Much to the delight of Trax on the Trail and its contributors, the second presidential debate inspired at least a dozen musical settings. We have seen Hillary and Donald singing duets, busting out dance moves, assuming Muppet personas, and appearing as the leads in a horror film. Indeed this activity brings some much needed levity as we move toward the final countdown to election day, but what should we make of these quirky musical gems? For Sound Trax this week, Naomi Graber (University of Georgia), Eric Hung (Westminster Choir College of Rider University) and Aaron Manela (Case Western Reserve University) weigh in on musicalized versions of the second presidential debate.
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Terror at the Townhall
In any good horror film there comes a moment when you feel the overwhelming urge to shout “look behind you!” at the screen. Some viewers had a similar reaction to the second presidential debate, in which Donald J. Trump appeared to prowl behind Hillary Clinton, possibly with some less-than-savory intent. For Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer Danny Elfman, the scene certainly felt unsettling. “Watching Trump lurching behind Hillary during the debate felt a bit like a zombie movie,” he told the website Funny or Die, “like at any moment he was going to attack her, rip off her head, and eat her brains.” Elfman would know—since 1985 he has been director Tim Burton’s go-to composer for scoring his weird, creepy, and occasionally bone-chillingly scary films, including Beetlejuice (1987), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Sleepy Hollow (1999). Inspired by Trump’s performance, Elfman collaborated with director Richard Kraft and editor James E. Jacoby on a recut of the debate called “Trump Stalks Hillary.” The new musical underscore makes it seem like the Republican nominee is silently menacing Clinton a la Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978), or Norman Bates spying on an unsuspecting Marion Crane in Psycho (1961). He does this by drawing on a number of the musical sounds associated with horror film. There are whining mechanical noises reminiscent of Charlie Clouser’s music for the Saw franchise (2004–) and a low thumping that sounds like a heartbeat, calling to mind Franz Waxman’s classic music for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As is typical for horror soundtracks, there are also elements inspired by mid-century avant-garde techniques, including frenzied tone clusters in the strings and dissonant drones both high and low.
Elfman’s soundtrack illustrates the power of film music to alter the viewer’s response to images. Without Elfman’s score, Trump’s meandering might seem harmless, or maybe vaguely worrisome at worst. But set to these disturbing sounds, Trump’s behavior appears downright threatening. The effect is a result of one of the unique facets of horror soundtracks. Horror is a “body genre,” that is, a genre that is meant to produce a direct effect on the audience’s physical body; in the case of horror, the trembling and adrenaline rush that accompanies fear. Music plays a key role in this physiological reaction. The thumping pulses mimic our own pounding hearts (and may even induce the same pounding, depending on the volume), the drones resemble the ringing in our ears, and the dissonant and atonal elements serve to disorient us. In short, Elfman’s soundtrack makes it seem like Trump is not only threatening Clinton, but threatening us as well. The composer makes us experience the physiological and psychological feelings of fear by his skillful use of music, even though nothing in the visual track is overtly frightening.
Elfman depicts Trump as the typical horror movie villain, but Clinton’s role is less clear. She might be just another hapless victim, destined to fall prey to Elfman’s psychotic monster. However, she might be the triumphant Final Girl, the only one with the pluck, courage, and gumption to take out the killer. We’ll have to wait for November 8 to find out.
 Linda Williams. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1991): 4.
 K.J. Donnelly, The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television (London: BFI, 2005), 88.
The Clinton-Trump Debate: A Dirty Dancing Fantasy
Two days after the second presidential debate in St. Louis, Dutch entertainer Sander van de Pavert posted a parody video of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “singing” “(I've Had) The Time of My Life,” the theme song from the popular romantic drama Dirty Dancing (1987). Since its launch on October 11, this video has garnered over 1.5 million hits on YouTube, and it has been featured on numerous news and entertainment programs. So, why does this two-minute video resonate with so many people?
Most obviously, the video plays on the enemies-turned-lovers cliché that so many writers, playwrights, and opera composers have used so effectively for centuries. Clinton and Trump couldn’t even shake hands with each other at the beginning of the debate; now suddenly, they are declaring their love for each other. Voters who see both Trump and Clinton as neoliberal puppets might find this narrative to be particularly appropriate. After all, the two candidates used to be friendly with each other—the Clintons did attend Trump’s third wedding. Although they are now battling hard against one another, the two continue to share—according to this line of thought—the same love for the one-percent. Chances are, whatever the outcome, the two will be on the same team again after the election.
