Music to their ears

The night of the New Hampshire primary, the musician known as Will.i.am, frontman and creative force behind the group the Black Eyed Peas, was working in his recording studio. Like much of America he had the television on and was watching the New Hampshire returns. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) didn’t win that night, but his “concession” speech was far from a concession. It was a call to action, a visionary piece of oratory that may be the best political speech I’ve ever heard.

Will.i.am agreed. The speech inspired him to create a video with filmmaker Jesse Dylan, son of Bob Dylan, who of course composed many of the anthems that defined the politics of baby boomers. But this was no coffeehouse protest song. The younger Dylan and Will.i.am used the tools of their generation to create a work of art worthy of the Obama speech. Will.i.am and celebrities including Scarlett Johansson, John Legend, Herbie Hancock, Kate Walsh, Adam Rodriguez, Kelly Hu, Nick Cannon and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar signed on to speak or sing the lines of Obama’s speech. “I’m blown away by how many people wanted to come and be a part of it in a short amount of time. It was all out of love and hope for change,” said Will.i.am.

The video is a dramatic piece that creates a series of split-screen duets with the inspiring words of the presidential candidate and the voices of his admirers. The final stanzas of Obama’s speech are all there, and take on new power with the stark black and white visuals and haunting voices of the performers speaking/singing in unison with the candidate.

It is quite possibly the best example of new media thus far in a campaign fueled by innovative use of the Internet.

Is anyone paying attention? The video was posted on YouTube and downloaded by some 2 million visitors in just four days. They didn’t just watch it and move on, either. I don’t know about your e-mail inbox, but mine received half a dozen copies of the video over last weekend. That is the kind of viral activity that only comes when a message truly strikes a responsive chord.

Barack Obama is capable of moving more than just young people with his words. E.J. Dionne wrote in The Washington Post comparing Obama to JFK. “In 1960, the articulate Adlai Stevenson compared his own oratory unfavorably with John F. Kennedy’s,” Dionne wrote. “ ‘Do you remember,’ Stevenson said, ‘that in classical times when Cicero had finished speaking, the people said, “How well he spoke,” but when Demosthenes had finished speaking, the people said, “Let us march. ’ ” Dionne concluded, “At this hour,  Obama is the Democrats’ Demosthenes.”

They are marching for Obama. Not yet in sufficient numbers to settle what has turned into the most exciting Democratic race in decades, but certainly enough to make this a watershed election. Younger voters are turning out in greater numbers than we’ve seen since 1972 when the voting age was first lowered to 18. They are organizing, especially in caucus states, and actually showing up to vote. More importantly, they are carrying Obama’s message to their parents’ generation. Both Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) and Caroline Kennedy reported that it was their children who first convinced them Obama was for real. That he had a message that inspired millions who have opted out of the political process in the past. That he could actually win.

I’ve seen this phenomenon in my own family. On her way to vote in the California primary a family member was still torn between Obama and Clinton. Her daughter, far too young to vote, told her to stand with the Illinois senator — and she did.

Although Tsunami Tuesday didn’t settle things, as we were all predicting it would some months ago, and although the results are “mixed” in the view of the pundits, something has clearly been happening over the past two months. As Sen. Obama said on Tuesday night, “We know that what began as a whisper has now swelled to a chorus that cannot be ignored … that will not be deterred; that will ring out across this land as a hymn that will heal this nation, repair this world, make this time different than all the rest. Yes. We. Can.”

To Will.i.am and Jesse Dylan, to Scarlett Johansson and Herbie Hancock, to the millions who have viewed and shared their powerful video, those words were music to their ears.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants Goddard Claussen Strategic Advocacy.  E-mail: bgoddard@thehill.com