The connection between contemporary pop music and politics tends to be quite prickly. There’s a lot of power available any time a pol can make a link to popular culture. Witness Walter Mondale’s use of the phrase “Where’s the beef?” in 1984 or Hillary Clinton’s Sopranos video last year.
But the connection is often made gingerly. As evidence, check out some examples of politicians answering the softball “What’s on your iPod?” question and you’ll see nothing but caution and calculation.
Once upon a time, about the best example of a joint venture between pop music and politics was the infamous meeting between Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon in 1970. But since Elvis was trying to become a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, it’s not a very rock ‘n’ roll moment. In the collision between pop music and politics, the former has to bend to the latter. For example, consider James Brown’s endorsement of Hupert Humphrey in 1968. I don’t think Humphrey displayed the slightest bit of soul in response.
More successfully, in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign used Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Don’t Stop” as a kind of theme song. Fleetwood Mac (at least the mid Seventies version) was a pretty soft-rock sort of band. That song’s lyrics are uplifting, not rebellious or anti-authoritarian. Recall that Bill Clinton’s campaign had briefly used Jesus Jones’ song “Right Here’ Right Now” and that Fleetwood Mac ended up re-uniting (once again) and playing live at Clinton’s inaugural ball. The first Baby Boomer Presidential candidate rode to victory (in part) on the back of a Baby Boomer hit single.
And what did Hillary end up selecting as her campaign theme song? As previously discussed: Celine Dion’s “You and I.” Now, there’s a tune that says “experience” and “moderate.”
That means we have to look at Barack Obama to break the mold. After all, he’s the candidate who keeps promising he’s not going to do things in the traditional Washington fashion. He’s the guy who’s supposedly captured the youth vote and the progressive vote. But has he done so?
Well, yes and no. Obama’s campaign rallies never shied away from music others might consider controversial. Have a look at this playlist from a San Francisco rally last fall. When he gave his concession on Tuesday from Indiana, after losing the Pennsylvania primary, Obama’s speech was followed by “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.,” as the song’s author John Mellencamp stepped forward to shake the candidate’s hand in congratulations. That’s a photo-op, but not much of a rock ‘n’ roll revolution.
But let’s go back a few days earlier. On April 16, the last Democratic debate was held and moderators George Stephanopolis and Charlie Gibson raked Obama over the coals pretty well. Hillary Clinton got one hit on her account of a Bosnia trip, but Obama took a barrage of blows. Does Jeremiah Wright loves this country? Do you? How come you don’t love the flag? How come you don’t love white people? Aren’t we loveable enough for you? Left, right, left, right – BAM! Upper cut to the jaw.
Two days later, Obama referred to this pounding during a speech. He acknowledged the incident, classified it as politics, tried to move past it. Then came the bold move: He said, “You’ve just got to…” And he flipped his hand with a dismissive gesture, as if brushing a little lint of his shoulder. This wasn’t arrogance, at least not the garden variety sort. He stole that damn move right out of the Jay-Z playbook.
The rapper’s song “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the typical theme of Me-Against-the-World, but the chorus offers advice that if you are “feelin’ like a pimp,” then you ought to “go and brush your shoulders off.” Jay-Z clarifies that “Ladies is pimps, too,” and they should likewise “brush your shoulders off.” The message pumps louder: “You gotta get / that / dirt off your shoulder.”
There’s a reason the rock/politics equation usually doesn’t work. Rock is often loud, rude, chaotic, antiauthoritarian. If that’s true, hip-hop is that same attitude cranked up to 11. But in this instance, hip-hop didn’t conform to politics. Obama stepped over to hip-hop and borrowed the attitude unadulterated.
Despite the fact that hip-hop has been continuously under attack as an artform over the last 30-plus years; despite the sexism, homophobia, violence, and materialism often found in hip-hop; despite Jay-Z’s own controversial nature and his use of “pimp” and the N-word in this song – despite all that, Obama was trying to communicate a response to an attack with a move that was (in many ways) rude, rebellious and anti-authoritarian.
To really appreciate this event, you need to see the video version that showed up quickly on YouTube. Set to the beats of Jay-Z, you see Hillary Clinton hammering away at him on numerous occasions; Stephanopolis and Gibson take their turns. Then Obama speaks and little cartoon heads of his attackers pop up on his shoulder – he brushes them off. They pop up on the other shoulder and are brushed off again. Finally, a little kitchen sink is thrown at him, to no avail.
There is a danger of embracing hip-hop. It’s an undeniably controversial form, with sex, drugs, violence, and race. Any sane politician would keep this stuff at arm’s length. And yet, for one moment, danger was embraced: A perfect marriage of pop culture and politics.