Trumpeting American Power

We’ve all heard it—that strident trumpet melody that soars atop Hollywood movie and American TV soundtracks, loud, proud, and mighty.

Here’s a familiar example of what I’m talking about…

What does that trumpet mean to listeners today? To me, it suggests strength and power—a particularly American strength and power—and ordinary individuals (like Clarke Kent) who do extraordinary things.

Any listener could probably tell you, if they stopped to think about it, that this tune is a kind of fanfare. A musician would inform you that it is a melody built on triads, as fanfares long have been. But it doesn’t make us think a king or queen is arriving, or a military leader, or a regiment, as a traditional fanfare might.

Rather, this particular kind of fanfare–now so familiar in American pop culture–has its roots in a specific classical work with a rather different set of meanings associated with it. It’s a piece that many Americans know, even if they don’t know they do: Aaron Copland’s classic Fanfare for the Common Man (1942).

A socialist and a pacifist, Copland never intended his Fanfare to be about American power. He said he wanted to celebrate ordinary people who were “doing the dirty work” in World War II. As musicologist Elizabeth B. Crist discussed in detail in her book, the title of the piece referenced a 1942 speech about “the common man” by Vice President Henry A. Wallace–a speech offering a socialist vision of a fairer America after the end of the war. Copland meant his Fanfare to be patriotic, as was appropriate in wartime. But he also wanted it to depict a better nation yet to come. The unexpected (and uplifting) harmonic shift at the end perfectly exemplifies this.

Certainly some of Copland’s intended social challenge has been lost in the Fanfare’s imitation in popular culture. But I think the Fanfare sound (or “trope,” as scholars would call it) still today suggests a humanity of sorts. It definitely isn’t all about conventional military articulations of power. It’s about people power–“good” power. And yet its humanity now helps prop up conventional articulations of American power on the world stage, including militaristic power. It particularly helps bolster American exceptionalism, especially the longstanding idea that all American actions are inevitably morally just.

The association of the Fanfare trope with a morally just American strength are now so entrenched that it can even be used ironically. Listen to the trumpet tune in this soundtrack to a popular HBO show:

House of Cards soundtrack composer Jeff Beal provides an interesting description of what he was trying to do with his score in this Song Exploder interview. The trumpet here is meant to sound like a military trumpet, he says. It perfectly aligns with the title images of Washington DC because it’s the “most expected, clichéd thing you’d hear in a show about Washington.” But even while we hear the Coplandesque fanfare in the trumpet and see the DC scenes, the rest of the score, beneath it in the texture, forces us to question these conventional articulations of “good” American nationalism. The bass line, Beal says, depicts Frank Underwood’s ruthless character: it feels like a “cloud of doom,” he says. The strings’ repeating arpeggio figuration, meanwhile, is meant to suggest the manipulations of a puppet master.

So what might this all mean? Perhaps Beal’s score implies that the powerful, morally just exceptionalist nationalism represented by the Coplandesque trumpet is threatened by the corruption of Washington. Or perhaps he wants to show how cynical and politically exploitative all the “God Bless America” rhetoric has become today. Certainly this use of the Fanfare trope, as in other soundtracks (like those for Veep and Homeland), shows the sophisticated political message it signals today–and its potential to be turned to criticize that message.

How ironic, then, that suggesting America ought to live up to its vaunted exceptionalist values–values that Beal sees exemplified in his Coplandesque trumpet melody–is exactly what Copland was trying to achieve with the work in the first place.

None of this would be possible if there wasn’t still a hint of leftism bound up in Copland’s Fanfare. Musicologists have been quick to point out the many inappropriate political usages of Copland’s politically progressive music by those on the Right: one infamous example is Rick Perry’s campaign ad, “Strong.” We enjoy proclaiming that the way Copland’s music is used today is almost exactly opposite to what he intended.

But the Fanfare‘s usages in recent decades in popular culture and by politicians on both sides of the aisle show that listeners still hear elements of people-oriented progressivism in the Copland sound. The Fanfare wouldn’t be understood to balance powerful American exceptionalism with moral rightness so perfectly if it wasn’t still seen to contain a veneer of progressivism to balance its jingoism. It also wouldn’t continue to hold appeal to listeners on both the Left and Right. Its musical features, and its uplifting harmonic journey, certainly play a big part in this.

In a new scholarly article on this topic, I explore the complicated and changing history of this wartime work and its meaning. I look at its history since 9/11, through the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations, its uses by these politicians (or lack thereof) to project a benign exceptionalism, and its infiltration of pop culture. You can find this article in the Musical Quarterly, currently listed under “advance articles.”

Ultimately, the Fanfare stands as evidence of a well-known truth: that instrumental music can easily be appropriated and have its meaning manipulated. At the same time, though, it shows how a piece of music heavy with accrued meaning can actually have this meaning used to force a challenge of the status quo.


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