January 1, 2020

Dancing Around the Decade — A “Swing Time” Retrospective

By Stuart Mitchner

Only connect…
— E.M. Forster (1879-1970)

In the “only connect” spirit of my approach to these weekly columns, this being the first day of an election year when the stakes are historically high, I’m launching my retrospective sampling of the 2010s with a September 21, 2011, piece on Ginger Rogers (“Pick Yourself Up for a White House Screening”) headed with a quote from then-President Obama’s Inaugural Address: “Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

Given the liberties already taken (did I mention that the same column has Ginger Rogers quoting Dickens?), the stage is set for a 21st-century update of the familiar Depression era scenario wherein someone in distress walks into a movie theater looking for a respite from reality and walks out an hour and a half later ready to face the challenges and fight the good fight:

“In 1936, the year Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing across the screens of the nation in Swing Time, the unemployment rate was 16.9 percent. In 2011, when the country is once again struggling economically, the rate’s 9.1, and if anyone is in need of a respite, it’s our beleaguered president. So let’s imagine that after exhausting himself trying to get us out of the hole we’re in, the commander in chief sets about lifting his own morale with a White House showing of Swing Time. At first, he’s yawning, having been awake half the night trying to devise a way to dance his jobs bill around a ‘loyal opposition’ as ruthless as the crippled banker Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s still yawning even as Fred Astaire does pratfalls pretending to be a hapless neophyte dancer goofing a lesson from the pretty dancing teacher played by Ginger. But as soon as she starts singing, the prez comes to attention. She’s telling him to pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again. It’s his Inauguration Day pep talk, same words, same idea. How cool is that! All this time he’d thought the line had come to him out of nowhere, and here’s plucky Ginger delivering the same message back when FDR was dealing with the same issues.”

Breaking Blue with Bruce

A year later with election day 2012  looming, it’s swing time with Springsteen in a column headed with a quote from Chris Christie, whose chances for a presidential run in 2016 were arguably doomed by the buddy-buddy image of our former governor with his arm around our former president during their tour of the Hurricane-Sandy-devastated Jersey shore. The quote in question was from Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in the July 2012 Atlantic that describes containing Christie at a Springsteen event as “an exercise in volcano management for his communications director.” After dancing around ‘in front of many thousands of people’ and shouting the words to ‘Badlands’ along with Springsteen (‘Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king’), Christie is fed a ‘trick question’ from Goldberg. Asked if Mitt Romney ‘could relate to this,’ Christie “screams over the noise of the crowd’: ‘No one is beyond the reach of Bruce!’ ”

Inspired by the mixed media convergence of Season 3 of Breaking Bad and Springsteen’s album Wrecking Ball, both coming my way thanks, as usual, to the Princeton Public Library, I began the October 24 column by noting that Bruce’s decision to endorse Obama had made me curious to hear what the Boss had to say in his latest LP:

“It turns out that the people in Bruce’s songs, ‘trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong,’ have some recession-driven issues in common with Breaking Bad’s Walt White, the cash-strapped, cancer-stricken high school science teacher who moonlights at a car wash and finds a way to provide for his family and cover over-the-top medical expenses by cooking to-die-for crystal blue methamphetamine.”

The Biden Connection

I should point out that what sent me back to Springsteen and Obama is Sunday’s New York Times feature, “What the Rally Playlists Say About the Candidates.” It’s no surprise that the song on top of former vice president Joe Biden’s rally playlist is  “We Take Care Of Our Own,” the lead track on Wrecking Ball. When Bruce sings “where’s the promise from sea to shining sea,” and answers, loud and clear, “wherever this flag is flown,” the music is driving, pounding, soaring as it redeems words long since drained of their original force. The stirring poetry of  “sea to shining sea” is fresh again when Springsteen sings it.

I was thinking back to the Democratic Convention, Charlotte, N.C., September 6, 2012, and the closing crescendo of Obama’s acceptance speech, with the convention faithful roaring. “We don’t turn back!” as the preacher’s telling the congregation. “We leave no one behind! We pull each other up!” Seemingly on the verge of actually singing Springsteen’s line, Obama says “God Bless” to the nation, the balloons soar, and the music explodes from the DNC amps, Springsteen coming on like thunder, ‘We Take Care Of Our Own!’

According to the Huffington Post, Springsteen’s anthem got a huge post-convention bounce online, jumping 400-plus percent with 2000 downloads. If Springsteen had not yet officially endorsed Obama, he’d at least provided him with a rousing fight song.

2016 Reality Check

Flash forward (if that’s possible in a backward look) to the closing paragraph of a post-election column on Springsteen’s memoir Born to Run where “my guess is that what finally brought him to the election eve rally in Philadelphia was the devastating hit delivered by FBI director Comey. Although he performed surrounded by a crowd giddy with the prospect of victory, he played and sang his three songs as if he knew better. Unplugged, the anthemic excitement is missing from ‘Thunder Road,’ same with the usually wildly infectious ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ where his laid-back vocal brings out negatives like ‘I ain’t nothing but tired,’ not to mention ‘crying over a broken heart’ and ‘little world falling apart.’ The third song, ‘A Long Way Home,’ which he introduced as ‘a prayer for the post-election,’ sounded more like prophecy than prayer, if you take ‘home’ to mean the White House.

The Morning After

Shuffle Fate’s deck and it’s January 20, 2017, the “American carnage” inaugural. Obama’s “begin again the work of remaking America” has been drowned out by  “Make America Great Again,” thus the opening of the January 25, 2017, column:

“The morning after the Inauguration we’re out of milk so I drive over to the shopping center. Maybe because I’ve had no breakfast, everyone I see looks grim and hung-over. It’s a William Blake crowd, ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’ on every face. Or maybe it’s just me remembering how it seemed on January 21, 2009, everyone smiling, high on hope, strangers shyly nodding hello. Eight years ago! Was the contrast really so stark? Surely life’s more subtle than that.

“When I get behind the wheel of my green 2000 CRV, the key won’t turn, steering wheel’s locked, so I give it a turn or two, no use. Then I look up and see almost directly across from me in the parking lot the green 2000 CRV that actually belongs to me.

“No, life’s not subtle. I’ve begun January 21, 2017 by getting into the wrong car.”

Prose and Passion

Today is the birthday of J.D. Salinger, who died at 91 on January 27, 2010. I headed the first of numerous columns written in the course of a decade of waiting and hoping to see what Salinger had produced in years between 1965 and 2010 with an epigraph taken from his daughter Margaret ‘s memoir, Dream Catcher: “My father has, indeed, spent his life busy writing his heart out.”

January 1 is also the birthday of E.M. Forster. This column’s epigraph is from chapter 22 of his novel Howard’s End:

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

Swing Time is available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library, and more likely than not at the Princeton Record Exchange.