Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Ten Bold Cover Tunes Part IX: "Covering" Spoken Words

Previous posts in this Series: 

Many musical artists over the years have lifted spoken words from their original context and placed them in a song. Sometimes the goal of the musical artist is simply to amplify the lifted words and introduce the speaker of them to a wider audience. Other times, and this is especially true in hip-hop sampling of the spoken word, the goal is to use the lifted words in a way that amplifies the message of the artist doing the sampling. 

While sampling the spoken word might not be a "cover tune" in the way this series has defined the concept, such sampling is most certainly "bold." The artist lifting the spoken word runs the risk of offending fans of the original spoken message, or maybe misinterpreting that message, or even just creating confusion. 

What follows, in no particular order, are ten examples of what I consider to be particularly good examples of setting already existing spoken words to music. 

#10: Mr. Fingers' sampling of Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream Speech". Mr. Fingers (AKA Larry Heard) helped pioneer Chicago house music in the 1980s. His major chart success came in 1986 with "Can You Feel It," a dance classic. He produced many mixes of the track, including one featuring the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr.delivering the "I Have A Dream" speech from 1963. The beats and rhythm help us realize just how much SOUL is in that speech. I'd love for someone to put Dr. King's "Loving Your Enemies" to music. 



#9: Paul Hardcastle - 19 (samples spoken words from the ABC television documentary Vietnam Requiem): I was reminded of Paul Hardcastle and "19" recently by Matt King, producer and my cohost for the new Running on MT podcast. Hardcastle is another electronic music pioneer, and "19" brilliantly dramatizes the plight of the Vietnam vets by taking the words from an important documentary and using music to give them a sense of urgency. We still give mostly lip service to post traumatic stress disorder, but the fact that we got even that far is at least in part due to the efforts of artists like Paul Hardcastle who used their talents to place the issue on the radar. 



#8: Paolo Nutini's "Iron Sky" (samples parts of Charlie Chaplain's final speech in "The Great Dictator"). The Scottish artist Paolo Nutini is one of the greatest soul/rock singers of his generation. His "Iron Sky" (from the excellent 2014 album "Caustic Love") carries a powerful message of striving for freedom in the face of propaganda and bullying. He includes a portion of the legendary final speech delivered by Charlie Chaplain in his classic film "The Great Dictator": 

To those who can hear me, I say - do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed - the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. …..

Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes - men who despise you - enslave you - who regiment your lives - tell you what to do - what to think and what to feel! Who drill you - diet you - treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate - the unloved and the unnatural! Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty!

Video: Paolo Nutini: Iron Sky


#7:  Baz Luhrmann's "Wear Sunscreen." In 1997 Mary Schmich wrote a column for the Chicago Tribune called "Advice, like  youth, probably just wasted on the young." The column became one of the earliest "viral" email messages, and somehow got attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who allegedly delivered it at an MIT Commencement. Vonnegut had to come out and deny having anything to do with the speech, though he did say he would have been proud to write something like that. 

Baz Luhrmann's musical version became an international hit in 1998/1999. What I find fascinating is how unfulfilling the words are in 2020 given the condition of the world. Worse, listening to those words today reminds me of how terribly in denial the United States was in the late 1990s about almost everything that plagues us today--yet could and should have been anticipated and acted on at that time. The Republicans spent that decade practicing and perfecting the "politics of personal destruction," while the Democrats re-branded themselves to become more corporate friendly, Republican-lite technocrats. The results have been nightmarish and catastrophic for all, and led directly to the current mess(es) we find ourselves in. 

Video: Baz Luhrmann: Wear Sunscreen 

#6: Will.i.am, "Yes We Can"  (samples Barack Obama's New Hampshire primary concession speech from January 8, 2008). I generally despise when celebrity entertainers not known for their musical abilities show up in music videos. In this effort, however, Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas found a way to get a range of artists to lip sync the words from one of Barack Obama's most impressive speeches in a way that did not humiliate them or the candidate. In fact, after this video "Yes We Can" became the dominant slogan of the campaign, something no other candidate that year could match in terms of how it energized a base of idealistic young voters. 

Video: Yes We Can 


#5: Frank Zappa, "Porn Wars." In the 1980s Frank Zappa was probably the leading opponents of efforts to put ratings on musical products. He participated in a memorable Senate hearing in 1985 on "Porn Rock," and in typical iconoclastic Zappa fashion ended up placing testimony from it in his 12 minute epic "Porn Wars." Actual voices from politicians and "experts" at the hearing are made to sound like they are in a literal hell. Certainly takes patience to listen to, but worth it in order to get a sense of the sheer absurdity of the politicians' stupidity. 

Video: Frank Zappa, "Porn Wars" 

       

#4:  Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips, "Anarchy." Indie music icon Ani DiFranco in the 1990s released two albums with labor organizer/folk singer/storyteller Utah Phillips called "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere" (1996)  and "Fellow Workers" (1999). On both, Phillips tells stories set to DiFranco's original music. There are a number of ear opening tunes and stories on both records. My personal favorite is probably "Anarchy," in which Phillips tells the story being disenchanted after serving in Korea and then having his life changed upon meeting Christian pacifist/anarchist Ammon Hennacy. (Note: This track also samples the Reverend Jesse Jackson's "Please Forgive Me" and other lines from his 1984 Democratic National Convention address.). 

Video: Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips, "Anarchy" 


#3:  Neilio, "Outside This World" (samples a portion of Ronald Reagan's Address to the 42d Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New YorkNew York on September 21, 1987). In that speech, delivered before the fall of the Soviet Union was widely predicted or imminent, President Reagan engaged in his typical Cold War posturing. But then at the end he surmised that maybe an "alien threat" could bring us all together: 

 ". . . we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world." 

