Music Features

Loving HAMILTON Has Always Been a Red Flag

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…. Hello?

Is anyone there?

Is the coast clear after two weeks?

Phew. Okay. As the whites move on to cake discourse, overpraising THE OLD GUARD (too on-the-nose), and cherry-picking Angela Davis quotes, I feel like we’re now in a safe space to call Lin-Manuel Miranda’s grotesque HAMILTON something akin to the American Democrats’ Confederate flag.

In HBO’s WATCHMEN, Lindelof and Company posited how Ozymandias would burn away his months upon years in exile on Europa, a self-designed Anglo-Saxon paradise in a distant solar system. Ozymandias finds a brief solution in playwriting: crafting, staging, and producing a history of the godly Doctor Manhattan that reflects back on him, starring the clones of his doting maid and butler. The play, a product of grandiose delusion and mismanaged allocation of effort, stands as a monument to the history of his country’s perceived experiences, but mostly a monument to himself. Do you see what I could possibly be getting at here?

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There may be a reader right about now, or even earlier, lashing out at the entire conceit of this piece with “Why are you trying to bring down something that brings so many such incredible joy! I just love the songs and dancing!” to which I just have to respond with a resounding “That’s part of the problem, chief!” The Confederate flag is a barbecue decoration, an emblem of modern ignorance and historical revisionism. The roots are to be burned in Hell for eternity, but, c’mon, yer cousins drove all the way up from Birmingham, why question its origins and intent when it brings so much joy to the atmosphere of a culture?

Enter the live-recording of HAMILTON, which hit Disney on Independence Day weekend 2020 at the peak of 21st century American resentment.

When asked by Rolling Stone in summer 2016 about the then-current political stage, the simmering age of Trump seconds before explosive boil, Miranda replied “You could probably find more qualified people to talk about this. I’ve been so in the world of this show that I probably don’t know half the ins and outs of current politics,” a response that should only have raised alarms when you take .2 seconds to remember that the setting of his show is the construction and legacy of the American republic, a construction The People were not present for and a legacy never meant to enrich or nurture us.

The narrative of HAMILTON’s radicalness is dependent on seeing the piece as a reclamation of history, from the perspective of both its collaborators and enthusiasts. “It is quite literally taking the history that someone has tried to exclude us from and reclaiming it,” Leslie Odom Jr. explained in the same interview. “We are saying we have the right to tell it too.” Black and Brown faces, but white voices always—this has been the dynamic for centuries and the American Left is prone to view this now as an artistic revolution. The fascists are completely game, too. Per many, but most notably and recently by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the United States does not have a left party; the majority of American “leftists” are of a center-conservative party and HAMILTON is their Sistine Chapel, a cultural pinnacle being lauded by far too many blue-checks as one of the greatest artistic works of the 21st century.

Miranda’s perspective on politicians holds them at the pitying benefit of a doubt. We grade them on such harsh curves, man! “It’s Quiet Uptown” is a tearjerker that grabs you by the collar and literally shakes the listener into forcefully induced sympathy; George Washington’s farewell is only missing a sequence where every member of the chorus drops to their knees and sucks him off to completion; “The Story of Tonight” is one of multiple swooning odes to the vague concept of “freedom,” spoken about as it has been for centuries as some treasure chest filled with doubloons you pillage from an enemy castle. Any person who aspires to a position of power is no longer a person—they certainly do not view their governed, represented dominions as such. Humans who seek power are figures, and for there to be an expectation to treat them as otherwise feels… Insane. The concept of “human capital” is not a sudden interview gaffe, this is how citizens of the state have been viewed for eternities by those elected or ordained (a democracy has never suddenly made politicians more humane), while history turns the book to us to humanize those who see no souls: only data.

