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February can be a busy month for pop singers with the right connections as they jet from Super Bowl at month’s beginning to the Oscars at its end. In years when a Democratic President is inaugurated the circuit begins still earlier, on Inauguration Day, January 20th.
The Beyoncé trifecta of 2013 followed this grand itinerary: after dutifully lip-syncing the Star Spangled Banner at the inauguration, she delighted with a memorable fetish frolic at the Super Bowl halftime show before concluding this trio of official engagements with an Oscar night duet with Jennifer Hudson, herself an Academy Award winner for supporting actress and a frequent visitor to the White House. Not coincidentally Hudson was on the very same tour: at the second inaugural ball she covered the Obama favorite “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green as the first couple danced on stage. Two weeks later she did America the Beautiful at the Super Bowl. Her performance there will long stand as a sublime monument of macabre kitsch by virtue of the bizarre fact that her back-up singers were underage survivors of the Sandy Hook School shooting. Hudson capped this string of high-profile appearances—imbued with diplomatic and morale-building purpose—with the obligatory Oscar date with Beyoncé, also beloved of the White House.
Like no other presidential pair the Obamas have been dazzled by the limelight cast by these national spectacles. At the same 2013 Oscars the First Lady went so far as to have herself beamed onto the big screen at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles so she could open the envelope for the Best Picture winner. So scorching was the dismay at this blatant pandering to Hollywood’s elite—like Louis XIV begging for Molière’s approval—that the stunt has not been repeated. Though the President’s pre-game pep-talk at the most recent Super Bowl similarly collapsed the once-robust separation between the religion of football and the work of state, his home invasion did not come in for the scorn and disbelief dished out to his wife for her dubious Oscars act—debut and swan song rolled into one.
Indeed, Barack Obama’s carefully staged shirtsleeve bonhomie over White House honeyed homebrew on Super Sunday stood in well-orchestrated contrast to the stilted impression made by Michelle’s Oscar debacle. That awkwardness was not only the result of political miscalculation but also a styling session for make-up and hair and jewelry and gown fitting whose obsessive detailing must have surpassed even the coif and couture ordeals of Marie Antoinette.
Banished from the Oscars after the 2013 fiasco, the Obamas have nonetheless kept a close eye on the Awards, their political resonance and propaganda potential. Back on January 19th of this year, perhaps feeling a touch of nostalgia for the more upbeat mood of an inauguration, Obama hosted a screening of Selma at the White House with key members of the cast and crew in attendance. This event came just a few days after the nominations had been announced, Selma having received only two nods—for best picture and best original song. This slight recognition of the movie by an Academy already taking on criticism for its glaring lack of inclusivity was described by a many commentators as a “snub.” Obama’s imprimatur was not only a gesture of aesthetic and ethical approval, but also a message to the Academy to make sure that the film got at least one statuette, preferably that for Best Picture. This would have enhanced its financial fortunes and, more broadly, the chances for underrepresented black filmmakers to fund their projects.
At the White House screening was the hip hop artist named Common, who collaborated with the singer John Legend on the best song nominee, “Glory.” In the film, Common also plays the key role of James Bevel; Bevel shared with King the middle name of Luther, and was the main SCLC strategist behind the march from Selma to Montgomery. The Common-Legend song is heard in the credit sequence of movie where stills from the production are presented as if they were real documents of the events they depict: history is trumped by its reenactment.
A long-time songster of the Obama political machine, Legend had sung America the Beautiful at the Super Bowl in his unmistakable and thankfully inimitable style, one skimmed of any fortifying authenticity. Katy Perry would later effuse in the Pepsi Halftime Show, but first Legend had to open with his Pepsi-Lite pre-game.
As is the custom at the numbing ritual that is the Academy Awards telecast, Legend and his collaborator Common, formerly known as Common Sense, performed their song in fashion that counts for “live” these days—with the orchestral strains piped in from an off-site studio down Sunset Boulevard.
Legend started front-and-center thumping monotonously at his piano while crooning in manner indistinguishable from his Super Bowl performance. From Berlin (Irving) to Babylon (Hollywood) Legend delivers updated gospel touches denuded of all struggle and therefore of all hope. He manages to pull off the impressive feat of making everything sound the same: appealing to many, threatening to none, least of all the performer himself. If the thrill of performance, like the courage required in acts of real protest, is predicated on the ever-present possibility of failure then Legend’s music-making is as deadly safe as it comes. It is impossible to care if he’s lip-syncing or not because never was liveness so comatose. Glorying in his own celebrity, Legend sang: “One Day, when glory comes / It will be ours, it will be ours.”
Then from the back of the stage appeared the Sense-less Common, dancing across a set of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over which the marchers had come some fifty years ago. His paean to protest, from Selma to Ferguson, at least had an antic power utterly absent from Legend’s milquetoast serenade. Yet the heroic Hollywood strings that shackled Common’s seemingly impassioned utterances indicated docile accommodation rather than real anger.
The best song category is perhaps the silliest of the Academy’s offerings, suggesting connections to vaudeville rather than serving to buttress claims for cinema as an independent art. Indeed, it is tempting to see a tacit racism in the lone win of best song for “Glory”: the film, its actors and creators get little recognition; it is only the credit sequence anthem that garners an award in a “traditional” discipline for black entertainers.
In accepting their statuettes, and combatting that very suspicion, the musicians strove for a King-like oratorical grandeur in their speeches. After thanking “God that lives in us all,” Common argued that the spirit of Selma bridge connects the “kid from the South side of Chicago dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression to the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope. Welded with compassion. And elevated by love for all human beings.” These were lofty words, their empty eloquence vigorously applauded by the feel-good Hollywood masters in the audience.
Then came Legend’s turn at the microphone cum pulpit. It is easier on the ears and soul to hear him speak than it is to endure his singing and piano playing. Deploying a voice that, as in its singing mode, is carefully coached on when to crack for best rhetorical and dramatic effect, Legend drew parallels between the current status of African-Americans and those past struggles depicted in Selma, a ponderous and often sluggish history pic that tries to cover far more territory than any two-hour entertainment should attempt:
“The struggle for justice is right now,” said Legend. “We know that the voting rights, the act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850. When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you that we are with you, we see you, we love you, and march on.”
Yet what has Legend’s man Obama really done about this state of affairs? Watching back in the White House, Obama was doubtless pleased that political action had been funneled into a dubious aesthetic approbation. Since “Glory” had gotten couple of a little faux-gold men, what more needed to be done—or could be done—in the gridlocked Capitol?
That “Glory” won its Oscar is in fact the film’s most fitting tribute and fully characteristic of the Academy and its awards: in Hollywood—and now in Washington, DC—spectacle will always triumphs over substance.
DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org