Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

To my ears, Will.i.am’s setting of Barack Obama’s New Hampshire concession speech is immediately one of the greatest campaign songs ever, up there with “Lincoln and Liberty” and FDR’s campaign theme “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which wasn’t written for FDR and so probably shouldn’t count.

It’s not the “We Are the World”-style all-star cast of singers, rappers, instrumentalists, and actors that gives
“Yes We Can” its punch, although Will.i.am deploys the talent shrewdly and effectively. What gives the record its musical, dramatic, and symbolic power is Will.i.am’s blending of Obama’s oratory with the singing and reciting of his performers, as well as his sweet, serious melodies and simple, effective harmonic setting, which is provided by a lone, strummed acoustic guitar, repeating a four-chord sequence for most of the song.

I’m a sucker for oratory. The oratorical tradition in American poetry from Whitman through Sandburg and Ginsberg to the Slam Movement attracts me keenly, and I have never listened to Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech without crying. According to Ben Wallace-Wells, writing in
Rolling Stone, Obama has patterned his oratory in part on that of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., the African American preacher at the church where he is a member, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Obama has a gift, and he has skills.

The setting of speech to melody has been an interest in the classical field for close to 100 years, at least since the Czech composer Leos Janácek notated Czech speech melodies and incorporated them into his compositions. Closer to home, closer to now, closer to Will.i.am’s practice, Steve Reich’s masterpiece Different Trains fashioned string lines from the recorded speech melodies of testimonials that Reich had recorded from people who had worked on American passenger trains in the 1940s and from Holocaust survivors (who had ridden very different trains), and blended the recorded voices and the string quartet together.

Reich had a strong and obvious editorial hand in cutting, repeating, and ordering the speech fragments. Will.i.am, the leader of the Black Eyed Peas, took a more naturalistic approach, allowing Obama’s oratory to flow in a dramatically plausible fashion. A look at the text of Obama’s speech, however, reveals that Will.i.am
’s handling of his material is just as strong as, if more subtle than, Reich’s.

The song picks up Obama’s speech about two-thirds of the way through, just after Obama commences the preacherly repetitions of the catch phrase, “Yes we can.”

It was a creed written into the founding documents that declared the destiny of a nation.

Yes we can.

Will.i.am cannily builds the opening of the song around the Obama’s following variations, looping additional repetitions of the title phrase. When Obama veers into campaign strategy talk, Will.i.am cuts back to the middle of the speech for the
song’s bridge, where Obama talks of the adversity that we -- pointedly, “we” -- will face, dropping the guitar and going quiet for the magnificent line that ends the bridge, “But in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope.”

The speech and the song close identically, Will.i.am ratifying Obama’s dramatic instincts and throwing in a few repetitions of the chorus phrase for good measure. A superb song construction and terrific editing job of excellent source material.

The music is sweet, and the video is lovely, though I would advise a little less screen time for Will.i.am himself. Yes, he made the song, but the video almost makes Obama out to be a character in Will.i.am’s mental drama. I’m always happy to see someone wearing a Duke Ellington T-shirt, as rapper Common does, and John Legend’s sweetness and enthusiasm moved me way more than any of his own records ever have, and he sings his parts wonderfully. The juxtaposition of Will.i.am’s own low-key talk-singing, with Common’s more weighty rap-talking, with the sweet soul singing of Legend and a number of female singers I don’t recognize (besides movie star Scarlett Johansson, who sings fine), with a number of actors doubling and tripling up on Obama
’s lines, is canny and effective. Herbie Hancock’s late entrance with piano filigrees gives an elder statesman’s gravitas to the proceedings (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s appearance as one of the speakers serves similarly), and Hancock’s playing is sweet and apropos.

Acoustic folk-soul. No drums, no bass, no electric instruments, but the hi-tech editing, looping, and layering give it an up-to-the-minute feel.
The ease with which the singers and rappers negotiate the speech rhythms testifies to the rhythmic virtuosity of contemporary R&B, a virtuosity inspired by hip hop, and with which Will.i.am is familiar in both modes from his work with the Black Eyed Peas. And the song is sweeping the nation: Released to YouTube on Saturday, by Monday it had received 700,000 viewings.

I have been bitterly disappointed by the lack of leadership taken by the Democratic Congress in holding Bush accountable for his crimes against humanity or even slowing them down, but come November, I will without hesitation vote for one of the Democratic Senators for President as an oceanically better alternative to Republican more-of-the-same-ism. Despite my mixed feelings about the Senatorial career of Obama, this song made me cry. Like I said, I’m a sucker for oratory. Set it to inspired and skillful music, and it gets me.

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