Was there truly a call to action to reclaim the history of Alexander Hamilton? Was his story legitimately lost to time? Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography on which the musical was based was another New York Times best-selling feather in the author’s auspicious cap. Monuments celebrating Alexander Hamilton were erected in the early 20th century in Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City. This is not a forgotten or even misunderstood figure—Hamilton is one of the nation’s deities. Sure, maybe a second-tier deity, but I’m pretty sure I saw some weirdos in BIOSHOCK: INFINITE worshipping him at one of his altars. Miranda’s ridiculous deification of a figure that the American public had already ridiculously deified is the watering of a cactus—not only virtually useless, but ultimately harmful to the landscape at large.

It takes a lot of gall to claim this as a revolution, let alone to write a three-hour musical that congratulates itself for existing. While I can’t pretend I’m versed in the current state of blockbuster theater, there’s something to be said about the dismal state of Latin-American cinema. Hispanic branches of major studios are led by bilingual white executives with Mexican wives, dipping deep into the pile of scripts rejected thrice over for race-swapped farces deemed rehashed by even mid-90s standards. Parasitic profit margins prey on the United States’ significant Latinx market while never promoting actual Latinx art. That’s how you keep the audience in check, have them only expect the tripe you choose to afford. Which early 2000s straight-to-video white comedy screenwriters can we nab to make a $7 million grosser on a $3 million budget and call it a win for representation? Simplistic slapstick, inspirational tomes about how Brown people can one day become white people, and barely re-contextualized remakes of C-level source material. I just don’t get it: In THE HEIGHTS wasn’t some off-Broadway sleeper hit, that was a phenomenon (note: I remember loving In THE HEIGHTS as a kid, but I also distinctly remember that show’s main character learning to love and remain where New York City’s planners had gated him rather than returning to the Dominican Republic). Miranda had clout before HAMILTON, so why appease the master?

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Put another way: Why is Miranda so beholden to the classical Broadway model? How have millions let him get away with these stories of false inclusivity while willingly choosing to engage with structural confines that specifically gentrify the arts? You have a show banking on Black and Brown bodies charging four-digits for the cheap seats: Who is your revolution for? Miranda’s profound bungling of Puerto Rican activism, promoting literally everything island natives are staunchly against (the disconnect is so profound that I’m not convinced it isn’t some sort of performance art itself), is an American hubris unlike many others. It is the work of a cultural turncoat: in this case, a Puerto-Rican-American most lovingly embracing the wills and intentions of the empire. The Obama era fucked our people up, man. Our people have been fucked by every single presidential era, make no mistake, but this was a psychological re-tooling of the umpteenth degree.

HAMILTON’s filmed stage performance’s simultaneous ability and inability to recreate the intimacy of a live event creates an uncanny sensation—it’s going for STOP MAKING SENSE, but I keep wanting to maintain a fair distance away from Miranda’s hideous performance decision of intentionally cracking his voice to mimic passionate desperation (Please don’t make me stare at his goatee, plase, God, give me some distance). Miranda’s music is mid-2000s Diddy, just impossibly layered, senselessly genre-hopping drum beats with full backing orchestras that defy any natural vibe. Over-produced, yet completely lacking the fundamentals of “bump in the whip”-class music, it really is mystifying dweebery. The work is stiff and strained. I thought of Sondheim’s direction in D.A. Pennebaker’s ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: COMPANY, wherein the stage legend celebrated the looseness of a piece—of a certain crescendo, he remarks that “That’s the flower bursting, that’s where you can take rhythmic liberties.” HAMILTON may execute its token moments of practicing modern vernacular to bolster its illusion of modernity, but the show sloppily worships the classical musicality of ye Olde English, the most obviously, famously loose mode of language in the history of dialects. Ah yes, no better mouthfeel than the white man’s dry tongue.

