The president is tired and ready to leave the party. His voice weary and the circles under his eyes looking more pronounced than usual, President Obama grabs the attention of his guests at a recent White House blues concert and thanks them for coming. Have a wonderful evening, he says. But it’s not going to be that easy. From the crowded stage jamming their closing number, blues legend Buddy Guy cocks his head toward the president and declares that the musicians had hoped he’d sing with them, just a little. Obama smiles and shakes his head, edging away from the stage toward his family, clapping along, hoping to fade in with the crowd. No such luck: Mick Jagger holds out a microphone and the president resigns to the peer pressure, wearing the vanquished face of every reluctant karaoke-r you’ve ever seen. The guitarists and singers and the rest of the all-star “band” ramp up “Sweet Home Chicago,” and the President croons out a few bars before handing the mic to B.B. King and hustling out of the room stage-left with his wife and kids.
It’s a decidedly rare moment of musical reluctance from our president. Weeks earlier, he serenaded an Apollo Theater fundraiser crowd with the familiar opening line from “Let’s Stay Together” in tribute to the in-attendance Rev. Al Green. Obama played it cool, pretending midway through his solo to read something or other on a piece of paper. His affected nonchalance made his a capella performance even more infectiously adorable, and in a few days anyone googling his name would find “Obama sings Al Green” a top search suggestion—above even “Obamacare,” amazingly. “Let’s Stay Together” would resurface only a few weeks later when the president included it on a public mix-tape of sorts, an official soundtrack for the 2012 re-election effort to be blasted at campaign stops big and small. The compilation was crafted via Spotify and posted to Tumblr, and don’t worry if those are Dr. Seuss words to you—the only way to appeal more to the demographic would’ve been to have the playlist introduced by Marcel The Shell With Shoes On. The selections have naturally been scrutinized: the cool (Arcade Fire and Obama favorite Wilco), the classic (REO Speedwagon and Aretha), and the—as required by the law of the political land—country (Sugarland and not one but two tracks from a de-Blowfished Darius Rucker). Seemingly latticed solely by inoffensive genre balance, the Spotify list does contain its hint of politics. The inclusion of a lesser Ricky Martin tune is innocuous in a vacuum, but its music video and context (Martin had just announced he was gay when the song debuted) give it the touch of an LGBT tribute. And Obama’s selection from Springsteen, “We Take Care Of Our Own,” slides in some less-than-subtle slams on his predecessor’s handling of Hurricane Katrina (“From the shotgun shack to the Superdome/ We needed help but the cavalry stayed home”). It ain’t Dylan’s “Talkin’ John Birch Paranoid Blues,” but it’s something.
On campaign trails past, candidates’ musical choices have clustered around the safe and the dull. The policy of playing anything with “America” in its name tends to work—with the prominent exception of Reagan spinning Springsteen’s antiwar “Born in the U.S.A.” to gin up his flag-waving crowds. But specific music choices, like stagecraft, can matter. And like butchered stagecraft—did everybody see the photos of Romney giving a speech in an empty stadium? OK, good—a musical misfire can give off a weird political odor. A good theme song should sync with the campaign’s personality. For example, linking pasty future Viagra pitchman Bob Dole with “Soul Man”—redone as “Dole Man,” because of course—doesn’t quite compute. I didn’t stand in those audiences, but today that dichotomy rings hollow, a calculated and faintly disingenuous option that only works to make politics seem more phony and false. If authenticity is what sets most Americans off from their politicians, forcing Kansas conservative Bob Dole to boogie on down to “Soul Man” isn’t going to help.
