Frontline: Dreams of Obama

The "dreams of Obama" are partly his and partly his admirers', functions of his much-repeated story, his political ambitions and achievements, as well as the desires of his many and diverse supporters.


Airtime: Tuesday, 9pm ET
Cast: Jim Gilmore, Will Lyman (narrator)
Subtitle: Dreams of Obama
Network: PBS
US release date: 2009-01-20

"Tonight is a particular honor for me because, let's face it, my presence on this stage is pretty unlikely." Four years ago, at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama gave a speech in which he laid out his ideas of America, the promises and possibilities that had brought him to his "unlikely" state. As Frontline rehearses in tonight's Dreams of Obama, these ideas are both familiar and thrilling. Obama's soaring rhetoric, derided by his opponents during the long presidential campaign, is here again extolled, even as the documentary considers that extolling process.

Another reflection on the phenomenon of Obama, Dreams offers well-known accolades and occasionally bland over-explanation (Obama biographer David Mendell compares Obama to a great athlete, recalls that on that night in Boston, Obama told him, "I'm LeBron, baby," then notes that LeBron is a star basketball player). As its biographical material on Obama is drawn largely from a previous Frontline (The Choice), remarks by interviewees here are not surprising so much as they are coalesced. Again, the Obama story includes basic points: he was born to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya, he learned from an early age to negotiate "dual identities" and work between communities, and he spent childhood years in Hawaii and Indonesia.

At Harvard he was elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, an achievement that showcased his emerging political skills (Classmate Christine Spurell remembers that he was "able to communicate so well with [white students], even spend social time with them." Offering her analysis of his ability and inclinations, she adds, "I don't think he was agenda-driven. I think he genuinely thought, 'Some of these guys are nice, all of them are smart, some of them are funny, all of them have something to say.'")

In Chicago, Obama further honed these skills. As the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza puts it, "The sort of icon-like image that Obama has attained in this country sometimes blinds us to the fact that he wasn't born on stage in 2004, but he had to rise through the ranks of machine politics in Chicago to get where he is. And that's made him an incredibly effective politician." According to Dreams, this effectiveness results from multiple forces, from Obama's self-confidence to sustained mentoring by wise elders like Tom Daschle to smart, thoughtful planning of each campaign. His one loss, to Bubby Rush in 2000, raised what would become a recurring question concerning Obama's roots and identity, that is, "Was he black enough?" Following this episode, the up-and-comer joined with David Axelrod, who observes, "He had a political story to tell," one that worked across race lines.

The focus on Obama's embodiment and representation of such transformational concepts is not news. Dreams spends little time on the recent presidential campaigns, both for the party's nomination (that is, the battles with Hillary and Bill Clinton) and then for the office itself, running against John McCain. It does mention Jeremiah Wright, both as the pastor at Trinity and the "fiery" figure in those many YouTubed video clips. The New York Times' Janny Scott notes that Obama's success is premised on his not appearing as an "angry black man," which meant he had to distance himself from Wright and other previous-generation black public figures, a feat accomplished in part by the Race Speech he gave at Philadelphia's Constitution Center. The Washington Post's Dan Balz explains (again), "The goal was to elevate out of that moment into something broader."

The speech also demonstrated Obama's "groundedness," Balz continues, his tendency not to panic or act impulsively: "He is not a politician that is given to great highs and great lows." This temperament served him especially well when the U.S. economic crisis emerged late in the campaign. Dreams shows the usual clips here, McCain suspending his campaign and Obama insisting the first presidential debate go forward. Viewing his behavior during these weeks, the documentary asserts, "Voters had come to believe that Obama was plausibly presidential." This belief seems supported during Obama's victory speech in Grant Park on 4 November. As Balz says, "You have to go back in history a long, long time with as much trouble to deal with as Barack Obama," the president-elect appears composed and somber, waving to his audience and then accepting the responsibility that his popularity imposes and signifies.

The "dreams of Obama" are partly his and partly his admirers', functions of his much-repeated story, his political ambitions and achievements, as well as the desires of his many and diverse supporters: "This is our moment, this is our time," he says, reaction shots of the crowd showing them tearful and excited. While it's not precisely hagiographic, Dreams of Obama is less interested in analyzing this historic campaign than recording its key moments. As future analyses consider how the campaign managed its moments -- its expectations, images, and missteps -- they might also consider how such moments were deemed key as they occurred.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

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Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

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