Monday, May 19, 2008

Yes We Can


That's how many hits WeCan08 on YouTube has received for the "Yes We Can" music video. Add to that ever-increasing number another 9 million hits from other YouTube users who have uploaded and hosted the video, and you have over 17 million viewings of a political ad that did not occur during American Idol, the Super Bowl, or 60 Minutes. Such is the effect of Barack Obama, such is the nature of the Internet, and such is the lure of well-timed and well-produced visual culture.

At 4 minutes and 30 seconds, the clip is long for a video, short for a film. It features a host of A, B, and C list celebrities speaking and singing alongside Obama as he delivers his now legendary "concession" speech after the New Hampshire primaries. Developed by the Black Eyed Peas front man and directed by Jesse Dylan, the video has been nominated for a Webby Award. Not surprisingly, it is a rich semiotic text.

On a purely visual level, the video is simple. There is a split screen--Obama on one side, and usually the celebrity on the other, though the frames interchange, sometimes showing two Obamas, two celebrities, or the words, "Yes We Can." By choosing to do the video in black and white, will.iam and Dylan create a text that echoes protest films of the 60s and 70s. Something about its black-and-whiteness both reminds the viewer of the issues of race in the campaign and obviates them at the same time. It feels from another time; a time when young people and rock musicians worked together to topple the system.

What lifts the video--for better or worse--above that of a merely visual text is the music, which both annoys and inspires. The actors "sing" or chant the words of Obama's speech concurrently with Obama. Their voices thump out alongside the accompaniment of a folksy acoustic guitar. steals the show, here, as does Scarlet Johansson. Both are understated in their star capacity, deflecting the spotlight to Obama. Harold Perrineau, Jr., Aisha Tyler, and Maya Rubin are also good. The biggest surprise and the most unexpected treat is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, since he looks both lost and stoned throughout.

At times, some of the celebrities seem as though they will burst into tears, they are so overcome with emotion. John Legend is intolerable in a campy filled-with-the spirit-over-the top performance that begs for attention. Esthero, despite her fantastic albums, is not much better. Indeed, if the video suffers from anything, it is the self-importance of the project reflected in the expressions and earnest performances of the folks involved--as though the actors' contributions are as impactful and important as Obama's.

That said, there is no denying the video is powerful, even arresting at times. The editing, expertly done, creates a sense of happy multi-ethnic democracy. The genuine emotions of those involved make you believe that if Obama is elected president, we might all feel this sense of hope and possibility.

And, one can't discount the speech itself, already a classic. But the real impact is the idea of the video itself--that so many celebrities (not a group known for their political gravitas) would rally so wholeheartedly behind a political candidate for a YouTube project.

One can ask if the video is art, a campaign document, an advertisement, or propaganda, but nowadays, the distinctions among those genres feel arbitrary and are of little use. The chorus of "yes we can" may sum up the aspirations of the Obama campaign and his candidacy, but does it also speak to its target audience? As an Internet text, "Yes We Can" is successful. Ultimately, though, it is worth asking if this video at this moment will catalyze this generation of young people to vote for this candidate.


m.a.v. said...

Actually, the video seems more like spoken word or poetry slam than a song

Bernie said...

Love the idea for this blog. I've been writing about Obama and pop culture a bit over at PopPolitics -- but it's nice to see such a focused and intelligent dedicated site. Great stuff.