It's only January. Election Day is more than nine months away. But the 2012 presidential campaign may already have had its most enchanting moment -- and surely its hippest. At a fundraiser at Harlem's Apollo Theater Thursday night, Barack Obama sang a snatch of Al Green's "Let's Stay Together." "I'mmm sooo in love with you," he crooned in a near-falsetto that very creditably approximated the most wondrous voice on vinyl of the 1970s. Then Obama almost seemed to start in on the next word, "whatever," before he broke off. Oh well. That was it. But that was more than enough. It was cool, it was funny, and the singing was extremely good, too. The audience went wild.
It was one of those little media moments where popular culture and politics gleefully collide. You know the drill. Flashbulbs erupt. YouTube postings blossom. The monologues of talk-show hosts practically write themselves for a night or two. Then that's that. Remember Ronald Reagan meeting a begloved and epaulette-wearing Michael Jackson in the Rose Garden -- or George Bush listening with approval to Dana Carvey explaining how he imitated the president by combining the voices of Mr. Rogers and John Wayne -- or Bill Clinton watching "Air Force One" not once but twice -- or that George W. Bush had "My Sharona" on his iPod? Probably not, since other than for connoisseurs of incongruity such moments have the half-life of mayflies. Obama imitating Al Green feels a little different, though.
It"s nice to have such a vivid (and entertaining) reminder of how remarkable our president is. Forget his politics. This is one more example of how any objective observer has to be impressed with Obama just as a guy. There's the further element of taking citizenly pride in any president's demonstration of extra-political abilities -- the way it was kind of neat that George W. Bush was fit enough for 20-mile mountain-bike rides or Clinton could play a passable tenor saxophone. But it's in the way Obama/Green (now there's a political ticket for you) links up with certain larger things in the culture right now that makes it seem weighty as well as weightless.
There's been another recent instance in presidential politics of song
lyrics coming out of a candidate's mouth. Mitt Romney for a while was
reciting lines from "America the Beautiful" on the campaign trail. Can
an act be both sincere and calculated? That's the way it felt listening
to Romney offer up Katharine Lee Bates' lyrics. That's Bates, above. It was an invocation of a
pietistic, vaguely pompous patriotism: America seen as (understood as?)
so many words on a needlework sampler. The only thing unconventional about
Romney's doing this was his choosing to recite the words rather than
sing them. Why? It's not because he doesn't sing in private. Ann Romney
told The New York Times in December that when she and her husband go
horseback riding he loves "singing at the top of his lungs." It's an
image out of "Paint Your Wagon" or Rodgers and Hammerstein in highest
high-uplift mode. However unintentionally, it also summons up Jesse
Jackson's line at the 1984 Democratic Convention about rather having "Roosevelt in a wheelchair than Reagan on a horse." Might Romney sing
Rodgers and Hammerstein songs? It's a good bet he doesn't sing any Al
Green. Though you never can tell: Donny Osmond's covered it.
Romney, seeking Republican votes, seeks to evoke a timeless America
of high-minded verities and tortured sytax ("Who more than self their
And mercy more than life!"). What's so striking about Obama singing that bit of Al Green isn't just the demonstration of excellent musical taste. It's the indication of how vastly different a country Obama is both comfortable and conversant with. In Green's music, there's a mingling of sacred and profane -- his current ministry and his pre-ministerial encounter with a flung pot of boiling grits -- intelligence, nuance, sensuality, worldliness, exaltation, slyness, beauty, energy, vitality. More than anything else, perhaps, there's the implicit declaration on the singer's part of an openness to experience. Listening to Obama imitate Al Green, we become latter-day Walt Whitmans, hearing America singing. "America the Beautiful," no matter how sincerely rendered, long ago became a song sung (or recited) by rote. "Let's Stay Together," even on record, remains alive, alert, out and about -- as opposed to sitting up on the shelf.
The obvious rejoinder to this praise for the sensibility behind
Obama's singing (rather than for the singing itself) is that, well,
sure, he's African-American. There's a natural affinity there, right? Except
this isn't about race, something determined by one's genes. It's about
culture, something determined by one's own preferences and
venturesomeness. Look at Johnny Otis, who died last week. Otis (left) was
Greek-American, yet through his combined work as bandleader, musician,
composer, impresario and general aficionado he did more for the
advancement of African-American popular music in California than perhaps
any other single individual. As for Obama, don't forget that his father
was a Kenyan and his mother was Kansan ("as corny as Kansas in August,"
speaking of Rodgers and Hammerstein). He grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii -- as far away as you can be from Al Green's Memphis and still reside in
the United States. He grew up as much of an r&b/soul outsider as Romney did. Well, almost.
So it's not hard to "get" Al Green -- and he has the gold and platinum records to prove it -- but if you do get him you have to have some measure of sensitivity, or at least awareness, of the special place of race in this country: how the African-American experience has done more than any other element within American culture to distinguish and enrich that culture; and how the social legacy of that experience has done so much to challenge and shame America. Which is another way of saying that no one who's ever listened to Al Green with pleasure and appreciation might have said what Newt Gingrich did at the debate last week where he stood by his referring to Obama as "the food stamp president" -- let alone say it with such grandiose smugness.
On his blog, the Atlantic's James Fallows has written of just how disingenuous Gingrich was. "There are lots of other ways to make the point about economic hard times -- entirely apart from which person and which policies are to blame for today's mammoth joblessness, and apart from the fact that Congress sets food stamp policies. You could call him the 'pink slip president,' the 'foreclosure president,' the 'Walmart president,' the 'Wall Street president,' the 'Citibank president,' the 'bailout president,' or any of a dozen other images that convey distress. You decide to go with 'the food stamp president,' and you're doing it on purpose."
Once again we're reminded that anyone who thinks this country has
achieved a post-racial status is kidding himself. Gingrich may or may
not have proposed an "open marriage" to his second wife. He definitely didn't propose an "open society" in South Carolina. Who knows, maybe
Gingrich will start referring to Obama as the "Al Green president."
The GOP campaign has moved on from South Carolina to Florida. Another
campaign is about to move into higher gear, too. When the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces this year's nominees Tuesday,
you can be sure that "The Help" will get a bunch. In its well-meaning way, "The Help" is as oblivious to the America summoned up by Obama singing "Let's Stay Together" as Gingrich is. Bien-pensant liberalism can be
just as clueless as race-baiting conservatism, and without the need to disguise its
self-congratulation (not that that's ever stopped Gingrich). Notice how it's Emma Stone, in the movie poster, who sits center stage and meets the viewer's eye. Bryce Dallas Howard, representing the bad whites, looks away. Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer are presented as supporting players -- even though their plight is the heart of the movie and their courage and endurance provide the triumph the story concludes with. The "help" in the title of both the movie and the Kathryn Stockett novel it's based on refers to the black servants. But in terms of the story's moral calculus it's the help Stone's character, Skeeter, offers the servants. It's a matter of opinion whether or not the Lord helps those who help themselves. In "The Help," there are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. The help comes courtesy of the cute white girl with the curly hair and kitty-cat eyes. Gingrich should see the movie. He could start calling Stone the food stamp actress.
About Movie Nation
ContributorsTy Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.
Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.
Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.
Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Glenn Yoder is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.
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