Politics & Government

Soul of the Obama campaign is in the soundtrack

Sheryl Crow performed at the Democratic National Convention
Sheryl Crow performed at the Democratic National Convention Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press / MCT

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Evelyn Arthur, 66, was all smiles, and she had a faraway look in her eyes at a Barack Obama campaign rally in Orlando, Fla., in October.

She's enjoying her golden years in Florida and worrying whether her savings can outlast the bad ride on Wall Street, but at the rally she felt a rush of nostalgia for a different time in her life, 30 to 40 years ago.

It wasn't just seeing a black presidential nominee in person that put her in that frame of mind. It was also the music blaring from the loudspeakers before Obama came onstage and after he left.

"Your love is lifting me higher," Jackie Wilson's recorded voice sang, just as in 1967. "I'll take you there," belted out Mavis Staples from 1972.

"It's always uplifting," Arthur said. "It's always giving us a message."

All modern presidential candidates have song playlists for their rallies, a cross-section of popular music that's meant to energize different segments of the crowd and send cues about the images a candidate wants to project.

Republican John McCain and Obama both play Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America," a pop country song about how anybody can grow up to be president.

Obama's playlist includes many other songs by white artists: He usually takes the stage to "City of Blinding Lights," by U2, with its global image. "The Rising," by Bruce Springsteen, who's a hero to union workers and the white working class, also plays in the buildup to Obama's arrivals.

The campaign also sells a CD for $24.99 called "Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement." It includes songs from artists supporting Obama who are as diverse in race and age as Jill Scott, John Mayer, Jackson Browne and Los Lonely Boys.

However, Obama also has packed into his playlist a hefty, carefully thought-out collection of "uplift" soul and R&B hits from the mid-'60s through the '70s.

In the campaign's closing days, as the Illinois senator's lead in polls has made victory feel imminent to many in his crowds, these songs tap deep into the wells of memory and emotion in supporters 50 and older. They're blacks and whites, with different contexts for but similar dreams of racial harmony.

Arthur, who's black, let the songs take her back to her early days as a single mom; to grieving after Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination; to agitating over hiring practices as an employee at the phone company in Baltimore, where she spent her career.

She thought about how she and her friends and co-workers felt a mix of hope, distrust and empowerment as the civil rights movement faded into the women's rights movement and battles over affirmative action.

"It was like, 'Things are going to change,' " she said of the feeling at the time. 'There was a lot of anger, but also a lot of determination.'"

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University and a visiting scholar at the Annenberg School of Communication, said that in conjuring such memories through his playlist, "Obama is doing something that's dramatically different in that regard.

"I think it's partially a black thing, but also a 'Big Chill' thing. Now those people are in their 50s and 60s that grew up listening to that Motown sound. It's bringing to fruition all of the promise of that moment 40 years ago, when suddenly you had a mixed race of people listening to black music."

The music "really harkens back to the initial moments of the creation of that possibility, young white folks listening to those artists, dancing to that music, the beginning of school integration," he said. "The music is really a soundtrack to that. It stirs a nostalgia about when folks had hopes that we'd see a kind of society where we can elect a black president."

Obama aides are purposefully vague when they're asked about the thinking behind the playlist.

Campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said some were tracks that Obama liked and that various staffers had suggested others.

The songs seem carefully chosen for their sound, tone and message. There's Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up" and the O'Jays' "Give the People What They Want." There's the anthemic "Ain't No Stopping Us Now," and Earth, Wind & Fire, a band from Obama's town, Chicago, singing "Shining Star."

" 'Move on Up,' it very much is about black pride and change," Neal said. "By the time you get to 'Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now,' it's the end of the civil rights era for many black folks. They saw change in the political winds. Ronald Reagan was about to be elected president and blacks were starting to see erosion of the gains."

Stevie Wonder is one of Obama's favorite artists, and he's performed live at some campaign events this year. Wonder's 1970s hit "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" is played at every rally.

Kool & The Gang made some funky disco, but "Celebration," their hit that makes the Obama playlist, probably went over better on the wedding and bar mitzvah circuit. It was played during Walter Mondale's nomination for president, according to news coverage, and to welcome U.S. hostages returning from Iran in 1981.

Some newer black artists who make the Obama rally playlist have ties to the old-school names. India Arie's "There's Hope" makes the cut on the merits of the title alone, but Arie also is a protege of Wonder.

Kanye West's "Touch the Sky" samples a familiar refrain; it's from Mayfield's "Move on Up." West's inclusion is a bit edgy considering the stir he made in a televised benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina when he said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Neal said it was worth noting which black '60s and '70s artists weren't in the usual rotation at Obama rallies, such as Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye. "Those are songs that would not go over as well," he said. "Stevie, he's seen as a crossover artist." Taken together, Neal said, the playlist seems to be broadcasting to white voters that "Obama is a safe choice."

Judy Shumaker, 57, a white woman who's been a decorator and a business owner and whose late father was a steelworker, danced in the stadium aisles this week to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" at an Obama rally in Pittsburgh.

"We can't wait till it's signed, sealed and delivered," Shumaker said of the election. "We like Stevie Wonder because he's an inspiration, just like this man," she said of Obama. "Nothing kept them down."

Her husband, Bob, 61, agreed. "That music was one of the first things that brought the races together," he recalled. "Parents just went nuts when we listened to that music in the 1950s," he said of music by black performers. "In the '60s, everything changed."

(William Douglas contributed to this story.)

(Editors note: McClatchy will look next at McCain's campaign playlist.)


Curtis Mayfield, "Move on Up" (1970)

McFadden and Whitehead, "Ain't No Stoppin' Us Now" (1979)

Jackie Wilson, "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher" (1967)

Sam and Dave, "Hold On, I'm Comin' " (1966)

Stevie Wonder, "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)" (1970)

Staple Singers, "I'll Take You There" (1972)

Earth, Wind & Fire, "Shining Star" (1975)

O'Jays, "Give the People What They Want" (1975)

India Arie, "There's Hope" (2006) (Stevie Wonder connection)

Kool & The Gang, "Celebration" (1980)

Kanye West, "Touch the Sky" (2006)

Other top plays at Obama rallies:

U2, "City of Blinding Lights"

Brooks & Dunn, "Only in America"

Bruce Springsteen, "The Rising"


1. "Eternity," Lionel Richie

2. "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)," Stevie Wonder

3. "Waiting on the World to Change," John Mayer

4. "American Prayer," Dave Stewart

5. "Battle Cry," Shontelle

6. "Make It Better," Los Lonely Boys

7. "Pride in the Name of Love," John Legend

8. "I Have a Dream," BeBe Winans

9. "Am I All Alone," Suai

10. "One Is the Magic #," Jill Scott

11. "Love & Hope," Ozomatli

12. "Looking East," Jackson Browne

13. "Out of Our Heads," Sheryl Crow

14. "Promised Land," Malik Yusef with Kanye West and Adam Levine of Maroon 5

15. "Hold On," Yolanda Adams

16. "America the Beautiful," Keb' Mo'

17. "America," Ken Stacey

18. "Wide River," Buddy Miller


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