Donald Trump: crossover artist

What is the rationale behind crossover and why is it attractive?

Sometimes it’s an escape, no longer being required to follow the rules of your old realm, as you visit a new one.

Sometimes it’s the insight, the expertise in one world, applied to a different world.

To the audience, it’s exciting either way, so long as we can discern the crossing of a frontier, a boundary transgressed.

We used to see this in football, when a European footballer – what Canadians might call a “soccer player” –started place-kicking. The ability to kick one sort of ball had all sorts of application to kicking another.

And some information is useful just about anywhere. Many politicians have law degrees. Some have experience in business or commerce. While a background in teaching is much rarer in the political world, voila: our new Prime Minister is a former teacher.

The headline came to me at a recent concert. “Crossover” is a word we’ve been using for awhile to describe creations that reflect an artist from one discipline going over the boundaries –such as they are—into another discipline, something that deserves a little extra thought when applied to a politician.

Hm. But wait. Is Donald Trump a politician? Just because he is part of the race for the Republican nomination for the 2016 American Presidential election doesn’t make him a politician.

I am not even sure he’s a typical businessman. Yes he has had money, although I understand he’s also been broke. Let’s be clear, I read newspapers so whatever I speak of here is entirely hearsay, conjecture based on what i see in the popular media.

So let’s think for a moment about that “p” word. It can be taken in a number of ways…

There are all the things seasoned campaigners learn to win elections. This might involve telling the truth, but I believe the popular mythology at least since Nixon is that “politician” is a synonym for “liar”. One learns how to represent oneself in order to be elected, presumably with help from spin doctors, image merchants who teach one how to speak, how to behave on camera, how to react to questions.

There’s a classic illustration in a film that could be part of the manual for how to be a politician, even if it’s not something you’d associate with politics: at least not at first. 

Okay it’s a baseball movie. But the reason Crash Davis teaches Nuke Laloosh about clichés is because interviews are potentially dangerous: if you say the wrong thing. The management of your image in baseball might have a slightly different objective, naturally, than in politics, but it’s still largely the same phenomenon. A baseball player (at least in this model of how to approach a career) doesn’t want a higher profile, doesn’t want to say anything risky because they hope to be allowed to play, to be underestimated by the media.

Your average politician isn’t so very different from Mr Laloosh, in their desire to avoid crucifixion in the eyes of the media. They aim to blend in, to be team players.

And that brings us to Donald Trump, who doesn’t show any interest in blending in, as his every action seems designed to get attention.

If you are a fan of a particular genre, you’re in very different a position to assess crossover than someone who doesn’t know that genre at all. Let’s say you’re a fan of science fiction. Your perspective on a new Star Wars movie will be different from someone who simply accepts all the hype. As a sci-fi fan you will probably want to see this new movie because…

  • You liked Empire Strikes Back, (i know i did) but were frustrated with aspects of the next four films
  • You know that JJ Abrams will breathe life into the series, especially when teamed with writer Lawrence Kasdan (who wrote ESB)
  • Even when those movies don’t work it can be fun

But let me set that aside for a moment, as I reflect on the crossover phenomenon.

There’s a special energy when someone ventures into a new field. They may be dreadful, but at the very least it’s impossible to resist the slow-motion train-wreck.

But what if a few people know it’s bad, but many people do not?

Let me recall a few examples, where the person crossing was genuinely transgressing (a word that means to cross over, but not in a way that we usually consider good, more like the crossing of a boundary or limit): yet no one seemed to notice or care.  Star Wars is an interesting example, because in my experience real hard-core sci-fans do not really like this series, with the exception of episode 5.  And yet when most people speak of science fiction, they speak of Star Wars.  It’s as though a transgressor were the touchstone, the example that defines the form, which surely seems odd.

Here’s another example namely Aretha Franklin singing “Nessun dorma”.   Now of course I bring this up, knowing that it totally depends on the background of the reader, as to how this is understood. Opera purists, especially of the most rigorous sort? They might cringe at the thought. While Aretha sang this “song” (and calling “nessun dorma” a “song” is already an odd thing to do) there have been few such transgressions in imitation.  I expected more imitations, more to follow her transgressie example.
I found her performance quite enjoyable. It’s not to be mistaken for the original. She’s not portraying prince Calaf, the character in Act III of Puccini’s opera Turandot. And so what!? Franklin covers the song, and I might add that it’s less transgressive in some respects than Bette Midler’s cover of “Beast of Burden”, where the performance mocks the original.

