I was as excitedly caught up in the inauguration of Barack Obama as any other hopeful American - enough so that I found myself watching hours of CNN covering nothing more Jan. 17 than a train pulling into Union Station. So I hate to seem like I’m dumping a big bucket of boo-hoo all over such a landmark occasion, especially when Aretha Franklin belted out (a tad hoarsely, if you ask me) “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.”
But is anyone else feeling a bit less than moved by the musical highlights surrounding it?
Waiting for inauguration inspiration to kick in already
I don’t mean to knock, say, that Sunday’s automatically significant concert, not in theory anyway. I’m very glad history will show that Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen and U2 and Garth Brooks and Mary J. Blige - not to mention Beyonce and James Taylor and John Mellencamp, and there are more - all performed iconic songs for the huddled masses on the mall in Washington, D.C., two days before our first president of color took the oath of office.
What an A-list outpouring, huh? Clinton pulled in some names back in ‘92, yeah, but not like that. Not like a Grammy telecast lineup. Not like something that works as an HBO special. It’s such a fine array of unimpeachable cultural giants and durable current talents, I’m not even kinda bothered that half of the most quintessential of civil rights anthems, Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” was sung by, of all people, Jon Bon Jovi. (Praise Jah for Bettye LaVette, that’s what I say.)
Yet, as auspicious and meaningful as it all was, I’d be lying if I said that it left me with this overwhelming urge to race to the Lincoln Memorial.
As a fete, it felt like a fait accompli: We have overcome, not we shall - even if, given these uncertain times, the emphasis really should be on shall for a whole new drawer full of reasons. I’m all for celebrating, especially when the party is tempered by a collective conscience - and leave it to the Boss to encapsulate both moods, first with “The Rising,” then a sing-along of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” accompanied by Pete Seeger.
Still, churning explosion of joy though it is, “The Rising,” much like U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” stopped stoking my optimistic flames a while ago. I don’t think most people would agree with this - we Americans love our anthems, never mind what they mean - but I find most soaring, socially observant songs don’t wear so well. They tend to define a moment in time, then get stuck there. Only the absolute greatest of them - above all Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and yes, for most people those Bruce and Bono tracks would count - only those few rare gems manage to transcend their era and signify for generation after generation.
(On that note, as with Aretha performing just before Obama was sworn in, I’m thrilled that Stevie got to sing “Higher Ground” on the steps where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. On the other hand, did it have to include the capable but kinda gratuitous Usher (never more dapper) and Shakira (never more restrained)? Generation-bridging aside, something about that felt too light for the moment. Something about it felt very American Music Awards.)
Speaking of “Higher Ground” ... doesn’t it seem like the best social anthems sprang from the worst of times? The impetus for Marvin’s plea was a discordant collage of Vietnam, Nixon, assassination, ecological destruction and drugged-out disillusion. “The Rising”? A gospel reaction to 9-11. “Pride” may have come from the prosperous Decade of Greed, but it was a rallying cry for peace and love and harmony from an Irish band that by the mid-‘80s was just beginning to witness how little of those concepts is upheld globally.
So the songs do resonate - but for me they do so much more effectively in times of trouble, just as “Let It Be” and “Bridge over Troubled Water” do.
I worry about the future of popular music, and not just because the formula makers once again have virtually complete control. I worry that this growing can-do-let’s-work mood and general air of happy relief will lead to some very, very boring music.
Look back over the decades and you see this Catch-22 emerge: The best, most yearningly passionate stuff is typically a product of rough times when dreams of something better become widespread. Then, when something better arrives, contentedness douses the fire. It seems hard to create deep meaning out of rampant visions of utopianism.
Want proof? Check out “Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement,” a well-meaning collection of new and old and remixed songs inspired by Obama’s campaign that has all the zest of a Windham Hill compilation.
Strong and dirverse talent (Jill Scott, Jackson Browne, Keb’ Mo’, Buddy Miller, Ozomatli) nonetheless sound as vapid and safe as Fleetwood Mac droning through “Don’t Stop” at Clinton’s inaugural ball. Weaving snippets of speeches into John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change” is lazy, though not quite as lazy as Stevie Wonder not offering something new. Dave Stewart should never sing or sample MLK. John Legend should have his soul credentials examined for turning “Pride” into a hammy ballad.
Not exactly a memento I want to keep - and yet I undoubtedly will, along with my special-edition Time and Newsweek and Rolling Stone issues, all about Barack. I ‘spose I’ll keep “Yes I Can” for the same reason my mom still has JFK’s and MLK’s speeches on vinyl: it’s a keepsake for posterity, a replica of significance. But that’s also all it is - whereas I have Bush-bashing compilations of every stripe from the past eight years teeming with tracks I’ll surely yank out whenever the mood strikes.
So maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m so jaded and cynical even Springsteen at his sincerest doesn’t faze me at a jubilant time like this. And maybe I needed to be on the mall to really feel what’s been happening out there.
Maybe I also needed to have not seen U2 so many times this decade, so that Bono’s heartfelt, inspirational words to live by didn’t feel like rehearsed rhetoric. Maybe then Sunday’s performances would have meant more to me right now.
STUPIDEST OSCARS CATEGORY IN YEARS: BEST SONG 2009
No nomination for Bruce Springsteen’s “The Wrestler” even though it won the Golden Globe two weeks ago?
No nomination for Oscar perennial Clint Eastwood for “Gran Torino”?
No nomination for Miley Cyrus’ “Bolt” tune?
OK, that last ditty I don’t care about so much. But what an inexplicable travesty this year’s Best Song category is. What gives?
Beyond the fact that only three tunes were nominated (two of them from Best Picture front-runner “Slumdog Millionaire”) when such a paltry assortment typically only happens in weak years, there’s a bigger, broader letdown to consider.
The Oscars telecast could have featured performances from Springsteen, Peter Gabriel (whose “WALL-E” track “Down to Earth” was singled out), M.I.A. (for “Slumdog”), Jamie Cullum (who handles the Eastwood piece) and Miley. How often does it happen that all five nominees are pop/rock/country and sung by popular stars? Like ... never?
Instead, the Best Song segment will surely be a bore - just another potty break during an expectedly overlong ceremony. Dumb, dumb and dumb again.