Communication Breakdowns By Elena Passarello

Elena Passarello will join us Summer 2018 for The Normal School's Summer Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, July 16-29, on the campus of Fresno State University, where she will lead workshops, participate in panel discussions, and meet one-on-one with students. Apply now. Scholarships and course credit available. 

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By Elena Passarello

Well, what I'm not is a rock star and uh, you know, some people think I am. —Howard Dean

In order to energize the town hall meetings, rallies, and fundraisers that stretch a contemporary presidential bid to well over a year in length, American politicians have become increasingly reliant on the campaign rock ditty. Nearly all recent races for Chief Executive have employed rousing soundtracks with lots of power chords and blunt drumming, all used to motivate their voter bases in a fist-pumping, BIC-in-the-air sort of way. John Kerry chose Van Halen's “Right Now.” Al Gore opted for Bachman Turner Overdrive. George W. Bush played a Tom Petty song for a bit of his reelection campaign and Michelle Bachman used Petty's “American Girl” for a few months, but both quit their songs after Petty threatened litigation. And poor John McCain was first discouraged from using an ABBA song, and then outright denied the right to tunes by John Mellencamp, Boston, Van Halen, Jackson Browne, and Heart before commissioning a Top 40 country star to write the totally awesome “Raisin' McCain.”

To me, classic rock choices say that, along with the increased volume of appearances in a contemporary political bid, there must also be an uptick in aural volume—a post-baby boom expectation of our candidates to take their shtick up to eleven. We expect sonic vigor from someone who promises change. We expect Reveille and bombast. We expect jock jams.

And, judging from the vocals in many of these songs, we may also expect a fair amount of yelling. Mellencamp, Sammy Hagar, and Bruce Springsteen (the Boss's songs have been used in the past six elections) are all examples of the vocal style that permeated post-Woodstock rock in the 1970's and 80's—an odd mix of acrobatic crooning and the harsher yells of old blues. Even PBS can explain how such loud and dangerous singing juices us, and how it has done so in bulk for a half-century. We thrill to Springsteen and his laryngeal brethren because their performances wrestle down a product of the body meant to remain unbridled: the uncontrollable scream.

Screamed rock melodies work the outskirts of the voice, bringing an outré sound to an artful place. In classic rock, the ability to hold tight to a beastly scream—to best it despite our biology— is to have unwarranted control over the tones we traditionally reserve for involuntary rage or horrible behavior. This is what made screams the voice of swampy double entendre, of Stagger Lee, of bong hits, of “Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.” So it is somewhat surprising that we've also allowed rock screams into the dictatorial hype-church surrounding Your Next President.

Let us not forget, too, that the most celebrated rock screams came from bodies that belong to the same subgeneration as our recent front-runners (and their most moneyed supporters). Sammy Hagar was born the same year as Mitt Romney and Hillary Clinton. Rick Perry is seven months older than Tom Petty. Had he attended Cleveland's St. John Cantius High, Bon Scott would have marched with a class of '64 that included Dennis Kucinich. As young men and women, these musicians and politicians must have, in some way, shared a distant context of noisy vocal expression, whether or not they ever scored tickets to a Captain Beefheart show. Whether they like it or not, these men and women are all members of a sort of Screaming Baby Boom.

Plus, in a world of flag pins and $100-a-plate dinners, a hot, ham-fisted rock scream provides a service. The screams of Springsteen, Daltrey, and Scott are aural palate cleansers—blunt sorbets to cut through a two-hour bout of heavy rhetoric. This is because no candidate's words can rile a Carbondale gym like the canned scream of a rock god, especially if the candidate of the hour lacks verbal dynamism (paging Gore, Kerry, Huntsman). Though humans are significantly less-attuned to sound than other animals are, we still experience multipronged arousal in the presence of loud noises, especially the noises of our own species. I'm talking about that shot of norepinephrine that drips all over the cerebral cortex, heightening the senses in the presence of a human scream. Elsewhere in the body, it sends a jolt of adrenaline to quicken the heart and tense major muscles, prepping them for a sprint across the veld away from danger. This hardwiring is what allows dank rock vocalise to connect political agendas with heightened sensory experiences, with socks in the trousers, and, of course, with cool.