Neilio's mix makes Reagan sound like a kind of Big Brother meets Mr. Rogers mash up. I find it amusing. 

Video: Neilio "Outside This World" 


#2: E-40 featuring Big K.R.I.T "Black is Beautiful" ("Democracy is Hypocrisy" by Malcolm X). Hard to imagine a more appropriate rap given the events of the last few months. 

Video: E-40 featuring Big K.R.I.T Black is Beautiful ("Democracy is Hypocrisy" by Malcolm X)

 

#1: Living Colour, "Cult of Personality."  This classic rock track from 1988 features audio samples from Malcolm X, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy. In politics, "Cult of Personality" refers to a situation in which the "great leader" is praised and defended by millions who know him (it's almost always a "him") mostly through mass mediated images. All Presidents of the United States develop some kind of personality cult appeal, usually in terms of the enthusiasm of supporters. The Trump presidency is probably the first since President Nixon in which the personality cult consumes supporters AND opponents. As noted by political scientist Greg Weiner in reference to the US response to the pandemic: 

"Mr. Trump — signer of checks, provider of health tips, filter for medical reality — is offering a diluted and delusive aura of a personal relationship with him as a substitute for the true relationships that constitute communities. What is disturbing is the extent to which the public has taken on this perspective, whether through the lens of support or of opposition."

Speaking just for me, the song "Cult of Personality" had pretty much left my playlist in the mid 1990s. Since 2017 it's been back in the rotation. I'm sure I am not alone! (The songs says in part: "I exploit you still you love me/I tell you one and one makes three.")

Video: Living Colour Cult of Personality 

Hope you enjoyed this edition of Ten Bold Cover Tunes! Peace! --TP

Saturday, August 01, 2020

Loving Your Enemies: The King Speech We Need Right Now

In his short life (he was assassinated nine months shy of his 40th birthday), Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered and/or issued thousands of messages. The most widely cited include the November 28, 1963 "I Have A Dream" speech delivered at the March on Washington; the "Beyond Vietnam: A Time To Break The Silence" speech delivered at Riverside Baptist Church on April 4, 1967; and the "Letter From Birmingham Jail" issued on April 16, 1963. Beyond Vietnam and the Letter From Birmingham Jail feature powerful appeals to conscience that have inspired and mobilized generations of peace and social justice activists. The I Have A Dream speech is equally compelling, but like all "viral" messages it often gets willfully misinterpreted by bad faith actors who do not share the vision and are, at best, addicted to what in that speech King lamented as the "tranquilizing drug of gradualism." 

The speech of King's that does not get enough attention, perhaps because it places too many demands on our contemporary troll culture  to look in the mirror before judging and condemning others, is "Loving Your Enemies." I am quite sure that the late civil rights icon John Lewis was familiar with this speech. In Lewis' New York Times op-ed released shortly after his recent passing, he writes: 

Like so many young people today, I was searching for a way out, or some might say a way in, and then I heard the voice of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on an old radio. He was talking about the philosophy and discipline of nonviolence. He said we are all complicit when we tolerate injustice. He said it is not enough to say it will get better by and by. He said each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up and speak out. When you see something that is not right, you must say something. You must do something. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself.
John Lewis on the Edmund Pettus bridge
The young John Lewis would have almost certainly been aware of Martin Luther King's "Loving Your Enemies" sermon. Until his dying day, Representative Lewis tried to uphold King's philosophy of nonviolent resistance as a means of provoking social change. 

Those are all themes endorsed in "Loving Your Enemies." The speech was a sermon spoken by the young King many times in the 1950s when the young Lewis probably became aware of it. Deeply touched by progressive Christian theology, the speech methodically and boldly instructs listeners on how Jesus' pronouncement in Matthew 5:43-45 ("Ye have heard that it has been said, ‘Thou shall love thy neighbor, and hate thine enemy.’ But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven.”) is the key for personal, national, and international salvation. (The version of the sermon I am working from was delivered on November 17, 1957 at the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL. King was pastor of the church.)

In a time like the present, when the public performance of rage and bitterness is chic on all sides of the activist spectrum and in the White House, it might seem naive to trot out a message of love and nonviolence. But it only seems naive because most of us have internalized the distorted interpretations of what King said; we've made love and nonviolence into something passive that cannot even get the attention of power, let alone speak truth to and transform it. Let's revisit what Dr. King actually said about HOW we go about loving our enemies, and WHY we should do it. A proper understanding of "Loving Your Enemies" will reveal that we need its inspiration NOW as much we did in 1957; probably even more. 

How do we love our enemies? According to Dr. King, in three ways. First, we have to analyze the SELF. While he does not minimize the fact that some will hate other people just on the basis of race and other characteristics out of control of the target, still he argues we must all reflect on what we do to trigger the "tragic hate response." Failure to do so often leads to hypocrisy and double standards, or as Jesus said, "how is it that you see the splinter in your brother's eye and fail to see the plank in your own?" Quite profoundly for a speech delivered in the 1950s, King applied the same principle to the United States: if we as a nation want to understand why we are hated around the world, we should try and figure out what we might be doing to provoke such a response. 

Self-analysis is sorely lacking in today's world. What we get instead are non-stop analyses of the other, analyses that are often self-serving, misinformed, and close off the possibility of dialogue. Social media appears to reinforce this sad state of affairs in ugly ways. 

