This year’s model of fake news grooves along on the R&B tip. Having dimmed the lights and lit the incense, it slinks over on the leather couch with but the faintest of squeaks, a snifter of Courvoisier in each well-manicured hand. When it leans in, its breath tickles the neck with talk of the latest sweet nothings—federal regulators and congressional hearings, the health of AIG and of Kim Jong-il. It’s got Joe Biden on its mind, which means that things might get hot and nasty.
In March, in his first trip up to bat as the host of Late Night, Jimmy Fallon introduced “Slow Jam the News,” where, backed by his house band, the Roots, he makes like a seducer who’s learned his manner from Usher and his come-on lines from the Wall Street Journal’s front page. The segment proved to be the highlight of the episode and one of Fallon’s most reliably amusing regular bits in the months since. The heart of the gag is in the incongruity of devoting a piece of Casanova soul to, say, the bailout bill. “Now bring me that little piece of legislation,” Tariq Trotter, the Roots’ MC, crooned that first night. “Put it on my docket.” The effect is of Jamie Foxx hosting The Daily Show.
Meanwhile, in April, a 24-year-old musician named Michael Gregory took to YouTube with “Auto-Tune the News,” a minor sensation. Processing the voices of anchors and pundits for that crunk-robot T-Pain effect, laying down club-ready beats and silly rhymes, inserting himself and his collaborators into footage lifted from MSNBC and Fox News and wherever else, he succeeds in the challenging task of making TV news seem more absurd than it already is. In the latest installment, Katie Couric is first made to trill electronically and then to perkily subject herself to a bit of direct address: “Katie Coo, baby boo, you got swagger like a star/ Don’t stop, real talk, we gon’ take it to the charts.” In its crude and larky way, “Auto-Tune the News” suggests a Beck remix of a Howard Kurtz column.
Of the two, “Auto-Tune” comes closer to achieving something like satire. Though its prime directive is goofiness, its base-line premise is that television news is entertainment. This is not a radical notion, but the casual and gleeful sneering of Gregory’s clowning gives the production a certain edge. His most recent installment begins by engaging with one pundit’s idea that American exceptionalism is some sort of unassailable good or unquestionable fact. A shorty in a blinged-out baseball cap coos her highly qualified agreement: “Exceptional fast food and exceptional dance moves.”
“Slow Jam,” on the other hand, is more or less a straightforward goof. Back when, as a speak-singing Fallon had it, “Justice Souter said, ‘Nah, baby-love, no more, I had enough,” Trotter countered, “Obama better pick a good nominee/ And I think he better pick one aujourd’hui,” and the joke, as is so often the case with Fallon, was about the host’s attempt not to crack up entirely. Still, there is something to be said for transforming the health care debate into a lover’s lament: “We can’t be friends with benefits if all our friends don’t have benefits. …”
There is a sacrosanct law of soft journalism dictating that the reporter must observe three discrete instances of a phenomenon before trying to commit a trend piece. But, hey, times are tough, and you take what you can get. Is there anything in the coincidence of two entertainers giving an urban-radio treatment to current events and the personalities who interpret them? Is it possible that these comedians are not using contemporary R&B to comment on politics but that it’s the other way around? “Slow Jam” and “Auto-Tune” share a cheekiness—a wink in the blue eyes of their souls—implying that the performers’ feelings about R&B run parallel to Mick Jagger’s about C&W. “I love country music,” Sir Mick once said, “but I find it very hard to take it seriously.”