IASPM-US enters the political fray in the month of October with a series of essays titled “The (Sometimes) Political Machinations of Popular Music.” Instead of focusing our attention on the overtly political, we’d like to explore the ways in which pop music can become political or, perhaps, ways in which the political can become pop music.
In the fall of 1952 Senator Richard Nixon had been chosen by Dwight Eisenhower to be the Vice-Presidential nominee. Only days later, however, stories began to break in the national media that Nixon was receiving unseemly financial assistance from wealthy conservative benefactors. Prominent Republicans began to call for Nixon to withdraw from the ticket. Instead, Nixon went live on television to explain himself, pleading ignorance while accusing his opponents of worse malfeasance. He also defended one gift from a supporter that his family had kept:
It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate that he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, the six year old, named it Checkers. And you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this, right now, that regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it.
The following spring, after the dust from the election settled and Eisenhower and Nixon were sworn into office, the country’s most popular “girl singer,” Patti Page, released her newest single. Written by veteran songwriter Bob Merrill, the track drew heavily upon Page’s earlier monster hit “The Tennessee Waltz” (1950). Her new song again swayed simple tonic-dominant harmonies in a gentle waltz time, with her own voice overdubbed several times in close harmony, to tell a story once again of distant love—geographically this time, instead of temporally. In fact, the new song was quite autobiographical, telling the story of a concerned woman who must travel away from her sweetheart. As in Nixon’s “Checkers” performance, the solution was a dog:
How much is that doggie in the window? Arf arf!
The one with the waggly tale;
How much is that doggie in the window? Arf arf!
I do hope that doggie’s for sale.
I must take a trip to California
And leave my poor sweetheart alone.
If he has a dog he won’t be lonesome,
And the doggie will have a good home.
I read in the papers there are robbers, (Arf arf!)
With flashlights that shine in the dark;
My love needs a doggie to protect him
And scare them away with one bark.
I don’t want a bunny or a kitty.
I don’t want a parrot that talks,
I don’t want a bowl of little fishies;
He can’t take a goldfish for walks.
Be the performance musical or political, dogs can be useful props. For Nixon, the cocker spaniel in question provided obvious distraction from the financial irregularities, but also importantly helped massage his image, using the new television medium to lend a dash of dedicated family man to his redbaiting Cold Warrior persona.
The purpose of the dog of Patti Page’s song, on the other hand, remains rather vague. In stage and television performances, the doggie in the window was occasionally embodied by a cocker spaniel, on one memorable occasion as a St. Bernard who dragged Page off-stage mid-song, but most consistently by Page’s own Yorkshire Terrier, named “Windie” after the titular window. In addition to veering between serving as protection and recreation in the song’s narrative, the dog’s main function is to mark the passing of time in a song that resolutely rocks along with scarcely any contrasting material, his barking growing a bit more authoritative when robbers are involved.
While an over-determined interpretation of “Doggie” is very tempting—why is the dog ungendered? why exactly does her sweetheart need protecting?—its simplicity and lack of message is precisely the point. As the early popular music scholar Hughson Mooney wrote in 1954, “It may not be coincidence that in these days of Senator McCarthy’s sort of Americanism, the newest type of hit…is blatantly orthodox in structure and sentiment.” (232)
Indeed, you hear that same cheerful tone masking the hard work of assimilation not just on the pop charts, but in the campaign commercials of that 1952 season, the first presidential race to feature widespread use of the new televisual medium. The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson featured a saucy Patti Page lookalike, blindingly white and dressed in a (comparatively, for the time) revealing dress while she directly faces the camera to sing, “I love the gov, the governor of Illinois…Adlai, I love you madly.”
Another Stevenson ad, playing up the (political, as far as we know) relationship between Eisenhower and Senator Robert Taft, showed the Democrats at their lavender-baiting worse, with two drippingly-campy voices playing Ike and Bob as star-crossed lovers.
As Andrea Friedman has argued, cold war liberals “not only subscribed to the cultural logic of the lavender scare; they employed some of its tactics to pursue their own ends.” (1106) It’s always worth remembering that although Senator McCarthy had made many enemies, in the end he was ultimately brought down by accusations that his assistant Roy Cohn played favorites with his male lovers, and whispered insinuations that McCarthy was one of them.
In 1952, however, the Republicans carried the day in a landslide. The signature Eisenhower commercial featured the famous jingle that succinctly put words to the political consensus of the year: “I like Ike, you like Ike, everybody likes Ike.”
Other Republican ads featured a grim looking General Eisenhower attacking Democratic misdeeds, but “I Like Ike” radiated the same cheerful positivity of the Patti Page school. This was no coincidence; “I Like Ike” was the sophisticated product of the very highest echelon of the American culture industry, with animated visuals provided by Roy Disney, and music by Irving Berlin.
Truly-popular popular music of the immediate post-war era, the moment before rock and roll when singers from the great dance bands of the 30s and 40s were striking out on their own, aspired to an unmarked universality. It was a universality whose ingredients—post-ethnic whiteness, cold war domesticity, suburban middle-classed-ness—were in fact all tremendously fraught categories, stitched up for the first time in the post-war consensus and being cautiously tried on by millions. The Ozzie and Harriet image many hold of the Fifties was a real phenomenon, but one created through massive disruption of older social orders. Grey flannel wasn’t for everyone, but the music of Billboard’s pop charts didn’t yet provide the identificatory home for other possibilities, and for good reason. What many contemporary critics hear as the “blandness” of post-war pop was in fact the tense proving ground of a new and deeply conservative vision of American citizenry, its relentlessly peppy cheerfulness a symptom of the hard work, Republican and Democratic, that went into creating and maintaining that vision.
Philip Gentry specializes in the history of music and politics in the United States during the twentieth century, both popular and classical. Particular theoretical interests include performance historiography, the cultural practice of identity politics, and queer theory. He has published on topics as diverse as John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, and early doo-wop, and he is working on a book titled Subversive Silence: Music and the Cultural Politics of McCarthyism. He currently lives in Philadelphia and teaches music history at the University of Delaware.