For a New Generation, Obama Video Evokes Dream of the Past
Wednesday, February 6, 2008
It's a multi-culti, viral moment, calculated specifically for the YouTube Generation and riding the wave of Obamamania right on time for Super Tuesday: acoustic guitar, black-and-white footage, rapper will.i.am., sporting a fedora and looking thoughtful, crooning softly against a backdrop of Barack Obama's rousing concession speech on primary night in New Hampshire. Add in an eclectic contingent of celebrities -- John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Scarlett Johansson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- echoing key Obama phrases in English, Spanish and Hebrew.
Mix. Repeat. Add in more faces and voices, layering them one on top of another, chanting "Yes, we can" in an emotional crescendo. Fade out with the words: "Hope. Vote."
Release the video on Super Bowl weekend. Hope it doesn't get lost in Brady hysteria. Accumulate millions of hits on the Internet.
Politics and pop culture have always danced together. There was Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel's 1984 ode to Jesse Jackson, "Jesse," and Eminem's raging anti-Bush anthem "Mosh," released right before the 2004 presidential election. (And we can't dismiss Obama Girl's cheeky "I Got a Crush on Obama.") But will.i.am's video, directed by Jesse Dylan -- son of Bob -- reads like a commercial straight from Obama headquarters, calibrated to appeal to a demographic cross section: boomers, Gen X and Gen Y'ers, the ones who came of age Rocking the Vote with MTV. (For all of the youthful trappings of the viral media, the average age of online video viewers is 39.)
It's engineered to uplift, tugging at tears and obliquely invoking comparisons to Martin Luther King Jr. and César Chávez as Legend throws his arms wide and sings, "A King who took us to the mountaintop and pointed us to the promised land" and "CSI: Miami" actor Adam Rodriguez intones, "Sí, se puede!"
The people behind the video say the Illinois Democrat's campaign had nothing to do with the video. "The intention," Dylan said yesterday, "was to make a really simple thing. . . . It was like, 'Super Tuesday's coming, let's try and get this up, maybe it can help a bit.' We weren't doing it for the campaign. We were doing it for what [Obama] said in the speech. . . . I believe the words he had to say."
"It's a very effective video," says Tricia Rose, professor of Africana studies at Brown University. "Semi-spiritual, uplifting, a fusion of progressive narrative with religious and emotional sentiment. It's an inspirational slice of the civil rights movement legacy."
Obama's Jan. 8 New Hampshire speech had nothing to do with losing. Will.i.am, the frontman for the Black Eyed Peas, said the speech shoved him off the fence and inspired him to make the video. "That speech made me think of Martin Luther King . . . Kennedy . . . and Lincoln . . . and all the others that have fought for what we have today," he wrote in his blog, Dipdive.com.
Watching the video with his 9-year-old daughter on his lap, cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal says he got choked up. His daughter -- whom he described as a Hillary Clinton supporter -- turned to him and said, "Daddy, why are you crying?" For Neal, 42, who was a child when Shirley Chisholm ran for president in 1972 and who came of age when Jesse Jackson first ran for office in 1984, the video tugged at him.
"For a generation of 40-somethings this is iconic imagery," says Neal, professor of African American studies at Duke University. It recalls Kennedy and King, "their hopes, their dreams, their passions and the reminder of their deaths. It really pulls at our heartstrings the way more mundane political songs don't.
"Political music is very often not very good music," Neal adds. "The aesthetics get left aside for the politics. . . . But I think this is an extraordinarily strong video. And the song itself is halfway decent; you wouldn't mind listening to it."
Its creators say the video was an "organic," ad hoc creation, and that they recorded it in two days. Will.i.am, a onetime John Kerry supporter, called filmmakers Mike Jurkovac and Dylan on Sunday, Jan. 27, and told them he had an idea. By that Wednesday, they were crammed in a recording studio in Los Angeles, gathering friends and whomever they could recruit along the way. After the video was recorded, they uploaded it on YouTube and Dipdive.com, and promoted it on ABC News's "What's the Buzz" on Friday.
"It was an exciting experience to be able to contribute not only by recruiting supporters but by artistically collaborating to get the message out," Johansson said in an e-mail. "I think myself and the other contributors hope that the video will inspire supporters, undecideds and people that are unfamiliar with Obama's policies to join his movement for change."
Originally, the filmmakers thought about including images of other yes-we-can moments in American history: King's "I Have a Dream" speech, astronauts walking on the moon, the suffragists marching in the streets. But they decided to confine the images to Obama and the singers on the screen, Jurkovac said.
"When you create a look and feel for a piece visually that's based on this black-and-white footage, it gives it this historical connotation," Jurkovac said. "What's moving people are the same themes: 'Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country' or 'I have a dream.' If there's a swell of a movement among young people, that's what they're reacting to." Even if they never lived through it.