When President Obama broke out in a not-quite-perfect rendition of “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney in Charleston, S.C., on Friday, he brought the room to its feet and resonated with a TV audience in a way you don't often see at political appearances.
It was not the first time Obama had used spontaneous song to connect with a crowd. At a fundraiser in 2012, the president did a mini-rendition of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” after the soul legend had performed in the room. “Don’t worry, Rev, I cannot sing like you,” he said as he began the number, “but I just wanted to show my appreciation.”
And at the White House’s “Red, White and Blues” concert several years ago — featuring B.B. King and Mick Jagger and aired as a special by PBS — Obama was recruited to sing “Sweet Home Chicago.” He did several bars ("Come on, baby don’t you want to go...") before handing back the mic.
(None of these, incidentally, are to be confused with the BaracksDub channel, which does supercuts of the presidents speeches to the likes of Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande hits to make it seem like he’s singing them. There Obama is singing pop songs — unwittingly.)
Spontaneity is rare in politics, so when it actually happens, it can be a breath of fresh air. In the “Sweet Home Chicago” instance, Obama doesn’t actually want to be singing. “Not tonight,” he could be seen mouthing — before being persuaded to trot out a few lyrics.
But even when the spontaneity in these moments is, well, a little planned, they can land with substantial impact. Sure, it’s easy to look at these appearances and see in them one more piece of political calculation, a desire for a politician to seem unscripted with the help of some careful scripting.
But if those moments achieve the desired effect — bridging a gap between audience and speaker, podium-presiding orator and floor-bound audience — there's value in them, not to mention plenty of skill. After all, not everyone can pull off even a planned moment of musical humanity — Bill Clinton and his "Arsenio" sax yes; Hillary Clinton, not so much.
Of course, when it comes to political leaders, it’s a fine line between human and unbecoming, and the line gets ever-thinner in a social-media age where moments can be highlighted, repeated and parsed ad infinitum. If the singing isn’t good, it can become a punchline; if it is, it can look glib or narcissistic.
Those factors only increased the risk to — and heightened the power of — Obama's singing on Friday. As the president segued from the words "amazing grace" into the musical notes of "Amazing Grace," the audience members could be heard murmuring their surprise. So unlikely was it that a leader of the free world would try singing his way out of a eulogy that many weren't sure whether to believe he was. The fact that Obama's singing was a little off-key only seemed to help the cause, inspiring the audience to join in instead of just sitting back and listening.
The 44th president gets a rap for being too detached — witness the reaction to his speech in the wake of a grand jury’s decision not to indict in Ferguson. Critics say they want more emotion, more passion. Obama's "Amazing Grace" moment showed what a little music could do in the right context, and what the president can do with it.