Rock Out Like Andrew Jackson
How emo rock became the soundtrack for a musical about our seventh president
You can learn so much from a musical’s first line. For instance, in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, now playing at the Public Theater, it only takes a phrase to realize the show will not be a stately heir to starchy, birth-of-our-nation works like 1776. Instead, the opening number, a rocking little anthem called “Populism Yea Yea,” begins with a cowboy singing, “Why wouldn’t you ever go out with me in school?”
That question’s loaded with self-pitying narcissism, which is what we hear a few measures later, when the characters explain their plans for America. Though they’re singing rock music, they’re in the early nineteenth-century, and they’re dreaming of a country where foreigners, Native Americans, and “the elite” are pushed aside in favor of the masses.
From there, the show becomes a genre-bending, rock-and-roll critique of Andrew Jackson’s legacy. The story is inspired by historical facts—we follow the seventh president from his childhood through his administration—but the tone is wittily modern. Jackson, for instance, is a petulant punk in tight-fitting pants who wants everything his way. He says “like” and “y’know,” and his friends dress like everything from frontier cowboys to hoodie-wearing mallrats.
Jackson’s character may be clearest, however, in Michael Friedman’s score. Inspired by emo, the oh-so earnest rock genre that thrives on black nail polish and power chords, Friedman’s songs let the president revel in his masculinity, his insecurity, and his public persona.
So why did Friedman, who’s also known for Saved and This Beautiful City, give a nineteenth-century leader such a modern sound?
“It was fifty percent a lark and fifty percent a real thing: Jackson sort of was this emo president,” he says. “He’s both a guy’s guy and a deeply feeling, constantly put-upon and worried sensitive type.”
He adds, “That felt really similar to those guys who are twenty-four, but they’re still writing songs about a girl who wouldn’t go out with them when they were sixteen.”
Of course, once Jackson stops being the rebellious underdog and actually becomes the president of the United States, Friedman’s music takes a different significance. “What happens when your life is defined negatively—my family’s dead, the Indians took everything—and then you suddenly have control?” the composer asks. “Do you live in perpetual emo adolescence, or do you try to take some responsibility?”
In other words, if you’re singing (or living, or thinking) like a kid, how do you behave like an adult? If you’re a young country, then when is it time to become accountable for your place in the world?
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
photo by Joan Marcus