The second way we love our enemies is to discover the good in them. King argues that the most hateful, spiteful person has something good in him. The contemporary tendency to divide the world into "good" and "evil" camps with no gray area makes King's admonition seem quaint. But if you think about it, the failure of most of us to see the good in others does little more than produce never ending strife, a condition that benefits only the ruling class that can avoid accountability while the masses metaphorically (and sometimes literally) stab each other in the back. 
The third way we can love our enemies is the most difficult, yet also the most powerful: when the opportunity presents itself to defeat our enemy, that is when we should NOT do it. All of us have opportunities to "get back at" those from whom we have suffered real or imagined harms. For King, real love is to resist the great temptation to strike back. Social media once again makes something like this all the more difficult, as it is rooted in the pathological desire to crush or "own" one's enemies. Perhaps we could get good practice at resisting the temptation to strike back at enemies simply by hitting the delete key more often or counting to ten before we hit send. 

At the national/global level, what would the United States be like today if we had taken King's advice after the attacks of September 11, 2001? We have now lived through almost two decades of foreign policy rooted in striking back at the "official" evil, with no end in sight for the so-called "war on terror." Earlier in July, the House Armed Services Committee, in a bipartisan vote, approved a $740 billion military budget while also trying to impede attempts to withdraw from Afghanistan. We have spent trillions of dollars, lost and otherwise traumatized many thousands of lives here and abroad, and perhaps forever lost the ability to claim a moral high ground as we normalized drone strikes, sacrificed Constitutional freedoms in the name of security,  and kept people incarcerated in Guantanamo for years without charges. I suspect that if King were alive during all of this, he would have urged us to consider not just what our actions did to the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Isis, but what they did (and continue to do) to US

Why should we love our enemies? After answering the practical question of how to love our enemies, King then shifts to the more theoretical question of why we should do so. There are three reasons. First, "hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe." King give the example of driving on the highway and being blinded by a driver in the opposite lane flashing the high beams. The tendency is to want to respond by flashing our own, but that only escalates and makes the situation more dangerous. As King puts it, at some point we need to learn how to "dim the lights" in order to ramp down instead of build up hate and evil. 

Second, hate distorts the personality of the hater. As King argued, "We usually think of what hate does for the individual hated or the individuals hated or the groups hated. But it is even more tragic, it is even more ruinous and injurious to the individual who hates. You just begin hating somebody, and you will begin to do irrational things. You can’t see straight when you hate. You can’t walk straight when you hate. You can’t stand upright. Your vision is distorted. There is nothing more tragic than to see an individual whose heart is filled with hate." One of the great tragedies of the pandemic is that people have politicized basic health advice and used it to divide us further; I watched an Oshkosh City Council meeting in which some people opposed to masking requirements spoke with a rage that seemed to make it impossible for them to understand how their own behavior impacts other people. Conversely, I've heard some pro-mask advocates openly wish that mask opponents get coronavirus and die.  
The young Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered many sermons at the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1955 he worked with Rosa Parks and others to organize the Montgomery bus boycott, a critical event that put civil rights issues on the national agenda. 

Finally, King argues that we should love our enemies because doing so has a redemptive power to it. He argues that the only way to transform people is to love them even when they display outward hate. No one, not even Dr. King, was or is under the illusion that haters can be transformed overnight. But if I hear Dr. King correctly, he's saying that nothing else has ever produced any kind of long term change in the character of individuals or even nations. 

Aware that an argument for loving enemies could be interpreted as giving in meekly to oppression, the final part of King's sermon addressed what kind of civic behavior flows from people operating out of love. Speaking specifically to the experience of African-Americans, he argues that there are three major choices available: violence, acquiescing or giving in, or organizing mass nonviolent resistance. 

King opposed physical violence not just on moral grounds, but as a practical matter. He saw it as futile, and not capable of building the alliances necessary to transform society. My guess is that if he were around today, he would be inspired by how support for #BlackLivesMatter cuts across racial lines. He would also argue that the movement makes its greatest strides when it remains peaceful, builds coalitions, and produces clear sets of demands for change in municipalities, states, and the national level. 

I think that young activists often reject King's approach to producing change because they view it as a form of acquiescing to power. That's why speeches like "Loving Your Enemies" really need to be put back in wider circulation, because King EXPLICITLY rejected acquiesence as a response to oppression. 

What King supported was the organization of mass nonviolent resistance based on the principle of Love. He anticipated all of the current talk about systemic oppression: "When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system you love, but you seek to defeat the system."

What King struggled for was and is not easy. Love is beautiful, but difficult. It's not clear that we as an American society in the 21st century are up to the challenge of love. Too many of us would rather shout, float conspiracy theories, pander, enable each other's worst tendencies, wait for someone else to do the activist heavy lifting, and be content with short term fixes to systemic problems. In other places I have referred to this as our addiction to bullshit, bluster, and bullying. But if we really want change--meaningful and long lasting change--we can all start by practicing three acts of love articulated by King in Loving Your Enemies: 

*Engage in constant self-analysis. 
*Work hard to discover the good in ALL people. When communicating with them, always focus on that good. 
*Resist the temptation to defeat other people, even when a "golden opportunity" to do so presents itself. On social media, stop being fixated on "owning" or humiliating other people. The short term adrenaline buzz of doing so is not worth losing even the possibility of enlisting that person to support just and fair policies. 

"Loving Your Enemies" will probably never be Dr. Martin Luther King's most widely recognized speech. But it is the one we most need to hear right now. Read it. Share it with your friends, especially if they consider themselves to be activists. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Ten Bold Cover Tunes Part VIII: Classical Music Covers

Prior Ten Bold Cover Tunes Posts: 
Part I
Part II
Part III: Guitar Hero Edition
Part IV: Dare To Cover Johnny Cash Edition
Part V: I Won't Back Down Edition
Part VI: Bring It On Home To Me Edition
Part VII: The Kennedy Center Honors Edition

Way back in Part I of this series, we defined cover artists as being BOLD in a couple of ways: 

*In choosing to cover a song already identified with another artist, the cover artist risks professional humiliation. Just DARING to cover certain songs is an act of boldness.

