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A Promised Land: decoding the Obama playlist

Aretha Franklin sings The Band’s classic, Dylan talks about the times and Beyonce rings a Halo
A Promised Land: decoding the Obama playlist.

Shantanu Datta   |   Calcutta   |   Published 18.11.20, 09:58 PM

BARACK Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, hit our shores on Tuesday. The first of two volumes, all of 768 pages, is, in his own words, “an honest accounting of my presidential campaign and my time in office, the key events and people who shaped it, my take on what I got right and the mistakes I made, and the political, economic, and cultural forces that my team and I had to confront then — and that as a nation we are grappling with still.”

True to character, the announcement of the earlier US release of the book was accompanied by a playlist, representative of the music that has marked time in his life. He calls them songs from his administration, something that struck me as odd, a bit proprietorial even, though it must be his way of indicating that although these songs were frequently played at official functions during his time as President, not for once did their use attract the ire of artistes, many of whom did so when his successor attempted the same with other landmarks of American music.

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Not surprisingly, the playlist is an eclectic mix of rock, jazz, R&B, pop and rap, not always intended as hallmarks of symbolism. Discount the fact that there’s some demographic considerations here _ the presence of an American Idol is a dead giveaway. But the songs definitely speak about the man Obama is, the politics he has come to represent, and, even if obliquely, hold a mirror to what the largest democracy, and the rest of the world is going through now.    

India figures in his book. His impressions of former prime minister Manmohan Singh and the Congress party’s first family of Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are already on cyberspace. Hence, cut to his take on India: “… the truth was that despite the resilience of its democracy and its impressive recent economic performance, India still bore little resemblance to the egalitarian, peaceful, and sustainable society Gandhi had envisioned.”

To those uninitiated or indifferent to the various genres and sub-genres of popular western music, Obama’s selection of songs is unlikely to seem as obscure cultural reference points once these are read and listened to in this backdrop. For lovers of music, many of these songs could seem too familiar. Still, listening to them one after the other is a delight _ whether one chooses to read A Promised Land or not. So, here goes:

1. Aretha Franklin: The Weight

From her 1970 album, Franklin’s is a majorly upbeat version of The Band original. The exuberance of her rendition, foregrounded by a guitar twang, a heavy rhythm section and gospel harmonies will want you to stand up, clap and join in. Most recently, Robbie Robertson, who wrote the song in late 1967, performed it with musicians from around the world, starting with none other than Ringo Starr. 

I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ ’bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
Hey, Mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?
He just grinned and shook my hand, “No,” was all he said

2B.B. King: The Thrill is Gone

This 1950s classic by Roy Hawkins and Rick Darnell epitomises West Coast blues. It got the King treatment sometime in 1969. It’s a crispy slow-burn, seductive in charm, bemoaning a lost love, or more pertinently, the loss of certain intangibles collectively referred to as values. Read it, feel it, sing it any which you like, you cannot but agree. Here’s a lovely live version where King is joined, seated, by the likes of Eric Clapton, Robert Cray and Jimmie Vaughan.

3Beyonce: Halo

The song that appears in her third studio album, I Am.. Sasha Fierce (2008), is said to be a personal exposition on her relationship with husband Jay-Z. She shares writing credits with Ryan B. Tedder and Evan Kidd Bogart, who described it as offering a behind-the-scenes, no-frills look at the Queen of R&B-Pop. Obama’s fondness for the singer’s work is well known, prompting talk show host Stephen Colbert to mischievously pose an innocent query to Michelle Obama about her during an interview.

Feels like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you breaking
The risk that I’m taking
I'm never gonna shut you out

4. Beyonce: At Last

This one is Etta James’s signature song, originally written in 1941. Beyonce, who played the soul legend for a film and performed it for its soundtrack, also sang it for Mr and Mrs Obama’s ‘first dance’ at the presidential ball of January 2009. Now, therein lies the rub. Did James like it? Beyonce seems to suggest she did when the film was released. But there were conflicting reports, some suggesting she didn’t. “… I tell you that woman he (Obama) had singing for him, singing my song _ she’s going to get her ass whipped,” The Guardian reported her saying. But later, James’s son revealed she was at the time suffering from complications of an earlier surgery, and that she had actually told him Beyonce’s performance was “great”. Whatever, Mr Obama, and with due respect to Beyonce’s 15.7 million Twitter followers, two songs of hers, and no CCR?   

5. Bob Dylan: The Times They Are a-Changin

Mr Zimmerman wrote the song in 1963 but it would be another year when it found place as the title track to the album that many feel pretty much got everything right. Dylan has hinted that the civil rights movement was the essential spearhead for the song, but he purposely keeps things vague in the lyrics, thereby universalising its purpose and making it a convenient pick to further any worthy cause. It is a profoundly powerful song, almost forcing us to believe in the inevitability of a good turn.

As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin'
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’

6. Brooks & Dunn: Only in America

A 2001 release by the famous country music duo, this song is a straight-ahead, up-tempo hit. It talks about everyday people, like a driver with a bus full of children and a newly-wed couple, their lives and aspirations; and in the end, declaring that it is only in America, the land of red and white and blue, that everybody gets to love their dreams. But Mr Obama, the elections are long over. Who is that man still in White House?

7. Bruce Springsteen: The Rising

The song is featured in the eponymous album, the Boss’s 12th recorded in a studio. It dwells on society, existence, humanity; and was hailed as one of the first significant cultural responses to 9/11. Specifically, the song could well allude to the firemen going up the New York City Twin Towers to help rescue those trapped when everyone else was coming down the flight of stairs. The Rising espouses a collective emotion after death and destruction brought upon by man upon man. It is not about revenge, but about healing.

Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

Come on up for the rising
Come on up, lay your hands in mine

8. Eminem: Lose Yourself

The American rapper wrote it while in character filming 8 Mile, the movie in which he played Jimmy “B-Rabbit” Smith Jr. Its aggressive lyrics, centred around the struggle to be respected, earned him plaudits from fans as well as critics. It was the first rap song to win an Oscar. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it became the longest running rap single at Number One at 23 weeks. Listen to the words and it’s not difficult to reason why the Obama administration embraced it.

You better lose yourself in the music, the moment
You own it, you better never let it go
You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow
This opportunity comes once in a lifetime

 9. Frank Sinatra: Luck be a Lady

This 1950 song, originally written and composed by Frank Loesser, was first performed by Robert Alda. It personifies luck as a lady. Featured in the Sinatra album Man and His Music, the iconic star uses his voice to appeal to Lady Luck not to abandon him when he needs her most. Beginning with intermittent flourishes of the orchestra at the end of each line, the song settles into a finger-snapping easy groove. From then on, it’s Sinatra all the way. Luck be a Lady was also featured in the film, Guys and Dolls (1955) with Marlon Brando singing. Seal has a cool, perky version too.

Let’s keep this party polite
Never get out of my sight
Stick with me baby, I’m the guy that you came in with
Luck be lady tonight

10Gloria Estefan: Always Tomorrow

An understated acoustic ballad about starting over, this Gloria Estefan song, released in 1992, was praised by critics as a “hopeful and worthy five minutes of class”, a combination of “an uplifting message and melody” and “earnest, thoughtful ballad”. The singer is understood to have donated royalties accruing from the sale of the single to the victims of Hurricane Andrew that struck Florida, Bahamas and Louisiana in 1992.

But there’s always tomorrow to start over again
Things will never stay the same the only one sure thing is change
That's why there's always tomorrow

11. Fleetwood Mac: Rhiannon

A great song from a classy band, this one’s about a Welsh witch. So says Stevie Nicks in a clip of their performance on Midnight Special in 1976. It’s more of a rocky take on the smooth studio version of the song. And she nails it. At the time, not many knew of her as she had only joined the band a year earlier and Fleetwood Mac’s stellar album, Rumours, was yet to come.

All your life you’ve seen a woman
Taken by the wind
Would you stay if she promised you heaven?
Will you ever win?
Will you ever win?

12. Jay-Z: My 1st Song

This is the closing song to The Black Album, wherein Shawn Carter, also known as Jay-Z, pays tribute to his passion, which is hip-hop. Lovers of the genre vouch for its sincerity and the artiste’s ability to make this personal song a universal anthem for all those struggling to give expression to their dreams.

It’s my life, it’s my pain and my struggle
The songs that I sing to you is my everything
Treat my first like my last, and my last like my first
And my thirst is the same when as when I came
It’s my joy and my tears
And the laughter it brings to me, it’s my everything

13John Coltrane: My Favourite Things

John Coltrane, whose avant-garde approach took him beyond the reaches of traditional music structures, plays a track from the famed Rogers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music, which, two years before the release of this album in 1961, had just hit Broadway in New York. His quartet comprised McCoy Tyner on piano, Steve Davis on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Listen. This is pure joy.

14Miles Davis: Freddie Freeloader

This is the second tune on Kind of Blue, regarded as the greatest jazz album of all time. An orthodox, straight-ahead 12-bar blues, Freddie Freeloader’s meditative pace draws you in immediately, and then never lets you go. It was recorded in 1959, with Davis and his stellar line-up of Julian ‘Cannonball’ Adderly (alto saxophone), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums). Kind of Blue forever, a timeless masterpiece.

15Phillip Phillips: Home

This one is said to be the best-selling song in the history of American Idol, which Phillips won in 2012. One of his mentors at the show was Stevie Nicks who, after hearing his rendition of Jonny Lang's Still Rainin, apparently said he would have been good enough to join Fleetwood Mac back in 1975.

16. The Beatles: Michelle

When Obama invited Paul McCartney to his home, he said this was one of the songs he was “itching to do at the White House”, and that he hoped the President would forgive him. He also joked he could well be the first musician to be punched out from the President’s home for serenading the First Lady. No, none of that happened.

17. Sade: Cherish the Day

In the video of a live version of the song in 2011, lead singer Sade is in a red dress on a rising platform that makes her look as if she is singing among skyscrapers. Cherish is a beautiful track, slow and lilting. And Sade sings the way she does. She is tunefully grainy, betraying a sense of sadness, but never agony. 

18. Stevie Wonder: Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours

This song was one of the first of three played to warm up the over 2 lakh crowd at Obama’s election night rally before his victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago in 2008. A wonderfully peppy song, it was released by Wonder in 1970 and went on to be covered, famously, by Peter Frampton.

19Stevie Wonder: Sir Duke

From his singularly outstanding album, Songs in the Key of Life, this track is Wonder’s tribute to musicians who have had a deep influence on him. Although the title refers to jazz legend Duke Ellington, the lyrics also mention a number of pioneers like ‘Count’ Basie, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all, Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella's ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose

20. U2: Beautiful Day

Anthemic in rendition, this song, which was accompanied by a stunning video of the band performing on the runway of Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris while a jet takes off, was included in their 2000 album, All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Bono explained the song is about losing everything but still finding joy in what one has. “Just like a flower can survive and maybe thrive in inhospitable conditions, the human spirit cannot be smothered, and can even persevere in hard times.” No wonder the Obama campaign grabbed at it.

It’s a beautiful day
Sky falls, you feel like
It's a beautiful day
Don't let it get away.



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