And while candidates have been playing music on the stump since the days when doing so required a brass band, this feels different. We’re being invited into a courtship ritual as old as cassette technology. This is a collection of songs designed to make the recipient fall in love with the sender.
Only, Obama has a vast and varied electorate to woo — and that means his playlist does a lot of herky-jerky genre jumping. The results are not all swoon-worthy. Florence + the Machine’s melodramatic pop bristles up against country duo Montgomery Gentry. The beatific falsetto of Curtis Mayfield reminds us how awful Ray LaMontagne is. And for some reason, there’s an Electric Light Orchestra song. In speeches, the president has cited the plight of American farmers and factory workers. Now he feels the pain of America’s wedding DJs.
And so does his staff. On Spotify, the mix is subtitled like so: “The official 2012 playlist includes picks by the campaign staff — including a few of President Obama’s favorites.” A spokesperson for the Obama campaign clarified in an e-mail that the president didn’t choose the songs; they were suggested by staff members and volunteers.
Props at least to the senior staff, because the best songs here are the oldies. Aretha Franklin’s “The Weight” and Booker T. & the M.G.’s’ “Green Onions” are powerful enough to put an exclamation point on the stumpiest stump speech. And no surprise that Al Green’s heart melting “Let’s Stay Together” was included after Obama famously crooned a line from it at Harlem’s Apollo Theater last month.
Also in the mix: Chicago acts the Impressions, Jennifer Hudson and Wilco, as well as a surprising amount of country artists. Dierks Bentley’s handsomely patriotic “Home” is a standout, while Darius Rucker and Sugarland each appear twice.
And isn’t zero Sugarland songs enough? The duo’s “Everyday America” is overly slick pop country, but at least its refrain is warm apple pie: “That’s how it goes in everyday America / A little town and a great big life.”
Other songs favor message over melody, too. No Doubt’s “Different People” has a pro-diversity chorus (“My world’s full of people / All different kinds with different ways”), but is marred by an irritating ska-pop feel. It will be handy in clearing rooms after speeches run over.
“No Nostalgia” by Portland indie-rock band AgesandAges sounds like a rousing, 21st-century version of a Fleetwood Mac song that Bill Clinton might have campaigned with in the ’90s. “No looking back!” the band sings. Irony ensues.
The campaign says that all of the artists were contacted for their blessing before being included on the mix. So the president shouldn’t expect the backlash suffered by so many Republican candidates in the past. When Tom Petty asked Michele Bachmann to stop playing “American Girl” at her campaign stops last year, it was one in a long series of high-profile flaps between rock stars and presidential hopefuls.
Here’s a bloc entitled to a gripe with Obama’s playlist: the hip-hop community. It’s the one major contemporary pop form missing from the playlist. (Soul singer Ledisi has some chanted verses in her “Raise Up,” but she’s not a hip-hop artist.)
Hip-hop continues to vex this presidency. The genre’s stars mobilized in 2008, celebrating Obama in song and nudging young voters to the polls, but the administration has struggled to return the gesture. After Chicago rapper Common was invited to a poetry event at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. last May, the media seized on a controversial anti-George W. Bush lyric, putting the White House on the defensive.
It’s touchy, certainly. But isn’t there one rap song in this great nation that would have been suitable for the president’s mix?
Then again, that’s the beauty of Spotify. It’s never too late to add a song — or five.