For fans of Dirty Dancing, this video might resonant in a very different way. In the film, the male voice represents the character Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a working-class dancer who heads the entertainment staff at a posh resort. The female voice represents Frances Houseman (Jennifer Grey), the sheltered younger daughter of an affluent and well-connected family. Throughout the film, she demonstrates the ability to think for herself. However, her lack of life experience, the result of very strict upbringing, is dramatized by the fact that everyone—except Castle at the very end—calls her “Baby.”
Considering this odd couple to be an allegory for Trump and Clinton is frankly not difficult. For Baby, part of Castle’s appeal is his outsider status. Although reminded of his place and warned to stay in line, he refuses to conform to the mores of polite society and instead opens Baby’s eyes to the “real” world. Despite the fact that Trump is extremely rich, his appeal lies largely in the fact that he is a political outsider. He refuses to play by that group’s code of acceptable behavior; his abrasive and confrontational manner of speaking is, for his supporters, refreshing. When Castle develops a relationship with Baby, he faces baseless accusations of theft and of impregnating his former dance partner. Trump likewise lives an embattled life: thousands of workers claim that Trump stole their salaries, and numerous women have accused him of sexual assault. Although there is a great deal of evidence against Trump, the fact that so many came forward at the moment he became the political elite’s “ugly duckling” provides an interesting parallel to the Castle character.
Like Baby, Clinton is a part of a well-connected family. As a former first lady, senator, and a secretary of state, she is unquestionably a political insider. Despite her many achievements, however, many detractors have infantilized her over the course of the campaign, largely because of her gender. They complain that she giggles too much, or doesn’t smile enough. Even her campaign called her “our girl” in an email to supporters!
Another way that van de Pavert’s video resonates with viewers is that it dramatizes the changing likeability of the two candidates. In recent weeks, Clinton’s favorability index has been improving. As observed in the video, she appears composed and prepared during the debate. Meanwhile, Trump has become increasingly disliked over the past month, and van de Pavert decided to highlight his disingenuous character in the video. After he “sings” the line “Now I've finally found someone / To stand by me,” Trump’s exasperated facial expression makes it clear that he did not for one second believe the words that just came out of his mouth. To put it more bluntly, van de Pavert made him appear to be a womanizer who would say anything to get what he wants.
At the end of Dirty Dancing, both protagonists are vindicated. Baby’s father apologizes to Castle for falsely accusing him of impregnating his former dance partner, and Castle uses the name Frances for her instead of Baby, acknowledging that she is a self-actualized adult. In this election, such a happy ending would be impossible to achieve, and that might be one more reason why we enjoy this parody so much.
Everyone is a Snowth: Trump Sings “Mah Nà Ma Nà”
On October 14, 2016, the Atlanta-based “surreal comedy group” The Woodcreek Faction posted a video of selections from the second presidential debate, set to the music of Piero Umiliani’s “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” as performed by the Muppets Mahna Mahna and the Snowths on the premier episode of The Muppet Show in 1977.[i] Their selection of footage has Donald Trump in effect lip syncing in the place of the blustering male Muppet Mahna Mahna (named after the song), who was brilliantly voiced by Jim Henson (Fig. 1). When The Snowths sing, we see footage of Hillary Clinton, her family, Trump’s family, and the audience, everyone looking uncomfortable. The satire here lies in the Woodcreek Faction’s engagement with the song’s content and history, taking square aim at issues of gender and power dynamics central to Trump’s personality and rhetorical style.
Fig 1. Mahna Mahna and the Snowths
This satire works so effectively because of the song’s history as a piece of multimedia that audiences have viewed in many different contexts over time. The YouTube audience is in a privileged position because it knows how the music will proceed as well as the relationship of that music to its previous film and television settings. They know it signifies an interrupting male figure, whom they can project onto Trump, and a chorus that can’t get a note in edgewise, which they can project onto the on-screen debate audience. The famous historian and philosopher Michel Foucault described this exercise in projecting physical and even political properties onto the people an audience is looking at “the gaze.”[ii]
The song’s origin is surprising for those who remember it from The Muppet Show. In 1968, Piero Umiliani scored the cue “Viva La Sauna Svedese” for the mondo movie Svezia Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden: Heaven and Hell), for a scene in which a number of fur clad young women run through the snow toward a sauna (link NSFW for frontal nudity). The cue’s music and voiceover about young, sexually innocent women perfectly accompany this soft-core pornographic film as the male singer’s short ejaculatory phrases continuously supplant and interrupt the female singers.[iii] Umiliani’s conception of the song lies in the “male gaze:” the power dynamic of its original context.[iv] This dynamic is physical because of its pornographic sexuality, political because it maps Italian sexual mores onto imagined Swedish women, and powerful because it strips the women of their individual identities and agency.
