We Got Trouble

From Seth

No major stops today on a day in which we drove clear across Iowa. Wow, they weren’t kidding about the corn.

After running through the Field of Dreams references I remembered that the musical The Music Man is set in Iowa, so we put it on to have a relevant soundtrack as we drove through the state.

If you are not familiar with the basis of the show, its about a con artist Harold Hill who goes from town to town selling “boy’s bands”–musical instruments, uniforms, etc.–to unsuspecting locals. They pay him the money based on the promise of delivering the goods, and he usually skips town before anyone discovers that nothing is on its way. The plot of the show is when ee attempts the con in River City, Iowa only to fall in love with the local librarian, be taken with the town residents, and find redemption. He renounces his old ways for a new life.

The Music Man was written by Iowan Meredith Willson as an homage to his home state. It’s always been a favorite musical of mine, and there has always felt something “American” about it.

There was something interesting though listening to the songs as we made our way on this trip. The way Harold Hill is able to carry out his plan of selling the bands is to first create the need for bands. This may be the American way, how part of capitalism works. Think of advertising, which creates needs in order to sell products. The con artist is just the dark side of a legitimate practice.

But there is something more here. The need that Harold Hill creates in order to sell bands is safety and security. In the rousing song “Ya Got Trouble,” he latches onto the presence of a pool table in the town to make the case to the townspeople that their children are at risk of falling into a life of sinfulness. Pool, he sings, is only the first step to further anti-social activity. In order to prevent this, they need to get their kids into a “wholesome” activity, i.e., a marching band.

Hill, in other words, is a fast-talking, immoral salesman who creates fear when none exists, does it under the guise of protecting children, professes a false patriotism and religiosity, and even dogwhistles a racist statement to play on the prejudices of the people he is trying to sway. (“And Rag-time, shameless music/That’ll grab your son, your daughter/With the arms of a jungle animal instinct!”) By creating this fear, Hill is able to convince the people to follow him and even act against their own interest to support him.

Maybe the Music Man feels quintessentially American because this character of the con man is quintessentially American.

We got trouble.

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