Power of Soul

Obama needs help picking his campaign song.

By Craig D. Lindsey
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 1 | Posted Sep. 10, 2008

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illustration by alex fine

Barack Obama's speech at the Democratic National Convention a couple of weeks ago was indeed a thing of wonder. He hit all the right spots when it came to goosing up that jam-packed Mile High Stadium crowd and getting them (as well as the home audience) to realize another four years of Republican rule is not an option.

But to me, there was one false note: He ended his speech by playing "Only in America" by Brooks & Dunn. Brooks & Dunn? Not surprisingly, "Only in America" sounds like something that would be more at home at the Republican National Convention. (Actually, it was at home there in 2004, when it was played for our current president.)

Now, I'm not one to disrespect other people's musical choices--one man's Marvin Gaye is another man's Marvin Hamlisch (and vice-versa). But to me this seemed a lot like blatant pandering--Obama reaching out to those red-state, Middle America, undecided voters who still are a bit iffy about a light-skined brotha sitting in the Oval Office. This was good ol' Barry practically saying, "Hey, I'm one of you! Listen to what I'm playing. You like that country shit, don't ya? Well, so do I!"

Obama could've played something that was both inspired and inspiring. A song that spoke to the people about who he is and where he came from. The man's from Chicago, for crying out loud. He couldn't find a song to play from his neck of the woods that would've been better suited to the occasion? You can't tell me he couldn't get fellow proud Chicagoan (and infamous Bush hater) Kanye West to let him drop "Champion" or "Touch the Sky."

As a matter of fact, West sampled Curtis Mayfield, another Chicago son, on "Touch the Sky," and Curtis Mayfield practically spent his career writing anthemic numbers that black presidential candidates could easily blast through loudspeakers. "We're a Winner, " the song Mayfield did with the Impressions in 1967, would've been a perfect song to close out his speech. Sure, it was a civil-rights movement, pro-black-and-proud number back in the day, but it could also play today as a patriotic morale booster.

Check it: "I don't mind leavin' here/ To show the world we have no fear/ 'Cause we're a winner/ And everybody knows it too/ We'll just keep on pushin'/ Like your leaders tell you to/ At last that blessed day has come/ And I don't care where you come from/ We're just gonna move on up."

(Side story: When I suggested this to a colleague of mine, he told me he listened to "We're a Winner"--along with many other Mayfield songs--on his iPod on his way to the polls to vote for Obama during the Texas primary.)

The funny thing is Obama has played Mayfield for crowds on the campaign trail. Earlier this year, the Dial "M" for Musicology blog listed the campaign-stop playlists of many presidential hopefuls. And while John Mellencamp, Rascal Flatts and Bachman-Turner Overdrive were recurring performers for other candidates, Obama's campaign mixtape consisted of old-school R&B artists, including Chi-Town greats like Mayfield, Earth, Wind & Fire and The Staple Singers. (He did throw in some U2 and All-American Rejects for the white folk.)

But it was a collection that didn't just show that Obama's musical tastes lean toward the soulful. In a Chicago Tribune article, UCLA musicology professor Robert Fink remarked that Obama's playlists recalled a time "when black and white liberals were unified by their love of soul music and their support for integration and civil rights." It wasn't just a hodgepodge of tunes to whip up a crowd, but a musical reminder of the unified strength and power Democrats possessed--and could possess again.

If Obama's having trouble picking out the right song to play for the masses, I know an artist or two who have tunes all ready and cued up for him. Peven Everett, an indie R&B performer who hails from--you guessed it!--the Windy City, has been so moved by Obama's journey he wrote a song memorializing it called "Even in Your Tears."

Everett feels Obama shouldn't forget how music defines people as much as it affects and entertains them. The right theme song can end up becoming synonymous with that candidate. (Can you even think of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop”; without thinking of Bill and Hillary circa 1992?)

As we move full-steam ahead to that November Election Day and Obama needs to go all out to get everybody aboard his hope-and-change train, he should take time to find a proper closing number that speaks volumes not only about him, but our country as well. "I really feel that if he chooses a song to represent anything," Everett says, "it should be a song that really takes care of America, and doesn't leave anybody out."

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1. Joe said... on Sep 16, 2008 at 05:22AM

“How about Sly & the Family Stones "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey"?”

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