“Appreciate every mixtape your friends make, you never know, we come and go like on the interstate” — Stereo Hearts by Gym Class Heroes
Well, there’s finally something noteworthy out of the White House to comment on: President Obama’s staff released his campaign’s Spotify playlist the other day. We’ll get to the critique in a moment; first, a couple words about Spotify and similar services.
I’ve only recently warmed to the idea of music subscription services, mainly because it’s clear I’m never going to be able to afford to own all the music I’d like to listen to. And really, if you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, what does the added cost of actual ownership get you, anyway? I don’t pretend to be an audiophile; I’m still listening to some stuff on crappy cassettes from the 1980s—digital at any bitrate is pretty much an upgrade for me.
The key for me is the size of the catalog the subscriber can access. Spotify boasts 15 million songs. I enjoy it a lot, but it’s still plagued by glaring omissions (only 2 of the crucial first 4 Public Enemy albums?), seems overly-heavy when it comes to greatest hits compilations, and obscurities are under-represented. So it’s not as if I can just jettison my physical music collection. For instance, I have 30 Pharaoh Sanders CDs. Spotify offers 14. If you want me for life, you’ve got to offer me everything I already have, plus all his mellow 80s and 90s Evidence albums I’d like to listen to but will never blow my hard-earned cash on.
I like to imagine a future where everything ever recorded is available to everyone (including all 300 Acid Mothers Temple albums), where rights holders get compensated, the public doesn’t get gouged, and fans no longer have to scrounge estate sales for scratched copies of vital vinyl. We’re moving in that direction, and I’m sure Spotify and its competitors will continue to expand available offerings, but we’re not there yet.
So, I’ll take Obama’s list with a grain of salt. Maybe in his study he’s got a killer stash of rare groove Spotify just doesn’t offer. More likely, the staffers who assembled his list just need to up their game.
The mixtape (whatever the format) is an artistic assemblage governed by its own idiosyncratic set of rules. Destined to become an artifact of living memory, forever fixing a time, a place, a person in the heart. Designed to provoke a response in the listener, the selections also act as a psychological reveal of the curator.
Let’s also ponder the purpose of the mixtape as a public entity. If it’s not created for your own private enjoyment, you’re either giving it to your hipster friends to impress them with your musical knowledge, or you’re giving it to a girl to win her heart with your soulful taste. Scanning the songs, I don’t see too much out of the mainstream. This is not a hipster playlist. Obama’s going for the girl. And the girl in this scenario is you, the average American voter. So how well does he do?
Raphael Saddiq, “Keep marchin’” is the first pick, a contemporary neo-soul song that I feel sets the tone for the whole thing. Stirring at times, but not transcendant. Nick Hornby’s fantastic novel “High Fidelity” lays out some mixtape rules. First and foremost, he argues, you should start off with something that grabs the listener’s attention. I’ll give Obama marks for trying. At least, I’m not ready to hit pause yet.
Next is “Tonight’s the kind of night” by indie folk-rock group Noah and the Whale, followed by “We take care of our own,” a single from Bruce Springsteen’s upcoming album. The Springsteen song is a patriotic rocker similar to “Born in the U.S.A.” in that it can be heard simultaneously as ironic or optimistic depending on one’s own views. “Wherever this flag’s flown, we take care of our own” goes one line. The problem with Bruce’s stuff is it too often gets stripped of its irony by literalist yahoos. I don’t think that’s Obama’s purpose, but I think he’s probably trying to have it both ways by appealing to that element as well as his natural liberal base. I’ve been more impressed with the latest offering from one of our other troubadors, Tom Waits, whose martial stomp on “Hell Broke Luce” makes the sharper point: “How is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk?” After ten years of war in Afghanistan, it’s a fair question.
Next up is “Keep me in mind” by the Zac Brown Band, designed to be heard as “Keep Obama in mind.” Four songs in and we’ve established the basic parameters of the whole list: some soul (mostly classic), some indie songs, a little Boomer-oriented rock, and a fair amount of contemporary country.
By this point, Obama’s already violated one of Hornby’s major rules of mixtapes: no white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music. Since my mixtapes invariably also violate this rule, I’ll give us both a pass on this one.
Aretha Franklin, “The weight,” done originally by The Band. Offbeat covers are a hallowed feature of the mixtape, multiplying the sentiments of the original with a musicfan factor proportional to the uniqueness of the cover. Kudos to Obama.
Pick six is “Even better than the real thing” by U2. Apart from the naked need conveyed by the song (“give me one more chance, you’ll be satisfied”), U2 hasn’t really put out any decent songs since The Joshua Tree. This is the aural-political equivalent of sticking “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” on your mixtape in hopes you’ll get lucky when Jenny goes parking with you in your dad’s Z28.
This is followed by Ricky Martin’s “Best thing about me is you” a poppy duet with Joss Stone, with the not-so-subtle message “Don’t say no, just say yes.”
This is followed by “Home,” a wistful, contemporary country ode by Dierks Bentley filled with the sort of gag-inducing nationalism I thought we left behind once George W. Bush moseyed off the stage.
The next song, Ray LaMontange’s “You are thest best thing” is an R&B-ish singer-songwriter piece that unfortunately only partly redeems the previous offering.
Then comes Earth Wind & Fire doing a live version of the Beatles’ “Got to get you into my life.” As an R&B cover of a rock song goes, it’s not bad. But wait—this is a 2010 version by the Earth Wind & Fire Experience. Their first version, from 1978, has better guitar licks and a little more oomph and would have been the better choice.