What's more, a rock scream that once topped the charts is familiar to us. It might even come off as weirdly trustable to a broad chunk of the voting public. A killer scream from a 70's rock god could sound like a venerable statesman's endorsement of a new and unproven candidate. And in this way, these rock screams serve as a badass Cyrano: by-proxy pleas from the stuffed shirt who skipped Altamont to attend the Alameda County Policeman's Ball. Crank The Stooges in a Muskegon rally, and Iggy himself will tell the crowd that this candidate, along with wanting to exact campaign finance reform, also wants to be our dog.

All these associations, however, must work the crowd subliminally or at least at an absolutely crucial remove. No matter how much Hendrix you add to your Town Hall playlist, a candidate and his or her handlers cannot allow a scream to come from the Town Hall stage. Mike Huckabee can play Skynyrd on bass and Bill Clinton can wow Arsenio with his “Heartbreak Hotel” sax skills, but neither man should ever consider opening his mouth to offer a take on the perfect scream in “Won't Get Fooled Again.” Those candidates who dare to take their voices into rock-marked territory face a gauntlet of scrutiny. The most memorable example of this is, of course, Howard Dean.

Aside from the scores of classic rock standards piped into its debates and rallies, 2004 was a fairly low-decibel race. Many noted Kerry's Como-like delivery and droning parallel structures, and Edwards's entire shtick was essentially his honey twang, which he kept at a grinning, almost breathy distance from the listener. Al Sharpton was the only true vocalist of the stable of Dems, though his oratory skills snagged fewer and fewer sound bites as his campaign waned. Only two loud moments made big headlines: Democratic Senator Zell Miller's rabid invective at the Republican National Convention and Howard Dean's rant to a thousand of his own “Deaniac” volunteers on the evening of January 19.

Howard Brush Dean III was born in 1948, the exact same year as Vincent Damon Furnier (who would become Alice Cooper), Stephen Victor Tallarico (soon to be Steven Tyler), John Michael “Ozzy” Osbourne, and the greatest of all rock screamers, Robert Anthony Plant. Dean's own multiplatinum recording came in the fifty-sixth year of these five men, long after Plant had defected to bluegrass, Cooper had opened a sports bar, and Osbourne was a reality TV dad. By 2004, only Tyler still screamed in public, with the help of several corrective surgeries and a nearly operatic level of vocal instruction.

Maybe a Dean scream would have been celebrated had he made it as a younger man, in the style of the rest of the 1948 quintet. Maybe he should have done it shirtless and hopped-up on 'ludes in a Capitol recording studio. Perhaps listeners might have embraced his scream in the Iowa Veterans Memorial Stadium after he bit the head off a bat, like Ozzy did in 1982. In fact, Dean's scream did ring just five miles from Iowa Veterans Memorial, but it came two decades later than Ozzy, in a universe with its own specific sonic laws: the laws of caucus night, the laws of a third-place finish behind Kerry and Edwards, and the laws of netting just eighteen percent of the party vote.

We've all seen the Dean clip, shot from the vantage of the news cameras behind the crowd of West Des Moines's Val Air Ballroom. Shortly after “Baba O'Riley” (in which Roger Daltrey screams, “THEY'RE ALL WASTED!”) rattles the PA, Dean takes the stage. He crosses past a line of key Iowa campaigners who stand shoulder-to-shoulder: a makeshift backdrop of awkward white people. He shakes hands and hugs a few members of the backdrop, offers one dude a very enthusiastic, very high five. He hands his jacket to Iowa senator Tom Harkin and speedily cuffs his shirtsleeves, and then he takes a deceptively measured breath.

“Wow,” he croaks, gently waving his open palm over the audience like a pontiff. “I was about to say, I'm sure there's some disappointed people here, but you know something? You know something? If you woulda told us a year ago that we were gonna come in third in Iowa, we woulda given anything for that.”

