Who should rock Barack?

November 10, 2008

BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC

These days the pop music beat touches upon every aspect of life: politics, religion, sex, the environment, the economy, technology and the law, to name a few. Music is simply the connective thread, because there is absolutely no aspect of life that doesn't involve music.

If there was one disappointing element to the historic spectacle of election night in Chicago from the perspective of the pop music desk, it was that music was almost non-existent. With the problematic Austin, Texas-based promoters of Lollapalooza, C3 Presents, staging the festivities in Grant Park, and with the local and national music communities having played such a large and enthusiastic role in the election of Barack Obama, it seemed inevitable that music would be part of his victory celebration. But the city and the campaign said that wouldn't be the case, and, sure enough, it wasn't.

The only memorable music in Hutchinson Field on Tuesday night was the poetry of President-elect Barack Obama's words.

Sure, there were some canned party tunes piped into the field not long before Obama spoke, including -- dreaded cliche of Windy City cliches! -- "Sweet Home Chicago." Somewhere on the new president's agenda, there really should be a proposal to ban that song within the confines of Chicago from here through eternity ... though even that was better than the angry redneck country acts that played at the John McCain wake in Arizona.

The lack of a live soundtrack to this historic moment seems to have been both an aesthetic and a practical decision by the Obama campaign, and in the end, it may have been a wise one: There was no reason for him to share the stage; no need for any distraction from a speech echoing Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy; no star power that could top his own at that moment -- not even Oprah's. Plus, who needed a couple of thousand more Bruce Springsteen fans flooding streets already overflowing with Obama supporters?

In the end, Grant Park was all about Obama and the people who elected him. And that was as it should have been.

That having been said, let's hope that the new president delivers on the promise of a truly festive and musical Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, because nothing unites people like great music -- and uniting people is, after all, the central goal that has brought Obama to the highest office in the land.

Who should perform at the inauguration? This will be a fun game that music fans will play non-stop until late January. But for my money, the list absolutely should include:

   Chicago soul legend Mavis Staples, one of the great unsung heroines of American music, and the voice of the civil rights movement.

   Wilco, the Chicago band that tirelessly criticized the current administration and worked hard in support of Obama, and a group that is as dedicated to breaking down boundaries as the next president.

   Chicago rapper Kanye West, with his mentor Common (who hosted his own private Obama victory party Tuesday night) and their proteges Lupe Fiasco, Rhymefest and Kid Sister. Together, these diverse voices constitute one of the most inspiring movements in popular culture, steering hip-hop away from the limiting and often nihilistic constrictions of the gangsta movement toward something much more powerful, open-minded and positive -- a force that is, in the music world, not unlike what the Obama campaign has been in politics.

Obama once told my friend and colleague Abdon Pallasch that his favorite artists while attending Columbia University in the early '80s were Van Morrison, the Ohio Players and Bob Dylan. Great choices, one and all, but not exactly cutting-edge or resonant of the place and time that gave birth to hip-hop and the full flowering of punk via New Wave. But no one can be an expert in every area.

All due respect to the Boss, but Springsteen is very much a hero of a different time and another generation, and a bit too reminiscent of Fleetwood Mac at the Clinton inauguration. If the political pundits last week agreed on anything, it was that we have entered a new era. And it deserves a new soundtrack.