*Taking the original version of the song and performing it in a unique way is one of the boldest moves an artist can make. When done well, the cover version takes on a life of its own and almost sends the original into obscurity.


Can you think of any better way for a rock or pop artist to risk professional humiliation than to take a stab at covering a piece of classical music? The persona of the classical score--highbrow, sublime, deliberate--does not at first glance appear to lend itself to the chaotic and often amusing improvisation of rock. Indeed, the progressive rock era bands that consciously produced a rock/classical hybrid (Yes, King Crimson, Electric Light Orchestra, to name a few) were always known to be more "serious" than their pure rock contemporaries. 

It's virtually impossible to send a score by Beethoven, Bach, Mozart or any classical composer into obscurity, no matter how good the rock/pop interpretation. The ten mentioned below are simply some of my favorites. 

#10: Frank Zappa's cover of Ravel's "Bolero." The late Frank Zappa's irreverence, outspokenness, and overall wackiness made it easy to forget that he always surrounded himself with world class musicians. In 1988 he toured with a big band, adding horn arrangements to his own original songs and some covers. The cover of "Bolero" is remarkable in how it mixes big band and reggae, 
Video: Frank Zappa conducts "Bolero"

#9: Rick Wakeman's cover of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." Rick Wakeman is the legendary keyboardist most known for his work with progressive rock band Yes. When his version of "Rhapsody in Blue" (from the album Rhapsodies) came out in 1979, I heard it on a New York City FM radio station and thought that he was just one more classic rock icon struggling to stay relevant by putting a disco beat in his music. The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, and other classic rockers had given in to the same pressure at that time. Forty-plus  years later, I now see the disco elements in Wakeman's cover of "Rhapsody in Blue" as its most endearing quality. 
Video: Rick Wakeman "Rhapsody in Blue"

#8:  Procol Harum's Reworking of Bach's "Air on a G String" ("A Whiter Shade of Pale"). Okay, so Procol Harum's rock classic "A Whiter Shade of Pale" is not really a cover of a Bach score as much as it is "inspired" by it. Still, I include it in this list of Ten Bold Covers because I suspect Bach himself (who died in 1750) would have appreciated the beauty of his melody accompanied by Gary Brooker's vocals. 

Procol Harum's 2006 performance of "A White Shade of Pale" in Denmark proudly plays up the classical foundation of the song. 
Video: Procol Harum "A White Shade of Pale"

#7: Ekseption's cover of Beethoven's 5th. The Dutch band Ekseption, active from 1967-1989, were classically trained. In 1969 they released a rockin' version of Beethoven's 5th symphony that remains an important early contribution to the rock/classical hybrid genre. 
Video: Ekseption's cover of Beethoven's 5th

#6:  Sky's cover of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. In 1980 the Australian/English band Sky released an amazing version of a Bach standard. The guitar of John Williams, the synthesizer and keyboards of Francis Monkman, and the drums of Tristan Fry all manage to make a familiar melody fresh and vital. 

#5: The Who's cover of Edvard Grieg's "In the Hall of the Mountain King." This cover was originally recorded during the sessions for the 1967 "The Who Sell Out" album, the band's last album before their breakthrough with the rock opera "Tommy" in 1969. "In the Hall of the Mountain King" was not heard by the general public until the re-release of "The Who Sell Out" in 1995. What I love about it is the sheer rawness. Because the Who became one of the prime exemplars of rock-and-roll as a kind of high art form demanding lots of studio time to produce the perfect track, it's easy to forget that early in their career they could jam with the best of them. "In the Hall of the Mountain King" is one such jam. 

#4: Apollo 100's cover of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring." Apollo 100's 1972 cover of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" was one of the catchiest tunes of the 1970s. The band's performance makes them major contenders for the title of World's Greatest One-Hit Wonder. 

#3:  B. Bumble and the Stingers' cover of Tchaikovsky's "The March From The Nutcracker." B. Bumble and the Stingers released two great instrumentals in 1961 and 1962, "Bumble Boogie" and "Nut Rocker." "Nut Rocker" was a cover of a classical score from Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Before the Beatles got to the states in 1964, pop music was in pretty lackluster condition. B. Bumble and the Stingers were one of the few high energy groups out there. 
Video: B. Bumble and the Stingers, "Nu Rocker"

#2: Jethro Tull's cover of Bach's "Bouree in E Minor".  Some people might be offended by all the covers of Johann Sebastian Bach scores on this list. They would say if it's not baroque, why fix it? (This entire post was designed to set up that line :-)). 

Jethro Tull's version of Bouree appeared on their 1969 album "Stand Up," a breakthrough for them and one of the more important records in the history of progressive rock. Ian Anderson's vocals and flute, along with Martin Barre's guitar, produced one of the most original, recognizable sounds in the history of rock. They certainly did justice to Bach. 
Video of Jethro Tull's Bouree

#1:  Emerson, Lake, and Palmer's cover of Aaron Copland's "Fanfare For The Common Man."  Released in 1977, ELP's cover of the Copland score became forever the definitive version. Keith Emerson was arguably the preeminent keyboardist of his generation, and "Fanfare" one of his many high points. They rhythm section of Greg Lake on bass and Carl Palmer on drums brought a dynamic quality to any genre the band dabbled in, including classical. Given the constraints presented by modern corporate radio and the short attention span values of streaming site audiences, it's hard to imagine something like "Fanfare" being recorded today. That's sad.
Video: ELP cover of Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man" 

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Obama in Osawatomie and Trump in Tulsa: Tempered Trolling v. Toxic Trolling

