April 12, 2023 Musicology No Comments

I had heard it myself once, and I admit, I didn’t give the matter a thought. But I was asked to do a little “fact-checking.”

It has been about a month since this production shot to the top of iTunes sales lists. And Billboard’s too. “Justice For All,” if you’ve not heard it, is a recording that combines the “Star Spangled Banner,” performed by prisoners incarcerated following the events of January 6th, and a recording of the “Pledge Of Allegiance” performed by Donald Trump. It was the opening number at Trump’s recent Waco rally.

And here is the source recording that I was told it was supposedly built from, the original recording from the Washington D.C. prison.

So the question I was asked was, “Is the recording from TikTok really the one from which Justice For All was made?” Is that doable?

And then this too: If social media is to be believed, there’s supposedly an anonymous top-tier producer involved, so whether you imagine that’s Kanye, Kid Rock, Ted Nugent, or Jonathan Cain, or whoever, we might also ask if any of their fingerprints seem to be on this.

How about we deal with that part first and set the matter of the “choir” aside for a sec. I’d submit that there are some not especially sophisticated musical choices in this track, and that it’s unlikely in my opinion that there’s a Jonathan Cain-level musician behind this. I’m not going full on “pants on fire” with it, because really, who knows? But this claim is in my opinion likely false.

And as for the larger question:

“Is it actually that recording of the prisoners singing that’s in ‘Justice For All?'”

First, as usual, we do a bit of critical listening, a write up a not-too-fussy transcription, just the first handful of notes and it’s a cluster. On the bottom staff is the melody to the first line, “Oh Say Can You See.” And the top staff is what the J6 Choir in the TikTok video sang. Chaos.

There’s very little agreement around the pitches. This so-called “choir” is all over the place, but I mean, any of us would be too; that’s how it goes. When a bunch of folks starts up singing outta nowhere, whether it’s “Happy Birthday” or “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow,” it’s gonna be a pretty random start. Best case scenario, from the chaos a tonality will emerge and win out, because one or two people will be able to carry a tune, and gradually the mob will gravitate toward those guiding voices. You can hear it happening a little bit here too. The prison performance eventually finds its key center, and that key center is B Major. So, that’s how I transcribed it.

Then some hypothesizing.

Why, then, is “Justice For All” lower, in Ab Major? Sure, it could be transposed or pitch-shifted in software to any key, but my first thought was, “Why would you pitch-shift the whole thing away from where it most naturally sits, introducing complexity and maybe unnecessary audio artifacts?” It seemed like an odd choice, giving some credence to the notion that “Justice For All” was built from some other session where they sang in Ab Major in the first place.

And what about that “(our flag was) STILL THERE” part that’s just yelled? That doesn’t sound like it’s from the J6 TikTok either. Why would you process that at all from the original when you could leave it alone, add some ambiance, and splice it in?

But rather than looking to detect the J6 choir’s TikTok recording in the bigly manipulated “Justice For All,” I asked myself what I’d do if someone asked me to make “Justice For All.” And after some bigly manipulations of my own, I’d have to say…

It’s probably just what it says it is.

If you gave me one long day, I could make them sound like angels and produce the whole song, former Prez and a lot better than “Justice For All.” But just for the sake of substantiating the at-issue claim, here are a few notes.

It takes a bit of finagling, obviously, but a result like “Justice For All” can be had from the material at hand, that TikTok. And I know my illustration doesn’t sound exactly the same as the chart-topper, because it wouldn’t. The steps taken in my manipulation wouldn’t be exactly theirs. There is more than one way to get from here to there.

So to the question, “Is it really the J6 choir from that TikTok that appears in “Justice For All?” My answer is, I’m not 100% sure. But as for the question, “Is it possible to make “Justice For All” from that J6 Prison Choir iPhone recording without some other better-performed recording involved?” My answer was yes, and it’s not all that hard, and based on that, the most available hypothesis is that “Justice For All” is just what it says it is.

Written by Brian McBrearty