January 8, 2016
Is America ready for a troubadour president? It is a question Democrats have to ask themselves as they decide on their party’s nominee for the 2016 election. For though Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish president (who is also an avowed democratic socialist), and Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president (who is also a former first lady), surely Martin O’Malley would be the first president likely to keep a guitar in the Oval Office. At least, that is, if his penchant for breaking into song on the campaign trail is any indication.
As you can see by selecting O’Malley’s name in the “Candidate” field of the Trax on the Trail database, guitar playing and singing have been a highlight of the former Maryland governor’s campaign appearances. Though, as I would like to argue, not always to clear or effective ends. The day before formally announcing his candidacy in May 2015, for instance, O’Malley posted a video of himself plucking out the melody to “Hail to the Chief” on Facebook. Despite the fact that he is a seasoned player, somehow O’Malley had been given a guitar with a fretboard adorned with smiley-face stickers. In the opening of the video, the camera awkwardly pans across these markers meant to remind a beginner of the fingerings for three—maybe four—basic chord shapes. Needless to say, not the slickest bit of political theater. The shot accidentally evokes un-presidential incompetence and unseriousness. But the pitfalls I want to suggest most bedevil O’Malley’s music strategy are of a different order. They concern the contradictory and overlapping social meanings of the guitar and the discordant political implications of the kinds of music O’Malley has most often played and sung on the trail. Combined, these qualities muddle the force and clarity of O’Malley’s troubadourism as political messaging; they prevent his songs from being the kind of unambiguous and floodlit symbols that work best in national politics.
Before listening to O’Malley in particular, a brief survey of music making by other national politicians—and the work that music has done for their politics and personas—is in order. In his time as president, Barack Obama has raised his rich baritone on a few occasions. Most solemnly, last summer he led a Charleston, South Carolina congregation in “Amazing Grace” while eulogizing State Senator Clementa Pinckney and the eight others murdered in a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In happier times, he used the opening line of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to woo voters during the 2012 election: “I-I-I’m so in love with you.” Notably, in both cases the President signaled his solidarity with black Americans by invoking styles of music—gospel and soul—intimately and clearly linked to black musicians and communities; he proved the power of what musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg has called “the rhetoric of genre,” both when a congregation needed solace and when he needed votes.
More broadly, the history of presidential music making stretches back a bit further, in the television era, at least to Richard Nixon. The 1972 campaign film “Nixon The Man” features clips of the President accompanying a chorus of “Happy Birthday” at the piano in celebration of Duke Ellington. What better way to signal a politician’s essential good-naturedness, his fundamental domestic normalcy than a spin at the piano, that instrument-cum-living-room-furniture?
But of course the watershed moment in presidential musical performance belongs to Bill Clinton. From behind a pair of dark sunglasses, the then-Arkansas governor loosed a stream of rhythm and blues licks from his saxophone during a 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. As with Nixon’s late-night TV gig, the performance was meant on the one hand to humanize Clinton as a candidate. But on the other hand, and in part like Obama’s singing, it leaned on the racialized codes that govern American musical styles and genres to burnish Clinton’s image. By copping the look and sound of a rhythm and blues cat, Clinton staked a claim to the authority and cool that always accrue to a white American man who can display competency in cultural forms associated with African Americans (as, for example, Waksman 1999 argued).
And non-presidential figures have taken their turns, too. Separate attention this election season is due to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’s 1987 folk-spoken-word album, for instance. During her cabinet tenure, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attracted the attention of the New York Times for her interest in piano chamber music. A scene from the comedy series 30 Rock illustrates how Rice’s musicianship worked for her public image. In it, she vanquishes the fictional NBC executive played by Alec Baldwin in a sort of classical music cutting contest. The joke plays on several levels: like Rice, the real-life Baldwin is a classical music aficionado, lending his voice to the pre-show announcements of the New York Philharmonic. But the humor also stems from the reversal of gendered expectations of Baldwin’s alpha-male character—a guy like him shouldn’t lose to a lady, and definitely shouldn’t play the flute. The flip-side of this dynamic explains what her well-known pianistic proficiency offered (the real-life) Rice’s political persona: her technical skill at the keyboard and comfort navigating the classical canon helped kneecap sexist or racist doubts about an African-American woman’s ability to lead in the technocratic and elite world of geopolitics.
These rhetorically effective examples of political music making share a particular characteristic: they all rely on signifiers that are unambiguous and unitary in meaning for a large cross-section of Americans. Classical music and gospel suggest rather stable identifications; the piano and the saxophone reliably evoke the upright in the family room or a smoky nightclub, respectively. The semiotic waters Martin O’Malley has been attempting to navigate with his music making, however, are a bit more treacherous.
His instrument of choice, the guitar, has amassed a web of messy and confused social meanings. Whom the instrument “belongs to” and what it means has been contested from early on. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, the guitar’s social meanings had so proliferated that it was associated simultaneously with both the highest and lowest rungs of society. In the theater, from commedia dell’arte to Spanish entremeses, guitars were connected to outsiders and outcasts: racial, ethnic, and religious “others” of all sorts, blind beggars, various species of miscreants and ne’er do wells (Locke 2015, Wilbourne 2010, Russell 1995). Meanwhile, it was also seen as a refined, galant instrument and was favored by the aristocracy. The guitarist Francesco Corbetta, for instance, made his living by shuttling between European courts as a hybrid diplomat-performer-courtier. Louis IX and Charles II both played the instrument; María Luísa of Savoy, the first Bourbon Queen of Spain, acquired the great Santiago de Murcia as her personal maestro de guitarra in 1702.