I've been teaching public speaking, at introductory and advanced levels, for more than 30 years. In all of that time, I've always used the speeches of presidents of the United States to demonstrate how basic and more sophisticated principles of rhetoric operate in the "real" world. While my own personal politics lean closer to FDR, LBJ, and Barack Obama, I've never hesitated to pull from the rhetoric of Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, or Bush 41 and 43 to demonstrate rhetorical techniques. You can find an excellent archive of historical and contemporary speeches of presidents and other public figures at 

President Trump is the first White House occupant I cannot work into a public speaking course. The problem is not that I am so "woke" that I will not allow my students' innocent ears to be exposed to Trumpian rhetoric that is time and again divisive, demonstrably false, and dopey. Unfortunately, you can find those qualities in much of what passes for political rhetoric in the United States. 
Politicians have engaged in trolling since the beginning of time. "Tempered" trolling invites debate and is consistent withe values of ethical public speaking. "Toxic" trolling is more akin to the social media norms of bitterness and division. 

The problem is that outside of his State of the Union addresses, in which the president hesitates like the Godfather's  Frank Pentangeli being coerced into perjuring himself lest the mob knock off his brother, Mr. Trump does not really deliver anything that could in good conscience be called a "speech." For centuries, effective public speaking has been conceived of as a mindful, well-prepared attempt to deliver a clear message, tailored to particular audiences, in a situation that provides constraints the agile speaker attempts to overcome. Great public speaking is the opposite of narcissism: rather than fixate on self, the mindful speaker is forever cognizant of audience needs. Being cognizant of audience needs does NOT mean "telling them what they want to hear." That's demagoguery. Being cognizant of audience needs means, from the perspective of the speaker, "telling them WHAT I BELIEVE, with evidence to support it, in a language everyone can easily understand." 

At his rallies, which since 2015 have been Mr. Trump's preferred vehicle for verbal communication, he typically stands at a podium and words come out of his mouth. That's pretty much all those presentations have in common with "public speaking" as I've defined it. Even at their worst, ALL prior presidents have respected the fact that their remarks must reach beyond merely stoking an uncritical base of supporters. For most prior presidents, reaching beyond the base happened even at campaign rallies in front of cheering supporters. 

The point here is not that Donald Trump is an exceptionally bad public speaker; I wrote about that in 2016, referring to him as "the bad man speaking poorly." The point is that what Donald Trump does on the political stage is public speaking only in the most narrow, technical sense. More accurately, what he does is a form of Internet trolling done openly on stage for the world to see. It's an inflammatory effort to trigger or "own" his opponents in a manner equal parts vacuous and vicious.Think of it this way: If a quarterback constantly spits at the defensive linemen, repeatedly accuses his opponents of cheating with no evidence to back it up, blames all his mistakes on his team mates, doesn't attend practice sessions, and only recognizes the fans wearing his jersey, is he really playing football? Technically yes, but not in a manner we would teach Pop Warner league kids in the "how to play quarterback" training camp. And that's why it's extraordinarily difficult to work Mr. Trump into classroom instruction on "how to compose and deliver a public speech."

Which is not to say that there's not room for some form of trolling in political speech. I can explain what I mean by comparing President Obama's campaign speech in Osawatomie, Kansas on December 6, 2011 with President Trump's rally in Tulsa on June 20, 2020. Why compare these two events? Because when first-term presidents announce intentions to run for a second, shortly after the announcement they typically give an address designed to set the tone for the campaign season. The events in Osawatomie and Tulsa were designed to serve that purpose for Obama and Trump, respectively. What I will argue is that while both Obama's and Trump's remarks featured trolling, Obama's was a kind of "tempered" trolling that falls within the bounds of acceptable public speaking practices in that it was designed to highlight policy differences between the president and his opponents. Trump's trolling was of the "toxic" variety in which policy differences take a back seat to crude attacks and exploiting the personality cult surrounding the president. 
Obama in Osawatomie: Tempered Trolling 

Barack Obama assumed the presidency in 2009 at the height of the worst economic conditions since the 1930s. While his stimulus program did spark a recovery, Obama was lambasted on the right for going too far, and on the left for not going far enough. The roll out of the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was sufficiently disastrous that the Republicans were able to take solid control of both houses of Congress in the November, 2010 midterm elections. With the Republican Congress making explicit vows to work against the Obama agenda, the president's reelection in 2012 was not at all guaranteed. 

Further complicating Mr. Obama's reelection chances was the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement in September of 2011. Occupy's populist "We Are The 99 Percent" rhetoric and stinging critique of corporate America were not-so-subtle digs at the Administration's failure to hold Wall St. criminals fully accountable for corrupt practices that led the country into recession. Combined with Tea Party sniping on the right, the president was suddenly at risk of losing one of the major powers of the office: the ability to proactively SET the national agenda rather than defensively RESPOND to agendas set by others. 

Seen in that context, the purpose of President Obama's Osawatomie speech was to define what should be the critical issue on which the 2012 election should turn, and thus once again take control of the national agenda. With a clear nod to the Occupy movement, Obama framed the campaign this way: 

“There’s been a raging debate over the best way to restore growth and prosperity, restore balance, restore fairness . . . But, Osawatomie, this is not just another political debate. This is the defining issue of our time. This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and for all those who are fighting to get into the middle class. Because what's at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, and secure their retirement.”

In his engaging memoir Confessions of a Presidential Speechwriter (Michigan State University Press, 2014), Craig R. Smith is guided by the Greek philosopher Aristotle's theory of rhetoric and argues that "a campaign speech is usually a mix of a deliberative agenda, a forensic condemnation of the sins of the opposition, and a ceremonial celebration of certain American values . . . " The "forensic condemnation of the sins of the opposition" can be thought of as a form of "trolling." 

