully interleaved with the occasional short video that showed American greatness and exceptionalism, conjured the threat of socialism, and praised the Fearless Leader. Ironically, these films were underscored with the usual Hollywood gimmicks. The RNC parodied the already parodistic Democratic convention: women’s night; screen-time determined by identity algorithms; aerial death for terrorists; party turncoats testifying against their former comrades. The soundtracks for both parties’ ads were also indistinguishable. Trumpets and horns called to America with the noble interval of the fourth. Dissonances clung to one another like soldiers in a Helmand Province foxhole or Mark and Patricia McCloskey caressing their weapons in front of their Heartland McMansion. When release came it was in the embrace of Daddy Trump. Pensive piano chords weighed the ramifications of executive action (and inaction) so as to portray the thoughtfulness of their candidate. These earnest reflections were inevitably snapped into action by the crack of the snare drum.
There were, however, some slight differences to be heard in the approach to orchestration. In contrast to their Democratic counterparts, the Republican arrangers (likely computers) made plentiful use of long-held notes (drones) most often heard in the middle of the texture. These were most often played by violins or their digital surrogates—the musical equivalent of voter fraud. The intent was likely to convey the resilience of the American people and their reigning President. Equally as plausible was to hear these strains as emblematic of a desperate clinging to power and celebrity.
Only at the end of the convention did live music intrude. In the lead-up to this rhapsodic coda, Trump gasped and frothed for the better part of an hour, the real interest coming not from his vacuous words but in the destiny of his hair, which held tenuously to its purchase in the mischievous wind unleashed by climatologists of the Deep State.
Then came the extreme firework display in which TRUMP was spelled out not once, but twice in the capital skies. So spectacular were the explosions that little boys from Trump to Elon Musk must have hoped that the rocket of the Washington Monument might that very moment lift-off to Mars—or at least make it the hundred miles to Biden’s Wilmington bunker.
After this pyrotechnic display, a third-rate tenor named Christopher Macchio strode to the center of the lower balcony of the East Wing. Macchio joined the elite (i.e., tiny) Trump coterie of entertainers when he parachuted in as a last-minute replacement for Elton John—one of many stars who have cancelled on Trump—at the 2015 Mar-a-Lago New Year’s Eve party. Trump has loved this cheesy crooner ever since. Not pop, but opera—albeit in schlocky adaptation—would cap the Republican festivities.
The for-once mute Trumps turned their behinds to the cameras to stare up at the singer as he let loose his fusillade beginning with Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. The three tenors did this one at a bunch of soccer World Cups and on their world tours, so the aria is more pop than opera by now. Some campaign genius must have thought it might persuade Swing Voters to believe in the family’s classiness and stay the course.
Macchio then pummeled Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which had already been heard in a canned version by Tori Kelly under the fireworks a few minutes earlier. Aggrieved Cohen fans took to Social Media in protest. But the song could and should be heard as a stinging impeachment of the mirthless Trumpian clan of co-opters. Cohen’s line “But you don’t really care for music, do ya?” rang out even beneath the explosions, the “baffled king” of the lyrics none other than Donald J. Trump himself, mistakenly thinking that the music (as opposed to its fawning performance) was lauding him as the savior of his land.
After brutally Americanizing and Christianizing Canadian Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” Macchio careened into Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” a warhorse of weddings or funerals. It’ll be another two teeth-grinding months until we find out which of these ceremonies it will be for Trump and America. With the Mother of God looming in front of the East Wing, the world pleaded for mercy, but Macchio turned a deaf ear to the prayer and launched into a screeching medley of Patriotic songs. The Trump family gaped just below with the throng of in-person conventioneers packed on the lawn beyond. Macchio’s piercing Cs and Ds did not accord with CDC guidelines. The ancient, exposed men of the Trump cabinet looked rightly worried. Only the bass player plucking just to Macchio’s right wore a mask.
Even while Macchio finished off with “America the Beautiful,” the operatic droplets expelled by this super-spreader of song during the opening aria (not coincidentally, also the Italian word for the air we breathe) were still wafting down into the captive crowd. The message of that opening number also lingered. In Puccini’s opera “Nessun dorma” is sung by the unknown prince Calaf, who seeks the hand of the icy Princess Turandot. He must answer three riddles for his suit to succeed, but if he botches one he loses his head. On his side, Calaf allows that if Turandot guesses his name he can also be executed. She promptly orders her surveillance state to unmask the mystery man’s identity.
Plot parallels to the Trump pair are at best partial, but worth considering nonetheless. Like the Princess, Melania is forbidding and ruthless. Unlike the Prince, Trump doesn’t keep his name secret, even going so far as to spell it out it in huge letters in the night sky. But like Donald, Calaf doesn’t lack in self-confidence, and “Nessun dorma” culminates with the fervent claims “Vinceró! Vinceró!” Trump would have no idea that that means “I will win,” though Macchio probably enlightened the boss at the after-party.
Macchio’s performance of the aria divulged its own secrets. The three tenors bellowed up to a high B-natural, a lethal pitch even when there’s no pandemic. Opting for musical safety even as he brazenly bared his maw to the Republican caucus, Macchio made it up only to a B-flat. Will Trump be similarly pipped at the post come election time? Trump didn’t look worried. He wasn’t listening anyway.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)