If politics was music

If politics was music,
One party is playing jazz,
The other, a catchy Top 40 ditty

By James Hitchcock

Because of my Seasonal Affective Hobby Disorder1, in the period leading up to the presidential elections and through the holidays I have spent a lot of time listening to, reading about the theory of, and attempting to play jazz guitar. Also during this period I, like everyone else who doesn’t live under a rock, had to endure an endless amount of political advertising and news coverage on TV, leading up to the most shocking election upset that I can recall in my lifetime, followed by meaningless hand-wringing by the losers and cock-strutting by the winners.

In the inexplicably strange way that my brain processes things, I recently found myself thinking through the political developments of the past year while I tried to get my obstinate pinkie finger to cooperate in a chord that, while not the Hardest Chord in the World, was, for me, a stretch. And, as I willed my stubborn pinkie toward the 15th fret, it struck me that if politics were music, Democrats would be playing jazz; Republicans would be playing Top 40.

Stay with me for a moment, as I go through my thought process:

Imagine you’re on a road trip driving through an area where you are unfamiliar with the radio stations, and, being one of the last satellite radio holdouts, you are repeatedly hitting the “seek” button, looking for something on the FM dial to pass the time. The radio stops on a local station and your index finger pauses, hovering over the button while your mind processes the sounds coming from the speaker. You realize it’s nothing you’ve ever heard before. It’s not rock, it’s not country, it’s some obscure polyphonic melange of piano, saxophone, and guitar over an oddly syncopated drum-and-bass line. Although you’ve never heard this particular composition before, and you’re not that familiar with musical genres beyond the aforementioned duo that dominate popular music, your mind quickly drops this performance into the “jazz” pigeonhole in your brain.

Does your finger automatically punch the button to seek another radio station?

Most likely, unless you are already a jazz aficionado, it does. After all, an article on TheJazzLine reports that, “according to Nielsen’s 2014 Year-End Report, jazz is continuing to fall out of favor with American listeners and has tied with classical music as the least-consumed music in the U.S., after children’s music.”

Face it, one has to want to listen to jazz. It’s not that user-friendly for the uninitiated.

 Minton's PLayhouse Thelonius Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge, Teddy Hill photographed for Down Beat magazine by William Gottlieb ca. 1947. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection
 From left, jazz artitsts Thelonius Monk, Howard McGhee, Roy Eldridge and Teddy Hill in front of Minton’s Playhouse, New York City, photographed for Down Beat magazine by William Gottlieb ca. 1947.
From the William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S. Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

This is even a problem for musicians. On the musicians’ internet bulletin board Cafe Saxophone, A newbie member asks “Why does jazz sound the way it does?” Noting, “… that the majority of solos, whilst they can be technically brilliant and full of emotion, lack the traditional tunefulness that is pleasing to the/my ear.”

It seems odd, but the majority of Americans apparently (according the Nielsen’s report noted above) would agree that this distinctly American music genre, born and raised in the U.S. and steeped in our culture and history, lacks “tunefulness.”

Morgan Fry, a senior member of the group, provides little solace to the questioner, explaining in the same thread that jazz diverged from its dance music roots between the 1940s and 1970s, and that, “By 1965 it’s nearly incomprehensible – incredibly great music, but very, very demanding listening.”

While there is much argument about what exactly constitutes “jazz,” and therefore what makes it sound the way it does, many sources list some of the defining characteristics including: Uncommon time signatures: For instance, this video of a guitarist improvising over an 11/8 time signature – 11 beats per measure, with an eighth note counting one beat. Expanded scales and chords: In traditional genres of music, the composer usually chooses a single scale as his “key,” and all the chords in the composition are drawn from that scale. In jazz the principles of chord-scale compatibility allow the composer to choose a sequence of chords to generate a series of compatible scales that may be used with them. This broad interpretation of which scales and chords go together is largely responsible for the lack of “tunefulness,” and is, no doubt, the source of the old joke “If you play the wrong note once, it’s a mistake; if you play it again, it’s jazz.” Improvisation: Where most modern music offers the lead instrument a chance to “solo,” most jazz compositions provide time for each member of the ensemble to improvise; this is what leads the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz in its public school jazz curriculum What is Jazz? to teach, “There is no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble.”

Any one of these elements might appear in a popular music composition. In jazz, it’s not uncommon to find all three, with perhaps a couple other musical oddities thrown in. This results in an unfamiliar song structure that is dense, complex, and requires thought to process, even for those familiar with the genre. For those unfamiliar, it goes against everything they’ve been taught was true about music since they were children.

Therein lies the rub. Based on the majority of television programs offered on broadcast & cable networks and books displayed prominently in bookstores, I would suggest Americans in general don’t seem to enjoy being mentally challenged in their leisure activities. To the vast majority, a musical form that provides “demanding listening” falls right in the category of human artistic expression populated by literary writing and modern art, a niche frequently visited by those they would describe with what now seems to become the pejorative term “intellectuals,” and a place they haven’t visited since graduating high school. And, Americans, perhaps human beings in general, also tend to reject anything that would cause them to question their existing belief system, even about something as prone to artistic whim as music.

Compared with this, popular music first and foremost is designed to be, well, popular. The most popular songs are even enshrined in a list of “Top 40,” just in case the modifier “popular” doesn’t lead one to realize that in this branch of music, what makes a song “good” has less to do with the quality of its content than with how many people buy it.

