A Mix-tape for Our President

An Election wrap-up from Jennifer Lena, author of Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music


“A wise man once said, “never discuss philosophy or politics in a disco environment.”” Frank Zappa interview with Grace Slick on Rockplace (11 February 1984)

In celebration of the end of a long election season, I created this mixtape for our returning President, Barack Obama. For those who have never heard of a mixtape, they are compilations of songs designed for a particular purpose (e.g., as a romantic gesture, to celebrate an accomplishment). The term derives from the 1980s when cassette tapes were the medium in use, although music fans now create mixtapes on CDs and on social media platforms like Spotify.  The thematic link between the songs listed below are the issues our new (and returning) President is likely to consider during his next term in office. The list isn’t exhaustive, and I’ve balanced the thematic relevance of each song with its aesthetic quality and my desire to highlight examples of excellent pop music. Where possible, I’ve included a recording of the song, but readers should note that some songs include profanity and should listen to them before playing the songs around children.

 

1. “Letter to my countrymen,” Brother Ali (Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, 2012).

 

“I used to think I hated this place/Couldn’t wait to tell the president straight to his face.” Brother Ali, and many other Americans, enter Obama’s second term feeling as if the American Dream has slipped through their fingers in recent years, or never thought it was their dream to have. Ali’s song is a hopeful and mature response to the disappointments of life in America—eight lines in, he admits: “I wanna make this country what it says it is.” He’s concerned about the corrosive effects of two myths: that of American exceptionalism, and of meritocracy and individual achievement. In the lingering wake of the Occupy movement, and while we are still in what some call America’s “Second Gilded Age,” the President need to lead us in a conversation about privilege—whether it comes from the color of your skin or the class of your parents, and criticize this still-popular notion that we get up on our own.

 

2. “Reagan,” Killer Mike (R.A.P. Music, 2012).

 

Obama faces a crisis of legitimacy in some parts of our country. You might argue this is a problem that Nixon created, but this particular president continues to face challenges from Birthers, those who doubt his Christian faith, despair from his handling of the economy (and from a rogue’s gallery of conspiracy theorists with some truly odd ideas).  Rapper Killer Mike lost his faith in the presidency in the 1980s, a transformation he describes in a song titled “Reagan.” Using two audio samples from Regan’s denial and later acceptance of his administration’s exchange of arms-for-hostages, the song’s lyrics chart the political development of a young man watching the Iran-Contra affair and then the war on drugs, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan…and at each step, his distrust of, and anger against, the government grow stronger. The lyrics speak to a number of issues the new president must consider, but it’s strongest and longest attack is reserved for the culture of incarceration: “thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits/Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics.” America leads the world in incarcerating its citizens. According to one estimate, we had 5% of the world’s population in 2008, but a full quarter of its prisoners.  One in 100 American adults is in prison, and that number jumps to about 5 of every 100 adult African-American men (and 9 of every 100 black men between 25-40).   The incarceration of citizens affects not only the criminal and his family, but also taxpayers: the costs of incarcerating so many Americans are enormous. By one estimate, California spent $4 billion more on prisons than on the state college systems in 2011. It costs that state less than $10,000 a year to educate a student, while housing, policing, and (hopefully) reforming a prisoner costs over $45,000 per inmate.

 

3. “Watching the Detectives,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (My Aim is True, 1977)*.

 

Privacy laws have arguably not kept up with technology, and the post-9/11 era has been one in which politicians must balance citizens’ civil liberties against the value of new police technologies designed to keep us safe.  In recent months, the ACLU is among those organizations and citizen’s groups that have appeared before government panels to take a stand against these threats, including warrantless wiretapping, domestic drones, and face recognition technology. The new President should consider these issues while listening to Elvis Costello and the Attractions, 1977 hit song “Watching the Detectives.”

 

*“Watching the Detectives” was released as a UK single in October 1977, but wasn’t on the album; in the U.S. version of the album, it was the last track on the A-side.

 

4. “Price Tag,” Jesse J (Who You Are, 2011); “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding),” Bob Dylan (Bringing It All Back Home, 1965).

 

One of the more controversial legal decisions in recent years was “Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.” The new president will consider campaign finance reform and challenges to the notion of corporate “personhood” from those who think money is not speech. For a soundtrack to this discussion, I recommend Jesse J’s huge hit song “Price Tag:” “Seems like everybody’s got a price/ I wonder how they sleep at night/ When the sale comes first and the truth comes second.” Or, if he’s in a more mellow mood, Bob Dylan’s just the thing to remind him that “money doesn’t talk, it swears.”

