Sunday, March 2, 2008

The So-Called Koolaid.

I hear and read criticism of these pro-Obama music videos, some of it critical of the suggestion of celebrity worship (as in, "the beautiful people love Obama, you should too") or just the generally worshipful tone, the chants, etc. But most of the negative comments I've read have boiled down to something along the lines of "they're creepy."

These videos, as well as Obama's best speeches, have the whiff of the evangelical, and god knows we're scared -- and sick and tired -- of that. Obama has been called a "movement politician" as opposed to a party politician, and movements share characteristics with cults, one of the most obvious being that they attract the dissatisfied. And movements often, like cults, grow around charismatic leaders.

Is the president supposed to be a charismatic leader or a competent manager? Well, both -- but I think the charismatic leader is the more important function. (There's no way a president can really be the CEO of the federal government. The executive bureaucracy is too big and unwieldy, much of it is not accountable to the president, and the president doesn't have a lot of say in its organization. The president can't "make" the various offices and bureaus go along with his ideas. But they'll go along with him if they have a good feeling about him, if they like him. Not to mention the legislative branch of government, which is constitutionally outside of the president's authority but usually ready to help a popular president with his legislative agenda.)

Still, I think most of the negative reaction to these videos is no more interesting or complicated than a distrust of anything that provokes an emotional response. The head vs. heart debate. Music and images are very good at disarming us. When something makes us cry or feel sad or excited, we're out of control, at least for that moment in between our reaction and our response. It's hard to argue with tears.

These videos are so moving because they evoke that paradoxical American feeling which is a mix of deep sadness and shame (the feeling we feel when we learn about slavery, or the extermination of the Indians, or mountaintop removal, or Mexicans dying in the desert, or Iraq) with the optimism and pride we feel knowing that, in America -- though it's not always strictly true, and it's certainly not true equally for all people -- if you work hard you can succeed. And they remind us of how some problems that seem unmanageably huge, like racism, boil down to the simplest thing: changing how you feel. Music can do that, it does it easily and it does it all the time -- it changes how you feel.

In the end, all of the above is over-thinking it. The people making these videos are artists. They are famous, and their particular skill is emotional persuasion. Those are the two things they bring to the effort to promote Obama. They're doing what they do.

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