We live in a time of great crisis and upheaval. The contradictions of the grotesque global atrocity known as capitalism continue to tear holes in the fragile fabric of the post-war liberal consensus that has guided the political culture of the western world for over seventy years. Each tear creates a new opening for resurgent fascists and other far-right extremists, who march openly in the streets of major cities for the first time in decades. The liberal centre offer no resistance to their rise, while conservatives, who have always been craftier and more pragmatic, prove eager collaborators.
After decades of failure by the professional political class, the dispossessed and disenfranchised of the world look elsewhere for solutions, and every attempt by the left to offer a more compelling alternative vision of the world than either the capitalists or the fascists is scuppered either by our own disunity or the constant treachery of centrist elites more afraid of a tax hike than eugenics. Meanwhile, poverty tortures and kills us, and the state tortures and kills us, and we torture and kill each other, and the greatest fear of all is not that some great and terrible calamity will happen, but that nothing will happen at all, and the only future is the violence and oppression of this present moment stretching infinitely forever and ever.
But let’s not talk about any of that today. Instead, it’s time we addressed another plague of modern civilisation, a malady that infects both our artistic and political culture, and threatens to consume everything that lays before it like a horde of rats.
I speak, of course, of the hit musical Hamilton.
If you haven’t heard of Hamilton, don’t worry. Most people haven’t. You wouldn’t know that from the breathless way entertainment journalists and political commentators alike invoke it as a “phenomenon”, or the casual references to it thrown around by Cool People on Twitter™, but I can assure you that if you have never heard of Hamilton, you are in the majority.
Hamilton is a hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father of the United States and the first Secretary of the Treasury. I should offer a clarification at this point: I love Hamilton. I think it’s a masterpiece. I think it has some of the best and most complex characterisation in any musical ever. I think the songs are uniformly amazing, and I was very happy a year ago when it set a new record for nominations at the Tony Awards and even happier when it failed to break the record for wins, because Rocky didn’t win at the end of Rocky. I think Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical’s writer and composer, is a bona fide genius, and I hope he enjoys a long and happy career.
So that’s my clarification. Here’s my caveat: I hate Hamilton as a cultural phenomenon. I wish I could impose a ten-year moratorium on speaking or writing about Hamilton, with an option to extend the moratorium indefinitely at the end of the decade if I’m not totally satisfied that people are ready to speak or write about Hamilton like normal human beings. I want random members of the cast of Hamilton to stop showing up in the middle of talk shows and not get invited for half-hour interviews on political programs. I want people to stop holding up Lin-Manuel Miranda as some kind of progressive superhero, while quietly ignoring that he shills for Morgan Stanley, a bank that targeted poor black people in Detroit with subprime mortgages they couldn’t afford so they could take their homes. I want somewhat less than every talk show in America to have somewhat less than every member of the cast on to talk about this musical that almost no one watching will ever get to see. I want people to stop using it as a meme and a rallying cry and a joke amongst friends. I want it all to stop.
There are many reasons why I want people to shut up about Hamilton for a long time. One is that people have misunderstood the nature of art, as they so often do, and think Hamilton is a broadly historically accurate potrait of Alexander Hamilton and the kind of person he was, when of course it’s not. Never mind quibbling over biographical details: Alexander Hamilton was a dangerous reactionary and a fanatical anti-democrat who could hardly be further from the values professed by the liberal critics, journalists and artists who’ve embraced the show as a testament to the majesty of US democracy, and who bizarrely celebrated when the success of the show stopped plans to remove Hamilton from the ten-dollar bill. But, of course, it’s possible to know that and still enjoy the musical and its themes. What’s really weird is that Hamilton is not a celebration of US democracy.
“The Room Where It Happens” is one of the biggest showstoppers in Hamilton, a song about a backroom deal that Hamilton made with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The details aren’t important. What matters is how the song is usually referenced by liberals: as a song about the kind of political dealmaking that forms an essential part of the norms of liberal governance, with conflicting parties coming together and working out an agreeable solution. But here’s some actual lyrics from the song, a call-and-response between the story’s narrator, Vice President Aaron Burr, and the chorus:
CHORUS: The art of the compromise!
BURR: Hold your nose and close your eyes!
CHORUS: We want our leaders to save the day!
BURR: But we don’t get a say in what they trade away!
CHORUS: We dream of a brand new start!