While Henson removed the overt sexual nature of the audience’s “gaze” by transforming visual representations of female bodies, he retained the musical aspects of the gendered power dynamics, beginning in early performances with the Muppets, which he did for many years before The Muppet Show began.[v] For The Muppet Show’s premiere, Henson used a new Muppet named after the song and two pink Muppets with conic (and yonic) trumpet-shaped mouths. These new Muppets, The Snowths, abstracted the original cue’s sexuality into this subtle visual joke for a family audience. The blustering male interrupter remains, with the scat verses now shortened.[vi] Unable to complete an improvisational idea, Mahna Mahna has a tendency to impotently trail off, becoming uncomfortable and then returning to the chorus. The Snowths can only shake their heads in confusion during his outbursts.
After its success on The Muppet Show, the song entered mainstream consciousness.[vii] The song’s longevity means that its humor is thus repeatable and predictable. The Woodcreek Faction removed it from the original televisual milieu while retaining all of its pre-existent meanings, and then placed Trump within that context. This satire group, and YouTube video creators in general, have in the words of Jacques Attali become modern day jongleurs, “the collective memory, the essential site of cultural creation, the circulation of information from the courts to the people,”[viii] democratizing the “gaze” in the form of creative mediation.
Mahna Mahna bolsters his performance of masculinity by interrupting women. He sings the same chorus over and over, his (premature) ejaculatory scat limiting the women to confirming his chorus, even though he cannot complete an original improvisatory expression. By placing him at the center of “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” The Woodcreek Faction takes Trump, who through his career on The Apprentice and through recordings of him bragging of sexual assaults, has exercised his powerful “gaze” on the physical and political bodies around him, and inverts the audience’s “gaze” back onto him. They show Trump as a self-congratulatory musical mansplainer who cannot stop despite his failings and the discomfort of the audience. Therein lies the humor.
At the end of the 1977 Muppet Show sketch, the heckler-Muppet Statler says to his box-mate Waldorf, “The question is: ‘What’s a Mahna Mahna?’” to which Waldorf replies, “The question is: ‘Who cares?’”
Trump is a Mahna Mahna. And we are all of us the Snowths.
[ii] Clare O’Farrell, Michel Foucault (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 39.
[iii] The improvisatory-scat verses between the “mah na mah na” choruses recapitulate the movie’s theme song (“You Tried to Warn Me”) three times, while the fourth verse refers to the reveille solo from “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” The song was renamed “Mah Nà Mah Nà” by the Edward Marks Music Co. for sale in the USA, and it can be spelled with or without the accents graves. Piero Umiliani: The Official Site, “Mah-Nà Mah Nà,” http://www.umiliani.eu/mah-na_mah-na.html (accessed October 16, 2016). IMDB, “Sweden Heaven and Hell (1968),” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063660/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 (accessed October 16, 2016).
[iv] The “male gaze” is where a woman is “the object of the combined gaze of the spectator and all the male protagonists,” in this case of the scene “Viva La Sauna Svedese” demonstrating a generalized and generic female sexuality. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 no. 3 (1975), 6-18 reprinted in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones 44-52 (London: Routledge, 2003), 50.
[v] Henson first performed an arrangement of the song on Sesame Street in 1969 using Muppet Bip Bippadotta and two female “anything muppets” intended to be representative of young girls. The skit entered Henson’s repertoire; he later fronted performances with different sets of puppets on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dick Cavett Show before shooting the iconic version in 1977.
[vi] With the exception of a brief melodic outline, Henson’s performance erases the references to the original movie theme and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”
[vii] See Piero Umiliani: The Official Site, “Mah-Nà Mah Nà,” for a list of covers and chart statistics.
[viii] Attali was talking about amateur performers in 1985, but YouTube mashup artists fit his description exceptionally well. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 141.