Barack Obama is an old-school R&B kind of guy. He especially loves Earth Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder, for obvious reasons: They peaked as Obama entered his teen years, and they were both slick but soulful, funky but resolutely pop, cosmic but realistic, and unmistakably American but vaguely internationalist. Much like the Democratic frontrunner himself, EW&F and Wonder were African-American artists who effortlessly crossed over to white listeners.
Most of the music pumping from the speakers at Obama’s Town Hall meeting at Plaza de Guadalupe last week sounded like it could have come from the candidate’s own iPod. You got the Memphis grit and can-do optimism of Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” the heroic promise of Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” EW&F’s “Shining Star,” and a double-shot of Stevie: “Higher Ground” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.”
One song, however, kept rudely barging in and interrupting the groove, like a drunk redneck at the Soul Train Awards: Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America.”
You remember Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. Those music-biz lifers with the impossibly manly facial hair. The dudes who brought us the boot-scoot boogie and helped inflict the line-dancing plague on our land. The guys who, along with Garth Brooks, convinced themselves that it made sense for non-dancing country hacks to wear headset mics.
With “Only in America,” a track from the 2001 masterpiece Steers and Stripes (believe me, the whole album is just as clever and inspired as that title), they got political. The song opens with a big, fat, heartland guitar riff, quickly jumping into a story that’s probably meant to make our chests swell with patriotic pride, but merely bums me out: “One kid dreams of fame and fortune/one kid helps pay the rent/one could end up going to prison/one just might be president.”
Ouch. A 50-50 shot of ending up in the White House or doing time at the big house? I don’t like them odds. Later, the song tells us about a fame-seeking couple who move to Hollywood, and then return to Oklahoma as failures. Could Kix and Ronnie be offering us a subversive critique of modern America? Probably not. It’s more likely that every post-“Pink Houses” song about this country has to throw in a little adversity, just to create the facade of realism. For instance, if Toby Keith writes a song about sticking his boot up the backside of an Iranian, he’ll admit that he stubbed his big toe in the process.
Notwithstanding its red-state appeal, “Only in America” would only be a drag on the Democratic ticket this fall. Banishing it from all future Obama rallies would truly constitute change that we can believe in.