SBP column 10/02/08

Leaving aside more capable moments from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, political songs from pop stars are almost never a pretty affair. Wince-inducing as it might be to see earnest pop stars on television trying to talk politics or politicians at No. 10 ‘hanging’ with pop stars, these sights pale before the soul-sapping experience that is listening to the likes of The Cranberries’ Dolores O’Riordan tell us about “their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns.”

A double-whammy to both the brain and the ear (Dolores, were classic rhyming structures beyond you?), lyrically ham-fisted tunes like Zombie have the remarkable effect of almost making you wish for more artistic censorship in this country. That being the case, the notion even three weeks ago that Will.i.Am, the irritatingly punctuated frontman of the Black Eyed Peas, could be the first pop star in recent times to release a politician-endorsing song that doesn’t make you want to chew off your own arm in embarrassment was unfathomable.

Lest we forget, Will.i.Am is one of the people responsible for My Humps, a track which (sort of brilliantly, it has to be said) offends right-thinking folk everywhere via a Salt-n-Pepa circa Push It-style disco stomp. Featuring pithy lines like “I‘m going to get you drunk, get you love-drunk, off my hump”, the track riled America to the extent that the band were accused of “setting feminism back 40 years”.

In the wake of that track, you felt there were plenty of things the Black Eyed Peas were capable of, but subtlety was probably not one of them. Yet, somehow, the booty-loving, blingtastic Will.i.Am has managed the unthinkable. Last week, the video for his Barack Obama-endorsing track Yes We Can was posted on YouTube. The track, written in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, takes Obama’s January 8 New Hampshire primary night address and sets it to an acoustic guitar-led, Bob Marley-flavoured tune. While Obama speaks the words, various celebrities – including John Legend, Scarlett Johansson, Herbie Hancock, Nicole Scherzinger and the rapper Common –sing or chant the same lines along with him.

The video is stark and effective: the stars are featured against a black backdrop singing either into a microphone or simply to camera. Clips from Obama’s address are intercut into the video, giving the whole affair an interesting momentum and charge. All in all, it’s a clever work – and Americans are responding to it. At the time of writing, the clip has generated more than one million views on YouTube and picked up over ten million views on its host site.

The comments beneath the videos – those coming from Clinton campaigners aside – have been largely positive – and it’s easy to see why. Will.i.Am’s song works because he’s wise enough to keep his thoughts to himself. He provides the music, which is, if not earth-shatteringly exciting, then at least tuneful. And Barack Obama, in essence, provides the lyrics. Moreover, throughout the track, lingering on the singers’ faces, you can sense a groundswell of sincerity – there’s a very genuine sense here of a bunch of acquaintances doing something because they believe in it.

So: will it effect change? Will this track send young voters out to campaign for Obama? From this distance, it’s hard to tell. But at least it’s not another video that makes you wonder what on earth we have done to deserve having such nutty stuff inflicted on us. Happily, we can go back to My Humps for that.

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