‘A Smile So Bright’ Helps Explains Politics

By Richard Lee

The search for a song to illustrate Benjamin Gross’ Identity over Information essay followed a long and winding road. And, no, the journey did not end with that Beatles’ classic.

In the essay, Gross argues that emotions have become more central to political life in America than facts and knowledge.

“Research has shown that many highly partisan Americans have little knowledge about issues or even an organization of political values but rather weigh political information based on their political identities instead,” he wrote.

Richard Cory, the Paul Simon song based on Edwin Arlington Robinson’s 1897 poem, shows that gaps can exist between reality and perceptions based on emotions. In the song, the narrator admires Cory’s business success, his wealth and his fame. But the facts tell a different story. Despite his “successes,” Cory takes his own life.

Ray Davies’ A Well Respected Man makes a similar point by painting a picture of “a well respected man about town” who is “better than the rest.” Each verse of the song is followed by refrain that is sung with biting sarcasm:

He’s oh, so good,
And he’s oh, so fine,
And he’s oh, so healthy,
In his body and his mind.

What can go wrong by putting one’s faith in the wrong people?  Ask Carole King, who included this warning in You’ve Got A Friend: They’ll hurt you, yes, and desert you and take your soul if you let them.

King’s song is about friends, not political leaders. And its overall message is positive, so other than that one line, the song is not a good fit to underscore the points Gross makes in his essay.

A better choice would be a song about romance, a song in which love and infatuation are as strong (and sometimes as blind) as the identity politics that drives decision-making for many Americans.

Love arguably is the most popular topic for songs, so there are countless compositions to choose from. After studying many sets of lyrics, I decided the song that matches up best with Gross’ essay is the Temptations’ The Way You Do the Things You Do. The song, written by Smokey Robinson and Bobby Rogers, describes a woman with a smile bright enough to be a candle, a smell sweet enough to be perfume and intelligence high enough to be a schoolbook. The lyrics are about devotion, praise and worship for a lover, but they also work well in the context of Gross’ essay.

However, it is the title of the song, which is repeated often throughout the 2-minute, 42-second recording, that convinced me to choose this Motown classic. The key word is WAY. It’s not WHAT is done that enamors the narrator; it is the WAY it is done.

As Gross’ essay tells us, it’s not always WHAT politicians do that brings them power and admiration. Sometimes, it’s just the WAY they do the things they do.

Richard Lee, executive director of the Jandoli Institute, is a former music journalist who often writes about the intersection of music and current events. Click here to read Rich’s soundtrack selections for our other Media Studies Across Disciplines research essays.



Categories: Jandoli Institute, Pop Culture, Soundtracks, Writing Actross Disciplines

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