Dean's larynx, like most modern candidates', was surely unaccustomed to the poisons of nonstop campaigning: contaminated motorcades, overheated Sheratons, bitter Iowa air, and exponentially more hours spent speaking than sleeping. Thus, his tones are noticeably belabored in these first sentences. But just as he seems uninterested in admitting his unexpected caucus defeat, he also refuses to accommodate his wounded cords with lowered intensity. There's a new push in his voice when he continues: “And you know something? You know something?” A crescendo of yells comes from the crowd.

Here he begins an oft-repeated list of states in the union with upcoming primaries, rising a bit in pitch and fervor with each one: “Not only are we going to New Hampshire, Tom Harkin, we're going to South Carolina and Oklahoma and Arizona and North Dakota and New Mexico!”

Hundreds of supporters in front of and behind him are yelling his name, perhaps even screaming a bit. Some people interviewed after the fact remember yelling “More!” but those prompts are not audible in the clip. We do hear the stomping of the carpet and a dozen random cheers. We see various hands, some of them applauding, some holding glass bottles like torches.

Dean's hands count down the states, first on his right thumb, then on the whole hand, then with his arms swinging in rhythm with the names of the final three: “And we're going to California and Texas and New York . . . and we're going to South Dakota and Oregon and Washington and Michigan!”

He playfully tosses the microphone back and forth from each hand. It's a unidirectional mic, meaning its reservoir is designed to trap his voice and not much else for the clearest possible broadcast. That mic ignores the crowd and shoots Dean's roll of state names straight to the cameras in the back. By now, Dean's voice is hard and low and wet in his throat, a loud growl matched by pointed brows, bared teeth, and a squint. His use of the simple future tense, combined with this grimace and rasp, makes Dean seem like a pro wrestler clad in Brooks Brothers, talking ringside smack. What's more, though the distance from which the clip was filmed makes it difficult to confirm, his diaphragm appears to contract with sharp, forceful breaths after naming each of the last three states. This extra air allows even more juice for his Hulk Hogan tones.

He gulps air once more before the “and” of his final phrase: “and then we're going to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House!” Here is a rise into a question-mark pitch for the last word, then a fist lifted just behind his head. He holds a pose here, like a Maneki Neko Luck Cat, or a slot machine before a pull. Then Dean pauses. He doesn't inhale. He might even begin an exhale on that pause, stopping the more righteous circle of breath and limiting his respiratory power, which could explain why the final sound of his monologue gets away from him. From there, with his lungs, lips, and larynx in their most politically incorrect positions, Dean makes the sound we care most about, the hostile mutation of a “Yeah!” cheer that many blame for the death of his election hopes.

It is a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand. It is the sound of a Muppet, or a baby in tantrum, or a bike horn half-squeezed. Or, rather, it is all three sounds at different milliseconds, smooshed. It meets his unbuttoned collar and the sloshing bottles and the fibers in that long mic cord and the tone of the Val Air HVAC to make a unique recorded moment—an electric, fantastic, obscene, unspellable thing.

Two-and-a-half years after caucus night, the scream still a rogue part of our various lexica, Comedian Dave Chappelle christened it the delicious and onomatopoetic “BYAH!” in a comedy skit. This name has welded itself to the clip and, in some respects, to the man, ever since.

Though the website was created sixteen months after Dean withdrew, YouTube is now hundreds of “BYAH!” strong, and these hundreds of videos have collectively accumulated millions of hits and hundreds of thousands of comments. There, nearly a decade after Dean's loud night in West Des Moines, we can access the “BYAH!” both as the mic recorded it and from the more forgiving perspective of an amateur cameraman in the center of the crowd. At that sonic spot, Dean's scream is barely audible among the thousand screaming voices.

A little YouTube window-shopping reveals that we can hear a quarter-speed “BYAH!” forward and backward on a ten-minute loop. We can watch stills of howling moose, fighting zebras, dramatic prairie dogs, and Edvard Munch's screamer with multiple “BYAH!” as their underscores. We can see a bald infant mime a spot-on “BYAH!” We can learn a club dance to Soulja Boy's “Superman” that mixes Chappelle's 2006 “BYAH!” and Dean's 2004 arm gestures. We can pit the '04 “Dean Scream” against the '08 “Hillary Cackle.” We hook in “Apache” or the bass line in “Boogie Oogie Oogie” —is ripe for sampling.

