The Pocket and the Politician

In a more general context, a key question that still needs to be addressed is the origin of the [long-range correlations], which are common in a variety of systems. The underlying system must be sufficiently complex, described by a nonlinear differential equation (or many of them), and there must be a proper amount of feedback. However, the origins might largely variate from system to system, and it is difficult to generate universal models that could qualitatively describe, e.g., heart-beat intervals, magnetoconductance oscillations, and drumming intervals in the same footing.

(Räsänen et al, 2015)

So as the message discipline and the mask of respectability falls away, we might view this as a Democratic opportunity.  People who think that words matter– that they should be used responsibly and not to manipulate people through subtle emotional cues embedded in euphemisms and dysphemisms–can celebrate the loss of [Frank] Luntz’s influence.

(Daily Kos, 2015)

Frank Luntz, and men like him (in the UK you could look at Philip Gould or Peter Mandelson, there’s also Lynton Crosby, Karl Rove,  Jim Messina … ) can be seen as the last of a dying breed of political messaging specialists or “spin doctors”. The great, devastating political campaigns of the 90s and 00s were successful only in their own terms – to the outside observer they led to a parade of “machine politicians” who sought power by surrendering ideals.

Luntz (and the others) worked by means of a focus group. Thousands of hours of recorded conversations gave them an insight into terms and language that “played well”, often the language that later appeared on billboards and in interviews started in the mouth of an ordinary member of the public – the return via the ears and eyes was orchestrated precisely to bring about a “resonance” based on the repetition of language already perceived as “common sense”.


In other words, phraseology such as that used in the image above (“It’s not racist to impose limits on immigration”: in that case explicitly rendered in a “personal” hand – though amended, unofficially in another) reinforces what was identified as an underlying pulse of popular discourse.

Repetition amplifies the sentiment- but it will never feel entirely natural. And the power of repetition relies on exact repetition, requiring a huge amount of message discipline. The later has become a politico-industrial pseudo-science – devoted to the idea of communication without any of the communicative (empathetic) aspects.

So these nuggets of distilled phraseology are seen as a way to make a minimum viable impression on a carefully selected target market. Though the use of “found” phrases (from research or focus groups) is common, these are generally decided on centrally within an organisation before being fed out to often-nonplussed adherents and staff.


Effective? possibly, in the short term. But, as the rise of Trump (and, indeed, Sanders) and the continuing bewildering relevance of Boris Johnson assert, perhaps an idea that suffers from the attentions competing narratives of popular influence.

The theory of message discipline discussed both the quantity and quality of messages – not only must messages be carefully aligned to the language of the target group, but they must be presented uncluttered with other messages. (Lyotard fans should be pricking up their ears round about now). A focus on a few simple messages striates the communicative space, but very broadly and with significant liminal possibilities for a demagogue to exploit. The larger, and “broader” the grouping, the less likely a message discipline approach can capture the full spectrum of opinion and emotion, and the more likely that an off-message individual can find underutilised resonances to exploit.

This years GOP primaries demonstrated not just one (Trump), but a number (Cruz, Carson…) of counter-message candidates who were able to exploit a distrust of such a poorly-expressed and tightly constrained narrative from an “establishment” (itself a loaded, and counter-message term). In Britain, Johnson’s opportunistic and self-centred embrace of Brexit can be seen as a similar attempt to capitalise on years of counternarrative positioning as bumbling, off-message, Boris. Ditto the unexpected and unpredictable rise of Jeremy Corbyn.

Those of you who read the first quote, above, and maybe the underlying paper (and you should!) may wonder where precisely I am going with this. The Trump phenomenon as anti-establishment posture has been donetodeath (alas not literally) all over the popular press. But I daresay none of them have considered fractal patterns within the hi-hat part of a Michael McDonald track in this context.

Jeff Porcaro is a machine. Seriously – it was his brother Steve that suggested the use of samples to power the legendary Linn LM-1 drum machine, and Jeff himself learned to programme one (notably and unmistakably on George Benson’s 1981 “Turn your love around“) . Basically any early 80s LA pop record that has ever made you think “wow… those drums…” – that was Jeff.

Four years before his untimely death in a bizarre gardening accident, Jeff recorded a hugely influential drum instructional video. Here he talks about his hi-hat part in the track Rasanen et all discussed – “I keep forgetting“.

If you have any kind of a musical background you may now pick your jaw back up off the floor.

What I want to note here is both the fluid and utterly mesmeric way he can place any technique on any subdivision of the bar, effortlessly, every time – and the way he makes it sound so fluid and natural that you can help but move. Drummers are generally either technical players or groove monsters, Porcaro’s feel defined the early 80s as he managed to be both.

Last year (yes, I just said that so I could say “it’s been a year since they went away, Rasanen et al…“) a team of researchers analysed the timing and volume of that single-handed 16th hi-hat part and deduced that it very clearly wasn’t as exact as it initially sounds. Here’s the numbers…


The A parts (the intro and verse) tend to slow down, the B parts (the chorus) speed up – both very slightly, but still measurably. This is done for musical reasons, to accentuate changes of mood in the song. Despite this you can still see a periodicity in the shorter spikes representing a “pushed” accent on the same 16th note of every two-bar phrase. This is the “long range correlation” which connects the precision of a virtuoso with the undeniable groove of a human being.

Jeff could very easily have programmed the same part in, indeed the George Benson track above uses a broadly similar feel. But if he had, these micro-fluctuations in timing and power would be lost and the track would feel very different.

And no-one told him precisely what to play – he had a feel which he interpreted in his own way to the benefit of the song.

Message discipline could be compared to the hypothetical use of the drum machine, the human effect is lost even though it can be closely simulated by expert programmers. Any movement, organisation or political party that designs in message discipline designs out the fluidity and freedom that allows for a virtuosic interpretation of values and ideals to the detriment of wider goals. You get the precision, but what people really react to is the pocket – not a place where you hold a message but where a message gently holds you.

6 thoughts on “The Pocket and the Politician”

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  2. My cogs are turning, and this post is going to have a home in one of my MA seminars where we talk about rhetoric, expression, and interpretation. We already use political speeches, but I’ve never had them linked to music so effectively in the same piece of writing. Thank you! It is both horrifying what can be done through crafted manipulation and comforting that what really works is that pocket.

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