is a hipster douchebag. Created the democratic party. Was oddly reminiscent of Sarah Palin.
Welcome to my incredibly outdated and completely irrelevant review of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, which ends its Broadway run today. This is gonna be long and meandering, so for anyone who believes a blog post should run under 300 words, be content with the fragmented statements above.
I knew very few things about the show when I asked for tickets as my Christmas present. Here they are, in order of importance:
1) Their calling cards, left all over the lobby of the production company I interned at this summer said ‘YOUTHFUL’, ‘EDGY’ and ‘PROBABLY HILARIOUS’ ORIGINAL ROCK MUSICAL. I don’t remember if they literally said all this, but it was the impression that I got.
2) Political satire following Andrew Jackson‘s life.
3) Benjamin Walker is hot.
Now onto the show!
As soon as you enter the Jacobs Theatre, BBAJ’s dilapidated Antebellum aesthetic takes hold. The embellished plaster ceilings are obscured with a net of twinkle lights, punctuated by a motley collection of 19th-century chandeliers. A life-size plastic horse dangles over the orchestra section, strung up by its hoofs. Spoon, a band I love but can’t listen to for an entire album, dominates the pre-show playlist. This, coupled with one song I recognize to be Fall Out Boy, may not bode well for the score itself. I choose to ignore it and sip my whiskey ginger (or Jack & ginger, as the barkeep insisted I get Tennessee whiskey) from my souvenir Schubert Organization pint glass. This place is hipster central. I know at this point Hipster is too broad a term to be used effectively for a critical analysis, so I’ll be using the terms pop-punk, emo-kid or emo-punk. I really mean hipster. These hipsters were the kind who can afford Broadway tickets, fifteen-dollar cocktails and most likely shops at Allsaints Spitalfields, where a raggedy asymmetrical top will run you sixty bucks. Which I would totally do if I were a) gainfully employed b) just happened to have that kind of money.
All these observable elements started the performance as soon as we walked in. We were lead to our seats by the sound of rebellion begat from the foolhardy nature of youth (bands like Spoon, Fall Out Boy, and My Chemical Romance) and thus was the central motif of the show announced. Appropriately the opening number is a little pop-punk ditty declaring This is the Age of Populism. (oh shit, I just got that. Pop-punk. Pop-ulism. Goddamn Yale Drama School).
Several sources of conflict are made very clear early on for AJ – Dad is a xenophobic patriot; community complains that Washington fat cats don’t protect their citizens on the border; family dies in an Indian raid when AJ is 13 (or they all die of cholera, it’s not made clear). Anyway, like any patriot from the backwoods of Tennessee he joins the local militia and becomes even more xenophobic/patriotic/capable at holding his liquor. Writer/director Alex Timbers is obviously eager to get exposition out of the way and give the completely absurd, completely hilarious hijinks room to breathe. Which is totally fine with me.
It also turns out that this is not just a rock musical but an EMO rock musical. Instead of all black however, the cast looks like they just stepped out of a sideshow tent at Austin City Limits or Pitchfork – several forms of alternative music seem to be represented. It’s easy enough to brush this off as part of the larger project to frame Andrew Jackson and his presidency as America’s adolescence, which would of course require modern yet alternative costuming.
But the extensive, down-home set and rockabilly clothes got me thinking about a deeper connection between emo rock (or let’s be honest, pop-punk) and populism. I’ve decided they involve the same principles. Remember the tagline from Empire Records: “Damn The Man, Save the Empire?” That’s pretty much the nutshell BBAJ uses to explain Populism and AJ’s impetus to become President. This basic sentence: “We know what we want better than YOU think we want, and if we can’t get what we we want, we’ll just fucking do it ourselves” is both frequently sung about by various loser emo bands from the past decade and stated A LOT in the show. Appropriately enough, there was a lot of cursing.
Of course, as any 13-25 year old who has ever tried to get something done knows, it’s not as easy as it looks. And as many an E! True Hollywood Story tells us, that kind of party lifestyle is not sustainable. In fact, the climax of what would be Act III centers around Jackson’s inability to simultaneously protect the interests of the empire he governs and promote individual liberties of it’s citizens.
As our high school history books have glossed for us, AJ ends up deciding the lives of his citizens are most important and drive numerous Indian tribes across the country on what is known as the Trail of Tears. How is this the same as pop-punk? Ok, the genre didn’t pack dozens of other genres off to a smallpox-ridden and alcohol-fueled exile. If I wanted to be really pretentious, I could claim that modern rock music, particularly that of the past two decades, has committed artistic genocide by dumbing-down music and annihilating the public’s appreciation and willingness to pay for multifaceted orchestral compositions and works that require musical talent beyond three chords and a gravelly voice.
A better parallel exists in the similarities between Populism, the modern agenda of the Tea Party, and the ever-expanding universe of Hipsterdom. BBAJ makes a few self-aware comparisons to the nationalistic and populist drive of the Tea Party but is less willing to satirize the populist nature of hipster/emo-punk culture. That is why I’m here.
As full disclosure, I will admit that I wore my father’s discarded L.L. Bean flannel fashioned into a tunic underneath a blue and red military-style jacket from H&M. It was very adorable, and the intense use of flannel and mashup of time periods/geographic locations made it a pretty hip look. But despite my attempts to look edgy, intelligent and holier-than-thou-because-I-didn’t-buy-these-clothes-I-FOUND-them (these are very important tenants of Hipsterdom) I can’t quite get on board with the need to be doing the most unheard of or unique or potentially life-threatening activities I can imagine (the need to be different is also very important for hipsters of all ilks).
More simply, Andrew Jackson as a character has this constant need to tear the world apart and build it anew. While grassroots activism for LGBT rights or reduced carbon emissions may not be physically destructive, they are born of the same need – to tear down the old, broken system and build anew. This is the same need that has driven music, art and culture forward since the Romantic era. BBAJ is a celebration of this need, considered to be heroic in our cultural moment where men like Rivers Cuomo and that guy from Deathcab sing freely about their feelings. And yet the history books portray Jackson as somewhat of a douchebag – some even compare him to Hitler. To be fair, there are moments of BBAJ where Jackson himself is no more than a drunken 18-year-old being egged on by his friends to lead the people and become Governor of Florida. Which kind of makes him look even more like a douchebag.
In the few interviews about BBAJ, writer/director Alex Timbers and principal Ben Walker state repeatedly that this show is about adolescence, both Andrew Jackson’s and our country’s. I think most members of my generation would be happy to admit they listened almost exclusively to Weezer, Blink-182, Sum 41 and the Alkaline Trio during their own adolescences (and don’t lie, some of us still do). But keep in mind kids, while you may think you are discovering the pain of the world for the first time, and nobody’s life could be worse than yours, just like Andrew Jackson you could grow up to be kind of a fascist douchebag.
While there may be several reasons for this show to close so soon after its debut, it’s not because it’s irrelevant. The score is not exactly jump-to-your feet inspiring, and the costuming will no longer be fashionable or modern in two years, but BBAJ successfully captures a moment. Not only in our own political history, but in the lives of most people – a tumultuous, angsty moment that is full of absurdities, clichés and when looked back upon, is painfully hilarious. The political conversation the show brings up also illustrates that nations go through several adolescent periods and transformations – Andrew Jackson had the same issues with the electoral system that Al Gore and other modern candidates experienced.
And best of all, it pointed out that hipsters are just populists in really really tight jeans. And they will Get Shit Done, regardless of future consequences.