At the risk of sounding pedantic, I want to spend a few words talking about the power of art.
What does Katy Perry have to do with the fall of Sauron? Creativity, talent, music, words, the human expression of emotion can stave off the darkness and give us the strength to go forward in facing challenges. Reconnecting with art we know makes it even more powerful.
Who’s Lung-Busting Kitsch Now?
Maybe you could have looked in a crystal ball six years ago and predicted it. Let’s have the singer of “Sorry, Not Sorry” deliver a moving tribute to health care workers during our next pandemic. Let’s have her use our dear-departed Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” as a way to bind the country together–online, of course–beamed into the White House. Demi Lovato never looked more elegant and the world never looked more “alright with me.”
And that lady famous for the meat dress and what-was it-? “Paparazzi” and “P-p-p-p-Poker Face”–a song that was cycled over the pool loudspeaker so many times when I was vacationing at a hotel once that I had to get up and leave–… let’s have her do the national anthem. And slay it. Because, of course, The Lady Gaga has always had the gravitas and panache to carry off a hoop skirt, Dutch-braided hairstyle, giant dove pin, and the high-F of “land of the Free-eee!” Lady Gaga has always been able to be the best person to sing the national anthem for the inauguration that follows four years of misery under a sociopath; we just needed to wait for the right time to hear her do it.
What the inauguration ceremony and evening celebration underlined, for the first time in decades for me, is the power of human creativity to persuade and uplift. Even good speeches are a kind of art, when they bring hope and point the way. Between the stirring words of young Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, and the faithful renditions of songs by Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks, the ceremony infused symbols with inspiration. Even the Celtic Cross on the 5-inch Bible used for swearing-in President Biden was a reminder that art is timeless.
The musical tribute in the evening brought the party into our living room. It was an emotional experience, which made me realize how much this pandemic has cut us off from music delivered live with such feeling and strength. Especially powerful was experiencing the songs we know made new again, from Bon Jovi doing “Here Comes the Sun” to John Legend galvanizing Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” while his breath steamed white out over the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
I lost it when Katy Perry came out. The Katy Perry, of left shark, who rode into the Super Bowl on a giant puppet tiger which led reviewers to say it “redefined kitsch.” Who started her career singing about kissing a girl with cherry Chapstick. Perry’s flowing white gown and cape, studded with red, white, and blue buttons matched her white hair, gloves, and microphone– I wrote last time about how all the symbolic statues in the Capitol were women, from Freedom to War — Perry seemed like a living statue of Hope. And, of course, one of her biggest hits was “Fireworks,” so we all knew what was coming. I wept like a baby.
It’s what we have been missing, this past year, this past four years. Not enough song, not enough stunning visuals, not enough fantastic fashion. We had a lovely debate in social media over whether anyone was wearing periwinkle (the TV-announcer said Jill Biden was, but that was ocean blue; I said Kamala, but perhaps that was more orchid). I’m not normally much of a fashionista, but we have been starved for beautiful things to look at. How ironic that the outgoing lady was a fashion model, the one who didn’t show up to be upstaged by all the other rockin’ powerful women in Washington, the one who wore an orange muumuu and flats as she flew away.
Not convinced of the power of beautiful coats? How about stories? I had been promising since last year that we could watch the Tolkein sextets to distract from the Stay-at-Home order, the two trilogies that Peter Jackson crafted out of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. My wife has rewatched those movies many times, in her office or working out on the elliptical. I find it ironic since I am a life-long Tolkein geek; my biggest tenth birthday present was a wall-sized poster of the three original covers. We decided to watch the movies as a New Year thing, but, of course, the themes of the book seemed especially pertinent.
The third Hobbit movie, “The Battle of the Five Armies,” is about how a dwarf becomes corrupted by gold and greed and refuses to share with men who had helped defeat the dragon. The elves arrive, also to take over the pile of wealth, and the three forces begin to battle with each other–until the corrupted orcs arrive. Then, the armies band together against the evil orcs helped out by the Eagles… Ok, so if you watch this movie right after the National Guard arrives to help the Capitol Police who were overwhelmed by Viking-helmet-wearing right-wing militia storming the building to attack Congress certifying election results… well. There are no old stories. If the themes are done right, they will always apply.
We had to finish up with the second trilogy this past weekend, and the themes of characters corrupted by the sway of the ring just added reminder on top of reminder. Everyone who came near the ring acted out of the cruelty poured into the metal, and only the humble Samwise the gardener was able to handle it without being put under its spell. In the end, Frodo the Ring-Bearer is not able to give it up, but Gollum fights over it, takes it away, and ends up destroying it and himself through his careless glee–I mean, with Frodo and Gollum glowing orange in the light of Mount Doom, how could anyone not find parallels with contemporary life? Frodo crawls out to the rocks after the ring causes the mountain to erupt, and as he and Sam prepare to die, he realizes that the call to malice and greed is gone, and what returns is memory:
Frodo : It’s gone! It’s done!
Sam: Yes, Mr. Frodo. It’s over now.
Frodo: [closes his eyes] I can see the Shire. The Brandywine River. Bag End. Gandalf’s fireworks, the lights, the party tree.
Sam: Rosie Cotton dancing. She had ribbons in her hair. If ever I was to marry someone… it would have been her. It would have been her!
Frodo: I’m glad to be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things.
Yes, it’s gone.
Not the End of All Things
Frodo and Sam are rescued, again, by Eagles!!! [Am-ur-ica!]] and recover to return home, until they both know it is time to move on. Tolkein had just emerged from World War II when he finished his magnum opus. He was thinking more generally of the power of good to defeat evil, where small acts and courage in the face of insurmountable odds must always be put forth, whether the costs are high or not. I read the book when Nixon was in office, near the time when a helicopter carried him away from the White House lawn. I saw the movies during the Bush Era, as the Great Recession hit, and couldn’t help but lament the broken world then. Good allegories will always reflect current events. Re-experiencing stories and art will always be good therapy to ease the trauma and help us face what comes next.
In the movie, Frodo and Sam return home to the green of the Shire as their neighbors express surprise, but continue sweeping their walkway. The book handles it much differently. At the end of Return of the King, Frodo and Sam return home to find the Shire overrun with orcs and a tinpot local dictator, “Sharkey.” Merry and Pippin lead a rebellion to push out the dictator, who turns out to be Saruman (not killed earlier as he was in the movie), still aided by Grimmer Wormtongue (aka Russian bots on social media).
This original ending was so unsatisfying to me, at eleven years old, to read that the destruction of the ring did not solve all problems. Our heroes triumph, only to find even more mundane obstacles still plaguing their neighborhood. They still have to fight when they get home. I was so glad that Peter Jackson decided to take that part out in the film.
Now, however, the book seems wiser as a metaphor than the wrap-it-up-with-a-bow movie. After World War II, the world had to rebuild; post-war starvation and disease was a reality across Europe. It took years to clear away the rubble.
Today, a day after the heartfelt and dazzling inauguration party, we have to turn away from celebration. We have a pandemic. We still have political strife, financial challenges, and climate change. We have to finish throwing out the tinpot dictators that still linger and get back to the work of helping our neighbors however we can.
I enjoyed the fireworks that Gandalf exploded in front of the Washington Monument. But, now, let’s get to work.