Visionary and Visual: Looking Back on “Yes We Can” as Obama’s “I Have a Dream”

January 19, 2009

By Andrew William Smith, Editor

January 19, 2009

Rhetoric holds power. The primal matter of political meaning fused to my consciousness at a very young age, sitting on the living room carpet in my childhood home in Cleveland, Ohio. My folks had an old vinyl record with the landmark speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and I wore that thing out sitting on that floor, often crying, often memorizing the words as this audio replica of King spoke them.

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Politics/Pop Culture/Current Events: Barack and Roll*

February 4, 2008

By Andrew William Smith, Editor

The lights went dark. A song began to fill the room. Even though the music was prerecorded and being piped through the PA system, it conjured the emotions of the opening song at a rock and roll show. Of course, I knew the song poignantly and painfully well. “City of Blinding Lights” by U2 crammed the airspace and coddled the crowd. Yes, the people went wild as though at a rock show while an idealistic young politician from Illinois took the stage.

The comparisons between Senator Barack Obama and energetic rock stars like Bruce Springsteen and Bono have abounded from the lips of the mainstream pundits during the tumultuous primary contests that have conjured a kind of “February Madness” on the eve of the Super Tuesday contest. No matter what candidate voters ultimately choose, the energy for the primary election this year evokes comparisons to great historical moments of previous epochs. And we have the songs and speeches that seem to keep that spirit alive.

Obama’s not the first politician to pluck a U2 riff for pre-speech posturing. Anthems in general are the kinds of songs that candidates love for prepping another stump speech. The history of rock anthems is highly commercial and appropriately contaminated by images of fans waving fists to a Queen song like “We Are the Champions” being blared at a sporting event. But for me, I love an anthem that holds a spiritual side and socially conscious kernel. Many think Springsteen and Mellencamp. And in the 1980s, these tunes took a page from U2’s playbook and played into the success of bands like The Alarm, Big Country, The Waterboys, and Simple Minds.

Let me be clear: in my journalist’s hat, I’m in no place to endorse any politician, left or right. Moreover, as Little Steven sang in a tune that’s been covered by many including Pearl Jam, “I believe in one party, and it’s name is freedom.” Taking it even further, I believe what the comedian Bill Hicks said, and I am paraphrasing here to keep it clean: “All governments lie.” As much as I love the art of rhetoric fused with the possibility of community self-rule, my personal relationship with democracy has always been tenuous, desiring revolution even as I am more than willing to work for and accept reform. These are problematic terms for even more problematic times.

But all that said, I want to keep it real. After eight frightening years of terror and war, I wonder what in the world I can do. We all face the waxing realization that economic meltdown and icecaps melting might end life as we know it. Something entirely different is required to get us inspired and out of the mire. Tomorrow, we vote. Tomorrow, everyone of us gets to choose.

Many people would rather be post-partisan than bi-partisan, and it’s in this paradigm shift that Senator Obama’s appeal resides. The sincere celebrity comparisons to Kennedy and King percolate online and in print, but these are based in a superficial yet sacred brew, in the sweet rhetorical stance of his speeches and style.

As cynical as some can get about politics, we still have the right to vote, and this is a freedom we can seize. If you have the honor of participating in Super Tuesday, your voice suddenly matters. This election season is unlike any we have experienced, and both the Republican and Democratic primaries have seen unprecedented enthusiasm among the voters. Whether it’s ‘Barack and roll’ or Hillary, whether it’s claiming McCain or sticking with Huckabee, Romney, or Paul, this election is like none other, and even though that tired assertion sounds like hype, it’s true, and it’s ripe.