Sunday, February 03, 2008

Deeply superficial blog-a-thon: "Yes We Can" and the Selling of Barack Obama

(Recently, I've been dabbling a bit in media criticism. See if you like! -- ed.)

The Barack Obama "Yes, We Can" video (produced by the Black-Eyed Peas' is one of the best pieces of political agitprop I've seen in a long while. It's also almost completely and stunningly superficial and false, taking a rousing but policy-free portion of one of Obama's terrific speeches and wedding it to a bunch of pretty people who attempt to appear cool and inspiring by proximity to the man. And, somehow, the video has appeared right at a moment when it can ride the surge in the polls Obama has found after his decisive win in the South Carolina primary. Heck, even the neo-conservative Hot Air blog is sort of taken with it.

"Yes, We Can" is most notable for the way it plays like the sort of thing that traditional media tried to use to court young voters in previous elections (remember "Rock the Vote"?) but somehow seems more genuine (perhaps because it emerged from YouTube, and not from MTV or another branch of a traditional media outlet -- it features lots of big stars, but they seem to be stumping on their own time). Even though "Yes, We Can" doesn't really nail the elusive appeal of Obama, it feels like it's an essential puzzle piece in a movement that's been bubbling for at least five election cycles now (including this one) -- the long, gradual move of the campaign dynamic to a new medium. It feels like we're on the edge of a move that will shake things up as readily as Kennedy's exploitation of television did in 1960 or like the conservative movement's use of the rise of the new opinion journalism in the '90s did.

"Yes, We Can's" primary appeal is that collection of stars and that song, so perfectly wedded to that speech. Obama's been criticized for a substance-free campaign (even as his Web site hosts position paper after plan after statistical analysis), and this probably won't help quell those concerns. What it DOES do is pick a moment that packs a true emotional punch and weds it to images and a song that do the same. For better or worse, it's Obama's "Morning in America" -- a piece that connects on an emotional level and utilizes a particular medium perfectly. The video has everything you need for an effective viral video -- an element of play to it (spot the celebrity!), an emotional hook and a hypnotic quality that won't let you stop watching it (I don't know who directed the thing, but the cutting is expert).

The video opens with footage of staring straight at the camera, a slight smile on his face. He's wearing a jaunty hat, and he seems to be ready to say something. Disconcertingly, we then cut to Scarlett Johannson (of all people), also looking like she's got something to say. Then, Obama's voice comes out, but speak-sings WITH him and OVER him, and we STILL only see for a moment before Obama split-screens in on the right. We only get about a second of just before the split-screening, but it's sort of critical, because it speaks both to the message of the video and the appeal of the Obama campaign.

There's an element of the religious to the Obama movement, as there is in all of these sorts of movements in American politics. Obama's discussion of Reagan, earlier in the campaign, which drew him the ire of many Democrats, wasn't Obama trying to tie himself into the larger conservative movement, I think (almost everything about him seems to indicate that he would be one of the most liberal presidents in American history, and he's solidly to the left of his chief rival, Hillary Clinton), but, rather, an attempt to tie himself into the MOVEMENT that Reagan was a part of -- that grand old American movement of a shimmering IDEAL being worth living for (and, lest we forget, Reagan based almost all of his playbook on things FDR did even better in the '30s). Regardless of how you felt about Reagan's policies, his commercials and his campaign message were about being a PART of something, even as his actual political work used wedge issues to his benefit. Reagan's conservative acolytes haven't nearly utilized this toolkit as well, and that's led to George W. Bush's use of the same political playbook alienating half the country and a Republican primary that's filled with candidates who long to be Reagan but don't have the down-home elan to pull it off.

This is all a long-winded preamble to saying that the tide of Obamamania, rejected out of hand by some as an aberration, is, I think, genuine. He's tapped into the cyclical undercurrent that pops up every 20 years or so and carries an outsider to victory (and, let's be honest, he could still lose the nomination to Clinton -- Democrats are naturally more skeptical of this sort of campaign than Republicans are on average). Obama's appeal to his core is all about his liberal policies, but his appeals to independents, to Republicans and to the folks in the "Yes, We Can" video are almost ENTIRELY about his superficial qualities, a fact that probably irks Democratic party loyalists more than anything -- here's a guy who skipped past appealing to Democrats, it would seem, and just went straight to the national campaign, so confident was he in his appeal. Obama's appeal to his many far-flung and less-devoted adherents has almost everything to do with his way with words, his charismatic stage presence and, yes, his ability to inspire almost religious devotion (again, shades of Reagan or JFK or FDR -- not to say he'll be a president to match these men but that his political abilities ring with pages from those men's playbooks).

So it's important that we don't see Obama right away. In its own, subtle way, the "Yes, We Can" video insists that we're ALL, in a way, a part of Barack Obama and his movement. The black-and-white of the video just drives the point further home -- the Hispanic, white and black faces of the video all become so many shades of grey, a subtle, further democratization of the video. I think it's also important that the people in the video are all reciting the speech reverentially, as though it's a religious text. This is not just people who agree with Obama; this is a MOVEMENT, man, and Addison from "Private Practice" wants you to join in. So does Kareem Abdul Jabbar (who looks weirdly like my uncle Curtis now?). And, while we're at it, Herbie Hancock, Michael from "Lost" and John Legend!

Even as an Obama supporter (talk about burying your lede!), I sort of find this unctuous and the worst kind of political pandering. It's exactly the sort of thing that celebrities used to do to turn off right-leaning voters, but, again, the genuineness of how the video came together (as a project by somehow innoculates it to those charges. And even as I don't really feel sold by the video, I'm hard-pressed to write off its power as a piece of agitprop, as an attempt to make you vote for someone. The song is legitimately wistful and beautiful, tying itself into the speech's abstract themes of hope and idealism. And there's something in the center of that speech, policy-free, though it may be, that the song manages to make feel like it belongs as a part of a great tradition of oratory, going along with great speakers like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Winston Churchill, even. To a degree, Obama feels like a distillation of the 20th century, like someone you can project anything you want onto (witness the surety of many of his Republican supporters that he must be a closet conservative), and the video, superficial and pandering though it is, feels like a distillation of his appeal as well. It's just a little intangible, just a little out of reach, and there's something inside of it that ultimately overwhelms you with its sheer desire for the flowering of something -- ANYthing, really -- else.

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