Originally posted: November 23, 2015
by Dylan Southard
I find it easy catchin diabetes from fly sweeties
Sit back and wait to hear a slammin track
Rockin jams by popular demand, I’m back
-Rakim, “Guess Who’s Back”
Awwwwww yeah, guess who’s back?! That’s right, I’m back at Bitter Lemons and quoting rap lyrics in honor of Hamilton, the mega-hit Broadway show currently holding fast to the zeitgeist and riding it like a flaming rocketship to the moon. Lin-Manuel Miranda and friends are deservedly awash in superlatives, but the one that interests me the most is this: It has the most listenable musical soundtrack I’ve ever heard. And this particular quality is especially important because while there is nothing NOTHING I am sure, quite like actually seeing Hamilton, most people are not rich and/or don’t live in New York and so haven’t seen it and are not going to see it. Full disclosure: I haven’t seen it. But I, like many, do have Spotify, which means I can listen to the entire soundtrack whenever I want, all the time. Which I have done. I have listened to this All. The. Time. And because it’s so listenable and because music is now so accessible, its popularity is kinda unprecedented. Hamilton is currently Billboard’s #1 rap album. I’ll give you a moment with that. The number one rap album in this country is currently the soundtrack to a Broadway musical. To quote the show: “the world’s turned upside down.” This music and its story are set to enter the cultural lexicon and score our lives in ways no Broadway show has ever done before. Ways like…
live sports entertainment
Live sports provides amazing opportunities for pop music accompaniment. And baseball, in my opinion, has the two best. There’s a batter’s walk-up music, the music that each player chooses to be played for the roughly ten seconds it takes them to walk from the on-deck circle to the plate. And then there’s the song that plays when a team’s closer comes out to warm up before going for a save. These choices can make for some reliably awesome entrances. Manny Ramirez once walked out to “Good Times, “ by Styles P, a songs whose chorus is simply “I get high” repeated over and over, and I still get goosebumps thinking of my boy Grant Balfour blasting out of the bullpen to Metallica. It’s similar to the way Lafayette blasts out of “Guns and Ships” and it’s a shame that former Dodger closer and noted French-Canadian Eric Gagne’s career flamed out before he ever got the chance to run out to, “Everyone give it up for America’s favorite fighting Frenchman!” Meanwhile, if there’s a better pairing of baseball player with ten seconds of showtunes than Washington Nationals superstar Bryce Harper with the last moments of “Right Hand Man,” then I don’t know my business.
The propulsive energy of those entrances and the anticipation of what is to come fuels a lot of the music in Hamilton, particularly in the adrenalin-pumping first act, when characters are perpetually getting ready to fight in a battle or are fighting in a battle or have just finished fighting in a battle. The best song to run to is “Non-Stop.” The best for group sports is probably the brothers-in-arms banger “Yorktown” which is the kind of song a team plays on the bus to the big game or in the locker room right before they go out. Oh my god, somebody please get Caribbean immigrant Tim Duncan and French immigrant Tony Parker to casually dubsmash the first 30 seconds of “Yorktown” while they hang out in the San Antonio Spurs clubhouse, pretty please! There are also the Cabinet battle songs themselves, though those are more intellectual exercises than adrenalin-pumpers. Lin and I attended college at Wesleyan together and the most Wesleyan moment in the play comes at the end of the first of those battles, when Hamilton whines to Washington that his rivals are being “intransigent.”
Frankly, the most lasting impact Hamilton has might come in schools. The whole show is basically the evolutionary Schoolhouse Rock with numerous songs designed explicitly to teach us about American history and life in the 18th century, my favorite being “Ten Duel Commandments,” which lays out the rules for a duel and foreshadows the ending we all know is coming. The way the music and lyrics transform neatly into semi-adventurous school curriculum—historical figures rapping their stories—speaks to the warm, almost nostalgic view of hip-hop that the show takes. I mean, the closest sonic analogue to this soundtrack is probably the Millennium Hip-Hop Party compilation CD that everyone who went to college in the early aughts would remember and which is filled with history’s most palatable, mainstream rap music. When the Hamilton backlash comes, and it will come, it will arrive first with this argument that what Hamilton is giving us is not true, pure rap but rather some sort of watered-down hip-hop hybrid found at its intersection with Broadway and acceptable to the masses. This is an entirely valid argument except that it’s yet to be proven why the approach is at all problematic.
To that end, Hamilton is pretty G-rated and there isn’t much that’s sexy about the music. The show is much more about Hamilton’s public life, which, given that this was the 18th century, occurred around nothing but men and so if there is a knock against the show, it’s that the love stories here tend to get short shrift. It’s telling that the closest thing we have to a bedroom jam is “Say No To This,” which is about Hamilton’s dalliance with a deceitful, blackmailing woman, a character whose sole function in the story is to destroy Hamilton’s life and then disappear. On the other hand…
There are many good break-up songs in this show. King George III’s vicious rejoinder to the revolutionaries, “You’ll Be Back”, was probably the first break-out hit from Hamilton and you want to say it’s the choice here. It’s definitely the song you want to play to your ex. But alone, with the Ben & Jerry’s in one hand and the chardonnay in the other, it’s the bitter, remorseful “Satisfied” you’re listening to.
formative, adolescent experiences
“Satisfied” is all about missed opportunities and the fear of staring your destiny in the face only to turn away from it, and it neatly encapsulates some of the show’s greater themes. Hamilton’s insistent, oft-repeated declaration “I am not throwing away my shot,” defines his legacy in this show but also hints at his struggles; the way that ambition and drive and a need to meet every one of life’s moments head-on sometimes hides a destructive kind of fear. The entire play seems to take place right at these moments, right before something big is going to happen, right at that rubicon, that moment of confrontation and choice. Adolescence is the first time we’re really presented with these moments and so it’s a time when we celebrate them, and honor them and practice them ceremonially. There might not be a better Bar/Bat Mitzvah song than “Dear Theodosia”. I can practically see weepy mom and dad singing this shakily from the stage as their kid looks on in utter shame just as I can see prom goers dancing to “Helpless” and graduating seniors marching out to “My Shot”.
Of course, there are already plenty of people whose formative, adolescent experiences were scored to musical soundtracks. Those people are called theater nerds and we’ve always known something that others are maybe just now discovering with Hamilton; that there is no genre that can compete with the musical for sweep and scope and emotional clarity. “Wait For It” is the number that Hamilton will go into the Hall of Fame with, not because it’s great hip-hop but because it’s precisely the kind of epic, searching, Broadway belter which can really only exist in a musical. This is perhaps the most exciting thing that’s happening. As Hamilton continues to break records and blow minds, its success will serve not just as proof of the moment when the world of Broadway finally figured out hip-hop, but, more so, of the moment when the world of hip-hop finally figured out Broadway.