In the best presidential campaign rhetoric, trolling is "tempered." That is, it is not simply a series of cheap shots, straw man arguments, and red meat for the base. Rather, tempered trolling issues a challenge to real or perceived opponents. The troll forces the target to consider if the troll might actually be right. Harry Truman's 1948 Whistle Stop reelection tour, rooted in a stinging critique of the Republican "Do Nothing" Congress, was a classic case of tempered trolling. Truman challenged the Congress to defend its record on labor rights, farms, civil rights and other issues. The GOP leadership's inability to make the case led to "Give 'em Hell" Harry's  stunning upset victory in November. 
In 1948 Harry Truman was widely expected to lose the presidency to Republican Thomas Dewey. Truman's tempered trolling of the "Do Nothing" Republican Congress helped reinforce the president's populist image and propelled him to an upset victory. 

Obama's Osawatomie speech included some overt--but tempered--trolling: 

*The fact that he chose Kansas as the location for the address, a mecca of Red State America, by itself was an act of trolling the Republicans.The New York Times coverage was headlined "Obama Strikes Populist Chord With Speech on G.O.P Turf.

*In many ways Obama's campaign pitch was an updated version of Teddy Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" speech delivered in Osawatomie on September 1, 1910. By identifying heavily with a Republican icon, Obama challenged the Republicans to demonstrate that they--more than he--were the rightful heirs to TR's economic policy legacy. 
Barack Obama and Teddy Roosevelt
In his Osawatomie speech, Barack Obama practiced tempered trolling by channeling a Republican icon--Teddy Roosevelt--and suggesting that he (Obama) was a better heir to his populist legacy than the modern GOP. 

*Obama characterized the modern GOP as being in league with the same elements that opposed TR's reforms: 

"Now, just as there was in Teddy Roosevelt’s time, there is a certain crowd in Washington who, for the last few decades, have said, let’s respond to this economic challenge with the same old tune. 'The market will take care of everything,' they tell us. If we just cut more regulations and cut more taxes -- especially for the wealthy -- our economy will grow stronger. Sure, they say, there will be winners and losers. But if the winners do really well, then jobs and prosperity will eventually trickle down to everybody else. And, they argue, even if prosperity doesn’t trickle down, well, that’s the price of liberty." 

The fact that tempered trolling places pressure on opponents to defend their positions is significant. But even more significant is what tempered trolling does to the troll: it challenges him or her to "walk the talk." In staking out a populist position, Obama placed pressure on HIMSELF to have to deliver the goods should he get reelected. Indeed, the Osawatomie speech put Mr. Obama on record as supporting a range of policies for the economy not always enthusiastically endorsed by the corporate wing of his party. In taking such positions, he challenged the American public to ask if he was "up to the challenge" to deliver. 

In short, any public speaking teacher regardless of political orientation could easily use President Obama's Osawatomie speech as an example of how real world speakers can advocate policy without having to resort to vile and empty attacks. Obama's "tempered trolling" put pressure on the Republicans to show why their brand of populism was more credible than the president's, and put pressure on Obama to demonstrate that he could deliver. 

Trump in Tulsa: Toxic Trolling 

Donald Trump is unique among the 45 presidents in a number of ways, including the fact that he has been holding campaign rallies continuously since shortly after his inauguration. In each one, he does pretty much the opposite of what a public speaking teacher would suggest: 
 What Speech Teachers Suggest
 
 What President Trump Does 
 Prepare, Prepare, Prepare 
 vs. 
 Wing It 
 Adapt to multiple audiences 
 vs. 
 Speak only to narrow MAGA base 
 Treat your opponents fairly 
 vs. 
 Mock and ridicule opponents 
 Demonstrate goodwill to all
 vs. 
 Demonize all who disagree
 Get your facts straight 
 vs. 
 Introduce "alternative facts"
 Organize ideas coherently
 vs. 
 Scattered all over the map
You get the idea. When a speaker openly violates so many of the basic rules of public speaking, at some point you have to accept the fact that he's really not doing public speaking in any meaningful sense. What he is doing is the in-person equivalent of Twitter, with millions of characters espoused instead of just 280

Twitter and other social media have become known as "safe" spaces for a particular brand of bitter, toxic trolling that often features heavy doses of bullshit, bluster, and bullying. The traditional public speech, if prepared and presented ethically, seeks to invite disagreement and hopes to resolve it through civil debate in the public sphere. Toxic trolling is not interested in any of that; it seeks only to "own" the ______________ (fill in the name of your favorite enemy) and "trend." 

President Trump's June 20, 2020 rally in Tulsa was a classic example. As with most toxic trolling events, the build up to it was as important as the actual event. Cable pundit shows fixated for days on whether or not people would wear masks, if there would be a literal civil war outside the arena between Black Lives Matter and MAGA activists, and if the president's promise of a standing room only crowd would come to fruition. (As it turned out, the campaign itself was trolled by teen Tik Tok users, who successfully conned them into thinking there were a million requests for tickets. The actual event ended up being quite small by presidential rally standards.). 

What to make of the president's actual remarks? Anyone hoping that it would define Mr. Trump's vision of what Campaign '20 should be about, as Obama did in Osawatomie, had to be disappointed. Instead it was a never ending stream of consciousness filled with personal grievances, bizarre formulations of the pandemic and the protests, and a cartoonish effort to frame establish Democrats and Mr. Moderate Joe Biden as "radical left" and anarchist sympathizers. 