This will surprise zero of you, but our current asinine Republican primary has its own strange musical dichotomies. Sentient whitebread loaf Mitt Romney brought on stage at his closing Michigan rally a performer of wildly disparate background and haircut: Kid Rock, the unmistakably, unattractively American singer/fur-coat-and-Jim-Beam-bred cartoon character whose “Born Free” has been Romney’s campaign anthem as of late. Romney introduced his fellow Michigan-native as “a friend” and while the pairing reeks of the bizarre, there is some logic to it—and not just because Kid Rock’s real last name is Ritchie (rimshot). You could argue, if you were so inclined, that Kid Rock’s low-grade brand of ugh-y indifferent shlock-noise does provide a fitting backdrop to the lowest-common-denominator-ness of the Romney campaign. Regardless, the next night Mitt’s wife Ann punctuated her victory remarks by thanking two endorsers, Kid Rock and Donald Trump. Only this campaign season could finally put these two proto-American thumb-brains on the same team. Stop drilling, guys—you’ve struck gold.
The other Republicans have their own musician endorsers, naturally. Kelly Clarkson’s tweeted support for Ron Paul brought forth an army of wailing protesters, forcing her to type a clarifying statement (“…I do not support racism…”) though the fact that Clarkson, screwed over by studio bosses and launched by the people-driven model of American Idol, chose to side with the individual-rights guy may actually make sense. And Rick Santorum has drawn praise from Bono of all people. The U2 frontman told the New York Times’ David Brooks that “on our issues, he has been a defender of the most vulnerable,” which puzzles until you realize that Bono’s “issues” are fights against AIDS, which happens to match up with Santorum’s full-court press against anyone from having sex ever again. There is also, of course, the opposite of the celebrity endorsement: the campaign perennial of musicians begging Republicans to stop playing their songs. Newt Gingrich and Survivor, Michele Bachmann and Tom Petty, Sarah Palin and Heart, and on and on. In 2000, Sting asked Bush to stop playing “Brand New Day” only to perform the song—with Stevie Wonder on glorious wah-wah harmonica—eight years later at President Obama’s inaugural ball.
But if a song gets blocked, candidates will quickly find another. The power of music on the trail can be potent, offering a kind of ecstatic liberation from the awfulness of the insincerity and small-mindedness of modern campaigning. There’s a positive feedback that loops when a campaign’s message and its messaging echo each other. The “Yes We Can” video from will.i.am is just a little more insufferable than I think we’re all willing to admit in retrospect, but four years ago it provided the audio for a feeling that until that moment may have felt almost too ethereal to be real. The younger generations are constantly striving to grab that fleeting feeling—that sense that we belong in politics, that politics wants us to take part—and The Obama Experience has used music incredibly effectively to make that happen. Think back to last year’s White House Correspondents Dinner, which you might remember for two things: Obama’s complete roastmaster-like evisceration of Mitt’s boy Trump and the fact that the president was alone in knowing that on the other side of the world Seal Team 6 was knocking on Osama bin Laden’s front door. So when he unleashed some grade-A mockery of the birthers—both the doltish cornball sitting in front of him and those throughout this great nation of ours—by taking the podium to Hulk Hogan’s entrance song “Real American” with a huge smile on his face, the satiric, niche cultural reference radiated a knowing confidence to anyone watching. And that is a rare experience to get out of politics. Sure, we’re programmed to expect movies to use pop songs to provoke unexpected and preternatural emotional ballast—Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese come to mind—but for us to feel that sense of self thanks to politics is exceptional.
This view of music in politics—where songs are chosen for special inclusion, not just to serve as blandly catchy Muzak—fits neatly into the era of Obama. What often goes unrecognized about pop music and politics is that both offer a mirror to a particular vision of the country, reflecting back to us what is accepted behavior and what is not. And Team Obama’s choices reveal a signal closer to what pop music tells us about ourselves than does politics’ normal unobtrusive musical stance. This White House suggests to a particular type of person that the things they enjoy and identify with are mainstream enough to be normal to the President of the United States. And if he seems comfortable with these interests we share, maybe we’re OK too. No one will confuse politics with being “cool,” but what it chooses to identify is important. So when the president plays a Hulk Hogan theme song as a joke or posts a Spotify mix on Tumblr or belts out a soul groove—or, for another example, when the First Lady dances to a Beyoncé song as part of her official public health campaign—it makes all those divergent and special things just as American as country music and folk-rock and the rest of the customary truck-commercial oeuvre. Obama may have been sold as the politics of the future, but his true gift may just be dragging us into our present.