Capitol Steps returning for annual Fourth of July musical shenanigans at Power Center
But 30-some years ago, before any of those folks had appeared on the scene, there were the Capitol Steps, the political-satire group that was founded in 1981 and has continued to mock, skewer and generally make fun of politicians and political shenanigans.
The Steps work in a different medium than those others, though: They use musical comedy to lampoon their targets. For more than three decades, they have been making their satirical points by writing and performing witty song parodies.
When the Steps began, they consisted of seven Senate staffers who were just looking for a way to infuse the office Christmas party with some laughs. But they turned out to be so skilled that, before long, they quit their Senate-aide jobs and devoted themselves full time to writing and performing.
And 15 years into their existence, they had to expand beyond ex-Senate staffers and hire professional singers and actors to perform in their many live shows and on their albums.
On Thursday, the Steps continue an annual tradition that began in the early 1990s—playing the Ann Arbor Summer Festival on the 4th of July. Indeed, all of those Summer Fest shows except the first one (in 1991) have been on the 4th. They’ll do two shows at the Power Center that day.The Steps released a new live album this year, “Fiscal Shades of Grey,” recorded in late 2012 and early 2013. But, as always, when they come to town, they’ll be armed with many new songs ripped from current headlines—all part of their job of keeping up to date with the bottomless well of political hijinks, wrongheaded policy positions and flat-out dishonesty on the part of office-holders and office-seekers.
“Yeah, last year was an election year, so that’s always a busy time for us, because things happen so fast," says Elaina Newport, one of the Steps' three co-founders, who co-writes the song lyrics along with Mark Eaton. “But there's never a lull in this business—the politicians give us new material every day.”
“Fiscal Shades” had many highlights. One was "Embattled Hymn of the Republicans,” set to the melody of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” That was about the Republicans waking up the day after the November election, “and looking at the demographics, and seeing how badly they had lost among Hispanics and black voters, and also thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we shouldn’t talk about rape so much,’” says Newport by phone from her office in Washington.
Another crisp satirical song on the disc is “Justice Roberts,” set to the tune of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” about how fellow conservatives railed against Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts when he supposedly “betrayed” the ideology last year by voting to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, aka “Obamacare.” One amusing line was: “Donald Trump now says Roberts was also born in Kenya long ago.”
Another was “Twinkie Twinkie”—set to the melody of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”—sung by an actor portraying New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, lamenting about the possible demise of the Twinkie snack cake. Many jokes have been told about Christie’s weight, but this one had that extra hook, because it was written and performed right after Hostess announced it was going to close if it did not find a buyer.
One of the new songs is about the Republicans’ obsession with the Benghazi attacks.
It’s set to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer,” and one performer portrays Republican U.S. Rep. Darrel Issa - the Repubs’ chief hatchet man for that effort.
In the song, the Issa “character” announces, as Issa did, that the Repubs’ efforts to trump up a Benghazi "scandal" are “not political.” Then, explains Newport, laughing again, “another singer asks the audience what they think about that claim, and then the audience gets to sing along with the song’s chorus: ‘Lie Lie Lie, Lie Lie Lie, Lie Lie Lie Lie .’”
Another new one is “I’ll Be Watching You,” about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program. It’s sung to the tune of the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”
The Steps are equal-opportunity satirists who make it a point to lampoon both political parties equally. “Fiscal Shades” also had a song, “Al Gore-Zeera,” about Gore selling Current TV to Al Jazeeera America, and “Secret Service Man” (set to the tune of “Secret Agent Man”) about how some of the agents assigned to protect President Barack Obama had hired prostitutes in Columbia. And they got a lot of mileage out of the Bill Clinton - Monica Lewinsky affair in the ‘90s.
“We do feel obliged to go where the political news takes us, but we also try to strike a balance between making fun of both Republicans and Democrats. Originally, that was because we were still staffers, and we didn’t want to get fired,” says the always-genial Newport, with a laugh. “Then we realized it would also give twice as many jokes, and also expand our audience.”
But the Steps don’t just do political songs. One of their funniest, from 20-some years ago, was “Like a Suburban Drone,” a take-off on Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” that mocked onetime youthful hippies for becoming conservative “suburban drones” in middle age. One recent song, “Rolling Kidney Stones,” was written to coincide with the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary in 2012, and it riffs about their age. Another new song is about Pope Francis, titled “Don’t Cry for Me, I’m From Argentina.”
In terms of their own beliefs, the members of the Steps represent the entire political spectrum. Newport likes to describe herself as “an extreme moderate,” and believes that solutions to most political issues lie somewhere in the middle.
“When I was a staffer, I worked for Sen. Charles Percy, who was a moderate Republican,” she notes, before quipping: “That’s a species that today, we can read about in history books, but you almost never see in the wild.”
Kevin Ransom, a free-lance writer who covers music and comedy for AnnArbor.com, first interviewed the Capitol Steps’ Elaina Newport for The Ann Arbor News in 1991.