MARCH 12, 2008
Yes We Can”
“You and I”
“Let’s Put a Woman in Charge”
Among the things that happened in early February, when Barack Obama’s campaign for the Democratic nomination seemed suddenly to kick into a higher gear, was the emergence, through YouTube, of a new music video called “Yes We Can,” a mash-up of moments from the speech Obama gave after the New Hampshire primary, set to music by Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. The clip had more than two million hits in its first week, and the Obama campaign posted a link to it on the homepage of its website.
Michelle Obama, in a bulk e-mail urging supporters of her husband’s candidacy to share the clip, declared that “after nearly a year on the campaign trail, I’ve seen a lot of things that have touched me deeply, but I had to share this with you,” and share she did. The ongoing sharing of the video has become the Web-era counterpart to all that singing of “Happy Days Are Here Again” during the Roosevelt campaign of 1932. While “Yes We Can” may seem to be evidence of the obsolescence of old-style campaign songs, it is also a demonstration of the power of music, well employed, in electoral politics today. In fact, in the way it has engaged the electorate, “Yes We Can” is far more old-fashioned than it sounds.
Will.i.am, whose screen-name-in-Seussville nom de plume betrays the penchant for attention-grabbing and gimmickry that marred his work with the Black Eyes Peas as well as his more recent solo music, is new to the electoral arena. “I was never really big on politics ... and actually I’m still not big on politics. ..” he explained in a wafting, IM-ish piece, “Why I Recorded ‘Yes We Can,’” for The Huffington Post. “And then came New Hampshire,” he wrote. “That speech made me think of Martin Luther King .../Kennedy .../Lincoln....” Such was the effectiveness of Obama’s speech, which explicitly conjured Kennedy and King with its references to “a president who chose the moon as our new frontier, and a King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed the way to the Promised Land.”
Working quickly with talented, beautiful, or famous friends, Will.i.am put together “Yes We Can” in two days, and Jesse Dylan directed what is essentially a video offspring of the 1980s clip that gave us his father at his most terrified and endearing, in Quincy Jones’s “We Are the World.” The idea in both cases was to present popular artists and celebrities—musicians, actors, sports figures, models—mobilized by a cause, moved to take hours out of their day in an appeal to their fans in the name of mutual good citizenship. (“Yes We Can” has, among its performers, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Scarlett Johansson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kate Walsh, Harold Perrineau, Aisha Tyler, Kelly Hu, Adam Rodriguez, and the rapper Common.) Of course, the cause here is the very definition of partisanship: a politician. At its heart, the project is a disorienting hybrid of charity, vanity, popular art, and promotion—that is, vintage politics packaged as a file attachment.
Musically, “Yes We Can” is an inventive and affecting piece of work—far better, certainly, than “We Are the World” and its inheritors in noble-cause video gangbang treacle, “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “That’s What Friends Are For.” The video, which is shot in black and white, opens with the sound of an acoustic guitar strummed lightly but in tempo, establishing the pulse integral to hip-hop while stirring the musical ghosts of political folk songs predating the dust-bowl ballads of Woody Guthrie and the Almanac Singers. Nearly the whole song is built on a four-chord progression common to gospel music, black and white. (With minute variations, the same chord changes have been used to evoke the sound of the South in innumerable pop songs, from Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” to Randy Newman’s “Louisiana” to the Indigo Girls’ “Southland in the Spring Time.”)
While the guitar blocks time, we see, in a medium shot, Will.i.am, looking unnaturally serious for Will.i.am, gazing straight ahead at the camera as he adjusts his outfit. Will.i.am, who studied fashion before going into music, designs his own clothes (and markets a line of “premium denim wear” under the trade name i.am Antik), and he is wearing a quasi-military jacket with epaulettes and a pin on one lapel. Most others in the video are dressed casually, as if they just happened to drop by Will.i.am’s recording studio while he was making a video or as if they checked their couture—instead of their egos—at the door.
All the words in “Yes We Can” are taken from the Obama speech, which we see and hear in excerpts—in Obama’s own voice accompanied by Will.i.am and his collaborators intoning the language, duplicating Obama’s inflections. Although the idea of using a speech as the basis of a musical piece is not exactly new, it has not been done much or especially well in the pop idiom. Ed Sanders of the Fugs, the rock-poetry group, set King’s “I Have a Dream” address to music, and a pop-opera composer, Dimitris Papakostas, created a concert work based on the spoken words of King, Gandhi, and Mandela. (I heard the former in a performance in Sanders’s native Woodstock, and I found it a noble fizzle, but I have not heard the latter.) In “Yes We Can,” the musicality of Obama’s swaying, rhythmic phrases is striking; the language seems at home with a band behind it, rather than out of place, as it can sound at the podium; and rhetoric that can come across as purple on the stump seems lyrical when it is sung: “It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation ... Yes, we can. It was sung by immigrants as they struck out from distant shores and pioneers who pushed westward against an unforgiving wilderness ... Yes we can.”