Hold up, lest I forget, you couldn’t fit slavery into a show where every number has three reprises? Its scant references to the beating, bleeding heart of the country’s economy are often so misguided that I was left wishing Miranda had actually just gone fully ignorant and never mentioned it. I’m thinking of Thomas Jefferson’s post-intermission number (what a stupid fucking sentence, oh my god), wherein the fluid company is at one point heavily insinuated to be representing the workers of Monticello, with one of the back-up dancers tasked with the half-second role of Sally Hemings. It’s a landmark blink-and-you-miss it cue in projectile-vomit-triggering art, a moment emblematic of the whole production in how it is somehow both soaringly thoughtless and overwrought. Fans of the show love mocking theater to defend HAMILTON. “Sure, it’s corny, but that’s what you came for!” It’s an insult to theater, yes, for sure, but what I didn’t expect was how so many shoo HAMILTON’s most noxious aspects away as concessions one must make to properly disassociate and appreciate the fun songs, as if contemporary fidelity to personal history isn’t the fucking subject of the show itself.

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Here are a selection of lyrics from HAMILTON that stopped me dead in my tracks and, just upfucked my whole head:

“Will they know what you overcame?

Will they know you rewrote the game?”

 

[Hamilton’s first exchange with Aaron Burr] “Pardon me, are you Aaron Burr, sir?”

 

“A colony that runs independently

Meanwhile, Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly”

 

“I’ve been reading ‘Common Sense’ by Thomas Paine

So men say that I’m intense or insane.”

 

“On the contrary,

I called you here because our odds are beyond scary.”

 

“Sit down, Adams, you fat motherfucker.”

 

“My daddy’s trying to start America’s bank!”

HAMILTON is a feeble AMADEUS re-skin for the college kids in thrifted outfits so laboriously composed they’re nigh combustible at a Brockhampton show, begging for the moshing to end so they can harmonize with Matt Champion. HAMILTON is impressive in the same way that a cake disguised as a raw chicken breast or a bottle of lotion is impressive (congratulations, maestro, you mastered the use of fondant, the most disgusting tasting element in all of baking). It is a musical that exists for school trips, the MacArthur Genius Grant equivalent of watching a movie in class. This is hip hop for the high school classmates who found Kendrick Lamar’s “Bad Blood” verse “scary,” a true “Want To Reform the Police? Hire More Women”-ass production for “USC is dope, but it’s ghetto as fuck” Midwest transplants in South Central Los Angeles. It is a joke concept of a musical so heavy-handed and obviously useless that I’m shocked it hadn’t popped up as a CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM joke first. HAMILTON is the epitome of the American colonizer’s dream—not only proof of the impacted peoples’ subservience, but now they’re even handcrafting hagiographies after them on their own accord. At its worst, HAMILTON is a United States PSYOP manufactured by the fractured soul of self-effacing Puerto Rican minstrelsy, and at its best, an embarrassing misappropriation of research, time, and artistic vigor. The most favorable compliment I have for HAMILTON is that it sure looked difficult to make.

I find no triumph in changing the skin color of my oppressor. HAMILTON’s final moments stake its flag in the redistribution of stories—it presents the obvious axioms of winners deciding the fate of history (hilarious given how Miranda has by this point spent 150 minutes reciting the winner’s very own account) and the value of preserving transient faces. Tell your story, as well as others’. Does Miranda have any interest in telling ours? Will any American artist in the mainstream bother? Calling Alexander Hamilton “Caribbean” is like calling Joaquin Phoenix “Puerto Rican.” Miranda banks on a seismically obtuse false equivalence so he can be untethered from having to really embrace the ins or outs of his motherland. For Miranda, our culture is mixtapes, iTunes rentals, and Wikipedia entries—none of his insight feels lived-in despite him thinking he has a political voice worth heeding. La Isla deserves the world. It deserves something much more than HAMILTON.

Kevin Cookman
Deserted in a video store as an infant, Kevin was raised on Fulci, Tarantino, Kubrick, and Whoppers. Now he's a graduate of Chapman University who acts as a contributor for Merry-Go-Round on the side: what a success story.

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