Like its slipperiness on the class spectrum, the guitar’s gender associations have also been flexible. The first “guitar hero” we know by name, the fifteenth-century Ferrarese musician Pietrobono, was a man, but as we’ve just seen, certainly by the time of María Luísa many women were avid guitarists, too (Lockwood 1975). In the nineteenth century it was likewise popular among both men and women of the bourgeoisie, and the father and daughter pair of Mauro and Emilia Giuliani each had successful careers as traveling virtuosi. If the instrument in the American twentieth and twenty-first centuries has mostly been associated with masculinity, that is only to forget the guitar heroism of figures like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jennifer Batten, or (my generation’s most interesting player) St. Vincent. Even the gendered meaning of the guitar’s physical form isn’t clear: while the curves of the traditional shape suggest an alliance with the feminine, the electric instrument, especially in those kinds of music colorfully dubbed “cock rock,” has been taken as a phallic extension of the male ego (Walser 1992, Waksman 1999).
Globally, the guitar has been probably the most well-traveled of all instruments, both transmitting musics from its cradle in Europe and the U.S. and learning to fit in wherever it goes; it has been as happy to meld into preexisting styles as it has been to serve as a midwife to new hybrids. From its role in Tehran’s indie rock scene or Japan’s rockabilly subculture, to palm-wine music on Africa’s west coast or Ethio-jazz on Africa’s east coast, the guitar is constantly picking up new meanings, vocabularies, and associations (Bennett and Dawe 2001, Coelho 2003).
Of course, not all of this history is likely to be on the mind of any given American voter as she listens to Martin O’Malley strum and sing. But even in American popular music alone the range of people, styles, communities, places, movements, corporations, and subcultures that have put the instrument to good use make it hard to say that picking up a guitar and playing it has any one clear meaning for an American. Is it an instrument of transgression or tradition? The North or the South? The sacred or the profane? Black or white? Male or female? The future or the past? The only answer is “all of the above.”
Perhaps, then, a rhetorical strategy that embraces the guitar’s fundamental pluralism, hoisting it overhead like Lady Liberty’s torch as a symbol of American values, would be a brilliant musical campaign move. Though I have no real idea how any plucking politician might do that without being an outrageously versatile musician. In any case, that hasn’t been O’Malley’s tack. He has stuck exclusively to accompanying his own singing with an acoustic guitar. At first blush, that specificity might seem to resolve the problem of the guitar’s overdetermined social meaning. But, while it is clear that the acoustic guitar stands in opposition to the modern, industrial, technological cast of the electric guitar, it is less clear what the political implications of that opposition might be. Such an opposition might proceed equally well on conservative grounds of traditionalism, ruralism, and individualism as it would on progressive grounds of anti-corporatism, communitarianism, and cosmopolitanism. So the acoustic guitar might be an emblem of conservatism, progressivism, or neither.
And as it turns out, O’Malley’s two most frequently performed songs on the campaign trail, Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” bear out this ambivalence (again, see the Trax database). The first is a staple of the country repertoire, which, as the Dixie Chicks learned the hard way after criticizing George W. Bush, remains a bastion of American conservatism. Meanwhile the second is an anthem of folk-revival leftism—O’Malley even restores the verses Guthrie omitted when he first released the song for fear of arousing the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy. And so we are back to the original quandary: what does O’Malley mean by all this? Just whose vote is trying to court?
At the end of the day, the answer is probably just that Martin O’Malley really likes to play the guitar and sing songs he enjoys. There is something endearing about that. And though surely a candidate like O’Malley receives better political advice than this guitar player’s two cents, I can’t escape the conclusion that it would be strategic to put his guitar back in its case until he has the spare time to start gigging with his band again. At the very least, O’Malley might consider focusing his campaign repertoire only on songs with unambiguous and relevant political commitments, as he recently did with Guthrie’s pro-migrant tune “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” Though even that wouldn’t avoid the political ambiguities of guitar playing in general, nor the even bigger problem that we guitar players have earned for ourselves: a reputation as untrustworthy rapscallions. From the fourteenth-century case of a guitarist named Perrin Rouet—who was prosecuted for smashing his instrument over the head of a someone named Moriset—on down to Keith Richards, we are rightly apprehended as a suspicious bunch (Wright 1977, 15). After all, look at what rock stars can do to a hotel room—it’s certainly not very presidential.
– Brian Barone
Bennett, Andy, and Kevin Dawe, eds. Guitar Cultures. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2001.
Coelho, Victor, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Kallberg, Jeffrey. “The Rhetoric of Genre: Chopin’s Nocturne in G Minor.” 19th-Century Music 11, no. 3 (1988): 238–61.
Locke, Ralph P. Music and the Exotic: From the Renaissance to Mozart. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Lockwood, Lewis. “Pietrobono and the Instrumental Tradition at Ferrara in the Fifteenth Century.” Rivista Italiano di Musicologia 10 (1975): 115–33.
Russell, Craig. Santiago de Murcia’s Códice Saldívar No. 4: A Treasury of Secular Guitar Music from Baroque Mexico. 2 vols. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.
Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Walser, Robert. “Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity.” Popular Music 11, no. 3 (1992): 263–308.
Wilbourne, Emily. “Lo Schiavetto (1612): Travestied Sound, Ethnic Performance, and the Eloquence of the Body.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63, no. 1 (2010): 1–43.
Wright, Laurence. “The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity.” The Galpin Society Journal 30 (1977): 8–42.