A thought on the shutdown

As the government shutdown drags on and solutions are conspicuously absent, I wonder why the most obvious tactic has not been tried. Were I in Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer’s position I would make Trump and the Republicans an offer they could not refuse: repeal the disastrous tax cuts in exchange for border wall money. At face value it’s an easy sell: the tax cuts will add the necessary 5 billion dollars, making this proposal revenue neutral. This is especially relevant in a time of declining federal revenue and spiraling debt. From a more tactical standpoint, it pits the republican donors and elites agains the rank and file. Politicians will be forced to reconcile their contradictory ideologies about immigration, taxes, and security. In short, this proposal would force the party to eat itself.

But there has been nary a whisper about this on the hill. I find it difficult to believe that this thought has not crossed the mind of some dems. My more cynical mind tells me that the nearly two-year campaign for what appears to be a vulnerable presidential seat is too tempting for any of the democratic leadership to risk alienating wealthy voters and donors.  The long fight ahead will be costly, and even the most ethical candidate needs to play real politik along the way to the halls of power, but this travesty that is hurting far more people than the 800,000 who are not getting paid demands a resolution. At this point, I fear that the best we will get is a more victory. The tax cuts that will continue to drain funds from necessary public services and render new and innovative projects impossible will remain in place, in spite of a golden opportunity to put an end an ill-conceived, pernicious policy.

New Campaign Aesthetics and the Sound of Populism

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DIY Aesthetic

On June 26, 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for NY-14, a congressional district that includes parts of Queens and the Bronx. The victory was seen as both a major coup and a sign of deep divisions between the Democratic Party’s progressive/socialist and centrist wings. While Ocasio-Cortez’s brief adult life (she is only 28) has involved social justice work, she learned the campaigning strategies that carried her to victory while volunteering for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Her campaign was outspent nearly 17-1 by Crowley’s and her shoe-string budget is clearly reflected in the sounds of her ads. Digital technology makes it increasingly easy to produce a slick product on a budget, but Ocasio-Cortez, like Sanders, adopted a unique DIY aesthetic that includes ambient noise, simple background music, and multi-lingualism. The deployment of DIY audio-visual aesthetic techniques serves to humanize the candidate and connect them with the viewer, making them appear accessible and relatable, distanced from the high-budget products associated with campaigns. It also harkens back to a period in popular music history when DIY production became an aesthetic that was tethered to oppositional stances (groomed in underground clubs, basement shows, and home recording) and later deployed by recording studios that intentionally replicated the gritty, noisy DIY sound.

The music in the background of “See What’s Possible” is simple: a slow-paced electric piano with an added string patch that combines ethereal chords with serene, repetitive right-hand melodic figures. The ad opens with scenes of (assumed) labor: an older Latina riding the subway, a shop floor, and the lifting of a metal grate from a store front. Interspersed in these images is a close-up of a supporter hand-making an Ocasio-Cortez sign. Each of these brief shots includes diegetic sound—rumbling, shuffling, clattering, and coloring. Following this atmospheric introduction, the people in the ad tell their stories—labor, immigration, family, and connections to NY-14, including portions in Spanish and Arabic (with bi-lingual subtitles). Through scenes of everyday work and domestic life, the ad portrays the glory and hardships of the American dream for New York’s diverse working-class communities. Ocasio-Cortez is not pictured until two minutes into the two and a half minute spot. Her voice is not heard until the final ten seconds when she says “This campaign is about what we can accomplish together,” a phrase reminiscent of Bernie Sanders’ “Together” ad (which was donated to the campaign by non-profit media company Human).

For observers of the recent progressive populist wave in US politics, the aesthetics of this ad are familiar. Sanders’ ads like “It’s a Revolution,” “Make History,” and “Together” use similar sound-images and editing techniques. These include using ambient diegetic sound to set place, including diverse subjects, and simple musical accompaniment that highlights voices and diegetic sounds. All of these emphasize direct communication and mythic connotations of labor, immigration, community, and diversity. All of this is wrapped in the patina of low-tech production, as opposed to the typical Madison-Avenue fare of political campaign ads. Just as DIY music production moved from being a mode of production to an aesthetic that indexed critical political stances, do Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s advertising aesthetics index a similar opposition that is bubbling below the surface or is this just another style of campaigning?

