"Thank you everybody, thank you, we love you, thank you very much. Oh we're going to win, we're going to win so big, thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. We're going to win so big, thank you very much ladies and gentlemen, thank you, we're going to win so big, thank you."
Those were Donald Trump’s first words to the crowd at the Republican National Convention, introducing his wife's speech Monday night. Perhaps he was less loquacious than usual because the song he’d taken the stage to had summed up victorious feelings as well as any song ever has: Queen’s “We Are the Champions” played as Trump emerged from dramatic silhouette.
“We Are the Champions” and its 1977 b-side “We Will Rock You” are staples of arena events, but typically the sporting kind. This was the writer and singer Freddie Mercury’s intention. “I was thinking about football when I wrote it,” he told Circus in 1978. “I wanted a participation song, something that the fans could latch on to. Of course, I've given it more theatrical subtlety than an ordinary football chant.”
The band’s living members have condemned Trump’s use of the song, saying they don’t like their music being used for campaigning, and indeed “We Are the Champions” doesn’t appear to have been a staple of any previous major presidential bids. Trump using the song in such a splashy manner is remarkable—because it announces victory before it has been obtained, because a thoroughly British work is being used to “Make America Great Again,” and because of the obvious contradiction between the GOP’s stance on LGBT rights and the fact that the Mercury is a queer icon.
I spoke with Ken McLeod, the author of We are the Champions: The Politics of Sports and Popular Music, for his thoughts on Trump’s use of one of the all-time great (and gayest) sports anthems. He teaches music history and culture at the University of Toronto. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Spencer Kornhaber: What did you make of Trump’s arrival at the RNC to “We Are the Champions”?
Ken McLeod: It's very much a rock star moment, isn't it? He's using a song that's quintessentially associated with rock stardom. He's in backlighting and you see him in profile, and then he reveals himself. Very theatrical.
"We Are the Champions" first comes out in 1977. It's a top-10 hit. But then it really makes an image for itself in the sports world because you have this very powerful unison chorus—a hyper-masculine chorus that has this defiant notion of mastery and conquest. But, of course, it's done to carry a message of homosexual liberation. It includes lyrics like, "I've done my sentence but committed no crime," and "we mean to go on and on and on," these thinly veiled allusions to Freddie Mercury's semi-closeted lifestyle. And then as the song becomes a staple at sporting events, it gets sort of inverted as a heteronormative anthem and those homosexual connotations get lost.
It's very much in keeping with notions of the spectacle and atmosphere of the carnivalesque that sporting events—and political rallies, for that matter—depend on creating. [The critical theorist] Mikhail Bakhtin has the most famous definition of the carnivalesque as temporary suspension of hierarchy, so you get these inversions of high and low culture, old and young, male and female identities. That was what the carnival was meant to do: You put on a mask for a period of a time. Look at the original video for “We Are the Champions.” Freddie Mercury is in a harlequin outfit, a commedia dell'arte character.
Queen and Freddie Mercury are famous for their ability to blend high art and operatic culture and rock music together, so you get this very liminal masking of identities in Queen. Of course, Mercury's sexual identity was never overtly stated. But it's hard to miss the meaning of a song like, "I Want to Break Free," which they did in drag, and a song like “Bicycle Race,” a thinly veiled allusion to bisexuality. If you're an adolescent male fan in 1970s and early ‘80s when Queen was at the height of their popularity, you sort of overlooked all that. All these songs were probably about homosexual liberation, but you read them as was adolescent liberation. The lyrics were vague enough.
Kornhaber: You put “We Are the Champions” in the title of your book about sports and music. Is it the ultimate song of this kind—an arena song or however you'd like to term it?
McLeod: I think that and "We Will Rock You” are, yeah. It's surprising how many of these songs that have been taken up as sporting anthems sort of promulgate a homosexual or alternative-lifestyle message. The Village People's “YMCA” being another example, where it's okay to get up at a baseball game and dance to a homosexual anthem. You get the carnivalesque, the flipping of the hierarchy.
Kornhaber: There's a certain amount of overlap between music that gets played at sporting events and political events. How similar do you see the two fields as being?
McLeod: That's where we get into this notion of spectacle. Guy Debord is the great critical theorist on the notion of spectacle. He claimed that spectacle was capital—economic capital—accumulated to the point where it becomes image. Just think about that: Capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image. That is Trump, right? That is Donald Trump.
A political convention and a mass-sporting event both rely on that communal spectacle to bring people together. We all are one, even though that's not how things really are. You can think of politics as being a team sport—I'm not the first to make that analogy.
Kornhaber: Hillary Clinton's campaign song, "Fight Song" by Rachel Platten, has these uplifting choruses and down-in-the-ditches verses. It occurred to me that structurally it is very similar to “We Are the Champions.”
McLeod: One of the things you can't overlook is: What is the motivation for using these songs? Well, number one, you've got to have a cool song. It's gotta sound good and get the crowd riled up. Does the music appeal to your political base?
Again, Queen is one of these odd liminal cases where people overlook Freddie Mercury's sexuality and they overlook the meaning of the lyrics. It's just vague enough, and because it's got this masculine guitar sound, this powerful drummer, it's easy to overlook what actually was at stake with the meanings of the songs.
That’s where Trump gets it a little bit wrong. Bruce Springsteen and Ronald Reagan had their famous run-in with “Born in the USA.” It sounds on the outside like it's going to be a big uplift-America anthem and it's not—it's very critical of the U.S. Again, you don't pay attention to what's actually at stake in the song itself.
Kornhaber: There are so many examples like that. Does it make you cynical about whether it's possible for a song to have a pointed, nuanced message that actually gets through? How often does music ever accomplish political goals other than rallying a crowd?
McLeod: I think there are lots of cases where music does affect values or can affect political values. There's the Meghan Trainor song “All About That Bass” [about] young girls’ body image—that's a song that has a message and can make a difference. But a song that's overtly aligned with a political campaign is unlikely to resonate in that way. In most cases campaigns are just trying to associate themselves with the feeling of the song, with a loose sentiment of positivity or something like that. That's why the actual lyrics and meaning of the song as imbued by the artist often gets overlooked.
Kornhaber: What are some other examples of spectacle and the carnivalesque in sports and politics?
McLeod: Carnivalesque is about this idea of flipping social convention and flipping identity. In a sporting event, it's okay for a man to kiss another man; that isn't acceptable behavior on the street for a lot of people. Hugging and crying and all those stereotypically non-masculine behaviors become acceptable. And at a [political] convention, everybody is supposed to be equal and you become, hopefully, one unified homogenous party. You're all wearing a mask because of it, leaving your true identity and your true beliefs at the door.
Our common definition of spectacle is an enormous event that achieves a high degree of notoriety and public attention. But the theoretical definition of spectacle is the notion of image overriding everything. Again, capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image. It's the spending of money. We have nothing better to do in our society than to create spectacle. The Olympic Games are spectacle. Usually we associate it with sporting events, but it's equally true of these big political conventions. And, I'm sorry to say as a Canadian, it's equally true of the U.S. political system, which is just a spectacle—it's a spending of a huge amount of money for image. Donald Trump can do it, he's been able to do it his entire career, because he has money.
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