Dispatches | July 29, 2008

A few days ago, a news story out of Australia reported that pop songs have replaced hymns at funerals. One of the most popular songs is Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” a choice that made me wonder whether the people who selected it had in fact followed their bliss or sadly wished that they had. Or perhaps Frank Sinatra’s beloved in-your-face boast is simply the anthem of the self reliant GI generation that’s beginning to die off.

My stepfather picked the song for his funeral even though his life had been one of obligation to family and work. Like many men of the post–war generation, he deferred his needs for others. He had made a few bold moves in his life but ultimately died feeling, in his words, “as if he had missed the boat.” Knowing this, the song made me wish that he had been less self-denying, though by putting himself first my own life would have been considerably less comfortable.

Remember the opening scene from The Big Chill? At the end of a traditional service in an austere church, JoBeth Williams’ character takes her place at the organ to play the deceased’s favorite song. When the opening notes of the Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” fill the small sanctuary, his friends knowingly smile to themselves; the song about optimism and disillusionment capture the struggles of a life that has just ended in suicide.

As the church organ fades, an acoustic guitar and Mick Jagger’s raspy staccato vocals take over. His singing accompanies the funeral procession as it passes through a rural South Carolina landscape. The iconic scene of a group of Baby Boomers burying one of their own not only made pop songs funeral appropriate but also made selecting the perfect one paramount. Ever since, song has trumped sermon, casket and burial garb.

All week, while at the gym listening to my iPod, I’ve thought about my perfect funeral pop song. When I was a kid I loved Judy Garland and owned her albums, read every biography and ate off of Wizard of Oz limited-edition collector’s plates. But “Somewhere over the Rainbow” ranks up there with “My Way” in terms of popularity. You don’t want your last impression to be a cliché.

More difficult than selecting a funeral song is picking one for a political campaign. While Bill Clinton seemed to have gotten it right with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” so many of them get it horribly wrong. In 2000 George W. Bush tried to use Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty was not amused and threatened to sue. Apparently his feelings for Bush are akin to the Dixie Chicks’. John Mellencamp had a similar reaction when McCain tried to use “Our Country.” McCain must have missed the fact that Mellencamp was stumping for Obama in Indiana.

When Hillary let her supporters pick her song, they chose Celine Dion’s “You and I.” Toward the end of the primary as the media began their “death watch” and her former competition and political friends scurried on the Obama bandwagon, Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” seemed more appropriate.

Barack Obama might consider David Bowie’s “Changes.” Not because his campaign slogan and lately some of his policy opinions are as grand and amorphous as Bowie’s sexuality but because he has seemingly overnight transformed himself from a wide-eyed, anti-establishment idealist into a dour, standard-issue politician finger wagging at The New Yorker for their satirical antics.

If I were picking a ditty for McCain, I’d tweak the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Enough said.

Political campaigns aside, this is a long winded way of saying that after much thought, I’ve found my song—The Church’s "Under the Milky Way."

So now I’ve told you mine. What’s yours?

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