BURR: But we dream in the dark for the most part
Dark as the tomb where it happens
I’ve got to be in the room where it happens
“The Room Where It Happens” is not any kind of celebration of political compromise, it’s a song about the horrible feeling of powerlessness the average citizen feels in the face of elite politics, where decisions that can define the course of our lives are made according to the whims of the people who are supposed to represent our interests, but who actually just use the organs of the state as a space to work out their petty squabbles and personal neuroses. In fact, if there’s a single idea that animates the entire musical, it’s how our feelings of powerlessness in the face of the world are so painful and destructive to our sense of self that they can lead even those of us with the best intentions to act in cruel and self-serving ways, a lesson I wish liberal critics and pundits would take to heart and consider in the context of all the people who voted for Trump out of desperation and not because they’re really nostalgic for lynchings, pogroms and genocides.
But that’s the thing about how liberals talk about Hamilton: it means whatever they need it to mean at any given moment. Back when they were committed to attracting Republicans into the Democratic Party to drown out the party’s left wing, Hamilton was a bipartisan unifier, “the only thing that Dick Cheney and I agree on”, as described by Obama. Hamilton was held up as an emblem of that mythical time in politics when things were better because there was a bipartisan commitment to certain values that everyone could trust in good faith. At the same time, there were special performances of Hamilton to raise money for Hillary Clinton, and two of the show’s stars did a truly cringeworthy pro-Clinton rendition of “The Ten Duel Commandments” at a benefit concert for her campaign.
Hamilton was used as both a political symbol and a political tool throughout the 2016 presidential election, sometimes standing for the vague fetish for procedural democracy that once made centrist political wonks froth at the mouth over The West Wing, and sometimes standing for partisan political values like defending the rights of immigrants. But once the election was over, Hamilton was doomed to be defined forever as the musical against Trump, even before the cast started a political ruckus by addressing Vice President-elect Mike Pence at a performance. The result of the election was discussed on both social media and by real reputable news organisation as a “vote against Hamilton”, and the show was also clearly on the mind of the so-called Hamilton electors who tried to deny Trump the presidency by persuading other members of the Electoral College (the institution which formally elects the President of the United States) to not vote for him – a desperate but pretty understandable fantasy that many people clinged to after the election.
In other words, for a long time now, Hamilton hasn’t been spoken about as a work of art, but as a political cipher that means whatever you need it to mean and doesn’t have any value except for how it advances your own politics. I think all the time about how Lin-Manuel tried to fight the decimation of Puerto Rico by vulture funds through newspaper op-eds and interviews and an appearance on Last Week Tonight and press conferences with Congressional Democrats, and how his liberal fans pretty much just shrugged their shoulders and did nothing because that’s not an issue that matters to them, that’s not what they want Lin-Manuel Miranda to do for them, that’s not what he’s there for. One year later, Puerto Rico is being stripped bare by the Fiscal Junta established by Washington to pay off a bunch of wealthy investors and the fight against their robbery barely merits a mention in mainstream media. Lin-Manuel tried to channel his liberal fanbase into something actually good and it didn’t work, because Hamilton is just a blunt instrument to these people, not even a work of art they respect. At this point, I suspect the only way it will ever be appreciated as a work of art again is if people shut up about it for a very long time.
But that’s just one reason. Here’s another: I’m sick of jokes about Hamilton on TV.
Jokes about Hamilton on TV might be one of the purest expressions of the weird insular cloistered world of television production in the United States, because they’re jokes that are clearly written with the expectation that anyone would get them when the average person probably wouldn’t. They’re niche, but they’re generally not written as if they’re niche. They’re written as if they’re broad, accessible and relatable, like you must live under a rock if you don’t get them.
Sometimes the jokes are specific references to the musical itself. Supergirl features a fairly elaborate one, when the reality-altering villain Mr. Mxyzptlk puts himself and one of the heroes on stage in a theatre with period costumes to recreate the infamous duel between Hamilton and Burr that takes place at the end of the musical. The villain warns the hero not to throw away his shot, a recurring lyric from the musical that references both the ambition of its characters and the practice of shooting away from one’s opponent in a duel to signal a refusal to kill. At least that one just references the only thing most people know about Hamilton, the fact that he was killed in a duel with Vice President Burr. Netflix’s One Day at Time had a character quote one of the play’s iconic lines (“immigrants – we get the job done”) in reference to himself, and I can imagine a viewer unfamiliar with the context finding it a pretty weird way to phrase the sentiment.
More often though, the jokes aren’t the show itself, they’re about tickets for the show, and the fact that they’re not easy to get, so they make a good bribe.
That’s the whole joke.
From NBC’s Trial & Error:
“If we plead insanity, he’ll stay in a ward for 20 years. Or 15, if I can get Hamilton tickets for the judge.”
From CBS’s Madam Secretary:
“I might have a lead on a couple of Hamilton tickets.”
“I’ve already seen the original cast.”
