Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Obama 2008: Bigger than the Beatles?

‘All your life
You were only waiting for this moment
to arise’

CHICAGO – The Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue that leads to Grant Park has never quite earned its nickname as it did on Election Day, when history and hysteria hugged it out. Hundreds of thousands of people were down there and just about everyone was wearing T-shirts, caps and buttons that bore the stoic likeness of Barack Obama, the chosen one. It was impossible to wear too much Obama or to be too happy at this one-man Super Bowl.

Concert merchandise sales are tanking in the current economy, according to Billboard, but Barackmania is recession-proof. Most memorabilia vendors were sold out before the first CNN projection, shown on several jumbo screens in the park.

When Obama was declared the president-elect just after 10 p.m., Grant Park erupted in a way that said the world would never be the same again. There were screams of disbelief, followed by tears of euphoria. The scene was, as former civil rights marcher Mavis Staples described, “surreal and overwhelming.”

Almost two weeks after Obama became the first African American to be elected to the world’s most powerful position, much of the country is still buzzed. One example of many: Two days after the election, a crowd at a kids league basketball game in Chicago spontaneously stood and cheered. Random acts of unity are breaking out all over.

It’s rare for a single day to change everything forever and when it happens it’s almost always bad. Dec. 7, 1941. Nov. 22, 1963. 9/11. April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School.

But Nov. 4, 2008, was a godsend day of change to 52 percent of American voters. Another great day was Feb. 9, 1964, when more than half the entire U.S. population watched “The Ed Sullivan Show” and felt the power of television.

Being in the middle of something that you thought would never happen in your lifetime was a little like growing up in the surreal and overwhelming time of Beatlemania. First there was a social explosion and then everything changed: Doesn’t it feel like that could happen again?

It’s interesting to note how similar the recent reaction photos from around the world were to those of fans screaming and crying when the Beatles played.

If the comparison of a modern politician to a ’60s rock band seems wacky, ask yourself if there’s been a bigger pop-culture sensation in the past 44 years than the 44th president-to-be of the United States? In this election more than 3.4 million Americans younger than 30 voted than did so in 2004, and they cast their ballots for Obama by a 2 to 1 ratio. This freak of human nature could sell out Madison Square Garden 17 nights in a row with just a microphone, a podium and a big ole American flag. Post-election newspapers sold like they’d be worth $50 a piece in 10 years.

To paraphrase an old Chris Rock bit, no one’s ever going to say, “What are we going to do with all this Obama memorabilia?” Although former state representative Glen Maxey’s new Obama Store, which sells T-shirts, buttons and more at 111 E. 11th St., is currently planned to be open only through the Jan. 20 inauguration, you can bet that Obama memorabilia will be selling for 100 years, no matter what happens after he takes office. Obama’s such the rage that President George W. Bush’s approval rating spiked just because he was a good host when No. 44-to-be came over Nov. 10 and checked out his new digs.

His detractors are not few but his cult has grown into an enormous international audience. You can’t get more African American than Kenya-Kansas, where Obama’s parents are from, but the senator from Illinois is big on all the continents, not just Africa and North America, surpassing Muhammad Ali and Michael Jackson as the world’s most famous person. Publishers are betting that the public wants to read about him, as seven Obama-related book projects have been given a green light since the election, according to the Publishers Marketplace Web site.

They love him
yeah, yeah, yeah

In 1964, the year the Beatles had six Top 10 singles simultaneously, Sam Cooke answered Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind” with “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The Cooke song, inspired by the civil rights movement, didn’t even crack the Top 40, but on Nov. 4 it was No. 1. “It’s been a long time coming,” Obama said, quoting the lyrics that night in Grant Park, “but tonight, ” change has come to America.”

Luck and timing have a lot to do with this real-life fairy tale. If Ralph Nader doesn’t run in 2000, siphoning just enough votes from Al Gore to allow George W. Bush to win the closest presidential election ever, then there’s a chance the Republicans are celebrating on Nov. 4 “after eight years of failed Gore policies.”

And if President John F. Kennedy isn’t assassinated in November 1963, then maybe this country isn’t as capable of losing its collective mind over the Beatles, whose invasion started less than three months after that dark day in Dallas.

The party line is that a stunned and heartbroken America wanted to feel alive again, wanted to find something to cheer about, and here came these four moptops in suits who talked with funny accents and sang pop songs about holding hands and feeling fine. Tragedy set the stage for Beatlemania.

But it went much deeper than that. Although John Lennon and Paul McCartney have acknowledged Lubbock’s Buddy Holly as a primary influence, naming themselves the Beatles in homage to Holly’s Crickets, no one ever sounded quite like the Beatles before. No previous melodies or ringing guitar chords caused the blood to rush so quickly, so relentlessly to the brain. Social observers would point to several causes of the fan frenzy that greeted the Beatles, but it was the music that drove the kids crazy,

And it’s Obama’s message of hope and unity, and the way he delivers it, that has stirred the current mania. So much has been made about Obama’s race, with the word “historic” thrown around whenever he’s the first African American president-elect to do something (is the headline “Obama has historic hot dog at Nathan’s” too far-fetched?). But his intellect, his understanding of the power of well-chosen words, his humility, is what’s driving the masses crazy.

The screams for the Beatles drowned out the music; whereas when Obama stepped up to the podium on Nov. 4, the celebration crowd went pin-drop quiet. He seems special, touched by a higher power. This self-described “mutt” is not one of us; he’s all of us.

Come together,
right now, over me

Thirteen years ago, calling the six-part “Beatles Anthology” TV series the “Eyes On the Prize” for baby boomers, I wrote that “there has never been a musical phenomenon like the Beatles, and it is unlikely that there ever will be again.” That opinion gets stronger with each passing year, as the Beatles continue to pick up teenage fans.

But as a pop-cultural icon, the influence of the Fab Four might soon be surpassed by the Fab One and his revolution of the spirit.

Term limits dictate that Barack Obama can be the president of the United States for a maximum of eight years (with re-election), the same amount of time from the Beatles first single “Love Me Do” in 1962 until they called it quits in 1970. A lot can be accomplished in eight years.

The pressure of being a Beatle just got to be too much, it seems. An off-handed, out-of-context comment about being more popular than Jesus Christ created a storm of controversy in 1966, the last year the world’s most popular band toured. The overbearing fan worship smothered the very breath out of four guys who just wanted to make music in peace. “We all want to change the world,” they sang on “Revolution,” opening the floodgates that eventually swept them away.

Are Obama’s fans putting too much pressure on him to be magnificent? Do they forget that he’s a human being, not some supernatural deity sent to the Earth to enlighten us? The difference between pressure and stress is that stress is pressure you’re not ready for. Is Obama ready?

We will find out soon enough, but in the meantime many of us are basking in just how great it feels right now to be an American. Yes, there is that fear that shan’t be named but comes back whenever JFK is brought up. We are still a country with big problems, but it’s somewhat liberating to feel that, 44 years after Beatlemania, a social revolution is in the air. Don’t you feel it, too?


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