Married to the Mob

So far in the 2008 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton’s campaign gets an A+ for cultural awareness. For starters, no one has outvideo-ed Hillary. She and her team have used the Web brilliantly, especially to highlight her easier, looser side. In a series on her Web site called “Let the Conversation Begin,” she answers viewer e-mail in a way that’s off-the-cuff but still demonstrates her laserlike intelligence and enormous mastery of issues. (One reason the “1984” video parody by that random Obama follower with a Mac didn’t get more traction is that the footage of Hillary appears to be from one of these sessions. She looks and sounds way too good to be a convincing Big Brother.)

Most recently, she’s won a technical knockout with a user-involved push to select a campaign theme song. According to The Washington Post, it’s driven about 1 million people to her Web site. It’s also shown creative flair. Hillary comes off as refreshingly self-deprecating in the videos and even seems, dare I say it, culturally hip. (Take that, Tipper.) In the first video, “I Need Your Advice,” she announces the contest and makes a firm promise not to sing in public. A week later, she returns to show the range of responses (aptly embodied in the song “Superfreak,” which actually was one suggestion) and acknowledge some of the negative reactions, including comments like “You’ve got to be kidding” and “This is insulting!” In all, more than 25,000 people suggested songs, and around 200,000 voted on them.

Using American Idol tactics to get people politically involved—now that’s smart. “Christmas with the Romneys” doesn’t stand a chance.

But the real bombshell came last week when, in a case of pitch-perfect timing, the team released a takeoff of the final episode of The Sopranos to tease the announcement of the winning song. From the attention it’s gotten so far, Hillary’s Sopranos parody, complete with Journey soundtrack, would seem to be the most audacious political ad since LBJ’s “Daisy.”

It hit a nerve, partly because Sopranos addicts are still reeling from, and arguing about, the original. The chop-to-black ending is ripe for fueling feelings of grief, paranoia and denial. Go to YouTube and plug in “Sopranos parody,” and you’ll find close to six pages of videos—many carefully thought-out and recorded by people desperate for closure. One guy even did a frame-by-frame Zapruder-like study; his most interesting insight is that the blackout mimics the brain shutting down (when you’re shot) and that the onion rings (and the odd, almost synchronized way in which the three family members are shown popping ’em whole into their mouths) suggest “the ancient Greek coins, the obols, that were placed in the mouths of the dead before burial to ensure the Ferryman has payment to cross the person over the River Styx.”

Yikes! The video accomplished its mission: to get attention for Hillary’s campaign, and show that she and her team take risks and even sometimes have a daring sense of humor. It also, unwittingly, unveils the downside of Hillary—that her past makes for some mighty awkward situations in the family-values department, and that despite the surprises, her image is still somewhat of a jumble and keeps changing shape.

During the making of the parody (which is beautifully produced), I don’t know whether its creators knew what the winning song would be. But if “You and I” by Celine Dion is indeed the will of the people, someone’s been cheating, and we need a recount. One of Dion’s most cheesy songs, it’s already been used to promote Air Canada (a good fit, with lyrics like “You and I/Were meant to fly/Higher than the clouds/We’ll sail across the sky”).

Let’s face it—the song (which has topped the charts in Poland and Hungary, by the way) is a dog. And in some ways, launching it in such a clever way makes the misfire worse. Consciously or not, it epitomizes a disconnect in how Hillary should be positioned.

Also uncomfortable, of course, is aligning the Clinton brand with this fictional Mafia couple. (A cheating murderer and his furious but still complicit wife. Awkward!) Except here the gender roles are reversed, and Hillary takes on the Tony role, selecting the music on the jukebox and “ordering for the table.” (The fact that it’s carrots, not onion rings, is a nice touch—a subtle nod to her healthcare agenda.) And then Bill has to come toddling in as some sort of Carmela in a light-blue bowling shirt. It’s a testament to the two that they can carry this off. Also, the film has a lot of funny touches—the cut showing “Chelsea” (we see only her car tires) trying to parallel park is hilarious. By the way, the car that Meadow couldn’t park was a Lexus. Was that some devious sales pitch for the Lexus self-parking system?

The actual Sopranos finale provided a series of apparently false clues to impending doom. The Angel of Death hovers everywhere. I still get knots in my stomach when I hear Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which David Chase used in an ironic, cynical way, juxtaposed with the family’s last supper. Nothing can go “on and on and on and on.”

Except, perhaps, for Celine Dion’s rendition of “You and I.” Here’s where I do stop believing.