How Altman’s Nashville Prefigured the Intertwining of Politics and Show Business

The single most provocative sequence in Robert Altman’s Nashville occurs near the end of the movie when Sueleen Gay, the waitress who aspires to become a professional singer but is handicapped only by an extraordinary lack of talent, agrees to what she believes is going to be her big break. Sueleen believes she really can become the heir to her idol, Barbara Jean. Her audience is entirely made up of businessmen who are only there to raise money for a political candidate and their patience for Sueleen’s bad singing quickly wears thin to the point where she is now expected to strip naked for them. Only the promise of another big break, singing at political rally alongside her musical heroes, convinces her to humiliate herself.

This sequence has particular resonance today because the perfect storm of Sueleen’s lack of talent, her inability to recognize this as an obstruction to her dreams of glory, and her willingness to humiliate and degrade herself in order to pathetically follow those dreams are played out countless times in front of millions on reality TV talent shows such as American Idol.

Nashville may not necessarily be the most successful film to attempt to locate the similarities between the worlds of entertainment and politics, but it certainly stands as the most insistent film to ever establish the link. The decision to title the film after the city that is the epicenter of the country music industry represents a conscious decision to create metaphor; Nashville becomes America and the country music milieu is symbolic of the cult of celebrity. The opening sequence that parodies late night commercials hawking records sets the stage for the commercialism that drives the entire entertainment industry; show business in America is about selling product, not creating art. The mocking emptiness in that pre-credit sequence is ultimately repeated in the constant flow of empty platitudes spouted by the candidate. The message is that both entertainers and politicians are essentially creations of monolithic advertising.

As the film progresses forward the country music stars become actively engaged in the political campaign of Hal Philip Walker whatever line there may have been between the worlds of entertainment and politics blurs into invisibility. At the time that Nashville was made it was still rather audacious to suggest that politicians were to a large extent the product of image manipulation. The country stars in Nashville are totemic icons of image: Haven Hamilton’s already outdated fancy white suits are suggestive of an earlier period in country music history. Barbara Jean exudes the image of the sensitive, perhaps even fragile, country music diva.

The manner in which the music stars rally to support a candidate who offers little in the way of substance speaks not to the climate in which the film was made, but to a future in which politics is inseparable from show business. (Did you ever try to watch live coverage of a Republican rally during the 2008 election? If you can get past the ridiculous yet hilarious sight of Trace Adkins struggling mightily to sound coherent as he speaks and sings about political realities far beyond his ability to understand, your only reward was Sarah Palin doing the same thing except she was at least smart enough not to sing in public.) Today the line has all but disappeared. Just as the country stars in the film fall uncritically behind a candidate who offers no solutions, but simple reiterates platitudes that speak to the culture of the genre, so does it seem that country music artists march in unison behind conservative candidates in real life. Equally true is that most rock singers support liberal candidates. People like Sheryl Crow do no favors for Democratic candidates by speaking out about why they support them, though at least Crow reveals that she is living in the 2000s, whereas Adkins fell directly into the GOP line that the election may as well have been taking place in 1958 as 2008.

The point, expressed in the monolithic support of the film’s denizens of Nashville of Walker’s candidacy, is that entertainment and politics both create a generic image that people can cling to without the necessity for critical engagement. Despite minor differences in style, all musical genres seek to engage a widespread acceptance through similarity rather than divergence. Likewise, the two major political parties in America seek to divide the electorate along sharply defined lines. To identify yourself as a country music singer or a country music fan is to generate certain expectations of conventions; the same holds true when identifying yourself as a Republican or Democrat. What the country music capital of the world represents in Nashville is an examination of that monolithic acceptance of those expectations of convention and how the two worlds of show business and politics have become inextricably intertwined.