Booker T & the MGs “Green Onions” is a bona fide classic, and I always like to throw at least one instrumental into the mix, so thumbs up here.
Wilco, “I got you,” is a solid piece of alt-country featuring Jeff Tweedy channeling Big Star. This is followed by the Impressions “Keep on Pushing.” A great song, and blog-appropriate, so I can’t argue with this. Rather than Wilco, however, I might have gone with Six String Drag, a lesser-known alt-country band whose own, completely different song called “Keep on pushin’” would have provided an interesting counterpoint to the Impressions.
Fourteenth is Jennifer Hudson’s “You’re the perfect man for me,” a contemporary R&B track that doesn’t do anything for anybody. At this halfway point in the playlist, it’s become clear that while press coverage suggests some of Obama’s favorite songs are contained herein, this is largely a creature of his political campaign staff. I have to hope. I mean, we all know a mixtape to a girl is designed to convey one’s own desirability, but you can’t come right out and announce that, it’s a conclusion that has to emerge organically. If you’re going to be all blatant about it, you might as well just copy “I’m sexy and I know it” 20 times and give her that. If this is Obama’s personal mix, it’s narcissist and slightly creepy.
Fifteen is “No nostalgia” by the indie band AgesandAges which seems all about nostalgia. Reaching out to the Tea Party, are we?
Number sixteen is the country anthem “Stand up” by Sugarland. “Won’t you stand up and use your voice?” Isn’t that what they were doing when they they all got teargassed in Zuccotti Park (and Oakland, and everywhere…)?
Seventeenth is Al Green’s “Let’s stay together.” It’s a fine song, but like all the other soul selections on here, it’s not a deep cut or anything. Just about everything here is familiar-sounding even if the songs are not individually familiar.
Which brings us to the first of the two Darius Rucker songs, “This.” Nick Hornby has a rule that says you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side except under special circumstances. I would go further and say you probably shouldn’t have two tracks by the same artist on the same mixtape. And two Darius Rucker songs is two too many. At least there’s no Dave Matthews Band on this playlist. If you want some twangy alt-country, try the Bottle Rockets.
“We used to wait” by indie superstars Arcade Fire. I find Arcade Fire vastly overrated. I’m much more enamored of their sometime collaborator, bass saxophonist Colin Stetson, who’s doing a solo show at the Walker in May. There wasn’t much I liked about Bill Clinton, but one thing he did have going for him was a healthy respect for free-jazz saxophonists like Peter Brotzmann. If Obama harbors a similar love for the avant-garde, you wouldn’t know it from this playlist.
“You’ve got the love” by Florence + the Machine is another indie pop number. I didn’t like them on SNL and I don’t like them now. If you have to play them, the country might prefer to hear that “the dog days are over” instead.
James Taylor “Your smiling face,” live. The best James Taylor song I’ve heard on Spotify lately is the Isley Brothers’ cover of “Fire and rain.”
REO Speedwagon “Roll with the changes” could certainly be Obama’s theme song. I prefer “Riding the storm out,” while “Follow my heart” is probably better advice all around, for the President and the voters.
Sugarland, again, (sorry Nick) with “Everyday America,” contemporary country pop that reminds me exactly why I hate contemporary country pop.
Darius Rucker (again) with “Learn to live.” The less said, the better, and as far as songs about grandpas giving advice go, “Ooh la la” by the Faces is far superior.
ELO “Mr. Blue Sky” is a Beatlesesque tune from 1977 and probably Obama’s most intriguing choice musically. With its upbeat tone and orchestreal flourishes at the end, this might work better as a playlist closer. 28 songs gets to be a little long, anyway.
Montgomery Gentry, “My town”: Mr. President, this song about small town life in one’s hometown just doesn’t fit you. Your town used to be Chicago and now it’s D.C. Claim it, baby. May I suggest “Chocolate City” by Parliament instead of this vanilla country?
No Doubt, “Different people”: Didn’t there used to be a punk band in River Falls that sang a song about how much Gwen Stefani sucks?
Ledisi,”Raise up”: The closer, a contemporary R&B/jazz vocals song of forgiveness, in the same earnest spirit as all the other soul songs on the playlist. I’d honestly prefer “Shut up” from the same album, with the lyrics “Shut up, I’m moving up.” Show some guts, Mr. President. Show some fire. Show some funk.
My own choice for Obama’s campaign song, which Spotify doesn’t offer, is “Paint the White House Black” from George Clinton’s 1993 “Hey man, smell my finger” album with Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Public Enemy. Which brings me to the subject of omissions.
It’s hard to fault a mixtape for what it doesn’t have (but I’m going to do so anyway, why else would I be writing this). There’s so much good music out there, and everyone has different tastes. So what am I tasting here? Mostly bologna on whole wheat, fried bologna if I’m feeling charitable. As musical meals go, it’s edible but not real tasty, presentable but no pizzazz. We’ve got mainly well-known classic soul and contemporary country with a little indie mayo and a Baby Boomer pickle on the side. And no hip-hop.
Not that there has to be hip-hop because he’s the first black president. No, there has to be hip-hop because in December the Roots put out their best damn album yet and any 2012 mixtape without “Kool On” is egregiously incomplete if not utter crap.
So, after listening to your playlist, Mr. President, I confess I’m disappointed by the anticipation of a boldness of vision never realized—much like your first term. And while I still might vote for you (or let you pick the radio station in the car before I would Rick Santorum), I don’t think I want to date you.