Let's Stay Together: The Messages Of Barack Obama's Re-Election Playlist

Categories: Politics

via YouTube
Yesterday, President Barack Obama's team released a Spotify playlist for his 2012 re-election campaign, announcing it via every form of social media imaginable. According to an announcement that accompanied the more traditional means of releasing political information—a leak—the playlist will ostensibly be used "for crowd events (rallies, ropelines, etc.)."

Efforts to decode its message have generally focused on breaking the playlist down by genre, with the assumption that, in the words of the Atlantic's David Graham, "this list is carefully calibrated to appeal for optimal demographic appeal—age, gender, geography, race, and socioeconomics." But such mercenary calculations would be a far blunter tool than what the Obama campaign seems to be doing here. Instead of just trying to signal a cultural affinity with voters through shared tastes in music, this playlist captures the broader cultural identities in which music plays an important part but is far from the whole shebang.

Generally, politicians' use of music lands somewhere on a spectrum that runs the gamut from unimaginative—Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America" has been used by basically every politician in the country at this point—to disastrous, with Reagan's use of Springsteen's anti-war "Born In The USA" standing out as a particular lowlight. If you're reading this, you are likely familiar with the many ways in which music can be used to communicate love, or anger, or longing, or agreement, or disagreement; sometimes these emotions can be communicated within the same song, and the same song can sometimes evoke different emotions within different people. Even when a song isn't about a particular subject, using it at the right time and in the right context can send a related message: to mention just the most obvious example, Martin Scorsese is a master at using pop music either sincerely or ironically to massively shift the emotional tenor of a dramatic situation. In contrast, though, when a politician plays a song, the intent seems mainly to communicate that a song is playing.

Obama, though, has been different. Though there wasn't anything particularly memorable about his use of songs on the campaign trail (his hijacking of the solidly Bushian "Only in America" aside), there was the "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" incident, when candidate Obama replied to critics by wordlessly brushing imaginary dirt off his suit jacket. The move instantly familiar to anyone with even a passing acquaintance with rap (check out the reaction of the guy over his left shoulder); by invoking the gesture from Jay-Z's video, he signaled clearly to people knowledgeable about hip-hop that he was one of them. At the same time, the gesture's subtlety protected him from anti-rap attacks from the right. This sort of complex signaling kept up during his first term. Michelle's "Move Your Body" campaign enlisted Beyoncé to send a message about fitness, but it sent another, more powerful message: You could be a real American even if you didn't like Brooks and Dunn, because "American music" didn't encompass just classic rock, country, and folk; it also included R&B, and rap, and soul. Fans of Earth, Wind, and Fire (who played at the White House, and who appear on Obama's Spotify playlist) are just as important to the core American identity.

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