I SPENT election night at The Tank in Tribeca—a big, gutted garage decorated with white paint and graffiti art—with beer bottles strewn over tables and people wedging themselves between folding chairs. When Obama won, the room exploded into cheers with people jumping up and down, texting, calling, hugging and kissing. I drank cheap champagne straight from a bottle a stranger gave me and saw a stocky young black guy cry during Obama’s acceptance speech.
The next night I went to another election celebration—only I thought going in that I was attending a Decemberists concert at Terminal 5. This !@#$% election had come to an end, and this was my celebration that all the vapidity was over and done.
I stood a few feet from the stage wedged in between strangers, swaying with exhaustion from the night before and wondering if a better reward might be to push my way through the crowd and go home and sleep. I overheard a frightfully chipper guy next to me saying the show would be great because of the recent election, and the more we cheered for Obama the better it would be.
The guy was right. Colin Meloy’s first remarks were a call to Obamamanian rejoicing: “It’s a new dawn, a new day!” Once the politics started, it didn’t stop.
Meloy is clearly an egotist, which is probably why he puts on such a good live show. No apologetic foot-shuffling here or laconic segues. His dry, wry wit draws audience laughs. He mocked New York pomposity (saying he’d remember our scarves—our “beautiful scarves”) and made a show of being the first person to play a solo with a peacock feather at Terminal 5. They played over twenty songs, from “Shanty for the Arethusa” to “Here I Dreamt I was an Architect” to “We Both Go Down Together” to “Sixteen Military Wives” to “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.” I found my energy surging as the show went on.
Politics never stopped popping up. When keyboardist Jenny Conlee expressed some premature concern that their electrical equipment was burning, Meloy took a crack at CNN and said, “We call her call-it-early Conlee.” They dedicated to President Bush a song extolling Valerie Plame. A cardboard cutout of Obama made a recurring guest appearance. They danced him across the stage, propped him next to a microphone and sent him crowd-surfing. During “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” Chris Funk tossed Obama into the crowd, and the crowd passed him over their heads to the back of the room until Funk reeled him back.
Meloy set up one song with a fictional story of Sarah Palin giving a press conference on her way back home to Alaska. (Cheers at Palin going back home.) They said she pulled out a guitar and sang a song about being a poor and wretched orphan boy. An audience member screeched, “Sarah Palin’s a chimbley sweep!” and they went into “Chimbley Sweep,” keeping up the Palin narrative with a quip about Bristol and her “unborn fetus” beginning a guitar duel.
Meloy told the crowd, “Snap together for progress! Snap together for change!” He yelled, “Yes We Can!” The crowd roared back, “Yes We Did!” Funk waved an American flag onstage.
Arianna Huffington is talking about a a swell of patriotism—the rise of the “born-again American” who can believe in the dignity of their country again. I saw it the night before when I watched the Obama Girls of Comedy at Le Poisson Rouge. Susannah Perlman, in defiance of the GOP accusation that the urban centers are anti-American, led Manhattanites in the national anthem. I also saw it during Obama’s acceptance speech, when the Tank cheered Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and “the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d sung the national anthem or cheered democracy—a word that’s now inextricably linked with justification for war. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen someone waving an American flag, but here was Funk flourishing an American flag onstage. Flag-waving and star spangled joy in democracy I hadn’t seen since I left my small town in New Mexico. I almost expected the Decemberists to burst out in the song our heavily Republican community choir used to sing: “And I’m proud to be an American because at least I know I’m free.”
The politics didn’t fit. I was here for the Decemberists’ gleeful sense of the macabre. I was here for the songs about dead lovers and double suicides and butchering gangs, for ballads that took me back to the days of bloody sailors and savages, for revenge and twisted love. Do hope and change and light and dawn and universal health care and middle-class tax cuts go with all that?
The Decemberists left the stage and the applause for the encore began. The cheers built and then the rumble began—“Yes We Can!”—and crescendoed: “Yes We Can! Yes We Can!”
Like everyone else in that room, I thought Obama has the potential to be the statesman of our generation. But as the “Yes We Can! Yes We Can!” reverberated to the balcony, I thought, I can’t. Haven’t these people ever believed in someone before? Haven’t they ever had this kind of passion for a politician disappointed? In my long and glorious history of Republican activism, I campaigned for candidates who had God on their side. Despite mandates from heaven or earth, they always disappoint. I don’t have faith in Obama. I don’t really believe in “change.” I don’t believe in a new dawn or a new day on this earth—after all, there is nothing new under the sun. I may have wanted to feel that surge of born-again Americanism when I saw Funk waving that flag, but I didn’t.
The Decemberists came back on the stage and they played their last song, “Sons and Daughters.” I pushed my way through the crowd so I could get in line to pick up my coat. I passed a woman next to the bar raising her beer cup high and singing: “Here all the bombs fade away/Here all the bombs fade away.”
One day they will. But it won’t be in the next four years.
Alisa Harris is deputy editor of Patrol. She teaches journalism at The King’s College in Manhattan.
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