Beatles, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, George Harrison
Some British dudes that arrived in America at Kennedy Airport in 1964 on a mission to ruin American music for all time.
Photo: United Press International/Library of Congress

As opposed to jazz, in order to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible, popular music – across the genres from same-three-chords corporate “rock” to the soulless drawled jingoism that passes for “country” – is deliberately composed to be easy to understand. There’s even a genre among this easy-to-listen-to music titled “Easy Listening,” for God’s sake. It’s easy to understand because it’s familiar: Popular music is written to common time signatures that make you tap your foot without having to count. Its use of major/minor keys is carefully crafted to appeal to your emotions rather than your brain. It follows the melodic belief system Americans have been taught since grade school.

In other words, it follows a formula.

Although Rutgers researchers Shaun Ellis & Tom Engelhardt, in their 2010 study Visualizing a Hit, found many commonalities to “hit” songs, they are unwilling to go so far as to name the trend; instead, they write, “neither of the authors truly believe there can be an unchanging ‘formula’ for a hit song.”

However, in a much less scientific survey of the top performers at the 2014 Glastonbury Festival in Glastonbury, England, Joe Bennett, Dean of the School of Music and Performing Arts at Bath Spa University, found that most of the hits by artists on the main stage fit the formula he says “arguably arrived with us sometime in the mid to late ’60s.” That formula, he writes, calls for songs that “(generally) stay in one key, are in 4/4 time, last between three and five minutes, are organized into chunks of four or eight bars, have a repeating chorus played two to four times, include the title sung at least three times, and feature short melodic fragments that repeat a lot to help everyone to remember them.”

The a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook took the emotional appeal of that formula one step further with their deconstruction of “boy band” lyrics in their song titled – what else – “Title of the Song.”

So, with that background laid out, back to my original point: There’s a huge difference in the way the two main political parties in this country package their message to the voters:

Democrats often discuss arcane policy, the consequences of actions, and the importance of forethought. Democrats try to explain the “big picture,” talk about shared social responsibilities, and appeal to the intellectual (there’s that word again) part of the mind. They also speak with many voices, each with a similar, but improvised version of the same point. Like jazz, sometimes you have to think for a period of time about what they’re saying before it “clicks” and makes sense.

Republicans, instead, follow a formula similar to that of composers of popular music: They mix catchy hooks with emotional appeals. They coordinate across the spectrum so voters hear the same message repeated over and over. And when I say “the same message,” I mean that literally: When it comes to messaging, everyone from the highest party leaders to conservative media personalities will parrot the EXACT same words to make their desired point. And that point is always short and simple enough to fit in a headline or scroll across the chyron at the bottom of the TV newscast.

That simplicity, like popular music, means voters don’t have to think about the Republican message to understand it. It hits them at a subconscious level, prompting an immediate emotional response. And, it’s familiar: They have repeated the same narratives since Nixon unleashed Lee Atwater’s infamous “Southern Strategy.” Every time a Republican speaks, the message sounds familiar to conservative voters. Like a popular song, voters instinctively know when to anticipate the verse, the chorus, and the bridge. And it tells them what they want to hear: “It’s not your fault, there’s a villain afoot and we will ensure he gets his comeuppence in the final verse.” That feels comforting to people who are seeing their world changing dramatically in their lifetimes, and are feeling left behind as groups they used to consider worth little more than the punchline in a rude joke now demand to be treated as full and equal members of society.

In the past,despite momentary setbacks, the Democrats usually won in the long run, as facts were on their side, and this country has moved inexorably forward to be a more fair, inclusive, equal society. However, another newer part of the Republican plan, first mentioned publicly during the George W. Bush administration, is to discredit facts, logic, and reason as tools to win a debate. This technique has involved a long process. It was begun before – but arguably kicked into high gear by – killing the Fairness Doctrine, which allowed the creation of an alternate reality in conservative media that is little more than a propaganda arm of the party; it includes continually casting doubt on the ability of experts to speak authoritatively on their subject by insisting there is controversy in already settled issues and challenging the very process of scientific inquiry; and finally, coming right out and saying everything is a matter of opinion and there’s no such thing as facts.”

So Democrats now face the difficulty of arguing in a debate where the opponent believes that simply feeling something makes it true. Without facts, a debate cannot be won with logic and reason. So, it’s time to take the gloves off, and revisit those subjects that were so powerful at the birth of Progressivism: exposing the evils of corporate greed, combating fear of immigrants, and urging Americans to think hard about what democracy meant. But they must do so in a way that appeals to emotions, just as the Progressives did, showing people what’s wrong, rather than telling them. Progressives did this in large part by photographing the harsh realities in which many people lived, such as squalid urban tenements and horrific child labor factory conditions. To win this battle, Democrats need to find the 21st Century version of that emotional appeal.

1 Seasonal Affective Hobby Disorder is a mental condition I totally made up to explain my seasonal changes in hobby interests. This sometimes debilitating condition leads to prolonged bouts researching some of the most arcane subjects imaginable, such as jazz guitar theory.

James Hitchcock authorJames Hitchcock is a retired journalist, and the author of non-fiction essays, comic books, and the novel Makabre. He lives in the desert Southwest.