How pop culture media whitewashes Obama’s violent CV.
Barack Obama closed out the decade doing what he’s been doing the last dozen years or so: serving up playlists and book club recommendations as if he were America’s cool but absent dad, trying to make up for being a ghost with symbolic gestures. While he’s mostly gotten away with this shtick, a metaphor for his entire political legacy, his toolkit of PR stunts like this don’t appear to carry the weight they once did, even though a desperate press corps is still willing to mine this junk for year end content and fetishize the mythic, laughable idea of a “cool” president.
At the tail end of 2019, Obama unveiled an end of year reading list. One item on this list has caught people’s attention. He had the audacity to include The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power by Shoshana Zuboff. For anyone familiar with Obama’s relationship to maintaining and growing our surveillance state or capitalism in general, this choice rang like a miscalculation on his team’s part and opened him up for legitimate castigation and an opportunity to educate.
He’s also published another playlist, a grab bag of 2019 tunes that cover a lot of genre bases, but ultimately tells you nothing about him or music this year. Instead, it represents some mathematical average of unoffensive music that no human actually wants (The National), echoing his policy legacies.
“From hip-hop to country to The Boss, here are my songs of the year. If you’re looking for something to keep you company on a long drive or help you turn up a workout, I hope there’s a track or two in here that does the trick,” he tweeted last week.
In a cultural ecosystem oversaturated with playlists of all sorts, the selections and sequencing here do little to stand out as anything other than a bunch of safe bets. But, because it’s Obama — the first president to podcast, the guy who was “in on the joke” when he appeared on Between Two Ferns — it’s apparently incredibly newsworthy in an era when newsrooms are shrinking and coverage of actually relevant news stories is pitiful nationwide. The press can’t stop covering these playlists. They’re addicted to them for the same reason they’re addicted to covering inconsequential Twitter beefs or SNL sketch recaps: it’s easy content that creates a feedback loop.
Listicles used to be unavoidable, a relic of ’00s and the first half of ’10s cultural journalism landscape. I wrote my share of them. The format has dwindled in the second half of this decade as consumer-driven playlists gained popularity, readers started to develop an immunity to them, and subjects for interesting lists evaporated as the best and worst of things have been mapped out to the point of exhaustion.
And yet, despite that, Obama’s listicles have endured, gaining more and more cultural visibility, almost to the point of rivaling Oprah’s power as all powerful listmaker, while his second term wound down and his promises of hope and change rotting into sick punchlines was doubly insulting.
These playlists are and always have been cynical PR instruments designed by Obama’s team of Ivy League boat shoes to distract anyone paying attention to his actual, deeply harmful and largely whitewashed political legacy. In 2016, during Obama’s final months in office, I pitched the idea of a piece that is critical of Obama’s moonlighting as tastemaker to a Vice music site. Their editor was so personally offended by the idea and our email exchange that it ended my relationship with them, in asmuch as a freelancer can’t really be fired but told to fuck off in so many words. Their entire staff was laid off several months later.
I then brought this idea to a well known music website, who were initially receptive, barring one detail. They were in a holding pattern regarding premiering the next Obama playlist. They ended up running a very sappy ode to Obama’s cultural legacy right before the 2016 general election and have continued to report on the Obama playlists uncritically ever since. That’s the pollyannaish bordering on unethical coverage you get when you’re a politician buying cover through content.
Corporate media, even the ones cosplaying cool kids, will always defer to centers of power, which is the least rock and roll shit you can imagine. If people from the future want to look back at how music journalism as we know it ended, look no further than when music magazines normalized running fawning propaganda cooked up by the comms team of a politician. You can also thank private equity, ally of Obama’s, for this decade of rapid media desertification, the death of alt-weeklies, which were historically a stop-gap against establishment fluff.
The rise of Obama’s playlists coincides with the endgame of cultural journalism, of course, as tens of thousands of media workers have been unceremoniously axed in the past few years, with Obama staying conveniently mum on this violent gutting and consolidation of capital. The effects of the lack of a critical, adversarial fourth estate has deep real life impacts, even if something as trivial seeming as a mixtape doesn’t always seem crucial. These playlists are supposed to function as commercials for a better time. The specific songs choices are irrelevant. They’re just a whiff from the past, a sly nostalgia bomb to remind us that once upon a time we had a cool president whose brain wasn’t visibly melting and things were OK. Even if none of those things is necessarily true.
Three years since he left office, Obama doesn’t come out for air too often. But every time he does, he’s telling us something very deliberate, whether that’s hang gliding with billionaires (translation: I’m having way more fun than you ever will know; I’m rich!), hitting the private equity speaking circuit (translation: I still work for Wall St.), and serving these stupid lists (translation: I’m cool and think you’re stupid).
His tenure as ex-president is probably most noteworthy for (in addition to a $65M book deal) his and Michelle’s ludicrous deal with Netflix rumored to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The first project to emerge from this cursed alliance is a documentary about auto workers called American Factory that Team Obama claims is “not editorialized,” which is a sort of laughable but apt synecdoche of the Obama lifestyle/political brand — a world where power dynamics, the lives and struggles of workers, are somehow apolitical or objective.
The only times Obama has come out to the press to get overtly political in recent memory were telling. In October, sounding like a stand up comedian lambasting “PC culture,” he railed against “politically woke” call out culture, braying that it “is not activism…That is not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you are probably not going to get that far.” OK Oboomer.
Then in November to a room full of wealthy donors, Obama again came out to warn against going too far left in the Democratic Primary and threatens a “very robust primary” like he had in 2008, an unsubtle cue to Left that he will oppose Bernie’s grassroots candidacy and put his weight behind whoever the establishment favorite emerges to be: Biden, Pete, or Warren. When this happens, get ready for a true and deeply uncomfortable reappraisal of his legacy and a referendum on both his and the Democratic establishment’s addiction to neoliberalism. This growing bloc of critics seem less and less willing to hold back or sand down the edges of their critiques as they grow immune to his charms.
This debate is necessary and inevitable. It’s long overdue we finally have a discussion about what a severely disappointing and disingenuous actor Obama has been since he rose to power. He uses disposable cultural crap like playlists, podcasts, and reading lists to launder his blood-stained CV.
Judging a politician by their “coolness,” allowing opportunists to conflate pop culture with politics meanwhile denigrating “purity politics” with the other hand is how you get not only presidents like Obama but presidents like Trump and a devastated media landscape. We don’t need politicians who choreograph dance routines, force their followers to stand in four hour selfie lines when that time could be spent mobilizing, invest in gormless acronyms (“MATH”), or sell us pop culture as a substitute for politics. Letting the media frame the debate around personality and persona over politics and policy is a way to guarantee getting more celebrity presidents who service billionaires over addressing all the problems which require a principled, direct confrontation.
Obama’s mask of nice guy you’d wanna have a beer with and hey, he has better taste in music than he should is wearing thin as a brutal dogfight looms on the horizon. By this time next year you probably won’t even recognize him.