The Same Old Song

Music is supposed to be the language of peace and brotherhood, a force that can bring the world together in harmony. But is it any freer from politics as anything else in our lives?

Just look at the 2008 Eurovision Song Contest. The musical competition has taken place since 1956, produced under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). The event is broadcast in 43 countries; the residents of each country call in to vote for the entry of any country other than their own. The EBU is a global association of national broadcasters; it has nothing to do with the European Union, which is why there were entries from Israel and Russia.

As an American, I’d never seen the Eurovision contest before, but I had always had the impression that it only generated mediocre pop songs, light and insubstantial in nature. But on a recent trip to London, I ran across the live broadcast on my hotel TV and I was excited about getting a first-hand look.

Venerable British television personality Sir Terry Wogan narrated the official broadcast from Belgrade. I was surprised at the overall quality of the entries – not great, but no worse than your average run-of-the-mill pop. The musical numbers had a greater range than I had expected. Spain’s “Baila El Chiki Chiki” was a silly dance number with less substance than your average cell ringtone. Latvia’s number looked like pirates run amok. Finland’s entry was heavy metal. Turkey and Azerbaijan entered rock songs. Sebastian Tellier‘s entry for France was clearly inspired by the Beach Boys.

Tellier’s song, like most of the others, featured lyrics sung in English (Apparently this caused a stir with French conservatives). Almost the entire international broadcast took place in English.

I was a little surprised by the narration by play-by-play announcer Wogan, who has done the British broadcast for decades. There were moments of gentle irony and sardonicism, but also hints of real bitterness. He predicted that blocs of countries would all vote for each, such as the Baltic nations. He predicted that the Russians had it in the bag.

After the performance portion ended, the call-in voting began. Fifteen minutes later, the voting results started to trickle in, as each country announced their results in turn. In addition to a series of points from one to seven from the phone calls, each country could award 8, 10 & 12 points each to three deserving countries.

Russia started dominating early. Greece and Ukraine also pulled ahead. Former Soviet Republics all voted for Russia and each other. The Nordic countries (Finland, Sweden, Norway, etc.) all voted for each other. England came in dead last.

It took a long time for the votes to be reported. During this lengthy slog, Terry Wogan kept getting progressively more bitter. He expressed the notion that no one will support “us” – in other words, England – and it felt to me like he wasn’t just talking about the Eurovision Song Contest. Towards the end of the broadcast, he threatened to never do the show again.

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A Revolutionary Soundtrack

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.

Days of Wine and Roses

There’s no denying that there’s a relationship between performers and audience, on and off-stage. Performers give us enjoyment, insight, entertainment, enlightenment. We give them financial rewards, adulation, the pleasures of someone who will listen. But what do they owe us and what is our responsibility to them?

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Hip-Hop for the Long Haul

I must confess, I’m a big fan of West’s, both musically and lyrically, but my real beef with Fifty isn’t the violent or misogynistic lyrics, the ridiculous series of publicity fights he has picked with other rappers or the criminal background and thuggish ways.  It’s that he’s not as interesting as Kanye West….

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Ah, $weet No$talgia; Your Memorie$ For $ale

The art world has long struggled with the question of the true financial value of artworks but these days, as boomers look back at their youth, rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia and comic books are caught up in a debate about pricing, one fueled by the energy of nostalgia…. In similar fashion, there are times when a lunch-box or guitar or comic book seems more valued for all the hopes, dreams and romantic notions – rosy memories of when we were all young and comfort was a boloney sandwich and a Ring-Ding – that are locked within it.

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With a Song in Our Hearts and Stars in Our Eyes

What is a song? What does it mean, in the grand scheme of things? Can a song change the world? Can it sum up all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a presidential candidate?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

In olden times (as the kids say), presidential campaigns would commission songs that usually had all the grace and elegance of a Hallmark card written by an accountant. You can be forgiven for not recalling such toe-tappers as “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah,” “Tippacanoe and Tyler, Too,” “Buckle Down with Nixon,” and “Get on a Raft with Taft” (which, considering Taft’s girth, sounds like a really unsafe suggestion).

More recently, campaigns have adopted popular songs, sometimes to the artist’s consternation. The Reagan campaign briefly used “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign song before Springsteen protested; the same thing happen in 2004 with Orleans’ song “Still the One,” when songwriter John Hall raised a fuss.

On the one hand, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” seems to sum up the ambitions of every politician who has dared use it over the last 23 years. But Al Gore’s use of “You Can Call Me Al” didn’t seem to humanize him as much as he was probably hoping.

For a brief moment during the 1992 campaign, the Clinton campaign was playing Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now” at campaign stops, before Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” became the official theme song. Much as I like their music, it’s hard for me to not think of the mid-70’s Fleetwood Mac as the prefect representation of all the bright-eyed dreams of long-haired hippies daring to change the world turned into the coke-fueled wretched excess that came after Woodstock. But maybe that’s just me.

Hillary Clinton was using “Right Here, Right Now” at events, but she held a Web contest to select an official song and the results are in: Celine Dion’s “You and I.” You could point out that Dion represents safe, mainstream, middle-of-the-road pop. Or you might notice that she’s Canadian – not that there’s anything wrong with that country and their fine healthcare system.

Better still, it turns out the song was written for an Air Canada ad campaign, and an advertising consultant wrote the lyrics. This isn’t unprecedented – the Carpenters “We’ve Only Just Begun” started as a jingle for a bank commercial – but it doesn’t help with that “authenticity” problem Clinton has. You know, the one about her being warm, human and just like the rest of us.

But even more disturbing than Clinton fronting herself with Celine Dion is how she chose to reveal the contest winner. It was a cute little Web video starring her and Bill, done as a spoof of the final scene from The Sopranos (cameo appearance from Johnny Sack). Let’s not even touch the fact that Senator Clinton hasn’t hesitated to strengthen her moral and spiritual standing by attacking the media for violence. Instead, let’s recall that I pointed out just last week that The Sopranos is about a family in massive denial. Whether Hillary is suggesting that she’s Tony (violent and selfish) or Carmela (straying husband, materialistic), I’m not sure she comes off well either way.

I don’t know if John Edwards has picked a theme song yet, but I can promise you it’s going to be something populist. After all, at the DNC Winter Conference, he played John Mellencamp’s “This is Our Country” as his entrance music; in April, donors could receive a collection of country and bluegrass recording artists; on his MySpace page, you can currently hear Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These.” Obama’s been blessed or cursed by the Web phenomenon that is Obama Girl singing “I’ve Got a Crush on Obama.” Can a uplifting number from R. Kelly be far behind?

I’m not sure any of Clinton’s competitors will edge her out based on theme song choice. And in time, we’ll probably forget all about the whole Sopranos thing and we’ll tune out the Celine Dion as we hear it for the hundredth time. After all, can one song, any song, sum up all the hopes, dreams and aspirations of a presidential candidate? Probably not. But if a campaign goes up in flames, it provides a satisfying target for armchair political strategists to point and say, “There, that’s when I first knew it was all going wrong.”

Editor’s Note: P.J.’s not one to curse the darkness. Nor are the rest of us here at Spot-on. Here’s a link to an iTunes iMix of our suggestions for Sen. Clinton’s campaign.

It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop

Old white guys mainly represent the authority of this country – and Imus hung out with a list of household names from politics and the media establishment – so one could argue that their racism is more dangerous than any self-hatred perpetrated by black artists because when it comes from Imus – cheered on by Tim Russert – it makes racism more acceptable.

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