Saturday, January 23, 2016

That Oddly Existential Bernie Sanders Ad, Snubbed by JW’s

Am I the only one who finds the new Bernie Sanders ad oddly existential?

Every time I hear the song “America”, I’m filled with a haunting sense of loss and alienation. It strikes me as a deeply existential song about people searching for something that doesn’t exist. It’s always made me think about the bigger question of what America is—the abstract idea of America, America as a country, and my ambiguous sense of place within it. The ad uses the most optimistic lyrics of the song: “Let us be lovers/We’ll marry our fortunes together/I’ve got some real estate here in my bag/Counting the cars on the New Jersey turnpike/They’ve all come to look for America.” But it doesn’t include the lyrics that evoke a deep sense of loneliness: “And the moon rose over an open field/Kathy, I’m lost, I said, though I knew she was sleeping/I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.” Not to mention the part about boarding a Greyhound in Pittsburgh, which in itself evokes imagery dystopian enough to make even the most die-hard optimist want to jump off a bridge. It’s not a cheery song. It’s certainly not a fun little ditty about how great America is. And it’s about the last song I would expect to be used in campaign ad.

I’ve read several analyses of the ad, and most of them come to the conclusion that it's exploiting nostalgia, which I think is totally incorrect. The ad is not exploiting nostalgia--it’s exploiting our growing sense of alienation and loss of identity, in a strangely brilliant way. It takes the common tropes of campaign ads (wholesome dairy farmers, small business owners, families at the dinner table), and juxtaposes with them this song that is strongly associated with alienation--then ramps it up by showing crowds of people cheering and uniting behind a cause, while the lyrics “They’ve all come to look for America” flash on the screen. I have to hand it to them; it is very affecting. Admittedly, I’m susceptible to emotionally-charged ads, but I still think this one is pretty genius. (Disclaimer: None of this is to say I’m voting for Sanders or anything—I’m undecided.)

Mr. Typist and I get regular visits from the Jehova’s Witnesses. They’re nice people and Mr. Typist will spend a fair chunk of time chatting with them. If Mr. Typist isn’t home, they usually read me a bible verse or two and go on their way. This morning when they came by, they asked for Mr. Typist specifically. When I told them he was still sleeping, they said, “Oh. Well, can we come back later when he's awake?” “Umm...sure,” I said, even though I felt summarily rejected. I almost wanted to shout after them, “You know, I’m pretty confused about God! I could use some answers here. I have a vague sense of something missing in my life.” But instead, I shut the door and sulked. That's what it's come to, folks--Mr. Typist gets requested by name, and I don’t get so much as verse from 2 Corinthians.

 --Kristen McHenry


Jo-Ann said...

I dont have a TV so I havent seen this ad... but when I watched it right now, I forget about the other lines to Paul Simon's song. I got caught up, I became a believer: Bernie Saunders will take us home. (Even though I am not even an "us" living north of the 49th. This is why I dont have a TV... I am too susceptible to marketing). Regardless, good analysis of it. Makes you wonder if Paul Simon agreed to it... or if he was the one that said: you know, this isnt a Star Bangled Banner song BUT it could work if...

Kristen McHenry said...

Jo-Ann--I think both Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon approved it. Whoever thought to use the song in this way for the ad knew what they were doing. Although I would have liked to have the part in there about buying cigarettes and pies, too. :)

Frank Moraes said...

Existential?! I'm inclined to get very Schopenhauerian on you over the fact that I'm so busy that I apparently missed this article in my RSS feed. And why did I come by now? Because I have to write an article about robots.txt files. That's right: robots.txt files. This is the state of my life. And I was checking out different websites' robots.txt files. But I've really been wondering what the hell I am doing. I mean robots.txt today; SiteMap.xml tomorrow; there is no end until, of course, the end.

Since you wrote this, I will probably have to write an article on the ad now. I'd been thinking about it anyway. The truth is that the first time I saw it, I cried. I never believed any of that Hope and Change nonsense. I supported Obama, but I had no illusions. But I loved the ad. Of course, I'm a big Sanders supporter. I've given to his campaign and even bought a shirt. I'm seriously thinking about buying the Sanders hoodie as well, given that the hoodie is the most definable part of my wardrobe.

I don't really think the ad is existential though. I'm always one to go for the most direct interpretation. It has various images of different kinds of people -- all of them Americans. And they are all coming together because they all believe in that idea of America that we were taught in grammar school. We just want to have our barbecues and go to our kids' school plays and tinker in the garden or the shop or on the computer. We are bound together in wanting to live our lives as we see fit. And it isn't big government that is stopping us (as the Bundy freaks would have us believe). It is an unfair system that doesn't allow all of us to share in the fruits of this nation.

I don't think those people are confused about what America is. They know that America is a promise -- one that hasn't been kept for many decades. And one that has never been kept for many people. I think the single greatest thing about Bernie Sanders is that he knows it isn't about him. As Noam Chomsky says, there are movements. People find themselves at the head of them -- usually at random. But it isn't about them; it's about all the people who make the "leaders" worth paying attention to -- by they Gandhi or King or Sanders.

Of course, I fully expect Hillary Clinton to win the nomination. And I'm fine with that. But Bernie's been speaking my language for years.

As for JWs: I used to talk to them a lot. But it was very frustrating. They are like Amway salesmen. They are just there to sell their incredibly limited vision of Christianity. They don't listen, they just wait until you stop talking and then provide canned talking points. I now know this for sure because a friend of mine is married to one. They are trained. If they are reading a passage from 2 Corinthians to you today, you can be sure that every other JW in that area is reading the same passage. When they are done talking to you, they write down notes about the encounter. Like I said: Amway. I wouldn't let them anywhere near your house or Mr Typist. Best thing about them: they don't vote.

Kristen McHenry said...

There's a Sanders hoodie??? It needs to shut up and take my money, ASAP.

To be honest, I welled up too, the first time I saw this ad. Maybe I misspoke in my attempt to understand what was going on in it--"America" is an un-optimistic song, but this ad carried a beautiful message that struck hard. I've just had a hard time with the cognitive dissonance the juxtaposition of the two causes in me.

We have a designated JW. He's been coming to see us for years with various "interns" in tow. I think he sees Mr. Typist as a special challenge, or something--someone who God assigned to him as a test of his faith. Who knows? I actually like him. He seems to be willing to engage in conversation on a level that is not just rote. And God knows, in this world, if the worse someone wants to do is show up at my door and read me a Bible verse, I'm totally fine with that.