1954 is happening all over again
People trying to analyze Barak Obama’s electrifying effect on audiences often suggest he has found a way to graft the yearning of Martin Luther King onto the challenging charm of John F. Kennedy.
But they’re looking at the wrong models. To appreciate Obama, don’t go back to a presidential election year. Go back to the early 1950s, when a Memphis record company owner named Sam Phillips would wistfully imagine a style of music unimaginable in segregated America.
Phillips, whose Sun Records specialized in recording black artists, would tell friends that he could make it big if he could just find a white singer who could perform with the Negro “feel”—the less inhibited, more spontaneous and, to much of society, more dangerous style called rhythm & blues..
Which is why the best way to appreciate Obama’s unexpected surge in popularity is to listen to some 1954 Elvis Presley recordings, as the 19-year-old truck driver’s pure, high wail is filtered through a minimal, gut-bucket arrangement that, in one beautiful moment, has the singer declares incongruously: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” The tension between soaring voice and subject matter seizes you by the throat. It commands you to listen.
Similarly, listen to Obama’s concession speech after losing to Hillary Clinton Tuesday. Obama filters his political ideals through an oratory style that to the ear is more Midwest suburban than stereotypical African American preacher. (See: the ’88 presidential campaigns of Revs. Jesse Jackson Al Sharpton.) Obama’s stump style often creates an Elvis-like type of dramatic tension between what the audience hears and sees.
Obama has become skilled at ratcheting this tension further by selectively reaching back to the parallel construction and repetition techniques of the black church and throwing small shards to the crowd.
“There is something happening in America,” he said at one point Tuesday, and started the next several sentences that way: “There is something happening when….” He borrowed the civil rights concept of being “ready” for equality: “We’ve been told we’re not ready, that we shouldn’t try…” That allowed him to bring forth a declaration: “Yes we can,” which he said three times before the crowd took over the chant.
If Elvis is best appreciated as a white man comfortable with a black feel, Obama is a black man comfortable with a white feel. Both men generated excitement by crossing back and forth over a seldom-trod barrier.
When Elvis first met Sam Phillips, Phillips asked him who he sounded like. “I don’t sound like nobody,” Presley said. Similarly, without having to boast, Obama is saying the same thing. Maybe King and Kennedy aren’t the only ghosts who seem to be campaigning with Obama. Need proof? Tuesday night, when Obama delivered his brilliant concession speech, would have been Elvis’ 73rd birthday.