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October 4, 2017

Excerpt: "Listening to Rumours" by Todd Pasternack from This Message is Undeliverable: Writers Respond to Trump


“Listening to Rumours” by Todd Pasternack


Dysfunction. Threats. Turmoil unfolding on the world stage. It sounds like the state of the West Wing, sure, but it’s also an accurate description of the recording sessions from Fleetwood Mac’s best-selling album Rumours. The West Wing and Fleetwood Mac are two separate groups—“bands,” if you will—though only one of them has the professionalism, talent, and self-awareness to rise above even their darkest moments to come together in support of their overall message. The other does not. Not even close.

THE CHAIN

Fans are vital to keeping a band advancing and progressing throughout its career. While bands and music artists may not create their songs solely based on how they think their audience will respond to them, they do use fans’ reactions to the music as signals to inform them of “what’s working” and “what’s not working.” Whether in terms of number of streams, downloads, or ticket sales, bands are ultimately in the service of their audience. It’s the uniting force. Fleetwood Mac knew they could build on top of the positive reaction to their 1975 self-titled album to create an album like Rumours, pulling from a confidence only acquired by being completely aligned with their fans and themselves.

As leader of his band, President Trump seems completely content to ignore his audience, the citizens of the United States. And this is where the chaos originates from. Ousted chief strategist and bandmate to the President Steve Bannon was not thinking about servicing this audience, either. He was always more interested in rewriting the playbook for American governance without regard for its eventual, disastrous outcome on everyday Americans—not to mention the rest of the world—if implemented. The most frightening component of this mindset is not that he wasn’t thinking about how his decisions and thinking would impact the world. He was. He just had zero regard for anyone. He was playing a private show to an audience of one: himself. Maybe two, if you included his former boss, the President of the United States, though even that’s iffy. Imagine back in 1977 that instead of connecting to tens-of-thousands of devoted fans each night in stadiums across the world, Fleetwood Mac had just packed up their gear, shawls, and cocaine, and then played for five days straight at an empty Denny’s in Dubuque, with the doors locked and the windows curtained.

The President shares what was Bannon’s mindset of singularity of audience, and perhaps this is why behavior of this sort is still running rampant in the West Wing: it’s acceptable, it starts at the top, and the entire Trump band is simply following the leader. Fortunately, the government is designed to operate slowly so that it’s not completely driven by a single voice. It was created to foster debate, promote the sharing of ideas, and bring the voice of the people into the mix.

While recording Rumours—featuring mastermind talent Lindsay Buckingham, proficient songsters Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, perfect bottom-end support from John McVie, and the drive of band leader Mick Fleetwood—even loud, opinionated, genius, ego-driven rivals worked in an open way, collaboratively creating throughout the sessions. The band even leaned on engineers Richard Dashut and Ken Caillat at times for feedback on their takes—which went far beyond typical mixing duties. The band needed outside perspective, the “ears of a listener.” And through that ability to listen, respond, and embrace new ideas—the best ideas—they created a masterpiece.

GO YOUR OWN WAY

Sean Spicer spent his seven months singing what seemed like a completely different song from what the President was singing—or rather tweeting—almost every day. With Melissa McCarthy now owning our memory of Spicer, Scaramucci an unexplainable blip, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders as one of the only “backup singers of the President,” all signs point to this band’s continuation towards a major break up. Even Jeff Sessions is also caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s unhinged emotional frailty for recusing himself from the Russia investigation—or, rather, for following the rule of law. Reince Preibus, James Comey, Sally Yates, and others were all dragged off the stage. Michael Dubke, Walter Shaub, and Sebastian Gorka seem to have quit the band.

John Kelly has an almost impossible and unrealistic job ahead of him. Can he bring order to the White House staff and cabinet? Can he institute discipline and organization to unify the administration? Even Stevie Nicks has been known to say: you never miss a Fleetwood Mac rehearsal; the band comes before everything. Contrast that to Trump’s White House, where you never go against the President and his ideas come first. And if you do say something contrarian, you may want to turn off Twitter for the next decade. Will Kelly be able to appease his boss, accumulate buy-in across the cabinet, find advocates and champions in Congress, and reign in the contentious tone blaring out of the White House? This is an impossible and unrealistic job under the conditions in which Kelly is playing. He’s under constant scrutiny from President Trump to show loyalty and support for Trump’s meandering, unpredictable, and narcissistic messaging—irrespective of what the rest of the band members are trying to play. It’s a session filled with players in isolation booths, each creating their own noise, following a conductor with a smartphone for a baton and no sheet music.

It’s no secret that Christine and John McVie were completely avoiding each other throughout the sessions for Rumours. Lindsay and Stevie were fighting all of the time. Their relationships were volatile and irreparable, but their professionalism was unshakeable. When the “record” button was pushed on the 3M 24-track machine at the Record Plant in Sausalito, a switch turned on inside the artists. Pushing all differences away for the take, Buckingham and Nicks would intimately sing their background parts together on the same microphone. As if they were a single instrument, they blended their voices and followed each other’s dynamic changes.

OH DADDY

By the time Rumours was recorded, Fleetwood Mac was managing themselves with Mick Fleetwood at the helm. It's possible being autonomous as a band helped them navigate through tough musical and business decisions throughout the sessions and the seemingly endless world touring immediately following Rumours' release. It was the interests of the five of them as a single unit that took precedence over everything else, all in an effort to maintain Fleetwood Mac as a band and as a brand.

Trump made a calculated move bringing Ivanka and Jared into his administration. He’s trying to create the semblance of a sustaining band. This may ultimately prove to be a win for him, while not ideal for the American people. Trump accomplished two important objectives for himself in doing this: Ivanka and Jared help advance the Trump brand and its businesses on the world stage using the leverage of the oval office, and they are representative of “loyalty through family” for Trump. Cabinet members may come and go, but Trump recognizes his family is bound to him and he uses that to his advantage. It’s no different than the power of “band” when it acts singularly. A band’s devotion to preserve and maintain a mindset for this must be unwavering and even obstinate for it to work.

SECOND HAND NEWS

Loyalty and dedication to their music is what kept Fleetwood Mac together longer than seems possible with any band’s career. It was not the strength of their interpersonal relationships. Rather, they united around servicing the songs they created together. The band was bigger than any one of them on their own and they recognized that. Even through all of the amplified reflections of their personal lives in the rock and roll media at the time, Fleetwood Mac surfaced stronger as a band almost in spite of everything. The Trump White House should listen up and learn something from the Mac’s success in navigating emotion and negative media coverage to remain professional in order to produce something great for its audience.

With Trump’s current line-up, there’s almost no hope for multi-platinum success, a hit, or even a single. The White House’s audience is dwindling because of that. Even the fans who bought the bootlegged, Chinese-made “Make America Great Again” T-shirts after the show may not come back for the next tour. Maybe this is what happens when a solo artist tries to start a band.


Todd Pasternack is the author of Lessons From the Road: Musicians as Business Leaders, forthcoming in October 2017 from Archer Books. This essay is excerpted from This Message is Undeliverable: Writers Respond to Trump, forthcoming in October 2017 from Rare Bird Books. Used with permission of Rare Bird Books. Copyright © 2017 by Rare Bird Books.


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