Friday, August 15, 2008

What Was Playing on Rutherford B. Hayes' Phonograph?

By the content of their iPodTM shall ye know them.

With only a couple of weeks to go in the "phony war" phase of the presidential election season, leading up to the respective party conventions looming, Blender Magazine polled the two presumptive candidates on their personal Top 10 songs. Compliant and media-savvy, both volunteered their lists to the magazine. The results, published under the title "White House DJ Battle" are as follows:

  1. Ready or Not [Fugees]
  2. What's Going On [Marvin Gaye]
  3. I'm On Fire [Bruce Springsteen]
  4. Give Me Shelter [Rolling Stones]
  5. Sinnerman [Nina Simone]
  6. Touch the Sky [Kanye West]
  7. You'd Be So Easy to Love [Frank Sinatra]
  8. Think [Aretha Franklin]
  9. City of Blinding Lights [U2]
  10. Yes We Can []

  1. Dancing Queen [Abba]
  2. Blue Bayou [Roy Orbison]
  3. Take a Chance on Me [Abba]
  4. If We Make It Through December [Merle Haggard]
  5. As Time Goes By [Dooley Wilson]
  6. Good Vibrations [The Beach Boys]
  7. What a Wonderful World [Louis Armstrong]
  8. I've Got You Under My Skin [Frank Sinatra]
  9. Sweet Caroline [Neil Diamond]
  10. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes [The Platters]

Analysing the reflected 'cool cred' of politicians' musical tastes is hardly a new pseudo-journalistic angle. Jacob Weisberg's May 2006 article for Slate, for instance, deconstructed the lessons learned from probing the inner DJ of the political leadership class, with a focus on Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, and George Bush. Senator Clinton, it turns out, listens to both kinds of music -- the Beatles and the Stones. In addition to Mozart and Mussorgsky, Secretary Rice includes Aretha Franklin, Cream, U2, and Kool and the Gang among her guilty pleasures. According to Weisberg, President Bush is much less calculating than either Clinton or Rice:

Unlike Hillary and Condi ... Bush doesn't worry about being politically correct or care what other people think of him. He likes to listen to white guys singing country and rock and doesn't care if Jerry Falwell objects to some of the lyrics.

George Jones, John Fogerty, Van Morrison, The Knack all grace the President's iPod.

So, what (if anything) to make of these lists published by Blender?

Well, Rolling Stone, having endorsed Barack Obama, published a feature article exposing the full contents of his iPod playlist. Very illuminating. We learn, for instance, that in addition to being "a Stevie Wonder geek," Obama demonstrates very eclectic tastes spanning Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Sheryl Crow, Howlin' Wolf, Yo-Yo Ma, Elton John, and Earth, Wind & Fire.

While his musical tastes tend towards the old-school, Obama is in touch with today’s creative top dogs: He’s talked policy with Ludacris, referenced Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” (with a brushing motion in response to Hillary Clinton-hurled criticisms) in a campaign speech, and joined acts ranging from Usher to at rallies.

Meanwhile, the Top 10 submitted to Blender seem to be a safe cross-section. Hip but not overly edgy. Tim Jonze, blogging about music for The Guardian (U.K.), says of Obama's list: "there's something a bit focus group about his genre-spanning, box-ticking choices. Too many acts perceived as "cool", not enough surprises." Of McCain's list, which includes not one but two songs by Abba, Jonze describes it as "a bit more honest - his love of Abba has already been criticised, hilariously, for being anti-American, but here's a guy who'd sacrifice his place in the White House rather than forsake his love for doing Take a Chance on Me at the Congress Karaoke club."

With a clear editorial snicker, the L.A. Times (noting the No.1 position of Dancing Queen on the McCain list) could not resist captioning his picture: "Young and sweet, only 71."

Still, I would have to concur with Jonze's observation for The Guardian. McCain's list, without being self-consciously cool, does contain some authentic and vintage cool -- Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and of course Dooley Wilson.

Photo credits: "Obama"- gabbieclass_08, "McCain"- Nick Bottieri.

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