It was popular, for a while, to talk about African-Americans born after the civil rights movement as “the hip-hop generation,” which implied that the swath of people being discussed was tied together more by a shared culture than by a shared political purpose. But it was hard not to notice that rap wasn’t a part of politics. Sure, you had Michael Jackson and various jazzbos visiting the White House, but the part of culture that supposedly defined this whole mass of young people (both black and white) was conspicuously absent. It was hard not to conclude that if rap was absent from the symbolic center of politics, then young people must themselves be absent from politics as a whole. But then in 2008, candidate Barack Obama brushed the dirt off his shoulder.
The gesture, to anyone attuned to recognize it, was unmistakable, and enormously encouraging. This is not to say that it represented a particularly deep commitment to rap on Obama’s part. He was born in 1961, and so his iPod playlist naturally represents stuff that was popular when he was a teenager: “a lot of Stevie Wonder, a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Rolling Stones, a lot of R&B, a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.” But Obama is smart enough to know how important rap is symbolically. Once he was elected, he invited Jay and Beyoncé to the White House, and the ensuing right-wing flipout only validated the point he was making: old people may not get what young people like, but the President does.
All of which is a long way of saying that Beyoncé’s new video is an important moment in the relationship between politics and culture. A remix/remake of a great-but-overlooked Swizz Beatz track from B’Day, “Move Your Body” was made for Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, and the accompanying video is a dance routine that doubles as a workout kids can do to get fit. It’s pretty adorable–B takes over a school cafeteria and enlists a pretty realistic-looking group of schoolkids to run, stomp, Dougie, salsa, and, uh, do the running man.
The important bit happens after that, at around 3:40. The lights go off, and when they come back on, B sings, in a lushly harmonized major-key melody, “Now wave the American flag!” And they do, a multiethnic group of kids all flapping miniature American flags. It doesn’t feel jingoistic, or pandering, or aggressive; it just feels celebratory, like they are actually kinda happy about America.
Politics is perpetually uncool, but what it does and doesn’t recognize is important. R&B here is being used as an instrument of official American government policy, making it seem legitimate and important. And, maybe even more surprisingly, a public health campaign initiated by the first lady–a practice in the tradition of Nancy Reagan’s ill-advised “Just Say No” efforts–fits right into R&B without making it uncool or untrue. “Move Your Body” doesn’t feel like a PSA, like those involved are gritting their teeth and trying to be responsible. They’re just doing what they do, and helping out in the process. It feels like the product of genuine concern rather than a bit of PR. It feels like, in the same way country music and pickup trucks and other white-people things are essentially American in some ineffable way, so is Beyoncé in jorts and ridiculous heels stomping all over a Swizzy beat. This identity is not just central to pop culture, but to being an American. And no matter how much some might want to insist that the mere fact of being black raises suspicions about one’s American-ness, all these efforts are slowly building a new image for America–or at least bringing the country’s image into line with what its reality has been for the last 30 years.