Deals on plane tickets, finding old friends or potential spouses, webisodes, car parts, conspiracy theories, sea level updates, ancestral charts, cheap meds, Berlin Wall pieces, out-of-print books, new pictures of Neptune, way way too much information…and presidential campaign songs.
And that’s but a grain of sand’s worth of the Internet’s unfathomable content, its perpetual explosion and excessive overflow forever morphing commerce, human interaction, cultural differences, the perception of time – and the way we elect Presidents.
Few public figures ride that wave better than does Barack Obama. Although the first “Generation Jones” President, he’s had a handle on how the voting generations younger than him interact, get their info and listen to music. It was largely voters in their 20s who sustained him through the turbulent season of state primaries and caucuses in 2008. And he kept them loyal and engaged not just by what he promised to deliver but by the music associated with his campaign.
Three words, however, Obama spoke simply as part of a speech intended to rally the hope of supporters against those who predicted his being elected was impossible became the sudden rallying call – and inspiration for the primary music of his campaign: “Yes, we can!”
Initially, during the February 2008 primaries, there’d been a brief ray of hope that the first commissioned campaign song since 1976 would again be heard by voters, with a widely-reported story that candidate Obama had “personally asked” to have an original campaign song composed by singer Joss Stone. The unnamed source in the story claimed, “Joss is a big supporter of Barack Obama and was very excited to be asked to do this for him. He sent a personal message asking her to get on board. He has always admired her music and thinks she is the perfect choice because of her unique appeal to black and white voters. She believes he is going to be the first black American president and she is honoured to be a part of that.”
The prospect of Joss Stone producing the first original campaign song since the days of Ford and Carter even led one enthusiast to Photoshop an image of the duo – which proved premature. The reason no such effort materialized is unclear. Although popular in the U.S. Stone is a British citizen and it may be that the candidate’s campaign thought it wiser that, if there were to be any commissioned campaign song, it might be more politically feasible to to have it be a home-grown effort. It might also very well be that the “news” was all just a publicist’s stunt and Obama had never made the request.
Rather than commission an original piece, Obama’s presidential campaign followed the trend in place since the 1980s. It widely sampled from both current and vintage music of all genres to introduce him at rallies, selections tailored to the audience, be they college students on campus, African-American churcgh-goers, a union hall of electricians or an ice cream social in small-town square.
The most frequent music used at Obama’s rallies were recordings of Better Way by Ben Harper, Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours by Stevie Wonder. Think by Aretha Franklin, The Rising by Bruce Springsteen, and City of Blinding Lights by U2, and Higher and Higher by Jackie Wilson. Whether familiar, established music or Obama’s personal preferences, this growing number of musical tracks were no longer thought of as “campaign songs” but the “candidate’s “soundtrack.”
Adding to Obama’s musical multitude were perhaps hundreds of original, unsolicited compositions, most premiering on Youtube, inspired by his being the first African-American presidential candidate. From Unite the Nation by the hip-hop Misa/Misa to Illinois Boy by Annie Palovcik, music turned out for Obama ranged in all genres.
One effort, Make it to the Sun, was a unique joint effort of five composers and musicians from the U.S., England, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Mexico intended to inspire unregistered American voters to exercise their right to do so. Making it available for sale as a MySpace download, the proceeds were to be donated to the Obama campaign.
In many ways, it began with the popular hit Crush on Obama – a good year before he even won the Democratic nomination. The plesasant-enough original score first appeared in June of 2007, just as the lineup of 2008 candidates were beginning to circulate through Iowa. Entirely devoid of any substantive political content the purely sexualized ode to the then-U.S. Senator from Illinois was performed by Amber Lee “Obama Girl” Ettinger, who lip-synched the vocals provided by her friend Leah Kauffman:
It wasn’t superficial novelty, however, but an emotionally moving quality which led to Yes We Can rising above all the other Obama-music projects.
Rap composer and performer will.i.am of the Black-Eyed Peas generated the unique contribution to presidential campaign history by appropriating a recording of the candidate’s trademark “Yes, we can!” exhortation from his January 8, 2008 New Hampshire primary victory speech.
A celebrity element certainly didn’t hurt – a truism since the days Al Jolson composed for Harding and sang for Coolidge.
Obama’s spoken words were blended into will.i.am‘s original rap-style composition, overlaid with narration of the candidate’s own words by supporters, among them Scarlett Johansson, Tatyana Ali, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Kate Walsh, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Adam Rodríguez, Kelly Hu, Hill Harper, Amber Valletta, Eric Balfour, Aisha Tyler, Nicole Scherzinger, Nick Cannon, Bryan Greenberg, and Common. The music video was directed by Jesse Dylan, the son of singer Bob Dylan.
The producer, a Los Angeles native whose real name is William James Adams, envisioned an entire album, Change is Now: Renewing America’s Promise, dedicated to Obama’s candidacy and the hope it would lead him into the White House.
The music video of the intended album’s second single We Are the Ones, released on February 29, featured appearances by Jessica Alba, Ryan Phillippe, Kerry Washington, John Leguizamo, Regina King, Tyrese Gibson, Eric Mabius, Tichina Arnold, Adrianne Palicki, George Lopez, and Macy Gray, among others.
Will.i.am offered a refreshing rationale for all the trouble he was taking to show his support, feeling that just another celebrity endorsement was a bit futile, since “people are tired of that.” His crafting of Yes, We Can was, he said, “driven by inspiration and it’s creative and it’s love, it isn’t anything else.” Here is the music video:
Also invited to perform at the January 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, in honor of that event will.i.am produced the fourth single of the album, America’s Song which included vocals from Bono, Faith Hill, Seal, and Mary J. Blige.
Shortly thereafter, when in response to Kanye West’s interruption of Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, the President called West a “jackass,” and will.i.am used it as the title for the last of the album’s five singles, The Jackass Song.
Ultimately, the five tracks along with numerous others by a range of artists, was released as an entire album.
And while Obama’s 2008 election as the first person with African ancestry to be elected President of the United States made history, so too did the music his candidacy inspired.
- Bruce Springsteen to campaign for Barack Obama (digitalspy.co.uk)
- Jay-Z Stumps for Obama in New Campaign Clip (rollingstone.com)
- Bruce Springsteen to campaign for Obama in Ohio, Iowa (o.canada.com)
- Obama turns to the ‘The Boss’ for help (sfluxe.com)