President Obama has just released his “playlist” – whatever that means. I suppose it contains the songs he wants to project. Probably some he really likes, some he thinks are songs that embody his message, some he hopes might be a straw that breaks the camel’s back of support for someone else (e.g., Dierks Bentley), and some he’ll play at rallies. For what it’s worth, here they are:
No Doubt—“Different People”
Earth Wind & Fire Experience featuring Al McKay Allstars—“Got to Get You Into My Life—(Live)”
Booker T. & The MG’s—“Green Onions”
Wilco—“I Got You”
The Impressions—“Keep on Pushing”
Jennifer Hudson—“Love You I Do”
Arcade Fire—“We Used to Wait”
Florence and the Machine—“You’ve Got the Love”
James Taylor—“Your Smiling Face”
REO Speedwagon—“Roll with the Changes”
Raphael Saadiq—“Keep Marchin’”
Noah and the Whale—“Tonight’s the Kind of Night”
Zac Brown Band—“Keep Me in Mind”
Aretha Franklin—“The Weight”
U2—“Even Better Than the Real Thing”
Darius Rucker—“Learn to Live”
Al Green—“Let’s Stay Together”
Electric Light Orchestra—“Mr. Blue Sky”
Montgomery Gentry—“My Town”
Ricky Martin—“The Best Thing About Me Is You Feat. Joss Stone”
Ray LaMontagne—“You Are the Best Thing”
Bruce Springsteen—“We Take Care of Our Own”
A pretty decent list for a politician.
But no hiphop and no jazz. He can’t have hiphop – I imagine – because it projects black anger. But why no jazz?
The question I fantasize asking presidents and presidential candidates is: What kind of music best represents America? Or maybe a more specific question: If you had to pick a song other than “The Star Spangled Banner” or “America the Beautiful” that best represents America, what would it be?
To the first question I can’t see how you could truly answer anything but jazz. Country? A calculated appeal to a segment of the population, but too narrow and too white. Bluegrass? Way too narrow. Rock? Too dissolute. Hiphop or soul? No. Classical? Too European – even if we’re talking Copland or Barber. Obama’s playlist seems to suggest another answer, probably the answer most politicians would actually give: All of the above – except the really “black” stuff. (By the way, why the newer live version of “Got to Get You into My Life”? The original Earth Wind and Fire version is so good.) But that’s just the problem. Jazz really is all of the above – unified into something greater. The unity is lacking.
Obama is the subject of a lot of criticism and a lot of disappointment. It occurred to me recently that there’s a very similar phenomenon with Wynton Marsalis. Both channel the hopes of American greatness; both have struggled with and overcome false identities to achieve a certain kind of mastery. Marsalis is criticized by jazz lovers for being great without being moving. Obama is criticized by liberals and independents for being great without making decisive change.
One thing I’ve come to know about music – or any art, for that matter – is that the audience plays a crucial role in its creation. Among other things, an artist is someone who can channel surrounding energies into something true, beautiful, and/or moving. Perhaps the real problem with Marsalis and Obama is not so much them as us. They’ve perfected their light bulbs; we don’t have enough voltage to power them.
I suppose to the second question I’d say “Concerto for Cootie” – or anything by Duke Ellington. But since I’ve just finished reading Lush Life about Billy Strayhorn, let me suggest “Take the A Train.” When Ellington was considering Strayhorn as a member of the team, Billy proved his worth by making a song out of the Duke’s directions about how to get to his place in Harlem.