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Critic's Notebook: Presidential groove

With soloists like Beyoncé performing at his inauguration, it's uplifting to see that President Obama's musical tastes go beyond the mundane.

January 22, 2013|By Randall Roberts, Los Angeles Times Pop Music Critic | This post has a correction. See below for details
  • Beyonce performs the National Anthem to conclude the 57th Presidential Inauguration.
Beyonce performs the National Anthem to conclude the 57th Presidential… (Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images )

One particular moment stood out during Barack Obama's first four years as a musical-minded president, and he delivered it in sweet falsetto. Offered with casual confidence at the Apollo Theater in Harlem almost exactly a year ago at a fundraiser, the president of the United States cooed the melody from "Let's Stay Together" by the Rev. Al Green.

It was a mere three words along with an introductory wail — "Heeey, let's stay together" — but within it lay a quote packed with subtext. Not only that America's first black president could nail a high note of a classic Southern soul song with an assured smile, but that he would do it on the symbolic main stage of black culture in America. The president took it one step further when he joked that he was lucky that longtime Apollo personality Howard "Sandman" Sims didn't yank him off stage with a hook.

Inauguration performances: In the Jan. 22 Calendar section, an article about the musical performances at President Obama's inauguration misstated the lyric from "Let's Stay Together" that Obama had sung a year ago at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. He sang the song's first six words, "I'm so in love with you," not the first three words of the song's chorus, "Let's stay together." —

To a large chunk of the music-loving population — snobs/music critics, soul buffs, Memphians, brothers, sisters — Obama's assured melodic quote was a comfort, along with other tidbits of musical info accrued from interviews in which he expressed love for, among others, James Brown, Miles Davis, Bob Dylan and Bob Marley.

VIDEO: Five landmark civil rights songs for MLK Day and the inauguration

I thought about that appearance during President Obama's swearing-in ceremony Monday on America's main stage when during the televised coverage the cameras focused nearly as much on the rapper Shawn "Jay-Z" Carter and his wife, Beyoncé Knowles — royalty of African American pop culture — as on Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.

Just as instructive was inviting music-reality show winner Kelly Clarkson (once a declared Ron Paul supporter) to sing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and baby-boomer soft rock singer James Taylor to present "America the Beautiful." Each is decidedly commercial, but appeals to more discerning listeners, as well. Say what you want about the shallowness of "American Idol," but Clarkson's no Josh Groban or Celine Dion; she's got an edge to her, an independent spirit.

Such selections — plus all the other musicians descending on the Capitol to celebrate at official parties — signal that despite his holding the most powerful job in the world, Obama's also pretty cool, or at the very least knows to hire the right people to book music at his parties. He's got an iPad. He's on the record as digging John Coltrane, Brown and Marley. The take-away: President Obama has good taste.

One of the central tenets of music criticism and beyond is that taste matters — that it's a good avenue toward learning essential information about another person. Whether in a friend, enemy, girlfriend, band mate or president of the United States, we project values onto others when learning what grooves a person's internal jukebox.

What moves Obama clearly is black music, and in a country that still has trouble addressing issues of race, the president's expression of his musical heart is one of the only safe ways that he and his wife can fully share their heritage. Yes, they do so in subtle ways every day. But when Obama says he listens to Gil Scott-Heron, or shouts out India.Arie on the Apollo stage, or explains as he did to MTV that he hopes musicians will take on protest music as Marley did, he's offering something of his spirit. Michelle Obama exercises to Heavy D and Chubb Rock. That's pretty cool.

Yes, all the soloists Monday were mainstream hit-makers, and their song selections predictable: three American standards without a hint of challenge or controversy. But the performances and the arrangements surprised.

VIDEO: Hear Beyonce and Kelly Clarkson sing at the inauguration

Clarkson performed "My Country 'Tis of Thee," written in 1831, with the United States Marine Band. They began it quietly, as a low-voiced seduction, as if Clarkson were in a candle-lighted room with America. She sustained this tone for the first few verses. But then, as is her wont, the slow-burn intro turned large as booming brass lifted her voice. If Twitter is any indication her climax, wonderfully controlled with just a hint of restrain, was an overwhelming success.

Taylor took a more understated — and pitchy — approach, playing "America the Beautiful" on acoustic guitar. The singer, best known for hits like "Fire & Rain" and "You've Got a Friend," wore a layer of fleece between his overcoat and his shirt and tie; it looked as though he'd dug into his trunk for his camping jacket on the way to the event.

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