The (funnily) shady side of the Biden/Harris inauguration playlist

(January 17, 2020).  Just days before the inauguration of Joe Biden as the nation’s 46th president and Kamala Harris as his Veep, the two released an “Inauguration Playlist” of 46 songs representing their historic climb to the two highest offices in the land. 

Well, they didn’t release it per se; it was actually curated by “the good folks at Raedio,” or more specifically DJ D-Nice and comedienne Issa Rae’s music company of that name.

But it is being billed as the “official” inauguration playlist, which means it must have received the endorsement of the next commander-in-chief and his second in command, right?

President-elect and Vice President-elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris

At least we’d like to think that our next prez and VP have the kind of sense of humor that would have placed certain dubiously shady titles on what is otherwise a three-hour set of very uplifting and empowering songs.

For instance, The Impressions’ 1960s’ uplifting soul classic “We’re A Winner” is innocent enough on its own merits, but one can imagine its inclusion here is equal parts in-your-face affirmation of this past year’s heavily challenged general election results (by the outgoing president and his faithful followers), as well as a genuine celebration of the historic rise of the Biden/Harris team, with Harris becoming the first woman (and first person of mixed-race) to be elected VP. 

Separately, Biden has said he was going to be a president for everyone, including those who didn’t vote for him.  Perhaps that’s what D-Nice had in mind when he included Vampire Weekend’s 2013 hit “Unbelievers,” itself a witty, upbeat take on the state of our belief systems and how much they differ.  One can’t help but read more into the lyrical lines “I’m not excited, but should I be?  Is this the fate that half of the world has planned for me?” as a possible commentary on how divided we are with half the country voting one way or the other.

Speaking of believers (or unbelievers), there’s no way listeners can overlook the Doobie Brothers’ 1979 No. 1 classic, “What A Fool Believes,” that wistful tale of unrequited love and how one poor soul still holds out hope that what he foolishly believes to be a mutual relationship will somehow materialize.

That 1979 classic is included here, complete with its famous chorus: “what a fool believes, he sees…no wise man has the power to reason away.”  Doesn’t that feel eerily like what we’ve been witnessing for the past two and a half months since the 2020 election was called (and called again, and again..)?

And if one ‘foolish’ song wasn’t enough, the curators added for good measure Led Zeppelin’s fellow-1979 nugget, “Fool In The Rain,” from their last No. 1 studio album In Through The Out Door.  Like the Doobies’ hit, “Fool In The Rain” is also about a man who foolishly believes that a love interest has reciprocal feelings for him.  Maybe the parallel here is that the outgoing president has that same impression about America (or at least the majority of the country that didn’t vote for him).

Hey, at least the curators didn’t cut really deep and include Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” (though it would have been a perfect complement).

There’s a trio of “giving” songs on the playlist, too, each having a different context and all of them connectable to the upcoming presidential transition.

The O’Jays (circa 1975) when they recorded the No. 1 soul chart hit “Give The People What They Want.”

First, there’s the O’Jays’ 1975 No. 1 soul classic, “Give The People What They Want,” a sociopolitical commentary and a beacon of badly needed change, with lines like “it’s about time for things to get better; we want the truth, the truth, and no more lies.  We want freedom justice and equality; I want it for you and I want it for me.”

Then there’s the New Radicals’ angst-ridden 1999 pop hit “You Get What You Give,” itself a mix of optimism for the future and a backhanded swipe at America’s celebrity-obsessed culture.  As the song serves as a quasi-tutorial on how young people need to find their own paths in life instead of becoming clones of the celebrities that are pushed onto them, one can’t help but think about all of those who became enamored with soon-to-be-former president Donald Trump’s celebrity status and how it characterized much of his presidency.   Oh, and don’t think for a minute that the opening “dreamers’ disease” line doesn’t have new context in the Trump-Biden era of immigration politics.

The last “give” song is “Got To Give It Up,” by Marvin Gaye.  That No. 1 pop, soul, and disco classic has nothing to do with politics or society or anything else too heavy.  It’s simply a dance tune about a reluctant man who morphs from being a wallflower at parties to a lady-killing dancing machine.  So we probably shouldn’t read anything more into its inclusion on the inaugural playlist than the simple request for Trump to “give it up” and end his fight to overturn the election’s results. 

Of course there are darker-tinted digs at the outgoing administration, like the instrumental “Coffin Nails” by late rapper MF DOOM (who died last Halloween, just days before the election).  Since there are no lyrics, you can read into the title what you want.

We choose to believe the song’s inclusion here invokes a “dig-your-own-grave” metaphor, one that rings true when you think about how the 2020 election was essentially Trump’s to lose given the robust economy of just a year ago, pre-pandemic.

There’s also Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care Of Our Own,” a sarcastically titled dig at America and its faux-patriotism (similar to his oft-misunderstood “Born In The U.S.A.”).  Written in 2012 as a reaction to the Bush Administration’s handling of the Hurricane Katrina crisis seven years earlier, the song’s message could easily be paralleled with the outgoing administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic today.

But not every song is throwing subtle shade at Trump and his followers.  Some appear to be genuine celebrations of the Biden/Harris ticket’s big win. 

There are party tunes like Heatwave’s 1978 classic “The Groove Line” and the 1993 victory lap “Award Tour” by A Tribe Called Quest.  There’s also optimism in songs like the late Bill Withers’ evergreen “Lovely Day” (1978) and Sounds Of Blackness’ “Optimistic,” a No. 1 R&B hit in 1991.

The addition of Mary J. Blige’s “Work That” is clearly an affirmation of Kamala Harris’ big triumph, while “Whatta Man” by Salt-n-Pepa and En Vogue could be seen as an ode to Biden’s successful run as well as the general feeling that he is largely considered to be a “mighty good man” by those who voted for him (and even some who didn’t).

The Staple Singers’ “We The People” has been a Biden favorite at many of his high-profile election campaign events

And finally, the blog couldn’t end this article without mentioning the U.S. Constitution-inspired nugget “We The People” by the Staple Singers.  That 1972 song has accompanied many of the high-profile milestones of the Biden campaign’s run-up to the presidency, including the DNC last summer as well as the acceptance speech the president-elect gave on Nov. 9, when the election was finally called in his favor following four days of vote counting.

And speaking of the Constitution, as well as our nation’s democracy, maybe the playlist’s curators had those two things in mind when they included the Average White Band’s “Pick Up The Pieces,” a largely instrumental No. 1 smash from 1975 that has absolutely nothing to do with politics.  

Yet with both the Constitution and our democracy taking huge beatings these past few years, it’s not hard to think that Biden’s supporters believe he will be trying to “pick up the (broken) pieces” of both those institutions during these next four years.

Indeed, it’s probably no accident that the following phrase accompanies the playlist on Spotify: “As this wonderous transition of power ensues, we strongly hold the joy of these select songs to be self-evident,” an interpolation of words that appear in the Declaration of Independence.

Whether you subscribe to the Biden/Harris ticket or even agree with this highly speculative take on their inauguration playlist, we can all enjoy the music they’ve cobbled together, as it is about as eclectic as any playlist you’ll hear.

So here it is, the “Official Biden/Harris Inauguration Playlist – 2021”:

DJRob 

DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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