(Originally published in the SAM Bulletin, Fall 2018)

Thinking about the National Anthem

A Long Overdue Argument About the Anthem: Thinking Musically about a “Political” Issue

Justin Patch

For the last two years and three months, players in the NFL have taken a knee during the national anthem. Former San Francisco 49ers quarter back Colin Kaepernick is credited with sparking the protests, but players from a number of teams joined in, particularly during the 2016-2017 season. Although coverage of the protests have slipped from the news, players like Panthers’ safety Eric Reid, one of Kaepernick’s 49ers teammates, have continued using the two minute musial platform to raise awareness of violent racial injustices. The drama surrounding these events reached a peak in 2017 when President Donald Trump weighed in on the controversy, sparking team actions across the NFL, including kneeling by the owners of the Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars.

Much of the coverage surrounding the national anthem protests concerns several intertwined opinions. The first is that what Kaepernick and others did and continue to do is a First Amendment right, protected by under free speech. The converse is that this action is disrespectful, particularly towards veterans who fight for the rights and privileges that we enjoy every day, including the First Amendment. The second line of argument concerns the nature of work and what employers can demand of their employees. In this contention, football players are on the clock and must do what employers tell them to do, which might include standing for the anthem. Moreover, those who argue this point often revert to the opinion that the ceremonial performance of the national anthem is no place for politics. The counter argument is that mandating that players stand for the national anthem is forcing employees (i.e. players) to participate in politics already and that players, as employees, cannot and should not be compelled to participate in employer-arraigned political spectacle.

As an interested observer of this debate, and a scholar of music and politics, I was disappointed in the fact that these ongoing events rarely contain an argument about music. Any discussion about what a national anthem is, as a form of modern music that tracks the development of the contemporary nation-state, is conspicuously absent. Informed perspective on what a national anthem sheds meaningful light on the appropriateness or tastelessness of these divisive political displays.

National anthems in the West are rooted in European monarchy, initially as musical tribute, invocation, and accoutrement to royalty. These songs reinforced divine power, prestige, and presentation. Eventually the purposes of these songs morphed as power devolved and was ceded to representative citizen bodies rather than hereditary rulers. The songs that sounded for royalty then came to represent the peoples of a nation, the theoretical seat of power and justice. The history of the national anthem as a form tell us two things. First, a national anthem is always connected to the presentation and practice of state power, therefore its use is always political, whether one stands at attention or takes a knee in protest. Inside the space of the anthem there is no apolitical space. Second, the anthem represents the entirety of a people equally, particularly in the case of the US, a Western power whose history contains no monarchy or divine rule. In a democracy, no individual or group of individuals are more representative of the nation than any other. In the case of US democracy, the military cannot be more American than any other citizen, or else we truly lose what has been fought for: representative democracy itself.

This opinion does is not meant to sway any feelings on what Kaepernick did, or what Marshawn Lynch and Eric Reid continue to do before work on Sundays. But the injection of musical history into this debate is meant to steer it out of the partisan and racial quagmire that has framed these Black athletes demanding justice. By first asking what the meaning and history of the national anthem is, we can then ask what the purpose of protest is and assess its appropriateness.

(This was originally written as a short piece for the Vassar Miscellany News, published Nov 28, 2018)

Discordant Democracy!

On January 4, 2019, I received the first copies of my book. It was a surreal experience. The title seems apropos for the times we are living in, as the government shutdown has officially become the longest ever and neither side is listening to existential problems in the US and globally. North Carolina’s 9th congressional district race remains unresolved. The “shining city on the hill” is not making a stellar case for democracy.