Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Songs We Refuse to Sing

Toronto Mayor-elect Rob Ford
While walking home from dinner with a friend last evening, I had the Toronto Civic Election on my mind. This year's Mayoralty race had been a bitterly fought battle between Rob Ford, a right-wing demagogue from the suburbs, and George Smitherman, a provincial Liberal Party politician, who entered the race to bring fiscal responsibility and social awareness to a metropolis where its suburban citizens were angry with our current Mayor David Miller. Many were enraged over high taxes, political entitlement, waste and an ill-functioning transit system. During his campaign, where he vowed to "stop the gravy train," Ford marshalled that fury into a frightening populist froth. He resembled the late comic Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live, acting out his character of the suburban Ralph Kramden, a big lug always in a state of continuous fulmination.

As I approached my apartment, the streets seemed ominously quiet. One person looking lost quickly passed me by as though she didn't actually live here, or perhaps anywhere. She seemed to be simply going from Point A to Point B. It reminded me of that scene in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1979) when Brooke Adams wakes up to find her home city of San Francisco suddenly feeling foreign to her. Since I live downtown, where the support was largely for Smitherman, I had a sick feeling that he didn't win. When I got home, sure enough, the news was confirmed that Ford won handily. While Smitherman gave a thoughtful, quietly gracious concession speech, revealing the heart of a man who was largely missing during the campaign, Ford came thundering into his victory party to the strains of "Eye of the Tiger." This 1982 song, performed by the American rock band Survivor, was written at the request of Sylvester Stallone for his film Rocky III. With its steroid inflated beat and pumped up formula lyrics ("It's the eye of the tiger/it's the thrill of the fight/rising up to the spirit of our rival"), "Eye of the Tiger" (like the movie) pummels the audience into submission. Its sole aim is to get you roaring your defiant support for the underdog fighter. Significantly, "Eye of the Tiger" didn't invite you to feel the struggle of the fighter  it told you to blindly join the herd. The song perfectly fit the arrival of Ford as he faced his delirious supporters. Here was their underdog who fought all those folks who (as Chris Farley's comic character once said) "wouldn't amount to Jack Squat" and now he was the victorious one. But what had he won? And who wanted to sing along?

"Eye of the Tiger" isn't really a song about anything. It's pure aerobics.Yet the man who called himself a "friend to the taxpayer" (a friend being who, let's be frank, can be defined as one who would rather not have you pay any taxes) took to the song as if it were a sweeping soundtrack for his heroic quest to "stop the gravy train" at City Hall. In his victory speech, he called Toronto "open for business" (when were we closed?) as if cities are simply buildings for commerce and not people who choose to live there as part of a growing community. "Eye of the Tiger," with its formulaic punch and swagger, is as industrial and impersonal as the definition Ford gives Toronto. Co-writer Jim Peterik once told Songfacts, "At first, we wondered if calling it 'Eye Of The Tiger' was too obvious. We were going to call the song 'Survival.' In the rhyme scheme, you can tell we had set up 'rival' to rhyme with 'survival.' At the end of the day, we said, 'Are we nuts?' That hook is so strong, and 'rival' doesn't have to be a perfect rhyme with the word 'tiger.' We made the right choice and went with 'Eye Of The Tiger.'" The right choice also became the wrong sound. And the popularity of the song came to anticipate the quest for success that soon dominated shows like American (and Canadian) Idol, where contestants don't achieve fulfilment from the art of performance, but instead seek to be liked and accepted by the judges as if they were inflated versions of Tiny Talent Time.

Yet as relentlessly exhausting as "Eye of the Tiger" is, it topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for six weeks beginning July 24, 1982. The single was also number two on the Billboard Top Pop Singles of 1982 year-end chart and number one on the Cash Box Top 100 Pop Singles year-end chart. "Eye of the Tiger" found international acclaim as well as a huge hit in the UK, Irish and Australian charts. Survivor went on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for "Eye of the Tiger." The song received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song and was voted "Favorite Song" by the People's Choice Awards (in a tie with "Truly" by Lionel Richie). Sometimes bad songs (like bad candidates) do finish first.

As the election evening wore on, however, my mind went back over a number of songs and their places in politics. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who transformed himself into a Republican in 1992, once used Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" as his campaign theme, until Petty (who is a Southerner from Florida) went to war to win his song back. Of course, there's also the famous story of Ronald Reagan taking on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA," his angry anthem for war veterans, which Reagan turned into an affirmation of his new Morning in America. Songs often fit and don't fit the times they were made in. They've also been given a life they were sometimes never intended to have.

Earlier this month, at Toronto's Nuit Blanche, our all-night, city-wide arts festival which we patterned after the one in Paris, I went to the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre to see two installations. One was called Grindbox, named after the Grindhouse exploitation movies that once played in our low-rent theatres. Curator Colin Geddes ran over three hours of trailers from a variety of exploitation films from the seventies and eighties and it was indeed the trashy fun that was intended. But the other installation was called Singing in the Night, which played off the popular trend of running movies like The Sound of Music (1965) for people to sing along to (an idea about as horrifying as Rob Ford being mayor). Because of this, I didn't really want to go, but Critics at Large's Shlomo Schwartzberg talked me into it. I'm glad he did. It turned out to be more subversive than I anticipated.

While it began predictably with a sing-a-long to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), very soon the mood began to change. Our host, like Joel Grey's devil-doll from Cabaret (but reborn as Richard Simmons), danced up and down the aisles with his microphone, singing enthusiastically and encouraging others to join in with him. But the songs began to change with the movies. We were now being asked to sing to Stealer's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle With You" from Reservoir Dogs (1992) along with Michael Madson's dancing psychopath as he hacks off his hostage's ear. By the time Malcolm McDowell was raping and stomping to Gene Kelly's "Singing in the Rain" in A Clockwork Orange (1971), the only happy traveller was our dancing and singing host. The crowd was dead silent. Singing in the Night turned the songs on the very audience singing them, leaving us to question what we were singing and why were singing it.

The final song he chose to end his film clips was "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" from The Life of Brian (1979), where Eric Idle cheerfully hangs from the cross with all his fellow Christians. It was a perfect ending with which to send us out to the loo. We lined up along the latrines happily inventing new lyrics while we pissed away our soft drinks. I thought about "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life" as I woke up today to consider our new Mayor. But I still can't bring myself to sing it.

 — Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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