In the 1989, as an impressionable Poli-sci major about to defect to English, I was blown away that Václav Havel, playwright, poet and protester, could become Václav Havel, President—as it turns out, last president—of Czechoslovakia. Naturally, I thought: Never in America. And ten years later, when professional wrestler and professional lunatic Jesse Ventura became governor of Minnesota—a year before I actually moved to the state under his governance—naturally, I thought: Only in America.
Yet after reading Dreams of My Father, I can’t help but think of Barack Obama as a writer first and a politician second, a man of letters, one of us who made good, real good. And while I like the book’s merging of memoir with manifesto, of a personal identity crisis with a national one, much of my admiration comes from the way Obama himself reads it. Mode and code shifting, voices, rhythms, accents reflecting Nairobi to Chicago, multiple inflections: the man knows how to tell a story. Obtuse teleprompter jokes on the one hand and overblown praise on the other both aside, Obama’s verbal dexterity is best reflected in writing, and his reading of his own writing, rather than off the cuff comments or speechwriter’s words. Obama—Barack, as I keep wanting to call him after listening—exhibits the consummate writer’s power to ponder, picture, revise, and reflect[i].
I don’t have many audiobooks, but I couldn’t help getting Barack Obama’s DoMF during the 2008 campaign. Yet a funny thing happened: I seldom listen to it linearly or chronologically. Like many iPod People, I mostly listen on shuffle.
Does any word better reflect contemporary sensibilities toward music? The word the kids love and, therefore, lovingly abuse, is “random,” but I’m a bigger proponent of using “shuffle,” or “on shuffle” as slang for unlikely, juxtaposed, or unexpected. [Using old man voice] Back in my day, we used to argue about what kind of music was the best, although not as bad as the previous decade’s “Disco sucks” wars or the decade before that seeing Bob Dylan booed by his own fans for going electric. But now, ask a college student what kind of music she prefers and prepare to be bored: a gamut of responses ranging widely from “I like a lot of kinds of music” to “I like all kinds of music” to [puts on breathy haughty voice] “My musical tastes are… eclectic.” In other words, the musical genre that they like is called Shuffle.
But I digress. Taking up six discs and 108 tracks, Dreams of My Father inevitably pops up occasionally, mixed in with my tunes. And I always ponder the significance of the juxtapositions between Obama and the songs that precede and follow. So as an experiment I decided to hit Shuffle and, for the first time, keep track.
Exhibit A—Track: “The first thing to remember” (page 35)
Summary: Lolo, Barack’s stepfather, sees young B with a lump on his head from an unfair fight with an older boy and teaches him to box. Lesson: male bonding mixed with self-defense in an hostile, alien environment of Jakarta.
Before: Ramones, Locket Love
Sample lyric: Hang on a little bit longer
Hang on you’re a goner
After: Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone
Sample lyric: How does it feel ?
How does it feel ?
To be without a home ?
Like a complete unknown ?
Like a rolling stone ?
Commentary: Clearly, The Ramones set the tone of perseverance and the budding paternalism and commonalities, aside from funny names, between Barack and Lolo. But then Dylan throws a curve, as he always does, by reinforcing the literal and metaphorical unmooring Barack copes with throughout the whole book, even as he exposes the secret hubris one must feel to be the subject of any attention: a fight, a song, especially one’s own book.
Exhibit B—Track: Preface (pg. vii)
Summary: Obama describes his surprising victory in the Senate race and the mixed public responses, one of which was the reissue of this book. Obama finds that his feelings are still similar, but the world’s context after 9/11, and from Clinton to Bush, is now very different. Lesson: things change, for better and worse.
Before: Yngwie Malmsteen, You Don’t Remember, I’ll Never Forget
Sample lyric: It was you, it was me,
And we would last forever.
Any fool could see, that we were
Meant to be
After: Ratt, Givin’ Yourself Away
It’s there in every move you make
You can’t hide your heartache away
Hey, it’s somethin’ you don’t have to say
It’s written in the tears on your face
I see through the part that you play
Commentary: The book is all about memory, what Barack can’t help but remember in spite of the pain. Or maybe he remembers precisely because of it. But concern with memory and forgetting aside, Malmsteen’s lyrics basically suck, so let me focus on what people take from his music: the virtuoso guitar playing. Obama’s writing, however, is not the equivalent at all: his vocabulary and syntax are complex and engaging but not, I don’t think, showboating or technical. The Preface concludes with a touching encomium to Barack’s mother, who died of cancer just after the book was published, lending the book a sense of emotional urgency that Malmsteen’s solos don’t really strive for. Yet, and I can’t believe I’m writing this, the Ratt lyrics bring the emotion directly to the surface, even as they allude to one other point Obama makes in the preface: that some of the book’s material is less politically expedient on the national stage but that he refutes none of it.
Exhibit C—Track: “One day as I sat down at my computer” (136)
Summary: Barack hears from a long lost half-sister who wants to visit. But she cancels when her brother—and, really, his, too, although he does not know him—has been killed in a motorcycle accident. Lesson: Things get better and worse.
Before: Miles Davis, My Funny Valentine
My funny valentine, sweet comic valentine
You make me smile with my heart
Your looks are laughable, un-photographable
Yet you’re my favorite work of art
After: Black Sabbath, TV Crimes
One day in the life of the lonely
Another day on the round about
What do they need
Somebody to love
Commentary: Of course, Davis’s 15-minute live version is instrumental, so there’s less irony in Barack’s tragic loss and estrangement and the lyrics’ goofy celebration of imperfection. Instead, Davis’s version is plaintive, piercing, and painful, a perfect set up for the book’s distant but real bereavement. Meanwhile, Black Sabbath’s song is precisely the opposite: a particularly hard rocker, dissonant even for them, with raging, screaming vocals by Ronnie James Dio, even as they lyrics point out the loneliness endemic to modern society that we try and fail to quell though media. Dio’s, and Obama’s, pain requires human connection that, in both tracks, remains thwarted.
Exhibit D—“I awoke to the sound” (pg. 87)
Summary: Chronologically earlier than “One day as I sat down at my computer…,” this section recounts Barack’s grandparents fighting because, he discovers, his grandmother is upset that a black panhandler asked for money, and his grandfather is upset at her unconscious racism. This is the “Obama threw his grandmother under the bus” section that conservatives like to point to. Lesson: Critics miss the point: that the people we love and who love us are capable of contradiction and complexity, that racism is often unconscious, impersonal, and systemic, and that having a black grandchild is not an automatic inoculation against bias.
Before: Black Sabbath, Neon Knights
After: The Ramones, Ramona
Weird! Black Sabbath and The Ramones twice each. But I spent too much time on this already, and my hour is out so I need to wrap this entry up right now.
Supposedly, iPod customers have long wondered about the secret logarithms that determine the obvious sentience behind Shuffle. They are certain that it’s not random at all. It’s hard to argue with, given the possible relationships that emerge, even though it’s not, of course, that a pattern emerges or that there’s intelligent design. Rather we, as humans and listeners, invariably create those patterns.
History and politics have patterns, too, even if the truth is that the cosmic iPod of Life is also on constant shuffle, so that one decade’s wrestler in the State House can lead into another decade’s writer in the White House. We like shuffle because life is on shuffle, and I can’t help but see the track sequences as another great example of life’s, and maybe even America’s, many great eclecticisms.
Time: 80 minutes (!), not including listening to all those tracks, although I tried to write and listen at the same time when I could.
[i] Unlike yr humble Hourman, who writes fast and sloppy and edits faster and sloppier. Look for a six-month anniversary entry in a few weeks on what I’ve learned from blogging.