Republicans have a troubled relationship with pop music, to say the least. In the past two years, artists from David Byrne to Heart to Jackson Browne to Bon Jovi to The Foo Fighters have all sued or threatened to sue Republican candidates who have used their songs without permission. The problems stretch back at least 25 years, to when Ronald Reagan thought “Born in the USA” was a pro-America song, talking it up in his stump speeches and even fishing for Springsteen’s endorsement during his 1984 reelection. (“Born in the USA," of course, is about the plight of Vietnam veterans.)
With the 2010 midterm elections coming this week, it must be refreshing for conservatives to actually have inspired a pair of songs: Lloyd Marcus’ “American Tea Party Anthem” and Krista Branch’s “I Am America,” with almost a million YouTube views between them. They aren’t technically Republican-inspired, though -- they’re Tea Party tunes. With the zeal from that Republican splinter group widely credited with what most pundits expect to be a conservative landslide around the country, we thought we’d take a moment to look at what music conservatives use when they write it themselves (and don’t just take it without asking).
Lloyd Marcus, “American Tea Party Anthem"
From its midi instruments to its insane greenscreen video (featuring a white girl crumping in front of the Vietnam Memorial), “American Tea Party Anthem” is the musical embodiment of everything its political opponents scorn about the Tea Party. It’s an explosion of amateurish zeal, a collection of meaningless talk-radio bywords wrapped in a package that's at once "wholesome" and strangely infuriating, starring elements of society most of us would like to pretend don't exist: tacky teens in necklaces from Target, middle-aged women who should fire their hairdressers, and county-fair level entertainers. But is there more going on?
"American Tea Party Anthem" was composed by Lloyd Marcus, and it has a melody line that sounds as if it came pre-loaded on a keyboard Marcus bought at the mall. Thematically, it’s a whitewashed tour through a grab-bag of 20th-century popular music genres rendered harmless by the passage of time: gospel, Jerry Lee Lewis-style ‘50s pop, and the vocal phrasing of disco soul. The song's snaps, tambourines and midi trumpets paint a musical picture of a time that's familiar but never really existed.
The lyrics, of course, are heavily ideological, including all the movement’s bywords: taxes, socialism, and even a little circa-2003 French bashing. That said, Marcus does a more than passable job singing terminally awkward lines like “We’re not advocating violence/ That’s what the so-called ‘peace crowd’ do” without totally fumbling off of the beat. Agree with him or not, at least Marcus is honestly expressing his feelings about these things. Anyone with any doubt about that can consult his book, Confessions of a Black Conservative (foreword by Michele Malkin!) or his series of YouTube videos, “Lloyd Marcus Black Conservative.” The latter further solidifies his image as a combination of Clarence Thomas and David Liebe Hart, and features him telling rambling stories about his journey to conservatism during which he often tears up. He has other songs, too, like a mildly homoerotic ode to Ronald Reagan called “Ronnie Stayed The Same,” wherein glamour shots of Ronnie serve as a bed for Marcus’s rapturous long-note declarations of love, sorry, admiration, for the conservative icon.
Marcus would never be mistaken for Dylan, or even Country Joe, but he does manage to get his message across while still holding together a song that’s catchy in spite of being severely hackneyed. Call it Right-Wing Mid-American Lo-Fi.
Krista Branch, "I Am America"
Krista Branch was a runner-up on the seventh season of American Idol. She has a face made for TV and a much keener sense of self-promotion than Marcus. As such, there has been much more written about her and her song, which has roughly eight times as many views as the most-viewed version of “American Tea Party Anthem.” She’s been featured on Glenn Beck’s radio show, written up on The Huffington Post, and performed live on Fox News.
Unsurprisingly, then, her track is much slicker, mainstream, and more easily digested than Marcus’s. The video basically looks like the opening credits of Reba, with Branch subbing for Reba and shaky footage of tea-party rallies standing in for clips from the show. The out-of-focus spotlights in the background, wind machines, and swooping in-studio camera moves are all the same.
The song itself is a standard late-Nashville country pop song, with an intro that features the tinkling piano and faraway guitar of any number of U2 wannabes (Coldplay, Temper Trap, etc), eventually giving way to some dance beats and heavily layered and Auto-Tuned vocals. It’s a modern-day everysong that could be by an of a roster of heartland pop juggernauts, from Taylor Swift to Lady Antebellum. Instead of family and God (not sufficiently conservative topics for a tea-party anthem, I suppose), the lyrics mix vague and not-so-vague attacks on Democrats (Your God is power/ You have no shame/ Your only goal is political gain”) with the positive values of herself, or the Tea Party, or America. It’s not really clear.
Unlike Marcus’s song, which is nuts from start to finish, making a product you can at least admire for its eccentricity, Branch’s song is somehow more objectionable for the way it shoehorns multi-syllabic put-downs (“Is there no end to your own hypocrisy?”) into a musical framework built mostly for talk about love, or children, or heartbreak. It’s like listening to a version of “I Can’t Get You Out of My Head” that’s about dental care. It just doesn’t fit, and it's all the more jarring, and insidious, for it.
The gulf between the production and packaging of these tracks shows two sides of the movement -- one a bit more traditional, and one that feels its very strength is in its outsider madness. If they sweep into government this week, as most predict, it will be interesting to watch them try to get along.
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