Back in July there was a minor brouhaha on Twitter, that reliable indicator of the latest tergiversations of woke thought. One of the trending hashtags was “#CancelHamilton.” For the benefit of those who have lived in a cave for the past five years, let me explain.
Hamilton is the smash hit, hip-hop musical (now available as a movie) that was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda about one of our country’s founding fathers, Alexander Hamilton. It features an all-minority cast and its creator was the darling of the Obama Administration; quite a few conservatives enjoyed the musical as well.
Due to the rise of Black Lives Matter this summer, however, a number of twitterati have changed their minds. You see, though Alexander Hamilton opposed slavery, he worked for a man who owned slaves (George Washington) and at an import-export firm that dealt in slaves, among many other things. In other words, he didn’t do enough to oppose slavery. So, he was a Bad Man™.
Some, but not all, called for the “cancellation” of the movie and the musical. Now, I do not intend to write about the woke culture, which is just as vicious as it is silly, or how the revolution eats its own. In fact, I am not personally a big fan of Hamilton but for very different reasons having to do with the quality of the music itself. I will elaborate upon these reasons shortly but first, my dear reader, let me describe a musical fantasy to you.
In this summer of riots and violence, murder and mayhem, and the appropriation of entire city blocks by people who hate our country, I have a proposal. Instead of sending in the police, the national guard, or any other armed group, let’s do this: let’s get a huge marching band of thousands to surround the rioters, and have them perform stirring versions of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” Sousa marches, and other patriotic compositions. What would happen? In my fantasy, after a stunned silence, moods would begin to change, some of the protestors would even begin to furtively tap their toes within their shoes, and softly hum along. Ultimately, they would all lose their will to hate the country and then break camp and leave peacefully.
A fantasy? Yes. A complete fantasy? I don’t think so. I am certain this would be an effective military “psy-op,” as they call them these days. As the late Sir Roger Scruton wrote a number of times, music involves a “moving with”—not just externally, as in dancing, but also, internally, in our emotional states which move in sympathy with the music to which we listen.
In this sense, Sir Roger was rooting himself firmly in Plato, who wrote in the Republic: “Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul.” Hating your country to the accompaniment of a Sousa march is just as hard as having an argument with your spouse to the accompaniment of a bossa nova. Not impossible, mind you, as I am sure that both have happened, but very difficult.
Now, what does this have to do with the musical Hamilton?
When Plato uses the word “harmony,” he doesn’t mean “chords,” in the sense of those things which guitarists strum and that many think are essential to music. Believe it or not, chords are a relatively recent phenomenon, growing out of the polyphony of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. This modern meaning of “harmony”—the simultaneous sounding of tones—would have been unknown to Plato. The “harmony” that he was referring to would have been the sequential arrangement of tones into an orderly whole, in other words, a good melody. So, what Plato wrote, in essence, was that “rhythm and melody find their way into the inward places of the soul.” Of these two things, melody will be the basis of my critique of Hamilton.
Let me begin by saying that I harbor no ill feelings for Lin-Manuel Miranda. I am willing to assume that he is a decent person and I certainly concede that he is a very talented individual. He clearly knows a fair amount about music and musical theater. In fact, if one were to write a rap musical, this is probably the best way to do it. More to the point, Miranda had a keen sense of timing, given its record ticket sales. The American public seems to have been itching for a hip-hop musical. What Miranda succeeded in doing was to give the people exactly what they wanted when they wanted it. And that, precisely, is the problem. The American public has for decades been content with “songs” that have tuneless, forgettable melodies or, in the case of rap, no melody at all.
In regard to melody, ask yourself this question: When was the last time that you heard a new popular song that was tuneful? I mean a melody that is an actual tune—something that you could hum, whistle, or sing without accompaniment and that is a self-sufficient unit. Such a melody will have an attractive rise and fall, a climax or two, and, as it moves forward, will unfold according to its own pitch-based logic. This is what all folk songs used to be like. For many decades, modern popular songs of the twentieth century simply followed in this age-old tradition.
With that in mind, let us look at the song, “Helpless,” sung at the dance at which Elizabeth Schuyler meets her future husband, Alexander Hamilton. “Helpless” is basically a funky jump-rope chant. It is “sung,” for the most part, on one pitch with a few slightly more pitched riffs thrown in. This particular song is supposed to be based on Brandy’s 1998 hit, “That Boy Is Mine,” which is constructed in a similar way. After listening to both, I was surprised that Brandy’s song was even less interesting than “Helpless.” Miranda’s hommage to Brandy is actually a considerable improvement, relatively speaking.
Compare either of these songs, however, to “Maria,” which is situated at a similar point in West Side Story, that is, when Tony first meets Maria at a dance. Sing it, play it on the piano, or listen to it. Julian Ovenden’s performance of it at the 2015 BBC Proms is brilliant. Hear how pitch calls forth pitch and how each pitch contributes to the creation of an overall beautiful, arching, melodic shape. There is not time for a point-by-point musical analysis of the melody, but suffice to say that the song makes the heart sing, the spirit soar. This is what it is like to fall in love.
I remember as a college student meeting the composer George Barati. He told me that Maestro Bernstein wanted to compose “the great American popular song,” but felt he had failed. When he asked Bernstein, “What about ‘Maria’?” Bernstein conceded that it was a decent melody. That response, from a man who was not known for his humility, was a very humble assessment of a great melody.
When I first became aware of hip-hop in the early 1980s, I thought that it was new, fun, energetic and exciting. Now I feel that it has become a force of melodic destructiveness in American popular music. To be fair, this path of destruction had already been laid out. In 1970, the top two pop songs were “Bridge over Troubled Water” by Simon and Garfunkel and The Carpenters’ “Close to You.”
By 1979, things had degenerated considerably. The top two songs were The Knack’s “My Sharona” and “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer—two tuneless dance numbers. The first song represented rock and roll; the second, disco. The denizens of each genre hated each other, but neither of these songs was rap—and neither of them was tuneful. So, just before rap came on the scene, the American public had already become acclimated to a lack of tunefulness in their popular music.
Again, I wish Lin-Manuel Miranda well. Personally, I don’t think Hamilton will ever be cancelled. It’s too popular. It seems that Miranda has given sufficient obeisance in some of his tweets to critics and that these woke scolds have moved on for now.
Still, Hamilton’s success lies in the fact that it is a superior presentation of what, in my opinion, is inferior material to start with—the popular music of the past forty years. I would like to close with a brief reflection. In my internet researches, I came across a rap by Eminem from 2002 entitled “Hailie’s Song.” This is the name of his daughter who was seven years old at the time. I was shocked to hear this often-vulgar rapper say at the beginning, “I can’t sing… I want to sing… because I’m [expletive] happy… yeah, I’m happy!” He goes on to sing some and then raps about how he is “sick” and “crazy” and how he has to deal with depression but, in essence, that his little daughter makes him want to sing. One wants to reach back in time and say, “Sing, by all means! Sing as much as you can! Find good songs, beautiful melodies, and sing those all the time!”
Cantare amantis est, as Saint Augustine writes: “Only the lover sings.” But what is there in the pop music world for most young people to sing these days? Conversely, what is there in their lives for them to sing about? “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws,” is often mistakenly attributed to Plato, but certainly it is in his spirit. Perhaps these are different sides of the very same coin. People who don’t love (either people or their nation) don’t want to sing; conversely, people who don’t sing can end up deficient in their love of these same things. Laws are good, but without song in a people’s heart, does lawlessness ultimately prevail?
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