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.
Barack Obama sings “Let’s Stay Together,” January 2012
What was important with “Move Your Body” wasn’t any one part of it, just like the point of the Spotify playlist isn’t any individual song. You could get into the video, with its kids waving American flags, or you could get into the song itself (which, unlike any song produced for a public health campaign, was just as good as anything on the radio), or the campaign’s substantive anti-obesity message, or Michelle Obama doing the Dougie: different strokes for different folks. Each individual piece of the campaign communicated something different: the administration cares about music, the administration is taking sensible steps to curb childhood obesity, Michelle Obama is awesome, etc. But taken as a whole, the campaign said something very different. It said, to particular people, that they were recognized. One of the great unacknowledged effects of both politics and pop music is the way it reflects a particular vision of the country, to say something about what’s normal and what’s not. And the Obama administration was sending back a reflection closer to the image pop music conveys than what’s typically offered by the government. It said to certain people that the things they did were mainstream enough to be on the President of the United States’ agenda, and deserved to be encouraged.
So it’s important here to look not just at the individual songs but at the playlist (and its dissemination) as a whole. Ben Sisario’s piece about it in the Times contained this tidbit:
A spokeswoman, Katie Hogan, said that the playlist had been put together over the last couple of weeks from suggestions made by campaign staff members and volunteers, and that it represented only the beginning of what might grow to be a longer list. According to a note identifying the playlist, the list includes “a few of President Obama’s favorites.”
What’s the point of saying this? It communicates that the playlist isn’t a naked demographic calculation, that it’s genuine and reflective of the grassroots workers in the campaign. It’s important, too, that it was released on Spotify, a service with only around 10 million users worldwide. Why not make it an iTunes playlist? Well, because those are so four years ago. Releasing it on Spotify tells interested parties that the Obama campaign knows what Spotify is, and knows how to use it. That the campaign released this news on its Tumblr tells people that Obama’s staff knows about Tumblr, too. And the inclusion of some (relative) indie-rock obscurities—Noah and the Whale, AgesandAges—is another flashing light to a certain demographic that isn’t really captured just by looking at the genres represented. The target, in other words, isn’t everyone: it’s people who think music is important, or who think technology is important.
That’s not to say that the music doesn’t matter. It’s just to say that the Obama campaign is recognizing here that music isn’t something listened to in isolation. People immersed in the web like Radiohead or Girl Talk or Jonathan Coulton because of their tunes, but the technological values those artists have aligned themselves with are important too. Similarly, people who are into the Arcade Fire are also into Tumblr because of the aesthetic values that platform is identified with. Music has innate qualities that are enjoyable, but it’s also a social thing, so strongly tied up with logically unrelated preferences in clothes, drugs, and politics that they come as a kind of package. Obama is an important political figure beyond his legislative accomplishments because he recognizes that people don’t just care about the laws politicians pass; they care about the way politicians do things. Because politics plays in a role in determining self-image, people can more strongly identify with politics if it fits into existing cultural preferences. Regardless of what a candidate gets done, if they let their interns make an official campaign playlist and post it on Spotify, there’s a “likeability” factor at work. (That’s why ostensible liberals end up being susceptible to the charms of right-wingers like John McCain and Ron Paul: Their policies might be opposable, but they just seem so awesome as people!) It’s the same thing in pop, of course. The way artists manage their careers and images can have a much bigger effect on an audience’s feelings about them than the quality of their music. Managing those expectations skillfully is a form of communication that isn’t often recognizes as important, but it shapes perceptions more than people might want to admit.