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Make the Music Work For You Obama

March 20, 2007

One of the more revealing cultural experiences I've had of late was attending Senator Barack Obama's rally in Oakland last weekend. In one important way, the experience was powerful: I don't think I've ever seen a greater variety of human beings assembled in one place for an event of this kind. People of all ages, races, and styles congregated in front of Oakland City Hall on Saturday afternoon to hear the man speak. There were babies, children, homeboys, students, preppy types, elders, workers in uniforms, hippies, hipsters, soldiers, war veterans, middle-aged business people, Latinos, African-Americas, Asians, Caucasians and on and on. A dizzying cross-section of the Bay Area community.

But despite the diversity of the audience, the event spoke of homogeneity and dull predictability. Obama didn't actually say anything that couldn't be found on a press release. From the young sargeant who introduced Obama to the senator's own comments which ranged from the environment (he wants to clean it up) to the Iraq war (he thinks it's unlawful), Obama churned it out liked any other politician. It's not that I didn't agree with most of what he said. It's just that I had been expecting something a little different from this man.

Obama's speech was preceded by a rock concert-style crowd warming of the most banal kind: There was a DJ playing mostly hip-hop and a cover band playing cover tracks of well-known pop songs from the last couple of decades. The music blared noisily out of a massive PA system.

It struck me that the organizers were treating the music as a crutch for the entire event. Not once was there silence. Every time Obama or one of the other speakers finished saying something (including inanities like "how y'all doin?" and "Helloooo Oakland!") bursts of music would blurt out of the PA system like vaudeville comedy circuit stage belches. It was as if the event organizers were hellbent on filling the air with sound without a moment's pause for reflection. What were they frightened of? Would a few seconds of empty air mean a colossal dip in the faux-feelgood, frantic energy that so often accompanies these political rodeos? Were they afraid people would leave if they actually got the chance to hear themselves think?

If I had been in charge of organizing sound at Obama's event, I would have done things very differently. I would have mixed up the music more to create some interesting juxtapositions of, say, African tribal music, hip-hop, soul, country, classical etc. This programing would not only have reflected the diversity of the crowd, but it would also have made people listen more carefully through its sheer unpredictability. I would not have hired a warm-up band at all. And I would have turned the music off completely once the speaking portion of the event began to give people a chance to think.

Political rallies have come a long way since the jingoistic military marching bands that accompanied leaders and potential leaders fifty years ago. The brash pop music vibe creates a welcome casual atmosphere, but it also makes for extremely passive listening.

Being European, I can't vote in this country. But if I could, I'd vote for the person who doesn't just pander to popular tastes, but gives me something new and different to think about. I'd vote for the person who's not afraid to throw in some new ideas about how to look at the world in amongst the old.

Given the fact that a politician only has a limited amount of time to get his or her message across in a rally, some thought should go into what most people would consider to be peripheral stuff, like the music chosen to introduce the event. Music can make a powerful statement in a public forum like the one I experienced on Saturday. Politicians should educate listeners with their bold musical choices as well as with their words.

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