Barack Obama–U.S. Senator and Democratic candidate for president–has, if nothing else, my entire extended, voting-age family in a polarized tizzy. My mother isn’t voting for Obama because of his smoker’s teeth–my uncle because his middle name is Hussein. My father likes his health care platform–his father-in-law is filled with warmth by his back story and earnestness. Me? I’m voting for Obama because he won a Grammy.
U haz a flavr, Sen. Obama, and there hasn’t been a pop star who hasn’t leaned in somehow in recent weeks for a taste. Arcade Fire’s Win Butler called Obama “the first candidate in my lifetime to strip some of this bullshit away” in a Scrapbook entry on the band’s website. The Fiery Furnaces have made sure to voice their support for the senator-from-Illinois, not the senator from Illinois, and have even organized a caucus on their blog in the spirit of Obamenthusiasm to determine the title and sound of their next record: “Please go stand over in the corner of the Internet next to the album of your choice.” And the list continues! Conor Oberst, Will Smith, OK Go, The Cool Kids, The Grateful Dead, Third Eye Blind, at least one Dixie Chick, Jackson Browne, Morrissey, Barry Manilow, Jeff Tweedy, Bette Midler, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, M. Ward, Barbra Streisand, T-Pain (we think), Little Richard (maybe), Boy George (probably), Twiggy (less likely), and, posthumously, Karlheinz Stockhausen (no.).
Mr. Obama trades in a vernacular that transcends trendy Hollywood liberalism in accessing something strange and deeply dangerous about the fine line between politician and pop star. The Obamaesthetic is something palpable and undeniable–something that might, in lesser words, be packaged into JFK comparisons and references to “hope.” But it’s not all his doing. What of this moment–the seething, gnashing place and time of Right Now–makes Sen. Obama feel like the star-child from the cookie jar that he does? Why does Mr. Obama feel like the right candidate for right now for the wrong reasons?
In a sense, 2008 began on January 15. In his keynote address at the 2008 Macworld Conference and Expo this morning, Steve Jobs is concluding his unveiling of the Macbook Air with some light entertainment from Randy Newman, who presumably is supposed to provide some prescheduled repose to allow the journalists and bloggers in the packed audience to collect their thoughts and organize their notes from Jobs’ presentation. Newman’s is a harmless position occupied at previous Macworlds by such Steve-picked luminaries as Smashmouth, John Mayer, The Wallflowers, and KT Turnstall. Randy Newman–one of rock music’s greatest hucksters, a bucking, lurching Fats Domino marionette and part-time genius who could sell commercial jingles for slave traders (‘Sail Away’) and exhortations to bigotry (‘Short People’) like cool slices of pound cake with vanilla ice cream–might have been a predictable, safe choice any other year.
The lights turn on Newman. “It’s a great honor, uh, to be here. I’ll talk while I’m still moving,” he says, and he has the bloggers in his palm. He is here “to explicate what America is,” he says, “just sum it up in about two minutes, twenty-seven seconds.” His actual explication–a darling, sing-spoken recounting of European history’s baddest baddies as Pixar might have rendered them–doesn’t really count. It’s the American that slips through the margins of Newman’s song and language that we are paying attention to:
“You know it pisses me off a little
that this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me
Couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now, too
But I defy you to find me, anywhere in the world,
Two Italians as tight-asses as the two Italians we got.
And as for the brother,
Well, Pluto’s not a planet anymore either.”
As the song ends, Newman squirms, hovering above his keys like he is going to continue playing, but suddenly leans back into his character and addresses the audience again:
“You know, in many ways, that was about the toughest act to follow of any act, you know, I once came on, the, uh, with David Frosh or something after the Flying Wallendas, that was difficult. But this was hard. You know, it’s not John D. Rockefeller or Andrew Carnegie, I mean, you can tell when someone’s a human being, like when they’re brought up well or something, you know, I watch CNBC when I’m orchestrating and stuff ‘cause there’s no music and stuff, and I love the numbers, you know, I always have my, my uncles were compulsive gamblers and used to take me to the track, and it’s the same shit, really, you know, and, uh, I like it, I like watching Jim Cramer and all that stuff, and, uh, he, uh, and they’ll go through like this whole foreclosure thing with the insurance thing, and it took ‘em weeks to bench the people who were actually gettin’ foreclosed on, it was this company goin’ down and that company goin’ down, but this is like, I don’t know. I mean, it’s human stuff; I couldn’t understand most of what he said, but if, but I understood more of this stuff than I ever understood from anybody else, you know, I’ve mastered the answering machine, which is more than my parents ever did.”
