Playing It Safe

by Jason Lee Oakes

Critics and supporters alike described the president’s debate performance last week as “listless and passive,” “defensive,” and “arguably the lowest point in his campaign for a second term” (all quotes from the New York Socialist Times no less). Immediately after the debate, Obama’s campaign team went into damage control mode. The mediaocracy has deemed Mitt Romney “back in play” and the polls are tightening. [update 10/9: Romney has moved ahead in at least one poll.]

Well, I listened to Barack Obama’s Spotify playlist and I saw it coming. The mix is a somewhat bizarre and jumbled grab bag aimed at different sets of listeners and, one assumes, different political constituencies. More alarming, however, is the fact that the one recurring lyrical theme is a pervasive sense of resignation buoyed only by blind hope. The theme of resignation is reinforced musically across the stylistic spectrum: mild soul and retro-soul, smooth R&B, tepid indie rock, simpering country-pop (no exaggeration), a couple “play it safe” hip hop selections, a few random FM rock selections, a few Starbucks world music selections, a Ricky Martin song that’s not “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” and a version of “Sweet Home Chicago” that’s Viagra-commercial ready. In other words, it’s pretty lame.

I’ll be the first to admit this appraisal is a bit harsh. Politicians aren’t generally known for making daring musical choices. Plus the mix has some highlights (“Green Onions” anyone), the last half improves measurably on the first half, and the more left-field choices are fun, ranging from ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” to Willow’s “Whip My Hair.” There’s plenty of good artists and good songs. However, when taken together, they achieve a sort of negative synergy that makes the mix an ideal musical counterpart to Obama’s dismal performance in the first debate. It’s startling how the songs, taken as a whole sonically and lyrically, put across a “passive listless”  impression where hope is mostly of the blind variety. Just to take one example, in the lyrics to Florence and the Machine’s “You’ve Got the Love.” the narrator describes how “time after time” she thinks “Lord I just don’t care” or “Oh Lord, what’s the use?” Her only hope is a “savior” in the form of a loving and generous romantic partner or, translated to Obama’s campaign, the hope for a loving and generous electorate.

Even the Al Green selection adheres to this narrative. While the romantic entreatments of “Let’s Stay Together” makes for a great love song, it also makes for a terrible campaign slogan (“whatever you want to do is all right with me” indeed). What’s more, context is everything. On Obama’s playlist the Al Green classic is sandwiched by the two most gag-reflex-testing songs on the playlist: Sugarland’s “Stand Up” and Darius Rucker’s “This.” The latter is a song that literally pays tribute to mediocrity and failure—set against a country-lite backdrop that itself screams mediocrity—reassuring a romantic partner with the lines, “Thank God for all I missed / ’cause it led me here to this.” But how reassuring is it to know you’re only with your partner because  he was rejected by his high school crush and wasn’t accepted to the college of his choice?

Even worse, Sugarland’s “Stand Up” made me want to stand up and throw my personal listening device against the wall. This visceral reaction was provoked even before I tuned into the lyrics about “all the lonely people crying” whose “hope has turned to dust” that just need to “stand up and use [their] voice.” The song is so smarmy, slick, and self-satisfied that it defies description. Thanks, Sugarland, for making me want to punch the nearest stranger in the face.

Let’s go back to the beginning and see where things went wrong. Obama’s playlist opens with Raphael Saadiq’s “Keep Marchin’.” Musically, the song is a mashup of the Temptations and the Impressions with a guitar melody that strongly echoes “My Girl.” Lyrically, it evokes the latter’s “Keep On Pushing,” a song that also appears on Obama’s mix. It’s a fine enough song, but heard in the context of the upcoming election it’s remarkably laid back musically, and reactive lyrically, especially as a lead-off track.

