If President Obama should win re-election this November, it will not be because he stood at the Apollo Theater on Jan. 19 and sang a couple of bars of "Let's Stay Together." That the President got a bump in the polls after he busted out a dead-on imitation of the Rev. Al Green was more likely attributable to a good jobs report than critics' reviews. And whether his success in the polls lasts will depend more on his economic record than his falsetto.
And yet there was a reason millions of people watched the clip of him singing on YouTube. It was a slyly warm moment from a man who often plays cool (and not the Al Green kind) behind a lectern. There was an excitement, a spark among folks who believed in his lyrics but had not always, since the heady rush of 2008, felt the melody.
Suddenly, Obama had a theme song. Campaign music doesn't make people embrace your budget proposal. But it's part of the courting ritual; it's among the suite of intangibles that excite the people behind you. Bill Clinton didn't get elected because he blew sax on Arsenio or played Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" at the Democratic Convention, but in retrospect, both moments crystallized his campaign's sense of freshness. If Obama should get a second term, future documentarians will lean on that clip of him crooning to a nation, "I-I'm ... so-o in love with you."
So it came to pass that the President made us a mixtape. Or at least members of his staff did. On Feb. 9, they released a playlist on the social music-streaming service Spotify of "picks by the campaign staff--including a few of President Obama's favorites." Here was the leader of the free world, la John Cusack in Say Anything, standing on America's lawn, boom box over his head.
Campaign songs are older than recorded music, but in a way, a playlist is a more purely political document than a single song: it can offer something for nearly everyone. Obama's Spotify list is a little bit rock 'n' roll, with a surprisingly large amount of country, and it draws on just about every pop-music genre save rap. (Obama, a Jay-Z fan, was criticized for inviting rapper Common to the White House, because his lyrics involve violence, something that never got Johnny Cash ostracized.) But picking a single campaign theme has the benefit of striking one clear note: "High Hopes" (JFK), "Happy Days Are Here Again" (FDR). A playlist, not unlike some politicians, can be so broad and eager to please as to lack a core thesis.
So whether for a crush or an electorate, a good mix needs an emotional narrative. For a President in a not-yet-booming economy, that message is tougher to calibrate now than the first time out. The 2008 Obama had India.Arie's "There's Hope" in heavy rotation. The 2012 Obama's set gingerly balances can-do spirit with tales of tough times. It implores us to "Stand Up" (Sugarland), "Keep on Pushing" (the Impressions) and "Roll with the Changes" (REO Speedwagon). But Dierks Bentley ("Home") reminds us, "It's been a long, hard ride/ Got a ways to go," and Bruce Springsteen contributes the communitarian anthem "We Take Care of Our Own." Some picks, like U2's "Even Better than the Real Thing," are puzzling until you dig into the lyrics: "Give me one more chance/ And you'll be satisfied."