Barack Obama wants the world to know how much he loves singing. In his new podcast, which takes the form of a series of conversations with Bruce Springsteen, he’s rarely without a tune on his lips. ‘Further on up the road…/ you been laughing, pretty baby…’ A shower-singer, a bedroom warbler, an Air Force One air guitarist with an okay voice, the former president is proof that you really can be embarrassing without feeling an ounce of embarrassment.
Oh, to have seen his daughters’ faces when he broke into ‘Let’s Stay Together’ in front of Al Green. The sound team at the fundraiser in Harlem urged him to do it, he tells Springsteen, but no one’s buying it. We’re not five minutes into the third episode before he’s crooning ‘Let’s Get It On’ and ‘Me and Mrs Jones’ — songs he’s been practising, to the bemusement of his grandmother, since he was ten years old.
Obama may be a ‘shut up, Dad’ kind of a singer. As a talker, though? He’s as warm and lucid as ever. In the last month of his presidency or, as he calls it, ‘our presidency’, he and Michelle invited Springsteen to play a private gig to their staff at the White House. ‘Some of the best music… happened off camera during some of our parties,’ he winks. Springsteen’s set was so good that Barack suggested he take it to Broadway. After that success, the singer seems only too happy to be back at his side, using music as a way in to discussing race in America.
‘How did we get here?’ and ‘How can we find our way back to a more unifying American story?’ are the prevailing questions of the series. Between harrowing passages on shootings and slavery, Obama reflects on the differences between his own and his white schoolfriends’ early music tastes, and Springsteen on the racism directed towards his E Street Band saxophonist and close friend, Clarence Clemons.
In the second episode, Springsteen raised the question of whether reparations should be paid to the descendants of those who suffered the effects of discrimination. While Obama agreed that reparations were justified, he had reached the conclusion, he said, that drawing up a programme was a political non-starter. Not that this should be a reason to shut the conversation down, he added.
Prompted by Obama’s descriptions of his schooldays, I turned to the Tes (formerly Times Educational Supplement) podcast My Best Teacher. Every episode, a celebrity talks to the publication’s senior editor, Dan Worth, about the teacher who inspired them most. Usually this is fairly straightforward. Recent weeks have seen comedian Meera Syal describe her ‘complete maverick’ of a Spanish teacher, Mr Cartwright, and singer Cerys Matthews her nature-loving biology teacher, Mrs Ellis. Unfortunately for last week’s guest, Ricky Wilson of Kaiser Chiefs, however, school was rather a hazy memory.
If you’re appearing on a podcast to discuss your most inspiring teachers, it helps if you can remember their names. After confessing that he couldn’t name a single person who taught him at primary school, Wilson decided to describe what he could remember, the smell of school meatballs — and that only because he recently discovered their secret ingredient, caraway seeds.
Things got more interesting when he began to contrast his schoolmates’ descriptions of him with the boy he thought he was. It struck him that his stage persona had coloured their perceptions of him as a loud show-off when, to his mind, he was the average, unremarkable kid no one noticed. Which made me wonder. Does anyone really know who they were at school? Go to a reunion, if you can bear to, and the bully will describe himself as the victim, the in-crowd as the outcasts, and the airhead as a nerd. Perhaps, in Wilson’s case, losing the ghost of boyhood is the price of fame.
Listening to some of the very lovely but rather safe episodes of My Best Teacher made me miss My Teenage Diary. Radio 4 has lately been repeating episodes from three years ago on Saturday evenings. The diarist may be as susceptible as anyone else to contorting or editing history, but when the results are as funny as these, who really cares?
Helen Lederer had me in stitches as she read from her diaries from 1969–70, a time when ‘rotten yobs’ would throw almonds at girls in the park, teenage wisdom taught that she was ‘growing up faster than before’, and the only way to fall out of love with someone was to turn to God: ‘I decide to attack the process of getting over him by praying. By 10.15 p.m. I’m almost there.’ As Obama may discover to his credit, everyone enjoys a good cringe.