Liveblogging the DNC 9/4/12: Who Stole the Soul?

by Jason Lee Oakes


But first, I’ll explore the following thesis: In the Democratic and Republican Conventions, the fight for the “soul” of the nation is also a fight for the soul music of the nation.

The Republicans have a lot to say about soul lately. According to Mitt Romney, the 2012 election is nothing less than an “election for the soul of America.” In the days leading up to the RNC meeting in Tampa, Senator Paul Rand declared “a war…for the heart and soul of America—a war between those who believe in the American Dream and those who cannot grasp what makes America great,” while Rick Santorum accused the President of “assault[ing] the very soul of America.” Earlier this year, billionaire hedge-fund manager John Paulson solicited checks for Romney 2012 at a townhouse meeting of the super-wealthy with a call to “[fight] for the soul of our country.” And late last year, Rick Perry’s wife defended her gaffe-prone husband by pointing out the stress he must be under “fighting for the soul of our country.”

In 2008, Barack Obama won the popular vote by framing the election in similarly “soulful” terms. His best-selling book The Audacity of Hope: Reclaiming the American Dream was nothing less than a manifesto on the heart and soul of America. And in his 2008 acceptance speech, Obama criticized the Bush administration for assaulting the very soul of the country: “America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.” Even if Obama studiously avoids using the word soul in speeches, the implication was clear (use of the word itself may have brought accusations of playing the “race card”; plus, why bother when Obama could prove his soul credentials with a more-than-passable Al Green impersonation).

If the plight of the American soul is a political football in 2012, the conventions have made it clear that American soul music—broadly defined—is one terrain where this battle will be fought.

At the RNC, the live band led by GE Smith was relentless with their selections of classic soul, R&B, and funk (see “Liveblogging the RNC”). Likewise, the short musical snippets played before featured speakers on the first day of the DNC were dominated by soul, R&B, and funk; albeit in cover-band versions that finessed copyright concerns. Even when a song like Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” made it into the mix, it was combined with a hip hop breakbeat that lent a funky edge to the pop-soft rock staple. And the snippets themselves were the hooks of songs minus any vocals, rhythm-heavy hooks worthy of a dance music DJ or rap/R&B producer (rap music proper was notably absent, even if the sample-worthy selections and overall hip hop aesthetic should have been clear to clued-in listeners).

Put simply, the DNC brought the funk. As one Hip-To-Be-Square politician after another walked on stage and up to the podium, it was hard not to wonder: “Is this supposed to be Starsky or Hutch? And will they give us policy wonk talking points or Huggy Bear jive talking?”

For Democrats and Republicans alike, soul music is the music of choice in 2012. But why? Maybe because soul music is music of Hope and Change. It is music of uplift and (very often) music of protest at the same time, whether implicitly or explicitly. Soul music is one link in a long African-American tradition. Blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, soul, funk, disco, hip hop—despite their many differences, these musical genres are to a certain extent rooted in the interplay between untold  suffering and ecstatic release (whatever the balance between the two poles may be, and whether the release is fantasized or real).

The most memorable soul music achieves an artful balance between suffering and release, between protest and uplift, that appears to be the envy of many a political candidate. These candidates very often attempt to strike a similar balance between desperation and optimism—that is, between the desperation of the present political climate (not to mention the fearful consequences of what will happen if they are not elected) and the optimism of their chosen message and political ideals. In this sense, soul music provides an ideal political soundtrack.

In the context of the Obama 2008 campaign, soul music from the Civil Rights era and the immediate post-Civil Rights era had obvious Hope And Change overtones. The Obama campaign drew on soul music to reflect both the progressivism of their political agenda and the pride many Americans felt in electing an African-American candidate. Along with this yin of “Hope” came the yang of “Change”–seeking release from the many ordeals of the previous administration starting with the 9/11 attacks and ending with the catastrophic economic crash, with the endless Iraq War sandwiched in between.

Now, in 2012, it’s the Republicans’ turn to present themselves as scrappy outsiders seeking to “take the country back” from the Political Establishment who failed the people, but in a peaceful and positive way inspired by religious idealism. Enter, once again, soul music. The appropriation of Obama’s soundtrack –and Obama’s own use of the same soundtrack in a very different political context–has turned the 2012 campaign into not only a fight the soul of the American people, but also for the soul of soul music itself.



