“If the music is square,” Richard Nixon once said of one of his favorite acts, the Ray Conniff Singers, “It’s because I like it square.” The White House continued to be a hepcat-free zone until Jimmy Carter — confidante of the Allman Brothers and Willie Nelson; campaign-speech quoter of Bob Dylan — became, for all intents and purposes, our first rock n’ roll president.
Barack Obama, in turn, seemed destined to be remembered as our first R&B president, if only for that suave reading of “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser in 2012. But his tastes run deeper and wider than even previous glimpses into his iPod have hinted, if we’re to believe that he truly curated two new #POTUSPlaylists that were just unveiled on Spotify under an official White House account. “President Obama hand-picked his favorite songs for… summer,” Spotify announced. And the 40 songs split between these two playlists indicate he may go down in history as the nation’s first Deep Tracks President.
This is not one of those campaign mixtapes that pulls up the obvious mix of beloved oldies and inspirational gung-ho anthems, though there are a handful of choices that could be included among those categories. It’s closer to a music critic’s playlist than stage-managed musical populism. Yes, he’s got the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, and other usual suspects among his picks… but also salsa bands (Sonora Carruseles), raucous bar-band punk (Low Cut Connie), Spanish hip-hop singers (Mala Rodriguez), the darker side of Americana (Okkervil River), and a little-heard-on-these-shores British neo-soul songstress (Lianne La Havas).
Republicans may take this opportunity to cast even more shadows on his time in office. Clearly, when he should have been negotiating with congressional GOP leaders or spending more time with the Israeli prime minister, he devoted untold hours to locking himself in his indie mancave, spinning vinyl!
Okay, so maybe he had a little help with these, despite Spotify’s “hand-picked” declaration, unless he really has been devoting more time to perusing the pages of Mojo than the Post or Jane’s Defence Weekly. (In a 2010 Rolling Stone interview, he credited personal aide Reggie Love with introducing more contemporary rap onto his iPod.) But these playlists portray a spooky level of musical acuity, particularly in how to program a playlist for “day” (eclectic and excitable) or “night” (bring on the slow jams).
If there’s anything about Obama’s current political or psychological state to be drawn from the playlists, it’s the sense of the president as an utterly relaxed lame duck with nothing to prove or sell. When he suddenly seemed to be down with Jay Z midway through his first term, Obama was accused of trying to court the youth vote, but there’s nothing here to suggest he’s playing to any constituency but the demo of 54-year-old boomers who still have their fingers on some pulses. Even if you didn’t know the purported curator, the personality profile you might put together from the song choices would be that of a cool, calm, and collected cucumber whose strong undercurrents of passion aren’t likely to lead to any untoward outbursts.
Looking for hidden messages as Obama rides out his final term? You can find plenty if you choose, starting with the very title of Frank Sinatra’s “The Best Is Yet to Come,” every retiree-in-training’s anthem. Other tunes suggest a breezy “f-ck it” attitude to life and love. Lauryn Hill comes back from the ’90s to sing: “Now the skies could fall/Not even if my boss should call/The world it seems so very small/’Cause nothing even matters at all.”
Florence + the Machine’s “Shake It Out” is here, a song rife with verses that beg to be deconstructed in a late-second-term context. “Every demon wants his pound of flesh/But I like to keep some things to myself/I like to keep my issues drawn” — take that, congressmen who felt cheated out of Oval Office teas. Or “It’s hard to dance with a devil on your back/So shake him off” — take that, Eric Cantor?
Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” with its 12 verses and six choruses, is more difficult to parse as an Obama favorite, unless he just got caught up in Highway 61 Revisited 50th anniversary fever. Maybe it’s because “the Commander in Chief” actually gets a couple of lines of dialogue, but chances are Obama had just cited his love of “Maggie’s Farm” once too often and wanted to go with something less predictable.
White rockers don’t command a whole lot of room on these playlists. No Sheryl Crow, despite Obama’s previously stated affinity; Coldplay’s “Paradise” is the uncool outlier here. He’d previously named “Gimme Shelter” as one of his favorite songs, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see it show up here, even though, aside from Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” the lists otherwise shy away from obvious boomer classics. His lapses into Americana are brief but well chosen, like folk/bluegrass singer Aoife O’Donavan’s steel guitar-driven “Red & White & Blue & Gold,” a sweet and virtually unheard 4th of July anthem. The newest track represented is “Wherever Is Your Heart” by Brandi Carlile, a woman who talks of her Christian faith, and about being married to a woman — just the mix of progressivism and centrism people associate with Obama.
The emphasis, though, especially in the “night” playlist, is on black artists. His jazz favorites, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, are present to usher in and close out the evening portion. Singers from Aretha Franklin (“Rock Steady”) to Beyonce (“Superpower”) are represented by underrated tracks. Obama seems to have a sweet spot for where socially conscious hip-hop and easygoing summer music intersect, whether it’s in Reflection Eternal’s “Memories Live” (with Talib Kweli remarking, “Now cats rap about packing a nine/When they lacking divine/Inspiration”) or Nappy Roots’ “Good Day.” Mos Def is clearly the right pick for a #BlackLivesMatter moment: “Black people unite, come on and do it right.” Or maybe that’s really another #Imretiringsuckers moment, as Def also adds, “Sometimes I don’t want to be bothered/Sometimes I just want a quiet life, with me and my babies, me and my lady/Sometimes I don’t want to get into no war.”
Lyrical foreshadowing aside, Obama and/or his crafty aides did accomplish the most basic promised goals: one playlist for the barbecue, another for the bedroom. That’s a different mission than crafting a song list for campaign stops, but he’s raised the overall political mixtape ante, compared to the almost universally daft efforts of the past. (Anyone remember when Mitt Romney’s Spotify list sent out a peculiar message by kicking off with “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow”?)
It won’t be long before the 2016 candidates are asked to reveal what’s on their iPods. We suspect most of them might need some curatorial help, especially now that Obama has set the bar this high with his surprising music geekiness. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, you might want to put Robert Christgau on speed-dial.