Mainstream media, still trying to judge the president's rallies as if they are sites of public speeches, of course concluded that it was a disaster. They don't understand that Mr. Trump is not trying to be judged by traditional public speaking standards. In fact there's a line in the Tulsa remarks, wherein he recounts a conversation with Melania after his speech at West Point, in which he shows that he grasps the purpose of toxic trolling: 

"I call my wife, I said, 'How good was that speech?' I thought it was a … Hey look, I will tell you when I make good ones and bad ones. Like so far tonight, I’m average, but we’re having fun, we’re having fun. So far tonight, but I call my wife and I said, 'How good was it, darling?' She said, 'You’re trending number one.' I said to our great first lady, I said, 'Let me ask you a question. Was it that good of a speech that I’m trending number one? Because I felt it was really good.'"

"You're trending number one." THAT is what the critics of the president's style generally do not get, because they are using a standard for judgment rooted in a game that he is not playing. 

Conclusion: Where Do We Go From Here? 

In this rant I've shown how Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in participating in the tradition of incumbent presidents trying to set the tone for the reelection campaign season, both performed forms of trolling. Obama's "tempered trolling" was consistent with the principles of traditional public speaking, pressuring his GOP opponents to defend their brand of populism and pressuring Obama himself to be able to demonstrate that he could deliver on his promises. Trump's "toxic trolling" was not public speaking at all, and was more interested in triggering opponents and trending online as opposed to staking out policy positions to guide the campaign year agenda. 

Given my background as an educator, I am concerned that President Trump's brand of toxicity is becoming normalized as a legitimate form of public address. I urge my colleagues in all teaching areas to resist the urge to normalize toxic trolling as public speaking, and to do so in a way that does not alienate students or others who might be sympathetic to some of the president's views. As I suggested at the start of this rant, a good way to do that is to use examples from presidents of both parties to demonstrate that your objection to President Trump's trolling is not partisan. For example, my students are sometimes shocked to hear that I consider George W. Bush's Second Inaugural Address to be one of the better ones of the last 50 years. While I disagreed with Mr. Bush on pretty much every public policy issue imaginable, and I think his two terms were terrible for the world, that particular speech articulated a humane vision of conservatism and America's place in the world not typically promoted on Fox News (or in Mr. Bush's actual policies, tragically). 

At the same time, we need to make sure that citizens, young and old, are aware of the reality of and power of toxic trolling in our world. Mr. Trump's BS, bluster and bullying can sound "edgy" and "authentic" to people not familiar with the code he is operating in. As more people recognize and reject that code, they might begin to demand basic standards of decency in public discourse as a condition for getting their vote. 

If you ever find yourself having to give a policy speech, here's my advice. Stay positive and try to avoid needless trolling. But if you have to troll, be more like Obama in Osawatomie than Trump in Tulsa. If you do the former you might not trend online, but you won't contribute to the debasement of our public discourse. Who knows, you might even provoke people who disagree to see things your way. 

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Deep Purple's In Rock at 50: In Praise Of Metal For The Ear

I'd like to take time out from the many crises facing the world, including the disturbing suppression of free speech here in the States, to celebrate one of the foundational recordings in the rock-and-roll metal genre. Deep Purple's In Rock album turns 50 years old today. Were it not for the fact that the song "Smoke on the Water" (from the album Machine Head) forever branded Purple as the band known for that famous riff, In Rock in my humble opinion would be more widely recognized as the band's signature piece of music. 
Deep Purple's 1970 In Rock album cover. From left to right, the band members were Ian Gillan (vocals), Ritchie Blackmore (guitar), Jon Lord (keyboards), Roger Glover (bass), and Ian Paice (drums). Though not an explicitly political band, Purple's  idea of British rockers  as enshrined on Mt. Rushmore  can be read as an ironic statement of how pop stars had replaced politicians as icons in that turbulent time. 

Monday, June 01, 2020

How Joe Biden Can Unite Factions: The Pope-A-Dope Strategy

[Full Disclosure: While I am not a practicing Catholic, I still consider myself to be a member of the Church. Growing up I attended 16 years of Catholic School, including St. John's University in NYC. --Tony Palmeri]

Given that he's running for the presidency in the middle of a global pandemic, depressed economy, and the most widespread racial justice protests since 1968, it's not surprising that Joe Biden's religious background has received limited media attention. Yet if he does prevail in November, Mr. Biden would be only the second Catholic ever to occupy the White House. The first of course was John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Biden takes his faith seriously, and in 2005 said, "The next Republican that tells me I'm not religious, I'm going to shove my rosary down their throat." 

Back in the day, anti-Catholic bigotry made it virtually impossible for Catholic candidates to capture the presidency. New York Governor Al Smith, Democratic party nominee for president in 1928, could not overcome hysterical reactions to his Catholicism in some parts of the country; in the deep south the Ku Klux Klan campaigned actively for Republican Herbert Hoover. Political historian Allan Lichtman concluded that “the religious issue was by far the most important influence on voting.” (cited in Jay Dolan, "The Right of a Catholic to Be President," Notre Dame Magazine, 2008). 



Above: Sample Ku Klux Klan rhetoric used against Al Smith in 1928. Klansmen argued that if a Catholic were elected President, he would take orders from the Pope. Such  sentiments had widespread support in the United States for many years.  

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Ten Bold Cover Tunes Part VII: The Kennedy Center Honors Edition

Annually since the late 1970s, a range of performance artists have been honored in Washington by the Kennedy Center. Even though the president of the United States has no direct role in selecting the honorees, the number of popular music artists recognized seemed to increase during the Obama years--perhaps a nod to #44's rock star image.

The most fun part of the annual ceremony is when popular artists serenade honorees with covers of the honorees' well known tunes. During these televised performances, the director always treats the audience watching at home to reactions shots of the honoree(s) and the POTUS and First Lady. The former can often be seen to be forcing back tears, while the latter reveal themselves to be human beings capable of appreciating the art of the masses.

