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From the Versailles of Louis XIV to the White House of Barack Obama, state music functions have always been political, and the repertory and performers say much about the fashioning of leaders by themselves and their handlers. In the age of constant media exposure and polling, musical tastes are a crucial way to win the affection of voters and, more importantly, donors.
Earlier this month Obama staged another of his gala concerts, this one devoted to Memphis Soul. It was the tenth such event during his reign, and like most of the previous soireés musicales it was devoted to the popular rather than the high-brow. Back in November of 2009, in the first year of Obama’s presidency, a Classical evening brought violinist Joshua Bell and a handful of somewhat lesser luminaries to the White House, but since then, the offerings suggest canny coalition building and an aligning of musical tastes with political goals: a Latin music evening back in 2009 helping to court Hispanic voters; subsequent Motown and Blues jamborees. Baby boomer establishment types of various hues were appeased with Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, and, more hoarily, Burt Bacharach. The American musical, that symbol of melting pot America and enduring Big Apple tourist appeal, also got its due. Consensus politics even brought a Country Music concert to the White House, though this wasn’t really a Clintonian exercise in musical opponent-hugging, since chief among these musicians were Kris Kristofersson and James Taylor—hardly the rabid Republicans of the musical heartland. The band Alabama did not rate an invitation.
The above were all safe, inoffensive, and useful choices. While this variety does not preclude Obama’s real affection for some of this music, the sheen of fair-mindedness and catholicity of taste should not distract one from seeing these allocations of East Room air-time as politically savvy. One might argue that the range of offerings is properly democratic: the Obama approach differs fundamentally from that of the monarchs of yore, whose tastes reflected their exalted status. If the diverse music of ethnic minorities, poor peasants, and immigrants found its way into earlier official music it was as a curiosity in a larger pageant—a comic figure in an opera or a rustic polish dance in a refined French suite.
By contrast the President’s public taste is aggressively populist, as he made clear in his introductory remarks on Memphis Soul Night, asking rhetorically “Who doesn’t like this music?” Presidential taste is the taste of the people, and vice-versa. Given such warm rhetoric, who could now not think of him as a man of authentic affection and approachability?
To make this attitude still clearer even before he gave his introduction, Obama threw in a hip-swinging soul move on his way through the aisle to his front-and-center seat as the band vamped to its leader Booker T’s “Green Onions,” with the composer himself standing to attention at the Hammond. This demonstration of the political body to the nation—the body politic—hearkened back to the teenage Louis XIV’s appearance as Apollo in the Ballet of the Night in 1653. In a different, but no less stylized and important, choreography—albeit one far shorter and less demanding—Obama’s physical movements were meant to reflect the true America: literally hip; physically appealing; young; unabashed; genuine.
Throughout the evening the Presidential couple continued to clap and sway in their seats. Flanking these movers and shakers, the two Obama daughters sat unmoving, mortified with embarrassment throughout this hour-long primal moment. Impeachment seems too soft a penalty for such fully-documented, irrefutable parental torture.
Obama’s introduction lauded the role of music in bridging the racial divisions of the segregationist south. Even if the blacks and whites had been kept apart by law and custom, music brought them together. The President lauded Sun and Stax records for their role in the transformation of music and racial attitudes. In line with these lofty platitudes, the musicians on stage were carefully diverse, from the instrumentalists to the back-up singers to the headliners: Queen Latifah’s regal reading of “I Can’t Stand the Rain” found her counterpoint in Cyndi Lauper’s supercharged cover of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”; florid American Idol finalist Josh Ledet’s “When a Man Loves A Woman” was answered by the Alabama Shakes’ “Born Under a Bad Sign”—the latter was bad in one sense but not the other, and utterly forgettable. The memory of Redding, the main breadwinner at Stax, was frequently invoked, and Memphis great Booker T cast a Presidential aura over the proceedings.
But home-bred Memphis talent was in short supply: Elvis was not in the White House though I would have welcomed the bi-partisan gesture of having the ghost of Lee Atwater impersonate the King. Timberlake was held up as a native from the now-generation: a true star of song and the silver screen, and an appealing enough stage presence. His rendition of Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” was buttressed by the guitar commentaries of the co-writer of the song, Steve Cropper. Timberlake’s dark suit and tie and slicked-back hair alluded more to Dean Martin than to early Elvis, and his piercing slightly grainy voice conjured the Tennessee suburbs he hails from more than the Memphis inside the city limits. Even before this wealthy celebrity started into Redding and Cropper’s “Ode to Idling” many in the right-wing press were grumbling about holding such musical festivities during sequestration, when the belt was tightening around those beyond the White House lawn. The leisurely, reflective tempo and incessant circling back to inaction of “The Dock of the Bay” resounded with a grim dissonance across an America of rampant unemployment and vicious budget-cutting. The irony of celebrating in such style less than a week in advance of Tax Day was not lost on many, especially those about to write checks to the IRS.
But focusing on such purely fiscal considerations misses one of the main purposes of state music: to distract from politic realities even while creating them, encouraging the citizenry to identify with the sovereign who by virtue of his goodness allows them a televised seat at the musical banquet.
And as far as distraction, one would never have guessed that earlier that day Obama had been shuffling his baseball-terror cards and deciding who to have killed in foreign lands. After such ruthless exercise of unchecked power, the chief executioner was the picture of relaxation. Obama ambled into the East Room and enjoyed his evening with the untroubled conscience of a dictator or mobster, like Al Capone sauntering into his Sunset Café in Chicago to hear Louis Armstrong in the 1920s. How gracefully Obama danced in his seat after deliberating on the killing of the unseen without trial! Frederick the Great required the balm of music to soothe him after war, but the Prussian King had ridden out into the field himself. Obama directs his killings from his desk. After such murderous rigors, the sport of giving the Imperial thumbs down to alleged terrorists and their family members and the innocent villagers who happen to get in the way, Obama granted himself a Little Tenderness come evening. The President may have grooved in his seat to Ledet and Sam Moore doing the latter’s signature tune “Soul Man,” but it takes a soulless man to dispatch the drones.