So let me be clear, while some would dislike what Aretha did, I approve heartily. I use this example because whichever side you’re on –purist or advocate—you can see that the perception of the transgression depends on your background, your starting context.  In keeping with the physical analogy –where “transgression” is the crossing of a frontier or boundary between different discursive regions– clearly you see this differently depending on which chunk of land (or discipline) is your own home turf.

Similarly, when Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story was given the reverse treatment –that is, a popular work was given to opera singers—I don’t think the result was nearly as enjoyable as what Aretha created. Listen for example to Jose Carreras & Kiri Te Kanawa sing “Tonight”.   I think opera fans probably smile or even giggle at this, but aren’t offended the way they are by Aretha, because it’s ultimately a question of whose frontier is being invaded.  We get a glimpse of Bernstein on camera, as he admits that he’d had misgivings about the project. Again, depending on your background, you have a response to this.

Now what has this got to do with The Donald?

I speak with the experience of a Torontonian, which is to say, someone who watched Rob Ford campaign for Mayor. The parallels we see here in Toronto to Ford & Trump are hugely instructive, I believe.  And I keep meeting people who see the same pattern in the Fords.

Ford came from the sidelines, someone who wasn’t taken very seriously as he began his run. His big slogan was to get rid of the “gravy train”, as he asserted that the previous regime was over-spending.

Was this true? Nope.

Did it matter whether it was accurate? Of course not. Most voters have no idea about the accuracy of politicians’ assertions. This is as true for Eisenhower & Reagan as it is for Ford or Trump.

What might be different, though is style. Eisenhower & Reagan might be prototypes for what we see now. Dwight D Eisenhower was a war hero who didn’t really pretend to be a politician, but who did at least deport himself as one. Similarly, Reagan was an actor (who can forget the disbelief on the face of Doc Brown, when Marty McFly tells his 1955 version who is President of the USA in 1985), yet one who brought the skills of another discipline –the calm deportment and smooth delivery of his speeches—to the political arena. We may have understood these two as a kind of crossover, but they did not flout their otherness. They did not mock the offices they sought by being anti-political.

I don’t think Rob Ford sought to flout politics. He simply brought a very authentic populism to his campaign, a style that appealed to some. In the end health prevented him from seeking re-election, as it was his brother Doug Ford who lost to the new candidate in the 2014 election, not Rob himself.  Doug was in effect running on the Ford brand, which by now included drugs, driving while using a cellphone, and a host of other behaviours that tainted his run. But at its core, what Ford did was a prototype for Trump, in offering a kind of political counter-discourse.  Being like all the other politicians wasn’t what Ford –or Trump– want.

With Trump you get someone who doesn’t resemble a politician. The strength of this is evident in debates, where we see Trump as the anti-politician, the man who is new by being different. That he spouts ideas that no politician would dare to say is a surprising asset: because it’s not about the content. Nevermind that his anti-muslim rhetoric is offensive, stupid, misguided. Trump becomes the issue, becomes the central question in the election.

The fact he’s not a politician at all, that he seems to know nothing about politics, is suddenly an asset. Because of course, most voters don’t know anything either. The accuracy of his claims never seems to matter. There is a small group of voters currently who seem to be calling him out. A large group –who have no idea about what a politician is supposed to do or what they should say or what they should know—gobble up his every word, but not because of what he’s saying. It’s because he’s coming from outside, and therefore has the edginess of a crossover artist. He doesn’t resemble a politician because now that we take a closer look, he isn’t one. And that becomes an asset when all the others are assembled on a stage, sadly similar in their conservative posturings and mutterings.

I have hope that the discourse will change, but at the moment it’s largely about The Donald, about what he’s doing each day, where anything we’d normally see as liabilities become assets, his bizarre statements energizing a different sort of voter.  The long election campaign has this advantage, that people will get a really good look, and hopefully by November 2016 come to their senses.

We shall see.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Personal ruminations, Politics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Donald Trump: crossover artist

  1. Pingback: Bus nostalgia: a top ten list | barczablog

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