What follows, in no particular order, are ten noteworthy Kennedy Center cover performances.

#10: Beyonce's Cover Of Tina Turner's "Proud Mary." "Proud Mary" was written by John Fogerty and recorded originally by his band Creedence Clearwater Revival. But Ike and Tina Turner's gritty and energetic version was so captivating that the song forever after became associated with them.

Beyonce's 2005 cover at the 2005 Kennedy Center Honors captures the energy of the Ike and Tina version. President George W. Bush's reaction suggests that the song transported him back to his pre-politics partying days, which were legendary.


Video: Tina Turner "Proud Mary"


#9: Lyle Lovett's Cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." Before the 1960s, rock lyrics about relationships existed on a spectrum from macho male posturing (inherited from Chicago blues) to tear-jerking sentimentalism. With the Beach Boys "Pet Sounds" (1966) and Beatles' offerings of the same time period, rock songs about relationships became outer expressions of internal grief; odes to codependency and control that have probably exerted more influence on youth over the years than the raunchy sex and violence recordings that the so-called "pro-family" groups have been obsessing over for many years.(Perhaps that's because the so-called pro-family groups are led by people for whom relational co-dependency and control are common states of being.). Brian's Wilson's "God Only Knows" from that Pet Sounds album is perhaps the archetype in the genre: 

If you should ever leave me
Though life would still go on, believe me
The world could show nothing to me
So what good would living do me
God only knows what I'd be without you

Yep, if you leave that old singer he might actually kill himself! Really healthy message, eh?

I enjoy Lyle Lovett's cover from the 2008 Kennedy Center Honors because he looks and sounds like a wedding singer who can't figure out why the bride is marrying that obnoxious asshole. 

But even better is Brian Wilson's reaction shot: I imagine him thinking, "If people knew the pain I was in when I wrote that song they would be crying instead of cheering." 

Video: Lyle Lovett "God Only Knows" 


#8: Eddie Vedder's Cover of Bruce Springsteen's "My City of Ruins." At the 2009 Kennedy Center celebration of Bruce Springsteen, with the country still reeling from the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder performed a perfect song for the times. Springsteen's "My City of Ruins"--written in 2000--may experience a resurgence as our current recession/depression almost makes prior crises seem like cakewalks by comparison. 

Video: Eddie Vedder, "My City Of Ruins" 


#7: Mavis Staples and James Taylor's Cover of the Beatles' "Let It Be." At the 2010 celebration of Paul McCartney, the great Mavis Staples transformed "Let It Be" into a Sunday sermon. When she and James Taylor were joined by rocker Steven Tyler and a choir for an uplifting version of "Hey Jude," the capacity of the Beatles' music to unite genres was on glorious display for all to see and hear. 

Video: Mavis Staples and James Taylor "Let it Be" 


#6: Kings of Leon Cover of the Eatles' "Take It Easy." Kings of Leon are multiple Grammy Award recipients and big stars in their own right, but I have to think that it must have been super intimidating for lead guitarist Matthew Followill to perform the guitar solo on "Take It Easy" just a few feet away from Joe Walsh--arguably one of the greatest guitar players in the history of the universe. Followill acquitted himself quite well, as did the entire band in a cover that stays true to the country and western vibe of the original while maintaining the Kings' flair for energetic rock. 

Video: Kings of Leon "Take It Easy" 


#5:  Bruce Springsteen's Cover of Sting's "I Hung My Head."  No one will ever come close to Johnny Cash's version of "I Hung My Head," but in this 2014 celebration of Sting, Bruce Springsteen comes close. 

Video: Bruce Springsteen "I Hung My Head" 


#4:  Snoop Dogg's Cover of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island." What's priceless about this 2013 Snoop Dogg celebration of the great Herbie Hancock is how the brash rapper gets a crowd of uptight DC bureaucrats to discover their inner Break Boy and Break Girl. 



#3:  Garth Brooks' Cover of Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon."  Also in 2013, Garth Brooks delivered up a special rendition of Billy Joel's epitaph to the Vietnam War. Actual veterans join Brooks on stage, presenting the audience with literal enactments of the song's lyrics. I'm always wary of the showcasing of veterans at establishment entertainment and/or political events, mostly because such spectacles are typically the result of some producer willing to exploit the soldiers' service and pain for cheap patriotism points. In this case however, the soldiers exude a genuine love and expression of solidarity for each other that transcends whatever ill intent the producers might have had. It's quite amazing. 



#2:  Bettye LaVette's Cover of The Who's "Love, Reign O'er Me."  This 2008 cover of the classic Who tune from the rock opera "Quadrophenia" is probably my favorite cover of the ten mentioned in this post. Bettye LaVette, one of the most underrated blues/soul singers of her generation, captures the song's emotional roller-coaster of grief and hope in a way that perhaps only someone schooled in (or has lived) the blues and soul can deliver. Watching Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, and Barbara Streisand all mesmerized by the performance is an added treat. 



#1: Heart's Cover of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."  Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, accompanied by Jason Bonham (the late Zep drummer John Bonham's son) on drums, a wicked horn section and other orchestral elements, a guitar player who has the solo down,  and a gospel choir, deliver a ridiculously great version of one of the iconic tunes of the classic rock era. One wonders if the Wilson sisters, who grew up as Zep fans, ever dreamed they would someday perform the tune in front of their heroes. The reactions from surviving Zep members John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page is also endearing. Jones appears to be studying it as if he is a musicologist, Plant looks like he wants to burst out crying, and Page just seems overjoyed that for one night no one is thinking about whether or not he plagiarized the song



Prior Posts in the Ten Bold Cover Tunes Series: