The Young Obama`s Lame Taste In Music

I`ve got to burn through my unused Obama material in case he loses and then nobody ever wants to hear of him again. So …

Last summer, in preparation for hosting my relatives after my father`s funeral, I had my sons move various piles of junk around the house, including hundreds of my old vinyl records from roughly 1976-1988. One of my sons cornered me a week later to ask why I had such lousy albums when there was all this awesome hardcore stuff emerging in SoCal at the time. “The only good record you ever bought was Black Flag`s Louie Louie,” he said, referring to the 79-second 45 rpm single from 1981, with Dez Cadena improvising new lyrics to the 1957 classic. “The rest is like … the Go-Gos.”

“Yeah, but, I saw the Go-Gos at the Whiskey six months before their first album came out, New Year`s Eve 1980,” I pointed out.

“New Wave,” he replied.

“Well … I was pretty cool for an MBA student.”

He thought about that for awhile. “Okay,” he said.

I was an MBA student at UCLA from 1980-82, while Obama, who is 2.6 years younger than me, was in L.A. from 1979-1981, which was a pretty happening period musically. (This was when KROQ in Pasadena emerged as the most influential radio station in the country.) But compared to Obama, I was practically Henry Rollins and Rodney Bingenheimer put together. Heck, Joseph Wambaugh`s LAPD novel from 1981, The Delta Star, has the younger L.A. cops talking to each other about local bands a lot, like the Circle Jerks. When Wambaugh`s 1981 cops get drunk enough at their cop bar, they play Black Flag on the jukebox.

Obama`s musical tastes in college in L.A., however, ran toward whatever universally popular pop had won a Grammy Award five or ten years before, such as Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, or Earth Wind, & Fire. He could do a wicked impression of Mick Jagger at Altamont in 1969. From 1979-81, Obama was into Hendrix, who had died in 1971.

Not that there`s anything wrong with that, but Obama`s most thorough biographer, David Maraniss, is kind of weirded out by how boring Obama`s musical favorites were. Barack Obama: The Story features long lists of all the bands that Obama`s friends at Occidental College were into: “The Blasters, Los Lobos, and the Naughty Sweeties” … “Germs, Sex Pistols, Ramones, B-52s, Specials, Flying Lizards, Talking Heads, Dead Kennedys, the Clash” … “Ian Dury & the Blockheads …” But, Obama didn`t really like any of them. (Maraniss goes out of his way to document that Obama did once dance to Talking Heads` 1980 song “Once In a Lifetime.”)

Obama liked black music, but not the kind of black music that actual black people his own age liked. He liked the kind of black music that middle-aged Grammy voters had liked awhile ago. The young Obama especially liked tasteful black music with a Social Message:

… they spent hours dissecting the lyrics to Bob Marley`s 1979 album, Survival. … Barry Obama could take or leave much of the music that he had heard most often in the Annex [his dorm at Oxy], from new wave to punk, enjoying some, tuning out some, but it was the musical language of Bob Marley, and Stevie Wonder, that stirred something deeper inside him. “Obama`s consciousness, much like mine, was influenced by music, influenced by a recognition, an understanding of the world through music,” Moore said. “Obama`s sense of social justice ultimately comes from Bob, or comes from Stevie Wonder. You can`t learn all that from a book.”

Indeed.