Years ago, a Manhattan banking center manager for Bank of America named Ethan Chandler went viral for a decidedly humilating reason:
When his company and MBNA merged in 2006, he sang a version of U2’s “One” about the merger at a company event.
It ended up on YouTube and things proceeded apace from there. Chandler’s lyrics, which couldn’t have been funnier if he’d meant them intentionally, had something to do with it; “Integration has never had us feeling so good / and we’ll make lots of money” and “Have you come to meet Bruce Hammonds? Have you come to meet Leah McGee? / Have you heard about Michelle Shepherd? She’s leading the team in the Northeast” became the stuff of minor-league musical mythology.
It created enough negative cultural cachet that “Mr. Show” comedian David Cross and legendary Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr performed a smirking live cover of the Bank of America version.
According to The New York Times, the mockery reached such a pitch that the copyright holder of the U2 original, Universal Music Publishing Group, posted a cease-and-desist letter. The bank and its manager, one assumes, have had better weeks.
One would think this would have served as an object lesson even 15 years on from the infamous performance: Don’t perform parody versions of famous songs when the moment isn’t right.
At least in the case of Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, one would be wrong. But then, even after nearly two years of the coronavirus pandemic, the NIH — which includes Dr. Anthony Fauci and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — still seems to have a lot to learn about public messaging.
On Monday, the Department of Health and Human Services held a town hall event to thank Collins for his work as director of the NIH; he’s retiring after 12 years in the post. One wouldn’t normally begrudge him exiting the federal government. He’s 71 and has just led the NIH through the most turbulent period he’s faced during the three presidencies where he’s been a top public health figure.
But then he decided to sing a version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” called “Somewhere Past the Pandemic.” At least Ethan Chandler had the excuse of being a faceless cog in a massive corporate hierarchy at a company event. Collins has none of those excuses for what you’re about to see — and especially the words he uses:
“And now, if you’ll indulge me — because it’s been kind of promoted as if it might be a grand finale of a musical sort — I guess I’d like to play us out with a little song,” Collins began.
“Why, there’s a guitar right here,” he continued — and indeed, to our eventual embarrassment, there was. “This is a song where the tune will be familiar to you unless you came from another planet.”
You may wish you had, provided being on another planet meant you didn’t have to be subjected to this: “Somewhere past the pandemic, masks will come off / no more need for a nose swab every time we cough,” Collins sang, badly.
“As we are gathered here today COVID’s toll has hit and sent us reeling / But partners like the ones right here will help to make the pathway clear to find true healing.”
“Somewhere past the pandemic, life will resume / We’ll all complain about the traffic, forgetting how we hated Zoom,” he continued. “Somewhere past the pandemic we’ll hug our friends/ and thank the people and science that brought the pandemic’s end.”
This is like watching two minutes of a really cringe episode of “Veep” with almost none of the surrounding context to make it funny — the stuff of Kafkaesque nightmares.
The problem isn’t just the song itself, it’s the attitude that it portrays — that the end of the pandemic is something as imaginary and unattainable as the “over the rainbow” of Dorothy Gale’s dreams, when many Americans, even some Democrats, already know differently.
I’m not sure how much this will surprise you, but this isn’t the first time Collins erroneously thought that performing a terminally goofy cover version of a song would make him seem relatable and fun.
In August of 2020, in order to entertain children who would normally be at a summer camp for kids with cancer, Collins posted a song called “Poof, Coronavirus” — set to the tune of “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” This was predictably bad — and yet, Collins’ music-making wasn’t the most embarrassing part of the video.
No, even with lyrics like “A little bat’s virus loves those human cells / Next thing you know, the cases grow / and the world’s gone to — it’s a family show — heck” and “Poof, coronavirus, called COVID-19 / Quickly spread like a wildfire, now we’re in quarantine,” the top embarrassment honor went to Collins’ wife, Diane Baker, who provided an interpretive dance to Collins’ lyrics:
Look, I don’t take any pleasure mocking someone who spent time trying to cheer up kids with cancer, but come on: How many sick children with their hearts bent on summer camp are going to be placated by a video of a middle-aged man singing a parody of a pop song from almost 60 years ago?
They’re much more likely to feel condescended to and patronized, like many frustrated Americans are feeling about Collins’ agency and his most visible subordinate — Anthony Fauci.
Besides, at least in August of 2020, however, there was some rhyme and reason to the lyrics for “Poof, Coronavirus.”
Now, when Collins uses a condescending song to sing about how, somewhere past the pandemic, the masks will come off or it’ll be time to abandon Zoom for real offices, what he fails to acknowledge is that we hit that point months ago, or at least the point where the emergency has become manageable. The fact he failed to notice the moment doesn’t diminish its existence.
You get the feeling Collins might have benefited from spending less time writing COVID conscious doggerel lyrics to the tune of American standards and more time looking at the merits of natural immunity to COVID-19, but alas — his time at the helm of the NIH has run out. More’s the pity.
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One would hope Collins isn’t remembered for his patronizing songwriting or his knee-jerk fealty to the party line of the capital-S exclamation-point “Science!” battalion. (This fealty went so far that Collins suggested, earlier this year, that vaccinated parents mask up in front of their unvaccinated children at home — a suggestion he quickly backtracked from for reasons that are patently obvious.)
He had an otherwise distinguished career and, according to Christianity Today, was notable as an unapologetically evangelical Christian in field that’s notoriously hostile to religious faith. (“I don’t want American science to be represented by a clown,” evolutionary biologist P.Z. Myers said regarding Collins’ beliefs at the time of his 2009 appointment, Christianity Today reported.)
That said, it’s difficult to hear much else when, as we close out year two of pandemic living, the head of the NIH is singing bad parody songs about how the end COVID-19 restrictions is “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Ethan Chandler may have been a dork, sure — but he had neither power over my life nor the ability to rub our faces in said power as the government prolonged it.