When the President of the United States makes you a mixtape, you’re required to listen. It’s in the Constitution. The Obama Campaign recently shared a 29-song playlist on Spotify. Listening to it, you can’t help but analyze and parse its subtle (and not so subtle) messages. The President’s playlist is full of anthems to love, America, and survival. It is devoid of anything remotely offensive—though I’m certain some media personality will cry foul the way they’re wont to do. Still, while most of the Internet has been content with determining what President Obama’s Spotify playlist says about him, I have grander aspirations. What does his playlist say about America at large?
1. Songs about resilience
The playlist has several tracks about overcoming adversity and forging forward. Whether it’s the Impressions’ “Keep on Pushin’,” Sugarland’s “Stand Up,” Raphael Saadiq’s “Keep Marchin’,” or any of the countless others, each beats the drum of resilience, which is a qualifier nearly all politicians assign the American people. The message here: times are tough but don’t give up. It’s going to get better.
2. Two Darius Rucker songs (“This” and “Learn to Live”)
If you have the drive, desire, and wherewithal, you will find that America is still a land of opportunity. This is a nation where you can reinvent yourself, succeed, and still be taken seriously, even in the shadow of Hootie and the Blowfish.
Including these bands on the playlist is an obvious nod to the youth who helped elect Obama in 2008. They were fired up then, have lost a lot of that initial passion since, but that doesn’t mean that they’re out for the count. Young people are still an under-utilized, under-heard constituency. True, politics is still (mostly) an old white man’s game, but young people will be old white men soon enough. The country should listen to them sooner rather than later, before their energy and idealism are all but eroded away.
4. No Doubt’s “Different People”
Gwen Stefani peaked with Tragic Kingdom. Also, remember the 90s? Wasn’t America great back then?
5. Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.”
What does the inclusion of Bruce Springsteen say about America? One, New Jersey isn’t all bad. It gave us the Boss, the champion of the working class. And two, America is deeply divided, but it need not be. This is an anthem for unity and on a deeper level, populism. If 2011 made one thing clear, it’s that Americans will band together when their rights are threatened. From the Wisconsin protests to Occupy, there is a sense that when the American people’s needs are not met, they can still work to shift the balance in their favor by working together.
6. The abundance of country music
I get the feeling President Obama doesn’t listen to much country music, if any at all. But many country fans are from the white working class, and he needs their vote. They’ve been hit hard by the economy, and with little aid from Washington, they probably feel marginalized. What better way to extend a hand than with down-home, patriotic twang? (Congress could have passed a jobs act, but this will have to do for now.)
7. U2’s “Even Better Than the Real Thing”
Inexplicably there are still U2 fans in America.
8. The racial divide
Perhaps what is most illuminating about Obama’s playlist is what it’s missing. The lack of hip hop reveals race as an ever-divisive subject. Yes, there are black artists on the playlist, but Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Earth Wind and Fire, et al., perhaps have transcended race, which is to say that most people don’t view their music through that particular lens. These artists have become so ubiquitous and so universally beloved that anybody—young hipsters to middle-aged moms—can listen to them without racial hang-ups.
Take that same group of imaginary music fans and have them listen to Lil Wayne (whose music President Obama has professed to liking). The approval won’t be so universal. Part of this divide is generational, but race is intrinsically linked. Hip hop continues to be coded as black music, and to Middle America that may still be threatening.
You can’t expect Obama’s playlist to be even remotely transgressive. He’s running for reelection after all. He’s trying to appeal to the widest possible audience. Still it’s sad that a true American art form is passed over in order to play it safe. It’s telling that anything that overtly signifies black culture continues to be problematic. Remember the media aneurysm following Common’s visit to the White House?
So say for a minute the playlist had a rap song or two. Imagine the frenzy. There would be accusations that President Obama was ghettoizing America. So of course you’d never find Jay-Z and Kanye on this list. If “Niggas in Paris” were on it, Obama would be crucified for being an angry black man—or worse: a Francophile. Not in this election year.