The bandy of Dean's scream are a flat F in the high register—the same lofty pitch Robert Plant finds at minute 2:09 and 2:11 of “Communication Breakdown.” This song, one of Zeppelin's dozen laments to coy mistresses and the blue balls they elicit, features Plant's F during the wordless outro; it is the “WHOA” in his “uh-WHOA-oh!” This is the highest and loudest pitch of the song, and it rises above his established falsetto, above the thrumming rhythm section, above the guitar and the teasing call of the background voices, to ride like a war whoop straight out of the track. Plant's F, as pitch-perfect as any rock scream needs to be, finishes with a drop down to a solid high D, then defiantly repeats—a double backflip of sex and longing that nails its ten-point landing, twice.

In the context of the song, it proves one of two things: either that Plant's character leaves “Communication Breakdown” even more determined to get into the pants of his woman, or that he has actually been driven “insane” by this broken-down communication and now is running away, screaming, to go jump off a levee or something. There is a contradiction between Plant's lament—that he can't communicate with the woman he wants—and the two-by-four of bedroom logic bursting from that F-note. That contradiction between the lyric and the sound his body makes is one of the sexiest parts of the song.

Dean's F is wobbly and much less sustained than any of Plant's recorded high notes, and it sounds as if it tickles his false vocal cords, which would make it a more legitimate scream than a part of any sung melody could be. But the “BYAH!” and “Communication Breakdown” Fs are still somehow sonic kin, for a few weird reasons. Both carry a compelling tension within them: these are not the glittery, sky-written Fs of a lyric soprano. The strained energy of these Fs excites and annoys the ear, like a child's spastic Christmas morning cries buzzing the calmer adults around the tree.

What's more, these are not the unplanned yells of men unexpectedly pinned by tractors, or chased by cheetahs, or watching the Hindenburg explode. We know Dean and Plant have worked themselves into their particular frenzies, and that both “uh-WHOA-oh!” and “BYAH!” are conscious decisions to dig deep, to go big, and to make highly emotional sounds for a rapt group.

Finally, both bright sounds push away any surrounding noises, assuring that no other tones can blend into them, and this makes the screams stick out in our consciousness. Obviously, microphones emphasize this, but even when mashed up into the alternate Internet landscapes mentioned before, the pitch and timbre of Dean's “BYAH!” stand alone, like a sharp lead vocal in a thrash metal mix. Like so many of Plant's noises, Dean's Val Air F is a lone-wolf note that both pops and begs for travel.

These are the elements that made Dick Bennett of the American Research Group note, in the days that followed the “BYAH!” that “that thing has legs.” We can't experience culture- jammed oddities—be they euphonious, silly, or both—just once. We find ourselves reaching out to see if the rest of the world also finds them odd. As with a two-headed calf or third nipple, there is a kind of glee in collecting a leggy note and then revisiting it. That second listen somehow grants us ownership, license to open the curio cabinet again and again, just to see if the pull of the sound is still there—and if it is still just as weird. We laugh selfishly to find out that it remains in our power. Each reappropriated Dean clip we visit pushes his voice further into our imaginations, light years away from that ballroom, which was the only space in which the “BYAH” ever had a chance of making sense.

But here is where Dean and Plant differ: one man's sound was added to an arsenal of awesome rock alarums, while the other man's scream became a dangerous metonym for his entire voice, then body, then self. Those 600- plus replays didn't just kill the 2004 Dean campaign; for a little while they erased Dean the man. Though his approval rating was already slipping over the course of caucus week, by the time he left Iowa to head for New Hampshire, it had dropped over twenty percent, which many blame on the “BYAH!”