6:13 PM  Intro to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” for Gov. Bev Perdue (North Carolina)

6:23  The Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It” for Ryan Case, a young campaign worker and student at the University of Colorado

6:25  The Four Seasons “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” used to introduce Mary Kay Henry, Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President

6:43  Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” serves as walk-on music for Gov. Pat Quinn (Illinois)

6:55  Madonna’s “Holiday” soundtracks Tim Kaine, former governor of Virginia

7:03  “ABC” by the Jackson 5 used for Anthony Foxx, mayor of Charlotte, North Carolina

7:17  “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan is the intro music for a tribute to female members of the House of Representatives. At first, I’m fooled into thinking that Nancy Pelosi is starring in a remake of Foxy Brown. The outro music is the Eurythmics’ “Woman Are Doin’ It For Themselves.”

7:37  Extremely funky intro music is used for Ken Salazar, Interior Secretary, a Hispanic Colorado senator wearing a cowboy hat.

7:45  “Respect” by Otis Redding–a song Aretha Franklin changed from a plea to a demand–plays as Joseph Kennedy III walks onstage waving stiffly.

7:55  Gospel-soul artist Ledisi tears it up on her song “Raise Up.” Earlier in the day she gave Fox & Friends’ Megyn Kelly fits.

8:00  A repeat of “Can You Feel It” plays during a short recess. On C-SPAN, it’s accompanied by  shots of Joe Biden hobnobbing in one of the arena’s private balconies.

8:02  The sports stadium staple “Rock and Roll, Part Two” by Gary Glitter precedes Robert Wexler’s speech on US-Israel relations.

8:07  A frantic, funky horn intro. introduces R.T. Rybak, mayor of Minneapolis. I couldn’t identify this number except to say (much to my disappointment) it wasn’t anything by Prince.

8:16  Back to Sly & the Family Stone and “Thank you falettinme be mice elf again.” Jared Polis (Colorado) speaks about being an openly gay Representative. “We represent Americans of all backgrounds and belief…out of many, we are one.”

8:24  A song I’m somewhat glad I can’t name by Maroon 5 serves as walk-on music for Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

8:46  Cheryl Lynn’s “Got To Be Real” precedes Lincoln Chafee, independent from Rhode Island who’s obviously keeping it real.

9:05  “Uptight (Everything’s Alright)” by Stevie Wonder introduces Ted Strickland. He gives what might be the snarky quote of the night: “If Mitt was Santa Claus, he’d fire the reindeer and outsource the elves.”

9:09   Dire Straits “Walk of Life” used for Kathleen Sebelius, Health & Human Services Secretary.

9:16  Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” used for Rahm Emanuel, Mayor of Chicago and former Chief of Staff (2009-2010)

9:26  A game-show worthy intro-snippet of Sister Sledge “We Are Family” introduces Kal Penn, actor and one-time associate director of the White House office of public engagement. Obama just locked down the disco stoner wedding crasher vote.

9:32  Prince’s “1999” appears about an hour and a half too late. Maya Seotoro, Obama’s half sister, and Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s brother don’t talk about the sky turning purple and people running everywhere.

9:40  “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” by Aretha Franklin and the Eurythmics serves as intro music for Lilly Ledbetter, Alabamian women’s equality and fair pay activist.

9:58  KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” used for Martin O’Malley, governor of Maryland, who seems to have left his boogie shoes at home. He teaches conventioneers a new dance step with his catch phrase: “Forward, not back.”

10:07  Opening beat of “Brokenhearted” by cutesy rap-music covering boy-girl duo Karmin used as walk on music Joaquin Castro, brother of San Antonio mayor Julian Castro.

10:08  Black Eyed Peas “I Gotta Feeling” is the very disappointing choice for Julian Castro. Then again, this song is disappointing in any context.

10:39  “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” one of Barack Obama’s primary campaign songs from 2008, serves as walk-on music for Michelle Obama. Or make that Signed, Sealed, and Almost Delivered, given her statement that “change is slow, and change is hard, and never happens all at once.”

11:04  Beyonce featuring Swizz Beats “Move Your Body” follows the speech, a song commissioned for Michelle Obama’s physical fitness initiative.

11:12  Post-convention celebration music includes snippets of Stevie Wonder “Sir Duke,” Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets, and once again, the Jacksons’ “Can You Feel It.” The latter can now be declared the (unofficial) song of the 2012 Democratic National Convention.