In the intro, the sunny, Motown-style arrangement seems to anticipate an upbeat love song. But instead, Saadiq opens with the lines: “When there’s nothing you can do / when there’s nothing you can say / ‘cause everything just ain’t gonna go your way / when you’re feelin’ kinda strange and you wanna lay it down,” followed later by imagery of a rich girl crying and a clown with no make-up (your guess is as good as mine). The context for the songs Saadiq pays homages to here is the Civil Rights movement, but in his song it’s uncertain what the context is supposed to be. In an interview, the co-founder explains that the song “reminds me I’ve been marching up this ladder a long, time time,” by which he apparently means his career ladder.

In the scenario laid out in the song, the only solution is to keep marching on because, well, what the heck else are you going to do. Again, this is the first song on Obama’s mix–its lyrics advocate soldiering on to an uncertain destination, while its music suggests passive acceptance of the bad situation described in the lyrics. This all makes perfect sense in light of four years of “obstructionist, party-first politics” by the Republicans, and four years of concessions and compromises by the president (or maybe Obama was a centrist Republican all along) but it’s an ambivalent message at best for voters.

Lest one think that Obama (or whoever assembled the mix) picked “Keep Marchin’” for its swingin’ retro-soul vibe, the next two songs hammer away at the same theme: lone individuals resisting fate and hoping to catch a lucky break (or to march heedlessly into the void, take your pick). The Springsteen-esque second track by Noah and the Whale tells the story of a boy saying goodbye to his hopeless one-horse town. Apparently it’s one heck of a depressing place, a place where “circles of street lights are the only signal that there’s people out there in the black.” But just like on the opening track, musically, we’re in pleasantly uplifting major-key territory. The chorus can only offer a cautious reassurance, “tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change,” complete with mildly exultant female backup singers.

Next up we have an even more Springsteen-esque track by Mr. Springsteen himself: “We Take Care of Our Own.” Despite his status as The Boss, he begins the song with a lament of powerlessness: “I’ve been knockin’ on the door that holds the throne / I’ve been lookin’ for the map that leads me home.” The emperor has no clothes, or at least no good friends, as he continues: “I’ve been stumblin’ on good hearts turned to stone / the road of good intentions has gone dry as a bone.” This theme of abandonment and dashed hopes continues: “We yelled ‘help’ but the cavalry stayed home / there ain’t no one hearing the bugle blowin’.” Hope and change? More like despair and stagnation. Lyrically, WTCOOO is nothing less than a scathing indictment of American apathy and selfishness, topped off by a thin veneer of uplift. (even the uplift is ambivalent—is it really that noble to take care of your own?) The song is like “Born in the U.S.A.” part two: big booming drums, heroic fanfare melodic hook, despairing verses describing a kind of No Exit societal nightmare, and a rallying-cry chorus with vaguely patriotic overtones. And just like “Born in the U.S.A.,” it’s been widely misinterpreted and awkwardly shoehorned into a political campaign.

By three songs in I’m starting to think: Is the president trying to tell us something here? The fourth song, “Keep Me In Mind” by the Zac Brown Band, revolves around the idea that “the world is real tough” and so, not to be too forward about it, but “if there’s no one else to love / keep me in mind.” Next, Aretha Franklin covers “The Weight” by the Band. It’s a classic song and classic performance, but it’s also a song about “the impossibility of sainthood” (according to songwriter Robbie Robertson himself) and thus continues to feed the Resignation Narrative. The two songs capture Obama’s tightrope act of the last four years–expected to move heaven and earth by much of the electorate, instead he’s been forced to lower expectations among his staunchest supporters and to find consensus with openly hostile foes whose only mission is to bring him down. In other words, he’s had to dumb it down for both sides.

In the war of the Spotify playlists, Obama manages to dumb it down more than his opponent Mitt Romney (I’m grading on a curve because, really, who expected Romney to have good taste in music). Despite some strong selections, the two songs each by Darius Rucker and Sugarland clinch the victory for the sitting president. Romney’s playlist may be pandering and hypocritical, but it hangs together better and possesses (arguably) less cringe-worth moments. Likewise, Romney’s performance at the debate may have been pandering and hypocritical, but he still managed to come away perceived as the victor. As a modest recommendation, I would advise President Obama to come up with a new mix of songs to inspire him before the next debate.