Like many of my friends, I spent much of the fall surgically attached to the TV remote, watching any and all news of the presidential election. There were a few things I missed during the waning days of the race because I was glued to the evening news: a few of the most beautiful autumn sunsets imaginable over the Blue Ridge Mountains, just west of our farm; lots of late-day walks with canine friends who lay at my feet, heavily sighing with longing to run; toiling away upstairs in my office on new music for a future album, and so on.
Yes, I let a lot of things slide during this election season, and while I am not entirely proud of my 24/7 news cycle cravings, the race was a compelling episode of our political system at work that proved endlessly fascinating to me.
With all that TV watching, I yawned through a lot of commercials (My TiVo can only tape one show at a time, blast!), but I found myself frozen in place every time a certain ad came on. It was a commercial for an insurance company, and it featured the music of one of my favorite bands, Hem.
Hem’s albums are full of gorgeous chamber folk-rock, moving orchestral passages and interludes and enigmatic, evocative lyrics that speak to every life’s joys, losses, romances, travels and longings, among other subjects.
In this ad, Hem’s lead singer Sally Ellyson’s bell-like voice sings in near whispers into the mic: “There are better days to meet us where we stand/They are gathering in clouds and spreading out/Over land …” The song is called “Better Days,” and it is played against a backdrop of scenes from an old-fashioned carnival.
The commercial evokes a nostalgia for small-town America, with the dusky time of day, its no-tech games, bumper cars and quiet message: People who do good things tend to inspire more people to do good things. It’s a gentle reminder that paying it forward does, in fact, yield results.
With its old-fashioned Ferris wheel adorned with small white lights and gorgeous string and horn arrangements in the background, you know right away that you are not at Six Flags or Kings Dominion … rather, you are in a place where time has slowed down a bit, enough for you to pay attention to the sound of your heart, given how hard it is to hear sometimes.
The message of this message, then, is not cynical, crassly commercial, nor is it precious or trivial. It brings me directly to what Barack Obama said at his Democratic Convention acceptance speech in Denver. We are our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper. We have a responsibility to watch out for one another, to do the right thing. Our better selves will seek out these opportunities because our present circumstances demand it.
There are not a lot of TV programs - much less TV commercials - that stop me in my tracks, but the marriage of Hem’s music and lyrics to the carnival scenes is that rare example of art and commerce providing a public service message for the soul. As a songwriter friend of mine is fond of signing his e-mails, “Remember, music makes you smarter.” In this case, he is absolutely right.
Hem is a very special band of musicians. Their records can be found where most fine music is sold, earthbound and in cyberspace.
• Editor’s Note: This is the debut of a regular column for The Washington Times by five-time Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter. It will appear every other week in the Show section.
For more information on Mary Chapin Carpenter, check out these links: