Today we will be listening to Barack Obama’s newly released summer vacation playlists, and making a snap call on how big of a pleb the President of the United States is. Without further ado, let’s get started.
The President’s Summer Playlist: Day
This is primarily an R&B playlist with a bit of hip-hop, a bit of folk, and some complete wildcards. The mood of the playlist is enthusiastic and upbeat. For that purpose, all the R&B inclusions work wonderfully. Above all else is the unheralded gem of the playlist, Good Day by Nappy Roots. Of the many cliches one can find in music, I’ve always had a soft spot for “choruses with children’s vocals” (another example is the remix of My Block from 2pac’s “Better Dayz” album).
I’m not on board with the inclusion of Wherever Is Your Heart by Brandi Carlile. It’s not that there is a problem with the song, but its country-twinged tone just felt out of place on the playlist, and I noticed it as soon as the song started playing. I also disagree with including La Salsa La Traigo Yo by Sonora Carruseles. I understand that Obama has a passing interest in salsa dancing, but this is not the time nor place for that nonsense. I’m giving a pass to Tengo Un Trato by Mala Rodríguez, even though I am very suspicious about how Obama came to discover her. However, Boozophilia by Low Cut Connie raises my “this whole playlist was built by an intern” flag. Good luck convincing me that the busiest man in the world has time to find an artist with less than 15,000 listeners on last.fm. Complaining aside, Boozophilia fits the mood of the playlist nicely.
Other than that, congrats to Justin Timberlake for being on the list. It seems like Timberlake is America’s most-loved contemporary R&B artist. What else could you give a man that has everything? I don’t have much to say about the inclusion of Coldplay and Florence + The Machine. Apparently you just aren’t allowed to make a big name Spotify playlist without at least one of them. Nonetheless, I thought it was a pretty satisfactory playlist all around — achieving no more than what an upbeat daytime playlist could hope to achieve.
The President’s Summer Playlist: Night
This one has a similar genre breakdown to the previous playlist, but with some jazz artists swapped in for some R&B. Even the non-jazz artists were selected to have a jazzy feel, making for a relaxing, downtempo tone. Unfortunately, I was a bit disappointed with this playlist as a whole, even though it was a lot more thematically together than the Day one. Before I get into that, I will acknowledge that I especially enjoyed I Found My Everything by Mary J. Blige, Is Your Love Big Enough? by Lianne La Havas, Nothing Even Matters by Lauryn Hill, and Flamenco Sketches by Miles Davis.
This playlist is what I’ll call a “hipster trap”: a lot of songs that have a more mature tone without being more mature compositionally. For instance, we’ve got our jazz starter kit of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, but of all the songs Obama could have picked for Coltrane, he picked a cover of My Favorite Things? I just found that choice underwhelming. There were several “smooth jazz”-type songs on the list, and I felt the least interesting was Until by Cassandra Wilson. In a world with many types of low-energy, calm, collected music, I have never felt a desire to listen to smooth jazz. I’ve certainly run into it many times, but I don’t actively seek it. It’s just a particularly lifeless genre and I found this a particularly languid song.
Firing through a couple other grievances: Aoife O’Donovan was apparently the Brandi Carlile of “Night” with the out-of-place Red & White & Blue & Gold (although ironically it was more interesting than half the playlist). I haven’t listened to Leonard Cohen or Joni Mitchell before, and Suzanne and Help Me didn’t convince me to try them. I thought that the selections from Mos Def and Erykah Badu’s libraries could have been better than UMI Says and Woo.
There are two measures for playlists that I am applying here: does the playlist establish a mood through a consistent tone, and are all the songs on the playlist good by themselves. I believe Day succeeded in both areas, and Night achieved only the former criterion. Day might have had a few wild tracks, but I enjoyed listening to it much more than Night.
Now onto the real question: is Obama’s taste peasant-tier? Other than a few relatively unknown artists across both playlists, he’s got hardly a single artist that doesn’t have an RIAA-certified platinum record. It’s not hard to conclude that his taste in music developed out of picking up what was hip throughout his lifetime and sticking to it. If Obama is actually a music connoisseur in disguise, then these playlists are no better than phoned-in. If “peasant” is defined as someone who listens to music but doesn’t care very much about it, then Obama definitely qualifies. I’ll be tweeting this article to the White House, so if I disappear mysteriously, you know why.
An alternate read on this whole event is that one of his interns was asked to put together two playlists that satisfied the following guidelines:
- Something for each generation of the voting public
- Believably black
- But not too black
- Acknowledges classics
- Signal boosts a couple decent new artists
- Make sure we don’t forget country
Play it in the background while Obama and his family are on vacation, ask him if he’s cool with it, slam it on Twitter, and you’ve got yourself August 14th’s top news story.