- Politics as Musiticking
In January 2012, during a fund-raising event for his reelection campaign held at the Apollo Theater in New York, President Barack Obama decided to croon. Somehow picking up in the key of Al Green’s 1972 recording, the president lent his agile falsetto to the opening phrase of “Let’s Stay Together”: “I, I’m so in love with you.”1 The audience, who had earlier heard Green himself perform, roared with approval. In a later interview with Rolling Stone, Obama would explain that the idea for the a cappella performance was hatched as he bantered backstage with the Apollo’s sound engineers.2 After mentioning his regret at having missed Green’s appearance, Obama slipped a few notes of “Let’s Stay Together” into the conversation, sparking a surprised and delighted response from the Apollo crew. They urged the president to include the song in his speech. Despite the skepticism of advisor Valerie Jarrett, Obama obliged them. “I can sing,” he told Rolling Stone. “I wasn’t worried about being able to hit those notes.”3
Footage of the event was soon featured on television news broadcasts and quickly ricocheted across social media platforms. From a music-historical perspective, this moment was dense with meaning, perhaps most strikingly at the nexus of music and race. Certainly, the first black president singing the music of a soul and gospel music luminary at a site so pivotal to black music history—which is also to say US music history writ large—represents, in one sense, an apotheosis.4 But it is also critical to recognize the ways in which the performance was a kind of symbolic [End Page 428] high-wire act. As Sylvia Wynter has trenchantly argued, the trope of a “natural” and easy musicality has been a constitutive element in the racist images of (especially) black men that historically populate the social imaginaries of the Western Hemisphere. Epitomized in the minstrel show and the Sambo figure, this trope has served as “the scapegoat-carrier of all alternative potentialities that are repressed” in forming national subjects in line with “the Norm, as human” in societies like the United States.5 Though such an interpretation was perhaps unlikely on the part of the predominantly black audience at the Apollo, once the president’s performance began to circulate at large, it thus could easily have become available for readings motivated by what Wynter calls “the pathology of ‘whiteness’,” that is, ones in which Obama’s physiognomy and nonchalant musicality are taken as signifiers of “the Lack, the Void... of the certainty of being human”—the classic racist maneuver of dehumanization and scorn, here underwritten by the image of the “natural” black musician.6 The political and electoral risk here is obvious, and perhaps it was this fact that animated Valerie Jarrett’s hesitation about the president’s choice.7 But that choice revealed a certain confidence on Obama’s part—both a confidence in his own ability to articulate his musicianship to meanings quite the opposite of those condensed in the Sambo figure and a confidence in the public’s ability to receive his performance in terms of other, less retrogressive ideologies of music and race.
As if contrapuntally, a response from the Republican side of the 2012 campaign (then still engaged in party primaries) answered Obama’s melody just a few days after his appearance at the Apollo: at an event in Florida, Mitt Romney asked a crowd of supporters to join him in singing “America the Beautiful,” a song whose lyrics he had often previously recited as part of his stump speech but that on this occasion he chose to sing. Unlike in Obama’s case, Romney’s performance met with some degree of (ostensibly) aesthetic criticism from members of the media. Notably, the cable news personality Piers Morgan and the satirist John Stewart both dedicated airtime to needling Romney’s singing.8 But the fullest consequences of this musical campaign moment would not be felt until July, when the Obama campaign acousmatically leveraged the sound of Romney’s “America the Beautiful” in an ad called Firms. As the ad begins, “Romney is...