With help from the singer John Legend, who provided an arching melody, the phrase “Yes we can” works as a potent hook. Will.i.am, in much of his work to date, has made repetition a signature device. Among the songs he has constructed with layers of similar or identical materials is the tune “I Got It From My Mama,” in which he asks a woman, “Tell me where’d you get your body from?” and she replies, “I got it from my mama! I got it from my mama!” He then asks another woman, “Tell me where’d you get your body from?” and she replies, “I got it from my mama! I got it from my mama!” And so forth. I don’t know where he got the idea for what might be called “I Got It From Obama,” but he certainly overdoes the repetition again in the new song, repeating the phrase “Yes we can” all he wants, because yes, he can. Still, taken as a whole, the song and the video of “Yes We Can” are memorable and have already proved to be influential. About a week after the video was posted, two take-offs on it, both mocking John McCain appeared. The better of the two is titled “john.he.is,” and it replicates the style of the Will.i.am clip, using incendiary excerpts from McCain speeches and interviews, closing with the bizarre statement, “I don’t think Americans are concerned if we’re [in Iraq] for a hundred years or a thousand years or ten thousand years.”
Hillary Clinton is unique among the active candidates in the presidential campaign for having formally established an official campaign song. She seemed to take seriously the potential of music to help shape and advance her image as a candidate—and, then again, she didn’t. She could not leave such a detail unattended, nor could she miss an opportunity to make it another topic in the “conversation,” as she used to call her campaign. Last spring, Clinton announced in a video message on her campaign website that she was soliciting suggestions from her supporters for a campaign song.
“I want to know what you’re thinking on one of the most important questions of this campaign,” she said in a selfdefeatingly affectless voice. “It’s something we’ve been struggling with— debating, agonizing over, for months. So now I’m turning to you, the American people. Here’s the issue: What do you think our campaign song should be?” Through the overblown language, no doubt scripted, she seemed to be joking. Then again, in her tone—and in the fact that her campaign posted a well considered list of songs (KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See,” Shania Twain’s “Rock This Country!” U2’s “Beautiful Day”) and, not long after that, a final choice—she seemed wholly serious. She appeared so determined to have things both ways that she could just as well have chosen the Lovin’ Spoonful’s old hit “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?”
The final choice, Céline Dion’s “You and I,” is a fatuous, pandering power ballad, underwritten and overarranged. Originally commissioned for another campaign—an advertising effort to improve Air Canada’s image as the company attempted to recover from bankruptcy—the song was co-composed by an agency executive and has an unspeakably, if not unsingably, banal lyric about mutual destiny and shared glory: “You and I/Were meant to fly/Higher than the clouds/ We’ll sail across the sky....” In recent stages of the campaign, as she dipped and purled in her journey through the sky, Clinton has used the Dion recording less and less.
Like Obama, Clinton found herself the beneficiary of the gift of an unsolicited campaign song by a supporter in the ranks of professional musicians. Merle Haggard, the cagey old country tunesmith once best known in political circles for a rant against hippiedom called “Okie from Muskogee,” composed a pro-Clinton tune originally called “Hillary,” then re-named “Let’s Put a Woman in Charge.” Set to a gentle conversational melody, the song delivers the campaign message of “experience” every bit as well as Will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” communicates “inspiration.” The nettlesome factor is a neatly pithy couplet about the Clintons’ White House years, which deviates considerably from Hillary’s campaign message by suggesting that Hillary learned from Bill’s example: “Eight years in the White House with the know-how we need/When you walk with a leader, you learn how to lead.” Explaining the song in a TV interview, Haggard said he didn’t believe that Hillary was necessarily the best of the candidates, but that the Clintons together represented “the bestbuy—you know, you get Bill” along with his wife. For a while after Haggard gave her a recording of the tune, Clinton played it on the campaign trail, and then she all but dropped it.
The Haggard tune is a charming archaism, a throwback to the many years when important songwriters would do work for candidates, and campaign songs would have the currency of pop hits. Coincidentally, of course, most of the songs by the best-known composers were written for winners. For Buchanan, Stephen Foster wrote “The White House Chair”; for Harding, Al Jolson did “Harding, You’re the Man for Us”; for Eisenhower, Irving Berlin contributed “I Like Ike”; for Kennedy, at Sinatra’s request, Sammy Cahn rewrote “High Hopes.” (“Everyone wants to back Jack/Jack is on the right track!”)
With the exception of ”Yes We Can,” which was not only created for Obama but designed for his supporters to use through Web sharing, songs are now employed almost solely as background scores for the candidates’ tightly scripted narratives. As such, campaign songs today serve the same function as the pop songs in the background scores of movies, television shows, and commercials.
Example: Hillary Clinton works the crowd, and the PA system pumps out “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The lyrics have virtually nothing to do with Clinton or her policies, and the idea of playing the song is not to stir voters to stroll about singing it, as if doing so would conjure votes for Clinton. In fact, the lyrics are not all that positive about the United States: “Well, she was an American girl/Raised on promises,/She couldn’t help thinkin’/That there was a little more to life somewhere else/After all it was a great big world.” The idea of using “American Girl” as a campaign song is to reinforce the key points in Clinton’s narrative—her gender, through the phrase in the hook, and her strength, through the grit of Petty’s music.
Click: Barack Obama strides to the podium to the sound of Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” Again, the words are hardly about Obama or his candidacy, unless we are to take the confessional line in the bridge—”I’ve done a lot of foolish things/That I really didn’t mean, didn’t I?”—as a reference to Obama’s acknowledged (and probably inflated) youthful experience with drugs. More to the point, the song is upbeat and smart, but not so smart as to be threatening, and it echoes Obama’s appeal across race lines. It is something black that most white people can appreciate. Can these presidential campaigns, Democratic and Republican, employ music more thoughtfully and less cynically? Yes, they can. And no, they probably won’t.
David Hajdu is The New Republic’s music critic.