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The politics of music

It's showtime at the convention

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The Democratic National Convention has its own orchestra: 22 studio musicians, most all of whom have played for Hollywood film scores. Over the next few days and nights, the musicians will help create the convention's soundtrack: Background music to set up the main action; songs and tunes to set the mood.

"Music can bring a tear to your eye. It can make you jump out of your seat and applaud, and that's why we're here," said Harold Wheeler, the convention's music director and conductor of the orchestra.

Convention music won't just play to emotions. It will play politics.

VIDEO
CNN.com Senior Correspondent Beth Nissen looks at the process of music selection at the convention

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Listen to a clip of "76 Trombones" courtesy of Q Records (359K wav sound)

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Democratic planners see music as a kind of audio plank in the party platform -- a musical statement of how inclusive the party is of different age groups, different ethnic backgrounds, different cultures.

"The music we choose is very diverse," said veteran convention producer Gary Smith. "And that's deliberate. That's part of the message of the convention."

Selections to be played by the orchestra or on CD range from be-bop to hip hop, jazz to gospel, Count Basie to 'N Sync. Every night, there will be live performances by singers of note: Stevie Wonder, Melissa Etheridge, Luther Vandross, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Boyz II Men. There will also be appearances by a marching band and a 150-member choir.

"The appeal of the music reflects what the party sees as its wide appeal," said Smith. "It's Latino, it's Americana, it's patriotic, it's religious, it's Broadway."

'76 Trombones' and the DNC

The Broadway cast of "The Music Man" is flying in from New York to perform "76 Trombones" on the convention's opening night. To make the famous song more relevant to the convention, Democratic writers rewrote Meredith Willson's original lyrics, adding a rhythmic patter about the glory of the Democratic party.

Craig Bierko, who stars in the Broadway revival as Professor Harold Hill, rehearsed the new verse: "You'll feel something stirring in your Democratic hearts! Joy at the thought of leaders like F.D.R., and Harry Truman, L.B.J. and Jimmy Carter, William Clinton and soon, Al Gore! Men who made our great nation what it is today!"

But to get clearance rights to the song, the new partisan part had to be scrapped.

"Meredith Willson's widow won't allow us to do it," said Smith. "She's a Republican."

Before selecting a song, convention planners have to know the political affiliation of the composer or artist, have to be aware of the song's associations, and its meaning, hidden or overt. "We just always have to be careful that the lyrics are appropriate," said Smith.

Tuning out Monica

Lyrics turned out to be a problem in choosing the convention theme song. Convention producers had selected Lou Bega's "Mambo No. 5" because it was up-tempo and popular, like "The Macarena," the Democrats' convention theme in 1996.

But the chorus of "Mambo No. 5" refers to a girl named Monica.

Convention planners initially thought they could just rewrite the lyric, but late on the eve of the convention, they re-thought the whole idea.

"That's out now," said Wheeler, whose orchestra rehearsed the song. "That will not be played at all."

Convention producers are now looking for another song - one just as catchy, but without a catch - that will rally the party faithful, inspire the crowd and get the campaign off on the right note.



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Monday, August 14, 2000


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