At the end of a political rally in Minnesota on Friday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump walked slowly on the tarmac toward his waiting airplane. As he diverted to a press gaggle, the opening piano notes to Elton John’s wistful ballad Tiny Dancer began to trickle in the background. When the President was asked to comment on the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, he reacted with apparent surprise. “Just died?" he asked reporters. “Wow."
As he paused to let the news sink in, the song’s “Blue jean, baby” vocals began, allowing Trump to compose his thoughts. About the 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice, who had died of pancreatic cancer, the President remarked on an “amazing life" of an "amazing woman,” as John sang about a pretty-eyed lady with a pirate smile.
After closing his comments with “I’m sad to hear that," the President slowly and solemnly headed to the airplane, his back turned to the cameras. He saluted uniformed personnel as John sang “ballerina, you must’ve seen her” into the night.
Because the moment seemed like a scene from a movie, the artful news clip went viral. The serendipitous matching of the music with the President’s reaction was striking to the point of surreality. So much so that many commentators on social media thought the whole thing was staged.
“The way Tiny Dancer plays in the background and is perfectly synched with the dialogue finally confirms definitively that we are all living in some bizarre alien art film,” @NorseMythNews tweeted.
The 1972 song co-written by lyricist Bernie Taupin and singer-pianist John has been used to poignant effect before, most memorably on Cameron Crowe’s 2000 rock-tour film Almost Famous. And now Tiny Dancer was instrumental in symbolically announcing the sad death of an iconic American, while helping to accomplish something thought to be impossible, which is to humanize the empathy-challenged leader of the free world.
“It elevated the moment and made his words seem respectful,” says Jody Colero, a veteran music supervisor who works in film and television. “The weird thing about Tiny Dancer is that it’s kind of a lovely way to think about Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was tiny. She did her dancing in so many lovely and important ways. And although she was ferocious In many ways, there was a sweetness to her that the song really amplifies.”
It is the job of Colero and other music supervisors to oversee all music-related aspects of film, television, advertising and video games. “We’re the people who try to persuade you to feel something in a scene," says Colero, who has worked on such Canadian TV series as Nurses, Being Erica and Due South. "We manipulate the audience emotionally, using music as a tool.”
Examples of a pop song transforming a movie scene into something unforgettable are numerous. Music can amplify the moment (as with Bob Seger’s Old Time Rock and Roll in Risky Business) or poetically capture the film’s essence (Simon & Garfunkel’s The Sound of Silence in The Graduate).
Songs can also enforce a bizarreness through purposeful juxtaposition: A peppy Stuck in the Middle With You as a soundtrack to the razor-blade violence of Reservoir Dogs, for instance.
Tiny Dancer on the tarmac softened Trump’s brash persona, while simultaneously heightening the seriousness of the scene. “The song conjures an immediate response in me that is overwhelmingly feminine,” Colero says. “It’s is in such deep contrast to Donald Trump’s normal bombastic behaviour and tone, and his general testosterone infused language, that the impact is quite startling.”
One of the other things that makes the Trump-Tiny Dancer moment so striking is its flawlessness – it couldn’t have been edited any better.
“You have the instrumental and then he starts talking and then just when he finishes his first phrase, the lyrics come in,” says Michael Perlmutter, a music supervisor and president of the Guild of Music Supervisors in Canada. “It’s one of those incredible moments when a song seems to slide into place perfectly.”
The sweeping, nostalgic Tiny Dancer is commonly played at Trump events, as is John’s Funeral For a Friend. Consider the perverse coincidence if the latter song had blared during the seemingly off-the-cuff eulogy for Ginsburg.
“He got really lucky,” says Colero. “If something like ELO’s Evil Woman was playing in the background, his words would have seemed farcical and social media would have been lit up like a fireworks display at his convention,” says Colero. “That’s the power of music.”
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