In the week between the scream and the New Hampshire primary, voices from both sides of the aisle marked the sound as a death knell. According to Pat Buchanan, “Dean's Iowa defeat was a real setback to him, but his postgame commentary was a disaster. That tape will be on every national talk show, and I don't think it's survivable.” After a tour of several New Hampshire campaign events, Democratic strategist James Carville concurred that “it hurt him,” and Leon Panetta explained, “When the country sees that kind of reaction, it makes them nervous because they're looking at a potential president of the United States.” TIME called the “bizarre performance” a chance to hear “the sound of a candidate imploding,” while Dick Meyer said that, to many, it unveiled the true voice of Dean as “a hothead, a bully, a chesty, argumentative, inflated, pushy guy you wouldn't want in your poker game.” This, says David Bauder of the Associated Press, “turned the former Democratic presidential front-runner into a punch line and arguably hastened his campaign's free fall.”

This is not to say that the “BYAH” only spoke to us as a wild meme. Many think that it led listeners to a practical judgment: something about Dean did not compute. Right before the New Hampshire primary, Byron York of the National Review said Dean's “redfaced, shouting, teeth-baring, air-punching demeanor” indicated some serious character flaws. A New Hampshire pollster-blogger agreed, noting that the scream “kind of crystallize[d] people's fears about Dean—the electability and temperament issues.” And after Dean garnered only a quarter of the New Hampshire turnout, David Letterman quipped that voters, in a bit of Sarah Palin reverse-prophecy, “didn't want a president with the personality of a hockey dad.”

Both CNN and CBS released statements admitting to overplaying the “BYAH!” and even those that did not formally apologize confessed to amping the hype. Their excuse was that the scream was newsworthy; it exposed a hotheaded emotional center that Dean had spent months trying to mask. That exposure multiplied because, to quote an ABC News Senior Vice President, “the amount of attention it was receiving necessitated more attention.” They then cited Dean's earlier trail gaffes and smatterings of colorful language as just cause. We were informed that all of America was—all of us were—nervous. We sensed what a few writers called Dean's hidden “mad How” disease, his secret short fuse. The TV buzz told us that the yell contradicted what a candidate's persona should be and insisted that we were shocked to see such a display of unbridled anger.

But perhaps we should give our ears more credit than they did.

For starters, voters don't necessarily consider fired-up noises to be non-presidential. A 2007 CBS News poll found that 57 percent of Americans would elect a president with a reputed temper. Political journalist John Dickerson notes that Nixon's, Johnson's, and Kennedy's White House tapes are all full of ranting and profanities, which historians treasure in hindsight, even though few invectives were ever uttered in earshot of the nation. What's more, in 2010, reporters and commentators balked at Obama's even-toned response to the BP oil spill, saying the president wasn't acting angry enough to satisfy the American people. So, apparently, the commanders of our armed forces are all but expected to have a war cry within them. Maybe not a fifth-octave F war cry, but some loud, angry noise.

Dickerson adds that presidents are especially allowed to erupt in public before they take office, especially at the beginning of primary season. This was the case with Reagan's 1980 outburst in New Hampshire (“I AM PAYING FOR THIS MICROPHONE, MISTER GREEN!”) and Clinton's heated 1992 speech in a New York supper club (“I have treated you and all of the other people who have interrupted my rallies with a hell of a lot more respect than you have treated me, and it's time you started thinking about THAT!”). Both these yells garnered applause from their audiences and spurred only minor backlashes.

Further, though we never got the chance to see him hide his rage in office, John McCain ran two entire campaigns on a loud and angry line. The 2000 and 2008 McCains were slow-burn brutes whose frustration with Washington's bullshit were jackhammered into his furrowed brow. McCain went on Saturday Night Live and parodied his trademark anger in skits about Barbra Streisand and Tim Russert, to the delight of the late-night audience. So if the “BYAH!” told us Dean was angry about his surprise loss in Iowa, or that his fight back to first place would be fueled by rage, there is precedent that this should not bother us. History suggests Dean wouldn't be completely counted out just for sounding fierce.

