"Putting the 'Man' in 'Manifest Destiny!'": Making Populist Iconography and Queer Historiography in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Image Credit:  Theatre is Easy

Even though my Rhetoric of the Musical class has finished up, I can’t quit musicals.  When I heard that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, a musical I’d discovered when I was preparing my class, was moving to Broadway, I decided that it was the perfect karotic moment to tackle this rich topic.  The musical’s Gothic visuals, emo music, and satirical presentation of American politics combine to bring audiences to consider not only American populism but also the act of history making itself.

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson covers the career of Andrew Jackson:  America’s seventh president, a military hero, a virulent racist, and the first President to claim he was born in a log cabin.  However, it doesn’t try to tell the story straight in the way 1776 shows the writing of the Declaration of Independence.  The musical’s opening lines set the tone for the evening as irreverent, profane, and visceral:  “I’m wearing some tight tight jeans and tonight we’re delving into some serious, serious shit.  I’m Andrew Jackson.  I’m your President.  Let’s go!”  The song that follows, “Populism Yea Yea,” establishes the musical’s major concerns:  the role of the President as Celebrity-in-Chief, America’s complicated relationship with power and populism, and how these concerns connect to the present day:

The rocking beat, along with the choreographed hip swivels and raised fists, don’t just help draw our attention to lead actor Ben Walker’s sexy Jackson and his tight t-shirt.  They also attempt to capture the energy of populist sentiment, as strong today as it was in the 1830s when Jackson was elected.  The lyrics blend the concerns of then with now, as the show’s cowboys and cowgirls offer to “take this country back / For people like us / Who don’t just think about things, / People who make things happen.”  This language—emphasizing us versus them, action versus thought—could have come as easily from Bush’s western-inflected mouth as from a Tea Party pamphlet.  What’s also remarkable here in the way that populist energy is associated with teenage angst:  “Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school? / You always went out with those guys / Who thought they were so cool / And I was just nobody to you.”  Here, the writers indirectly connect populist disaffection with the rebellion of lonely youth, left out by the “elite” who will be forced to “eat our dust.”  This might seem a stretch, but the political nature of the musical hasn’t just been noted by New York Times review Ben Brantley, but has also been acknowledged by the show’s lead, the show's co-creator Alex Timbers, and the show's composer-lyricist Michael Friedman:

“Alex [Timbers, the show’s co-creator] and I had both been interested in historical figures and in ways of looking through a contemporary lens at history. And I think we found that Andrew Jackson - and this was five years ago - really spoke to the moment that we were living in and planted the seeds of so much of what we see now. And I think in recent politics, we've seen even more of that.”

However, the connection between the musical and politics is one of long-standing tradition, as has the connection between music and politics.  Politicians have used songs to brand themselves, as Obama did with U2’s “City of Blinding Lights,” as Jackson himself did in “The Hunters of Kentucky” (the song that closes the show), and as Reagan famously tried to do with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” a heritage the show’s poster directly alludes to:

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson poster

Image Credit:  SpotCo

The tag line “History just got all sexypants” points out the musical’s willingness to appeal to audiences through tight pants and guyliner, but the reference to Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. cover also connects the show to the song’s dubious political legacy.  Though Springsteen meant his song as a critique of Reagan, others read it against the grain as a populist song celebrating America.  Writers Friedman and Timbers don’t shy away from critiquing this populist legacy.  When discussing the musical’s end, Friedman stated that

“I think it ends trying to force the audience of having - giving them, I think, a lot of laughs along the way, something to really think about, which is, for me, how much responsibility we take for the people we elect, and how much responsibility we take for what the people we elect end up doing.”

This comes out in the way the show doesn’t shy away from depicting Jackson’s negative aspects.  Both Jackson and his wife Rachel take slavery for granted, as she sings in “The Great Compromise” that “I always thought I’d live in a house / With a dog and some kids and some slaves.”  The show also rewrites the song “Ten Little Indians” to highlight Jackson’s violence against the Native American population:  “Ten little Indians / Standing in a line / One got executed / And then there were nine.”  And as the song “Crisis Averted” shows citizens reacting to Jackson’s removal of the Seminoles from Florida, it also invites us to critique the public’s willingness to overlook the bad done by politicians on behalf of the citizens:

Florida Woman:  I mean, I think it’s a real tragedy that Jackson moved all the Indians from here to Florida.

Florida Man:  Me too.  A real tragedy.

Florida Woman:  And that’s why we hesitated to move here.  Absolutely.  I mean, we didn’t want it to seem like we were endorsing that kind of behavior.

Florida Man:  No.  Of course not.  But, then we were like… it is nice that it doesn’t snow.

Florida Woman:  Um, yes.  It is.  So, it’s like, it’s great that he did that.  But we definitely don’t condone it.

The audience knows that the Trail of Tears was cruel, but like the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo, Americans have been brought to condone it through silent consent.

Andrew Jackson at a rally in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

Image Credit:  Gothamist

What I find to be most interesting about the musical is the ways in which its re-mythologizing of Andrew Jackson as emo rock star brings to the forefront the question of history and writing history.  The musical includes a designated Storyteller who undertakes to narrate Jackson’s life story, but Jackson shoots the Storyteller in the face before the show’s fourth song, “I’m So That Guy,” in order to take charge of the action and to “make his own story.”  In “Rock Star” Jackson narrates his own version of history where “Adams tried to be an American idol / Jefferson tried to be a rock star / Madison tried to make the presidency vital / And James Monroe was a douchebag!”  He then claims the mantle of being “a celebrity of the first rank.”  After his wife’s complaint in “The Great Compromise” that she is being left behind by his campaigning, he sings after her death in “Public Life” that he will “give my life to the people now” in her honor.  He turns tragedy into mythology, the public man sacrificing himself for a dedicated public.

History and the musical have been connected for a while, as my friend Michelle Dvoskin wrote about in her dissertation “‘Listen to the Stories, Hear It in the Songs’: Musical Theatre as Queer Historiography.” As she put it:

“This project argues that not only can musicals ‘do’ history, they offer an excellent genre for theorizing what I call ‘queer historiography.’ While sexuality remains one category of analysis, I use ‘queer’ to signify opposition, not simply to heterosexuality, but to heteronormativity, and normativity more broadly. Musicals' queer historiography, then, is a way of engaging past events that challenges normativity in form as well as content; a way of productively challenging not only what we think we know about the past, but how we come to know it.”

I would argue here that Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson engages in similar acts of queer historiography as its rock style rejects normativity as plainly as its overall treatment of Jackson asks its audience to question the ways in which we think about executive power, political celebrity, and populist sentiment.  It draws us to think about the past not just as distant history, but as lived experience and recurrent theme.  We may know one Andrew Jackson through high-school textbooks, but the musical forces its audience to rethink that idea—by presenting us with “populajism” and some tight tight sexypants.

Recent comments