One particular moment stood out during Barack Obama’s first four years as a musical-minded president, and he delivered it in sweet falsetto. Offered with casual confidence at the Apollo Theater in Harlem almost exactly a year ago at a fundraiser, the president of the United States cooed the melody from “Let’s Stay Together” by the Rev. Al Green.
It was a mere three words along with an introductory wail — “Heeey, let’s stay together” — but within it lay a quote packed with subtext. Not only that America’s first black president could nail a high note of a classic Southern soul song with an assured smile, but that he would do it on the symbolic main stage of black culture in America. The president took it one step further when he joked that he was lucky that longtime Apollo personality Howard “Sandman” Sims didn’t yank him off stage with a hook.
To a large chunk of the music-loving population — snobs/music critics, soul buffs, Memphians, brothers, sisters — Obama’s assured melodic quote was a comfort, along with other tidbits of musical info accrued from interviews in which he expressed love for, among others, James Brown, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.
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I thought about that appearance during President Obama’s swearing-in ceremony Monday on America’s main stage when during the televised coverage the cameras focused nearly as much on the rapper Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and his wife, Beyoncé Knowles — royalty of African American pop culture — as on Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.
Just as instructive was inviting music-reality show winner Kelly Clarkson (once a declared Ron Paul supporter) to sing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” and baby-boomer soft rock singer James Taylor to present “America the Beautiful.” Each is decidedly commercial, but appeals to more discerning listeners, as well. Say what you want about the shallowness of “American Idol,” but Clarkson’s no Josh Groban or Celine Dion; she’s got an edge to her, an independent spirit.
Such selections — plus all the other musicians descending on the Capitol to celebrate at official parties — signal that despite his holding the most powerful job in the world, Obama’s also pretty cool, or at the very least knows to hire the right people to book music at his parties. He’s got an iPad. He’s on the record as digging John Coltrane, Brown and Marley. The take-away: President Obama has good taste.
One of the central tenets of music criticism and beyond is that taste matters — that it’s a good avenue toward learning essential information about another person. Whether in a friend, enemy, girlfriend, band mate or president of the United States, we project values onto others when learning what grooves a person’s internal jukebox.
What moves Obama clearly is black music, and in a country that still has trouble addressing issues of race, the president’s expression of his musical heart is one of the only safe ways that he and his wife can fully share their heritage. Yes, they do so in subtle ways every day. But when Obama says he listens to Gil Scott-Heron, or shouts out India.Arie on the Apollo stage, or explains as he did to MTV that he hopes musicians will take on protest music as Marley did, he’s offering something of his spirit. Michelle Obama exercises to Heavy D and Chubb Rock. That’s pretty cool.
Yes, all the soloists Monday were mainstream hit-makers, and their song selections predictable: three American standards without a hint of challenge or controversy. But the performances and the arrangements surprised.
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Clarkson performed “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” written in 1831, with the United States Marine Band. They began it quietly, as a low-voiced seduction, as if Clarkson were in a candle-lighted room with America. She sustained this tone for the first few verses. But then, as is her wont, the slow-burn intro turned large as booming brass lifted her voice. If Twitter is any indication her climax, wonderfully controlled with just a hint of restrain, was an overwhelming success.
Taylor took a more understated — and pitchy — approach, playing “America the Beautiful” on acoustic guitar. The singer, best known for hits like “Fire & Rain” and “You’ve Got a Friend,” wore a layer of fleece between his overcoat and his shirt and tie; it looked as though he’d dug into his trunk for his camping jacket on the way to the event.
Beyoncé closed with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and did so with a grace that transcended the anthem’s rocky lyrical construction and curious phrasing.
She floated through the song as the cameras panned the crowd — Obama staring into the distance as if he were modeling for Mt. Rushmore, Michelle breaking into a little smile as Beyoncé effortlessly hit her notes. Behind her former President Bill Clinton watched attentively.
By way of comparison, Ronald Reagan once said his favorite hymn was “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and his favorite song was performed by Frank Sinatra — “Nancy (With the Laughing Face).” In 1963, Richard Nixon played a self-penned composition on Jack Paar’s show. Its title was typically self-absorbed: “Richard Nixon Piano Concerto #1.” He also played “God Bless America” on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, put John Lennon on his enemies list and awarded Elvis Presley an honorary badge as a drug enforcement agent at the White House.
And who can forget Bill Clinton playing saxophone? It was as telling as the fact that George W. Bush had a mere 250 songs on an iPod built to hold 10,000.
Times have certainly changed, and there are barriers yet to climb — say, a rapper onstage delivering rhymes during the festivities. Perhaps by the time Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, is ruler of the known universe (after the 2036 elections), the United States will have a rap laureate (Earl Sweatshirt?), who will be unveiling a new work for the gathered American masses.