As much as I play at cosmopolitanism and encourage people to step outside their comfort zones, I admit I tend to play it pretty safe. At this point, after all, my weekly routine is fairly set, and is generally comprised of some combination of work, gym, beer, writing and sushi. We’re all, of course, guilty of it, this almost unconscious lapsing into a pattern — there’s comfort in familiarity, in sameness. When exactly what we expect to happen happens within the microcosmic bubbles that are our individual lives, we get a sense that the big, wide, scary world is chugging along as it should, that time is marching along lockstep, every footfall stamping down upon its predetermined place.
Which is why I decided to attend the final night of the 2014 Midwest Horse Fair Rodeo, which happened this past weekend right here in Madison, Wisconsin, over the course of three days. I don’t know what happened on the first two — based on my two-hour experience this past Saturday night, I’m going to assume it was some combination of tractor porn, handstands and AMERICA. Confused? So am I. Here’s why, in order of ascending aneurysm:
3. The National Anthem
The trouble with our national anthem — and, I’m assuming, most others — is that it doesn’t really leave itself open to interpretation, stylistically speaking. There are pretty much three ways you can go with it: ultra-traditional, which is the most popular choice among runner-up Miss Foodstuffs winners at local sporting events; completely recontextualizing it, as Jimi Hendrix did at Woodstock; or being, frankly, a little bit of a show-ass, otherwise known as “The Whitney Houston Method.” Too soon? No, no it’s not.
But the band Madison Rising — who, I’m fairly certain, just switch out the first word of their name to pander to whatever town they’re playing in (“Waunakee Rising,” “Tifton Rising,” “Christmas Rising,” etc.) — created a fourth route, and rode it headlong into Axe Body Spray-scented oblivion. After asking all the veterans in the audience to stand “in recognition of their service” — which I’m sure they appreciate much more than, y’know, V.A. benefits or whatever — the group launch/loped/ran with scissors into a rendition of our national anthem that can only be described as what happens when a fireworks mega-outlet writes a suicide note.
The song, already something of a dirge, was slowed down to what I’m sure the band thought was a more dramatic pace, but only served to let us know what Damn Yankees would sound like if they were drowning in a kiddie pool filled with liquefied Zoloft. And my god, were they milking it: from the other end of the arena, and as my 18,000 Carhartt-clad compatriots tried in vain to time their warbling with that of Madison Rising’s sloth mating call, I could see the lead singer’s jaw jutted out, set so hard that the skin along his cheek bones pinched his blood vessels closed — I don’t know if that’s exactly what happened, but it’s the only excuse for him holding the “uuuuhhhhhhhhh!” at the end of “America” for as long as he did.
At the end, everyone cheered and applauded, because that’s what you do when a child manages to write his name for the first time, even if he does try to eat the paper afterward. Madison Rising didn’t play any more until after the rodeo was over and everyone filed out. Ten minutes later, we peeked back into the arena; they were still playing, as some 30 people — half of them janitorial staff — lingered about. The singer was still wearing his sunglasses. Whether this was because he was blind — which would truly make for one of the lamest inspirational tales of our time — or because he feared his inner glory shone so bright that it could only be contained by mirrored Ray-Bans, I cannot tell.
2. The Dots are Pre-Connected
In the introduction, I mentioned that there was comfort in sameness, in routine, in life fulfilling expectations and obligations — no more, no less. And while it’s true that there can certainly be comfort in such circumstances, there can also be soul-cleaving flabbergastedness.
You might expect, whether you like it or not, for a horse fair and rodeo to be primarily populated with chaw-spitting, flag-waving, evangelical gun enthusiasts who wouldn’t know the Second Amendment from a gelding’s tacklebox. And you’d be right. Here’s a rough sequence of events:
— The host rides out on a horse, because reasons, and asks that we bow our heads in a word of prayer. Which, okay, in and of itself is not a big deal, but this was a freaking horse festival, not a tent revival.
— During the ear-rape that was the national anthem performance, the giant screen suspended above the arena floor showed video clips of exactly two things: fireworks exploding against a waving American flag and cattle. I can add literally nothing to this that would make the implications clearer or more wrenching, whether you’re the book-learnin’ type or not.
— Throughout the competitions (which, okay, were pretty impressive), the same host kept referring to the cowboys as “fine, young Christian men,” which, again, is great and everything, except that, y’know, we were at a rodeo, and not a Christian singles Thursday night punch-and-cookies speed-date session in the fellowship hall basement.
— The host kept up a pretty consistent banter with one of the rodeo clowns, and pretty much every punch line involved gun violence, facial piercings, and “women love shopping” jokes, because there is no god but Foxworthy, and Larry the Cable Guy is His Prophet. One particular gem: when a recently roped-and-released calf decided to go for a jog around the arena instead of heading back into his pen, the clown remarked: “You’d have an easier time getting my wife out of Wal-Mart!” That’s not funny. That’s the comedy equivalent of a whale beaching itself because it has AIDS. Calling that a joke is like calling spousal abuse “ping-pong.”
1. The Part Where the Guy Who Trains Little Kapuchin Monkeys to Ride Border Collies Knelt Down in the Middle of the Arena and Delivered a Tearful, Heartfelt Monologue About How All He Wanted His Whole Life was to Own a Monkey, and Now He Does, and It’s a Dream Come True, and These Monkeys Ride Because They Love to Ride
I’m sorry… did I say “rodeo?” I meant “guerilla-style sequel to ‘Twin Peaks.’”