 

5. “The City Consumes Us,” The Delgados (Universal Audio, 2004)

According to the U.S. Census, eight out of every 10 people lived in a metropolitan area in 2010, and more than one in 10 lived in either New York or Los Angeles.  We might think America’s culture is defined by its heartland, it’s “breadbaskets,” or its “prairies,” but most of us live in concrete jungles. “Watch how the city consumes us,” sing the Delgados, “Watch how the city destroys us,” and yet, it is a “cost I am happy to pay.” The list of great songs about cities is too long to share, but here are some of my runners-up: (1) the live version of Mano Negra’s “Guayakill City,” (2) Brazilian Girls, “Internacional,” (3) “Chocolate City,” Parliament, (4) almost the entire Jay Z catalog including “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love),” and, of course, “Empire State of Mind,” (5) “Living for the City” (Stevie Wonder), (6) “Every Ghetto, Every City,” Lauryn Hill, (7) “Detroit Rock City” (Kiss), and (8) “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns n’ Roses, perhaps the best song ever written about Los Angeles.

 

6. “Disparate Youth,” Santigold (Master of My Make-Believe, 2012)

 

Although Santigold’s 2012 single “Disparate Youth” is not a commentary on climate change, it is one of the changes she despairs in this tremendously good song. “Don’t look ahead, there’s stormy weather/ Another roadblock in our way/But if we go, we go together/Our hands are tied here if we stay.” According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, we can expect temperature rises, more frequent heavy rainfall events, more serious summer-drying and drought, less snow and sea-ice, and the retreat of glaciers and ice-caps.  Our hands are tied if we stay.

 

7. “All Falls Down,” Kanye West (The College Dropout, 2004)

 

Remember when George Bush told us that the best response to 9/11 was to fly and go on vacations? Now that millions of Americans have found themselves unable to afford their mortgages, the time is right to have a national discussion about consumer spending and debt. America’s consumer debt rose to $13 trillion in the second quarter of 2012, just $2 trillion shy of our country’s total yearly economic output.  Kanye West has a message for our new president, in his 2004 song “All Falls Down:” “It seems we living the American dream/But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem/The prettiest people do the ugliest things/For the road to riches and diamond rings/We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us/We trying to buy back our 40 acres/And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop”

 

8. “Fire Fire,” M.I.A. (Arular, 2005)

 

The U.S. Census Bureau set the official poverty rate in America at 15.1% in 2010, with over 46 million of our nation’s citizens falling below that threshold. Our president might heed the concerns of British-Sri Lankan-American pop artist M.I.A., who has developed a reputation as a voice of the poor and oppressed. Any one of the songs from her chart-topping 2005 album Arular, 2007’s effort Kala or 2010’s Maya would provide our new president with a frank examination of poverty and its consequences on political activity, daily life, gender relations, and family. “Fire Fire” is one song that warns of the dark side of poverty: the militarization of the poor—a theme that reflects M.I.A.’s concern about the persecution of her native Tamil people, and echoes themes in contemporary Americans’ concern about Islamic fundamentalism: “You shoulda been good to me,” M.I.A. sings, in the persona of a young rebel, “Then I wouldn’t get so rowdy rowdy/ You shoulda kept ya eye on me/ Then I wouldn’t get so baddy baddy.”

 

9. “Once in a Lifetime,” Talking Heads (Remain in the Light, 1981)

 

The Baby Boomer generation is aging, and the Census estimates the dependency ratio (the number of people 65 and older to every 100 people under 65) will climb rapidly in these two decades (from 22 to 35).  By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. David Byrne fronts the Talking Heads in their classic song about change, and time, and getting older: “Time isn’t holding us, time isn’t after us/Time isn’t holding us, time doesn’t hold you back.” If you prefer something with more…jazz fingers…try Tom Lehrer’s “When You Are Old and Grey.” The president will, of course, consider the impact of our rapidly aging baby boom generation on health care policy, and for this, I suggest Loudon Wainwright III’s “My Meds.”

 

I’ve considered adding a song to speak to the issues faced by Hispanic-Americans; only Mexico (112 million) has a larger Hispanic population than the United States (50.5 million in 2010) and that population is expected to grow to over 130 million by July 2050.  Of course, our education system is perennially the subject of public discussion, along with our financial and immigration systems, and the problem of bullying and self-inflicted harm in the LGBTQ community (especially among the young), to name a few of many issues.

 

Our second term President faces an extraordinary number of challenges, which I’ve only started to address in the above. I need at least another five songs to finish my playlist—what should they be?

 

This post was inspired by Dorian Warren and includes suggestions from R. L’Heureux Lewis, and Daniel Radosh.