But let us not forget that Dean took that stage in West Des Moines to give a small concession. He was up there to admit that, yes, a week before, he was slated for an easy caucus win, and yes, for over six months he had been the front runner for the Democratic party, but now he was in third place. Yes, the day before he made a few stops in Iowa to venues in which the campaign staff outnumbered the constituents. And sure, twenty-four hours before the Val Air Ballroom, writer Walter Shapiro had already compared him to “an aging rock star reduced to reprising his greatest hits in smaller and smaller clubs.” And he had to admit that he'd spent at least $45 million dollars, nearly half of which came from tiny online pledges, to get to these Iowa clubs. And yes, a half million people had rallied behind this man with no national political experience, 3,500 of them quitting their jobs or leaving school to knock on doors in key caucus cities. And he had to own up to the fact that his gaffes, paired with his antiwar, repeal-the-taxcuts stances, trumped all that human sweat. Collectively, they made him appear so easy to defeat that the National Review put his face on their cover with the headline “Please Nominate This Man.”

He was too vulnerable, and as he rolled up his sleeves and hugged Tom Harkin, maybe that fact was finally heavy in his gut, lungs, and throat. Maybe that scream was part of the acknowledgment that even Dean had seen the buttons— “dated Dean, married Kerry” —in Des Moines, Mason City, Ottumwa, and Cedar Falls. Dean himself told Diane Sawyer, “I say things that I probably ought not to say, but I lead with my heart, and that's what I was doing right there, leading with my heart.” Maybe this little piece of his heart jumped into his lungs, past the trachea, and out the bared slot of his mouth, only to contradict the rally cry he'd spoken immediately before it. This, I think, is what we heard.

This is not to say that we heard the contradiction between his triumphant monologue and the conciliatory “BYAH!” and then voted him out for being dishonest. America understands that a president can't always tell the whole truth, and studies show that, as long as they aren't lying about voluptuous interns or campaign spies, we're cool with it. According to a 2010 CNN poll, seventy-four percent of Americans think George Washington probably lied to his constituency, and over two thirds of the country think even Lincoln lied (albeit for the good of his country's citizens). Besides, what good coach wouldn't be forgiven for an exaggerated speech, maybe even a little “Eye of the Tiger,” after losing the first game of a big season?

Maybe what we heard in the sound is that it was over, that Dean's body had admitted defeat before his brain did. The “BYAH!” let us know that that was it, and we should now just go home and get on our computers or something. Dean's will or reason could fight it, but the parts of him that made the “BYAH!” are louder than will or reason—and older than microphones, or Hardball, or oxford shirts, or health care, or even Tom Harkin. They are older than speech. They are at least as old as the practice of yelling to a drum beat.

On January 19, we heard Dean's body tell us that we were not going to go to California or Connecticut or Georgia or Maryland or Massachusetts or Ohio or Rhode Island or Minnesota or to Washington, D.C., to take back the White House. Instead, we heard that we were going to board a plane to Portsmouth and land in a frozen hangar filled with 500 Yankee Deaniacs who were just like us. Someone was going to find the perfect jock jam for that New Hampshire predawn—it ended up being Tom Petty's “Won't Back Down”—but the 56-year-old body that took the stage, grooving a little to Tom Petty's measured, middle-aged baritone, was not going to scream out of the track like a rock star.

We could hear that, in four weeks—before Super Tuesday, even—we would see him stop moving. And that two months from then, he would endorse John Kerry, then campaign to chair the Democratic National Committee. And that in seven years, he would still be on our televisions, but we would only be able to see his head and shoulders, his wild arms and body cut out of the frame like Elvis's were on Sullivan. His tie would be knotted, and he would glare at us head on, surrounded by tweets and text boxes and stock tickers. He would join the machine that shamed him, now talking politics and YouTube clips on a cable news show. And that the show would be called Squawk Box.


Elena Passarello is the author of Let Me Clear My Throat. Her essays have appeared in Sonora Review, BETTER, and Passages North, Creative Nonfiction, Slate, Ninth Letter, Gulf Coast, as well as the music writing anthology Pop When the World Falls Apart. She is an MFA graduate of the University of Iowa, an Assistant Professor at Oregon State University, and the first female winner of the Stella! Shout Out screaming contest in New Orleans.