Wearing the wild-haired, unbuttoned look of a prophet, Newman takes the bloggers and geeks out of the auditorium, out of Apple’s world of glass and brushed steel and into a stowaway’s America, a squinting look from between the cracks of the floorboards at a country twiddling its thumbs waiting for something new by convincing itself of its own imminent demise. The audience thinks they’re laughing as he talks, but Newman is laughing harder, underneath and within his words. “They cut Buzz and Woody’s big love scene, so this is what we ended up with,” Newman says as he introduces his performance of Toy Story’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” and the audience can finally laugh back for real, out of relief more than anything else.
Randy Newman as a harbinger of doom? We want to call what’s he presented a protest song, but labeling it “protest” only deadens it, gives it a nice shirt and slacks. What does a protest song in 2008 even mean? The butt-end of the business cycle is leaving behind a national smog in which health care, mortgages, and unemployment are suddenly and once again charged with effortless danger and a thick, spongy helplessness. But where is the real malaise? The TV writers are on strike, Heath Ledger is dead, and Arnold Schwarzenegger is the best governor California has had in decades. Music is free, and Brad Renfro is dead. There’s no rebate stimulus plan for what we’re really burdened by right now: that pent-up sense of secret disaster, accumulated over seven years but chopped up by a short national attention span into something newly absurd and all the weirder.
2008’s American Democracy is less about an election, a primary, or a candidate than it is about the ways in which these parts can be replaced, made irrelevant, in the machinery of the American dialogue. In the throes of primary season, there is something hugely fatalistic about the procession of the candidates from their early clutter of unlikelies to the four that remained after Florida to whoever is left after Super Tuesday’s dust clears, as if each field-narrowing move were orchestrated by something grander and more operatic than the initiated voters of a few states. This is epic theatre played out in RSS feeds, a political process boiled apart, hung to dry, and sold in spicy, extra-condensed strips to a hungry nation. There has never been an election more critical, more sea-changing than this first post-W one, and yet that makes it also the most obvious, the most procedural and posturing and transparent than any in history. 2008 is, after all, the year in which Britney Spears’ flag-covered coffin will be carried down the Ninth Ward of New Orleans like a president’s, the year in which Bloodshy and Avant will produce Chris Brown’s electro-spiked cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” the one in which Hannah Montana’s bouncy rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come” will top the iTunes charts for six consecutive weeks in August and September 2008. The change was always gonna come this year, so why does everyone feel the need to sing and play about it?
Hillary chooses Céline Dion’s “You and I” as her official campaign song? Fine, but what of Ron Paul schlepping a bleary-eyed Adam Ant on the campaign trail, Ralph Nader scoring a campaign commercial with Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” or Mike Bloomberg announcing his campaign flanked by Michael Bolton and former members of the Electric Light Orchestra? A bloated Mike Huckabee rocks “Sweet Home Alabama” on the bass guitar with Chuck Norris clapping along? All good, but what about Mitt Romney taking on the Ondes Martenot at a campaign stop in Minnesota or Mike Gravel demonstrating his harpsichord prowess, at the urging of an eager supporter in upstate New York, with a spirited performance of Scarlatti’s “Sonata for Harpsichord in A major”?
Mr. Obama is the only candidate who seems to make sense playing a role in all of this, the only one who appears to have risen from the earth like a smoking, grinning Gingerbread Man
ready for this particular moment in history. We’re going to find campaign commercials for Sen. Obama in the unlikeliest of places this year: in the ways we start viewing the world around us, in the ways in which we find ourselves talking to other people, in the ways in which we find ourselves reacting to events. In case the Obama campaign still needs an extra commercial, though, I have one for them: a thirty-second long take of the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, ablaze in fire, skittering and clattering into the darkness of a desert highway, set to that adorable cooing song from the Macbook Air commercial. Yes, yes we can!