The New York Times

March 24, 2016

SWAN | Where Rhetoric Falls Short

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Musical composition and performance are perhaps two of the most effective vessels for the indication of political support or dissent by private citizens. Consider the late 1960s, when groups and musicians like Jefferson Airplane or Bob Dylan wrote music that challenged the Vietnam War and political establishment. As evidenced by the festivals, riots and protests of that decade, not only does music spread awareness about a particular cause, but it also forms immeasurable solidarity among its listeners.

Yet, what happens when musical choice and expression extends itself to public officials? Politicians, by the nature of their existence, must find ways to connect with their constituents. This often takes the form of loud and booming words that pander to one side of an issue while alienating the opposition. Could music not promote synergy without the extreme partisanship generated by charged speeches?

The way in which American politicians have utilized music in the near past has been, for the most part, strange. It inspires images of the questionable, Orwellian “Freedom Kids” act that preceded a recent Donald Trump rally. There is Bill Clinton’s famous saxophone playing on The Arsenio Hall Show in 1992 during his presidential campaign (although not alive to experience this at the time, the image of Clinton, wearing a suit and jet-black sunglasses, is permanently ingrained in a layer of my own subconscious). Worth mentioning is Paul Ryan’s 2012 praising of Rage Against the Machine. For a band with tracks such as “Killing in the Name” and “Township Rebellion,” Ryan’s move thoroughly confused fans of Rage as well as those of the Republican Party.

Most of these events seem nothing more than gimmicky ploys used to create a charismatic perception of the given candidate or politician. However, I do find a certain degree of hope and comfort in one particular musical endeavor undertaken by a public official. Last August, Barack Obama released on Spotify two playlists of his favorite summer tunes. One playlist is for the day, while the other is reserved for night. At the time, I did not devote much thought to the playlists. I simply assumed them to be similar to the tactics mentioned above. Yet, over the past few months, and perhaps influenced by the Monty Python sketch that has become the 2016 presidential race, I have come to realize the profundity that characterizes Obama’s two playlists. The songs he selected encompass a wide range of topics and emotions that affect all members of our culture.

The day playlist contains songs that deal with sensitive and powerful subjects. One such track is “Memories Live” by Reflection Eternal. In this song, hip hop artist Talib Kweli talks about the creative significance of his own memories and consciousness as they have been shaped by his African heritage and vibrant upbringing. Following this track is “Tombstone Blues” by Bob Dylan, which criticizes American authority and policy of the 1960s and asserts the arbitrariness of living in a world so unstable and violent. In the chorus of the song, Dylan sings “Mama’s in the factory/She has got no shoes/Daddy’s in the alley/He’s looking for food/I’m in the kitchen/With the tombstone blues.” Obama’s inclusion of such tracks offers a respectable acknowledgement of the socioeconomic, philosophical or physical adversity that is formative in the lives of so many individuals. The night playlist becomes much more subtle and pensive, opening with John Coltrane’s thirteen minute-long epic jazz rendition of “My Favorite Things.” The rest of this playlist contains a number of serene love and jazz songs.

The contrast among these musical selections is surely a musical representation of the difference between the hot, busy summer day and the cool and placid summer night. However, I believe that it speaks to its listeners on a far more philosophical level. There are indeed innumerable issues currently facing the world, and it is crucial that those with a relative freedom of mobility use their resources to consistently challenge and fight injustices. However, equally as important is the remembrance of why these issues are worth combatting; that is, the human satisfaction of love, friendship or personal introspection. Such a theme can bridge the divide between polarized peoples and maybe this was Barack Obama’s intent when he picked these specific songs. The 2016 presidential race has thus far indicated that emphatic retorts and gestures may now speak more to feelings than do thoughtful words and statements. Perhaps it is music that may channel this new form of political efficacy into more bipartisan and compassionate action.
Nick Swan is a freshman in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at [email protected]. Swan’s Song runs alternate Fridays this semester.