When songwriters reach for inspiration, they usually mine a few reliable topics. Love rules as No. 1, but after that it’s a free-for-all — cars, cities, pinball wizards, guitars, trains, planes, even shaken moneymakers. But generally speaking they stay away from politics, given how the mere mention of the topic in regular conversation can provoke eye rolls and disgusted head shakes.
Yet occasionally a subject will come along that will cause songsmiths to disregard their distaste for politics and cut a record — or more accurately, an mp3 or YouTube video — that offers an opinion on someone or something.
Leading up to the 2008 election, that topic seems to be Barack Obama.
He still hasn’t overtaken “love” as No. 1, but he’s gaining, if the number of tribute songs to the Democratic candidate for president is any indication.
Just in the hip-hop genre alone, there are Barack odes aplenty, leading with “Yes I Can” from will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas. The video for that song — which also features other artists and celebrities and is played against clips of Obama speeches — has received 9.5 million views on YouTube. In addition to that, there is “Black President” by Nas, “Letter to Obama” by Joel Ortiz, “You’re All Welcome” by Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige, and many others.
But lots of pop songs have emerged as well, and they keep coming.
“The presidential campaign often inspires a lot of activity,” said music critic Steve Appleford, whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. “In John Kerry’s campaign, you saw Bruce Springsteen get involved, Eddie Vetter, Ben Harper. But this is definitely taking it to a new level.”
But why has Obama’s campaign caused such a musical outpouring? “I think it has something to do with Obama being a fairly young candidate who speaks the language of some of these younger artists,” Appleford said. “He is somebody who knows who Jay-Z is.
“Blender Magazine listed the favorite music of the candidates. The No. 1 favorite of John McCain was ‘Dancing Queen’ by ABBA. He’s not really connected to the contemporary pop culture at all.”
Inspired to make a ‘Change’
Gioia Bruno, 45, took her thoughts on Obama in a different direction. One of the singers in the pop group Expose, which collected a slew of Billboard Top 10 hits in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, she recorded a single called “Change The World,” a lively dance number with elements of pop and hip-hop.
“I just feel the need for a change,” she said. “The first time I heard him speak, it was about making change in this country. When he said that, I imagined what it would be like to be proud again as an American and feel good about who we are and what we’re doing.”
Lili Haydn is an admitted cynic. Like a lot of people, she had soured on the political process. But Obama’s candidacy, she said, drew her back in. The 33-year-old singer-songwriter and virtuoso violinist, who has performed with Roger Waters, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Herbie Hancock, Sting and others, said she was moved enough to collaborate with friend and artist Marvin Etzionion on “We Got The Power.”
In it, both her reluctance to get involved, and her yearning for positive change, are reflected in the lyrics: “I don’t believe in false hope/I don’t believe in yesterday/I believe the moon and the stars are not too far away.”
“He has this sort of intangible ability to inspire people that actually made a cynic like me want to get involved again,” said Haydn, who recorded her song using free studio space donated to her by friend and composer Hans Zimmer. “After the last eight years, I felt so disenfranchised and disenchanted that being moved by him makes me want to get involved again.”
But do these songs make a difference? Do they have any effect at all?
Ultimately up to the candidates
John Legend was one of the artists involved in the “Yes We Can” video. He told Brian Williams of “NBC Nightly News” that he knows musicians and songwriters alone are not going to get the job done.
“I’m not going to personally convince these people if they’re not for him,” said the Grammy-winning soul singer and pianist. “It’s really up to the candidates themselves to do that.
“What I can do is inspire those who are for him, that they show up to vote, that they stay motivated, that they volunteer, that they get involved.”
Obviously, part of getting the word out is getting the song heard. Someone like Legend has little trouble, especially in a high-profile collaboration with will.i.am and others. Bruno is making the rounds of radio and television stations with “Change The World,” and has downloads available on her MySpace page. “I’ve been working probably 20 hours a day with this song,” she said. Haydn is just now finishing up “We Got The Power” and expects to have it online in a few days.
Of course, songs about Obama — and any political candidate or cause of the moment, for that matter — have limited shelf lives. Appleford recalls a Tom Petty song (“Peace in L.A.”) that was cut right after the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
“He put it out as a show of support for the city,” Appleford said. “It really wasn’t a very good song, but it was a heartfelt expression. You’d have a hard time finding that song now.”
Yet in the case of Obama, the purpose may only be intended for the short term.
“It might reach a few other people that would not otherwise be engaged in politics,” Appleford said. “But the main purpose is to give a rallying point for people. A song, whether it’s about politics or something else, emotionally connects with people. A song comes out and people feel that it reflects how they really feel.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.