From ABC’s Once Upon a Time:
And, in addition to the previous reference from The CW’s Supergirl, we also have:
“Book me interviews with Barbara at NASA, Eduardo at the NSA and Gina at the White House, and I want attributable quotes, no press releases. And if they try to evade you, you remind them that I am still holding on to their Hamilton tickets.”
ALIEN: “Even if I did know something, why would I tell you?”
ALEX: “Okay, what’s it gonna cost us?”
ALIEN: “Hamilton tickets. Orchestra.”
WYNN: “Okay, well, we’re screwed.”
Do you get it? Do you get the joke? Do you get the joke that Hamilton tickets are hard to get? So they might make a good bribe? Do you get the joke? Are you laughing? Do you get the joke?
Of course, if you have no idea what Hamilton is, you might not get the joke, except by implication. You might not even get the joke if you know what Hamilton is but have no idea how difficult it is to buy tickets to Hamilton because the thought of buying tickets to Hamilton has never crossed your mind because you don’t live near a city where you might be able to see Hamilton or because you’re so poor that you would never even think to check the price of seeing any play because it’s not the kind of luxury that would ever even occur to you to investigate.
What’s the deal here? What’s this joke about? Why are so many shows making it?
Let’s start with an observation: no one is making this joke about other musicals. No one on TV is trying to bribe each other with tickets to see Waitress or Kinky Boots or any number of other musicals you’ve never heard of. That’s because tickets to those shows aren’t as expensive as tickets to Hamilton. They’re “only” around sixty or seventy dollars, whereas Hamilton tickets can run into the thousands and sell out quick.
Let’s continue with another observation: no one is making this joke about expensive tickets to other events. Sometimes tickets to the Superbowl or something are used as a plot device, but they’re never supposed to get a laugh. And no one at all is referencing WrestleMania tickets, even though WrestleMania tickets are way more expensive than any musical on Broadway except Hamilton and also sell out quick. At time of writing, next year’s WrestleMania is almost sold out already.
Let’s make a third observation: for the most part, theatre is a “respectable” middle-class pursuit, whereas professional wrestling is a “lowly” working-class interest.
Jokes about Hamilton tickets don’t seem like they’re written for everyone because they’re not written for everyone. They’re a wink-wink-nudge-nudge between well-compensated professionals who live in major metropolitan areas, because the joke is not that Hamilton tickets are expensive, the joke is that Hamilton tickets are expensive even for people like us. No one is making jokes about WrestleMania tickets even though WrestleMania tickets are also really expensive and sell out quickly because WrestleMania is not an event for people like us. WrestleMania tickets are not a status symbol, but Hamilton tickets are, and an interest in Hamilton is a mark of tribal affinity for people like us, whereas an interest in professional wrestling is something that people like us either don’t have or keep to themselves.
When I first started to notice all the jokes about Hamilton tickets, it reminded me of a joke from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, before it turned into a massive pile of crap. Captain Holt has decided to give his arch-nemesis Madline Wuntch a glowing reference to help her get a new job in Boston, so he buys her a going-away present:
“Tickets to Wicked?”
“In Boston. She’s moving to a second class city and I wanted to rub her nose in it. Enjoy the understudies, Madeline. Have fun watching some chubby Chenoweth knockoff warble her way through ‘Popular’.”
I love that joke because it’s a joke about how Captain Holt is a snob. More importantly though, I love that joke because it’s a joke, and not just a fundamentally masturbatory reference to the social and financial position of the show’s writers. For the same reason, this joke from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is the only good joke about Hamilton on TV:
“Uh-uh, Rick. I am not coming into work on my day off.”
“Titus, we are slammed. Jason just got a callback for Hamilton, so we need you to cover his shift.”
“Why didn’t I get an audition for that? They’re just prejudiced ’cause I can’t rap or walk quickly in a circle.”
I love that joke because it’s not about Hamilton, but about Titus as a character, and also because it makes sense for there to be a Hamilton joke about Titus, because he’s an actor trying to make it on Broadway. The joke’s not there to signal the show is in sync with the in-crowd, it’s there to make people laugh.
Hamilton is a great musical. I encourage anyone who likes musicals to listen to the Original Broadway Cast Recording on Spotify. But I hate what people who like Hamilton have done to it, which is turn it into a litmus test for political, social and even moral pedigree. I hate the cultural phenomenon of Hamilton so much that I’ve found myself vindictively hoping that Lin-Manuel Miranda doesn’t complete his EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) until he’s an elderly man, just because it will bother liberal fans of Hamilton to watch him lose at the Oscars year after year.
We still have time to walk this back. We still have time to unpoison the well and untaint our souls. We still have time to prevent our death by a thousand jokes about Hamilton tickets.
Seize the day. Make your lives extraordinary. Shut the fuck up about Hamilton.