Unsolicited Obama Song

February 6, 2008 5:59:56 PM PST
In the long history of political campaign theme songs, there has never been one quite like "Yes We Can," starring Barack Obama and a host of A-list celebrities. For one thing, it's more than a song - it's a viral video hit with almost 1.9 million views on YouTube since being posted last Friday.

There's also the fact that the Obama campaign did not commission the song - the rapper, songwriter and producer will.i.am, frontman for the Black Eyed Peas, says he was inspired to create it while watching Obama's speech after his second-place finish to Sen. Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary.

"It was as if he was talking to me," will.i.am told The Associated Press on Tuesday night as Obama and Clinton contended for the Democratic presidential nomination. "It was as if he was talking to and defending everything that made me who I am. I took that speech, and I wanted everyone else to be inspired by that speech as I was."

He recorded the song and video in two days last week and hasn't heard from the campaign since - which is fine by him.

"They have more important things than to be contacting me to say thank you," he said. "If they had time to call me, I'd be panicking."

The song features Obama's voice set to will.i.am's music and melody, plus vocalizations of the speech from the likes of Scarlet Johansson, John Legend, Kate Walsh, Common, Nicole Scherzinger, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Herbie Hancock and other celebrity supporters. The chorus is one of Obama's campaign slogans: "Yes We Can."

Obama is a fan of the video and recommended it to reporters on his campaign plane after he saw it Saturday. The campaign posted it on its Web site with a form so people can share it, and aides played it to warm up the crowd at an event headlined by Oprah Winfrey in Los Angeles on Sunday.

"After nearly a year on the campaign trail, I've seen a lot of things that have touched me deeply, but I had to share this with you," the candidate's wife, Michelle Obama, said in an e-mail to supporters Monday. "Sharing this video, which was created by supporters, is one more way to help start a conversation with your friends, family, co-workers, and anyone else who will be voting soon about the issues important to them in this election."

While will.i.am is hoping for an Obama presidency, he says the point of the song was not just to stir up votes for the Illinois senator, but to "remind people how powerful they are. The idea of 'Yes We Can' doesn't stop because he doesn't win."

Theme songs have long been an essential, even defining part of political campaigns. In 1932, when Franklin Roosevelt first ran for president, Democrats adopted Jack Yellen and Milton Ager's "Happy Days Are Here Again" - a tune written for the movie musical "Chasing Rainbows" - which captured Roosevelt's promise of relief from the Depression. It remained the party's unofficial anthem for decades.

Optimism is a must. When John F. Kennedy ran for president, in 1960, Frank Sinatra sang a revised version of "High Hopes." The Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen song from the movie "A Hole in the Head" included the refrain, "Everyone wants to back, Jack/ Jack is on the right track/ 'Cause he's got High Hopes!/ He's got High Hopes!"

In 1988, Republicans embraced Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy," while Democrats in 1992 used Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" as the backdrop for Bill Clinton's promise of change.

Some candidates have endorsed songs even without the musician's approval. McFerrin told Republicans to stop using "Don't Worry"; Bruce Springsteen objected to Ronald Reagan citing him in a 1984 speech.

With the recent transformation in the way music is consumed and shared, perhaps the Obama song marks a new era for the campaign song. (Will.i.am's creation is more than a few steps ahead of the racy, half-serious "Obama Girl" video that drew millions of views last summer.) "The Internet and technology empowers people," will.i.am said, "and the 'Yes We Can' song is proof that they don't need a big record company or a big movie company ... to go out and captivate people's attention."