When we turned on the TV to watch the Republican Convention this evening, we saw what appeared to be a hyperactive GOP advance man gesticulating from the stage. But he wasn't barking out canvassing instructions to local ward heelers or scouting Holiday Inns to find the one with the best lines of sight to the podium.
So who was this guy?
Was he a slightly out-of-shape Secret Service agent waving the crowd back with a little too much enthusiasm? We turned on the sound and learned that the individual in question was Taylor Hicks, the American Idol contestant turned professional performer.
Mr. Hicks' performance would hardly seem worth mentioning on such an important night if it weren't for the song he was performing, or the way he was performing it: "Takin' It To The Streets." That song stood out from the mid-1970's pablum of the airwaves, both for Michael McDonald's soulful (yes, I said soulful) voice, and for its overtly political message:
You don't know me but I'm your brother
I was raised here in this living hell
I know, I know, boomers are lame. And the ones who reminisce about Michael McDonald songs are the lamest of all. Wave your AARP cards in the air like you just don't care! But take it from us: That song mattered. And yet here was gray-haired Taylor Hicks, parading and strutting and shakin' his rump-a before the richest crowd this side of the Romney bundler's yacht party -- and the dullest crowd this side of Forest Lawn:
You don't know my kind in your world ...
Yeah, you ... telling me the things you're gonna do for me
I ain't blind and I don't like what I think I see
Get it, people? The "things you're gonna do for me" guy is Obama, and the rich and pampered crowd at the RNC were the authentic people who can't be fooled.
I expect that by now you know where I'm going with this, and you're mostly right -- but not completely. The moment wasn't striking just because of the incongruity of hearing these words sung for the campaign of a couple rich kids anointed by Corporate America to lead the counter-revolution. Nor was it striking just because those words were used as an implicit invocation of the Tea Party, that "populist" uprising that began with brokers on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and became the tool of billionaire executives and Republican apparatchiks.
It's not just those things.
The forced nature of that performance offered a glimpse of the vast seas of emptiness and yearning that are swelling out there in the dark, and of the desperate need for an illusion big enough to fill them. Taylor Hicks has a great voice, but he has no soul. He was singing the words, but he didn't convey any meaning.He was a well-engineered song delivery vehicle, but he wasn't carrying a payload.
In other words, he was the perfect opening act for Mitt Romney.
Mitt Romney, who looks like a president, and talks like a president, and acts ... well, he looks like a president, anyway. Mitt Romney: He's not a leader, but he plays one on TV. Mitt Romney: the American Idol candidate.
Think of the great, transformative musical stars of the past: Skinny and awkward Frank Sinatra. Elvis, young and erotic and mascara-masculine beyond his time. The gender-bending yet unmistakably boyish and brilliant Beatles. Rhythmically revolutionary and visually addictive James Brown. Gravel-voiced, shapeshifting Dylan. Octave-jumping, Mingus-chording Joni. That dance-track Dvorak, Sly Stone. Anarchic, tormented, grainy, guitar-torturing, William S. Burroughs-loving Kurt Cobain.
What do all these geniuses have in common? None of them could ever have won on American Idol. They weren't reflecters of society's assumptions, wants, or desires. They were reshapers of them.
Politics has had its reshapers, too: Tom Paine. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. Mohandas K. Gandhi. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Martin Luther King.
Barack Obama was born with a reshaper's gifts. But he's chosen to surround himself with the Disney-esque Democratic designers of synthetic pseudo-centrism, the architects of animatronic activism who have pitched him on more sanguinity and less Social Security, more mediation and less Medicare.
Watching Obama bend himself to the misguided advice of Clintonian retreads -- and undoubtedly of Bill Clinton himself -- is like watching a musical great like Steve Winwood or Marvin Gaye sing cover versions of lesser artists' songs. And their collective near-fetishistic avoidance of disagreement misses the point of the process: Elections are about disagreement. Compromise is what comes afterwards.
But let's go back to the RNC for a moment:
The only thing you can safely predict about a reshaper is that she or he will not give you what you expect -- or what you think you want. Reshapers don't pander to the crowd. But the RNC was made for pandering. And there was Taylor Hicks, like Paul Ryan before him and Mitt Romney after him, whipping up an empty simulacrum of emotion with prefabricated passion and engineered emotion.
The crowd loved it.
There they were in the Disney State, that Land of Artifice, acting out a mass simulation of democracy like Civil War buffs re-enacting the Battle of Bull Run: "nominating" a candidate who had already been chosen, "accepting" a platform that had already been written, laughing at each moment of orchestrated "spontaneity."
Of the night's few authentic moments, most of them belonged to Clint Eastwood. I even felt moved once or twice at Romney's comments about his family life and his childhood. But the attacks were too phony, the lies too naked. The political papier-mache behind their make-believe world had already begun cracking by the time the curtain rang down.
A nation wrapped in the ongoing agony of permanent depression needs relief. That's why we go to Disney World. A simulated Caribbean boat ride isn't an ocean voyage, but at least it gives us a few minutes of escape from a world of decaying middle class dreams. A nation that goes to Disney World is a nation that could elect Romney and Ryan. And they still might, unless they're given an authentic choice.
Here's something the Democrats need to learn: You can sing a ballad or you can sing a screamer, but you can only sing one at a time. (Unless you're Kurt Cobain, but even then you have to alternate verses.). Yet here's what Obama recently told the Associated Press: "I'm prepared to make a whole range of compromises, some of which I get criticized from the Democratic Party on, in order to make progress."
Process, process, process.
"But we're going to need compromise on your side as well," the President continued.
"You don't know me but I'm your lawyer ..."
Is that the kind of tone the President plans to strike next week in Charlotte? With the middle class dying, houses underwater, Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, and tens of millions of Americans looking for work? "Compromise ..." But compromise from what?
The GOP Convention was a pathetic set of cover songs by a second-rate bar band. But oldies are still songs that a crowd can recognize. If you can't write good originals, give 'em good oldies. If you don't know any good oldies, give 'em bad oldies. People can still sing along and pretend they were living the good times again - or the times they think were good.
The Democrats used to write great originals. Hopefully they'll let the people hear a few next week, and hopefully they'll sing 'em with conviction. But the people have to hear something. If they don't, next November voters may find themselves shouting the scripted words they've heard from trivial sports stars and celebrities at dozens of events as artificial as tonight's:
I'm going to Disney World.