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Change of the Century: A Campaign Playlist

Last Thursday in Denver, at the rousing convention finale held on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the most gifted orator of his generation finished the most important speech of his life before a crowd of more than 80,000 and an international audience of millions. And what music did Barack Obama choose to accompany his exit? “Only in America” by Brooks and Dunn, a song recycled from the Republican convention four years ago. If there’s one act that deserves to be put in the slammer with the Oak Ridge Boys, it is Brooks and Dunn.

This can’t be the musical change America needs. I love my country too, but “Only in America” reminds me of the speech a generation ago in which the elder mayor Daley of Chicago pontificated that “together we will rise to ever higher and higher platitudes.” The song choice was especially puzzling because Obama, with the possible exception of Ralph Nader’s 2008 running mate Matt Gonzalez, has the most interesting musical taste of any candidate for the Oval Office in recent memory. Stevie Wonder was in the house, and stadium-worthy Obama fans ranging from Wilco and Kanye to Springsteen and U2 couldn’t have been more than a phone call away. If they were all unavailable, couldn’t Obama simply have put his iPod on shuffle?

I suppose you could view the commandeering of “Only in America” as a defiant gesture aiming straight for the hearts and ears of red state line-dancers and wearers of enormous hats. But I still think the song is too weak to work, especially now that John McCain has thrown down the gauntlet by selecting Alaskan yodeler Jewel Kilcher as his running mate (or was it Lisa Loeb?). Can we attempt to lay out a campaign playlist suitable for a year of change? As Bob the Builder would say, “yes we can.”

Lee Dorsey, “Yes We Can”

The Pointer Sisters added an extra “can” to the title for their hit version of the Allen Toussaint-penned New Orleans funk classic, but I prefer Lee Dorsey’s earthier 1970 version. As storm waters head toward the Crescent City yet again, it’s a good time to emphasize the need to back up the song’s optimism with real resources and hard work.

Merle Haggard, “If We Make it Through December”

Where some see struggles between red and blue to control the United States map, I simply see a struggle for the soul of Merle Haggard. Most famous for decades-old hippie-tweaking fare, Haggard is also an underdog troubadour whose ear for the poetry of the working man sometimes rivals Guthrie and Springsteen. I was surprised to discover buried alongside the ABBA ditties on John McCain’s all-time Top Ten was Hag’s bleak seventies weeper “December.” The laid-off father in the song has a bank account in the red and a serious case of the blues.

Neil Young, “Campaigner”

The ultimate crossover anthem: “Even Richard Nixon has got soul.”

Parliament, “Chocolate City”

As George Clinton says here, “they still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition, too. 
Can you dig it, CC?” This one might not have been used because Obama had already given two nights to the Clintons.

Kanye West, “Touch the Sky”

You have to love that one of Obama’s all-time Top Ten songs, according to Blender, graces the video in which Kanye West does an Evel Kneivel impersonation, with Pamela Anderson as his sidekick. Never underestimate the power of the Evel Kneivel vote. Isn’t Nevada a swing state?

Aretha Franklin, “Think”

As George Clinton used to say, “think, it ain’t illegal yet.”

Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”

Sure, you could gripe that “Step Right Up” is too cynical and arch to stand up as a campaign theme. On the other hand, talk about a candidate of change: “Change your shorts, change your life, change into a nine-year old Hindu boy, get rid of your wife.” And then there’s his empathy for the downtrodden: “Heartbreak of psoriasis? Christ, you don’t know the meaning of heartbreak.”

Ted Leo, “The Sons of Cain”

Having questioned the “land of fungible convictions” in his 2003 foreign policy opus “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” Ted Leo brings it all back home on this one, which previews the No American Left Behind Act of 2009.

Uncle Tupelo, “No Depression”

It’s the economy, stupid. But it’s also our collective memory.

The National, “Fake Empire”

This is not a bumper sticker song, but it would make a great one: “We’re half-awake in a fake empire.”

Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come”

Self-explanatory and timeless.

From → Diatribes, Playlists

One Comment
  1. shacker permalink

    Wonder whether Obama chose “Yes We Can” for the title/motif, or because the music is so great. Had forgotten about the magic of Lee Dorsey, thanks for bringing that back.

    Though I’ve enjoyed several of Tom Waits’ later year performances, I would give anything to have seen him in that era. Amazing.

    Coinkidink: Currently enjoying a cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” by cellist/folk/protest artist Ben Sollee.

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