Following the first scheduled debate between Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Beto O’Rourke on Friday night, a clip of the challenger air drumming in the drive-thru lane at Whataburger was published on Twitter:
The clip is obviously intended to convey that O’Rourke was in high spirits after the event. But was he?
Although he remains an underdog against Cruz, the polls suggest O’Rourke is a formidable challenger. He has a certain Kennedy-esque charisma, in the sense that he caused an accident while driving drunk and allegedly tried to flee the scene (he denies only the latter).
Like any charismatic Democrat, O’Rourke is a media darling. It has been reported that his stump speech “appeals to the skeptic — and provides moments of near-spiritual conversion.” Such was the scene on the night of the debate:
— Peter Hamby (@PeterHamby) September 22, 2018
O’Rourke is being treated as what passes in politics for a rock star. Indeed, he was once in a punk rock band:
Maybe Beto can’t debate Ted Cruz because he already had plans… pic.twitter.com/LdqKTh3yK4
— Texas GOP (@TexasGOP) August 28, 2018
That’s Beto on the left, appropriately enough. He still fancies himself a musician, having played guitar with Willie Nelson, Margo Price, and others during the campaign. But watch that clip of O’Rourke air drumming again.
First, there is the song selection. For a progressive heartthrob, The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”—from 1971’s “Who’s Next”—is a strangely conservative choice. Even if it were not apparent from the lyrics, songwriter Pete Townshend has famously explained the track “is about the absolute desolation of teenagers at Woodstock, where everybody was smacked out on acid and 20 people, or whatever, had brain damage. The contradiction was that it became a celebration: ‘Teenage wasteland, yes! We’re all wasted!’”
Second, and perhaps more important: O’Rourke completely blows the song’s opening drum fill. Granted, The Who’s drummer, Keith Moon, remains one of the most flamboyant and idiosyncratic to have sat upon the throne in the whole of rock music. Trying to air drum in the style of Keith Moon is quite ambitious. Indeed, it was a running joke that when The Who was obliged to lip-sync performances, Moon would not even try to duplicate his original performances (see, for example, “Substitute.”)
But O’Rourke has proven himself to be quite an ambitious man. And “Baba O’Riley” is a tune familiar from decades of radio play and one on which Moon is a bit constrained by playing to a click track.
Moreover, musicians who spend any significant time in a band eventually hanker to play one of the other instruments. As often as not, the guitarist secretly longs to be the drummer. Yet Beto’s attempt is entirely lazy, not only an abject failure to emulate Moon, but barely recognizable as a fill at all. Not only does he miss the fill, he’s hitting cymbals when he should be hitting toms.
Compare O’Rourke’s pathetic performance to that of Peter Zirpolo, whose approximation of Rush’s virtuoso drummer Neil Peart went viral earlier this month:
The best thing I saw yesterday?
This guy from the Baltimore Ravens Marching Band playing PERFECT air drums to Rush's "Tom Sawyer": pic.twitter.com/uKxtXue0PM
— Prescott Rossi (@PrescottRossi) September 10, 2018
He even got plaudits from Rush on social media:
The professor would approve! https://t.co/GNw0rqIWmf
— Rush (@rushtheband) September 11, 2018
Zirpolo is affiliated with the Baltimore Ravens Marching Band, but he is no longer one of its musicians; he handles their budget and logistics. He once played cymbals and even sousaphone for the band, but has not sat behind a drum kit in 15 years. What he has is a commitment to his craft.
Nevertheless, given that Zirpolo was a drummer through his high school years, O’Rourke supporters may find the comparison unfair. So let’s consider another comparison to a classic of the air drumming genre:
Even a small dog, with only minimal human assistance, more credibly approximates this classic Phil Collins fill from “In The Air Tonight” than O’Rourke manages on “Baba O’Riley.”
A campaign for the United States Senate is a serious thing. O’Rourke’s media image is managed meticulously, right down to a clip of him skateboarding in the Whataburger parking lot. Beto wants you to know how cool he is.
— Warren Henry (@WHRPT) September 22, 2018
A post-debate clip of him air drumming was posted as part of the effort to make him seem victorious and keep the contest close. But that performance should go next to the dictionary definition of “low-energy.”