Barack Obama, “Stevie Wonder Geek”

…and other revelations from the Rolling Stone Q&A

Reading Rolling Stone’s much-hyped interview with Barack Obama, I couldn’t help but think of…Evan Marc Katz. Whom you might know, if you know him at all, as the “e-Cyrano,” or, perhaps, as “your personal trainer for love,” or, perhaps, as the guy who’s “helped thousands of people rebrand and market themselves successfully online.” The e-dating guru has found both fame and fortune in teaching would-be Match.com-ers how to write The Ideal Online Dating Profile (or, “how to make your personal ad more personal”). When writing said profile, advises Katz:

- Use specifics
- Be sincere and honest
- Show your personality
- Figure out what makes you different from everyone else, and use it to your advantage
- Stay consistently positive and confident without seeming annoying and arrogant
- Don’t give anyone a reason to say no to you

Thanks, e-Cyrano. That is good advice—and it applies just as readily to presidential candidates wanting to win our hearts and our votes in the epic matchmaking game that is electoral politics. There’s a dual nature, after all, to each tidbit revealed in a profile, whether presidential or plebeian: it’s meant both to inform and to intrigue, to be both subtle and bold; it says, on the one hand, this is who I am, take it or leave it, and, on the other, um, please take it.

When it comes to the Music section of the profile—often, now, shorthanded as “What’s On Your iPod?”—it’s all about creating a carefully cultivated list that suggests, overall, Effortless Awesomeness. You’ve got to seem, e-Cyrano says, alluring, yet mysterious (Miles Davis is good choice for conveying this). Sensitive, yet fun (Stevie Wonder). Laid-back (The Grateful Dead), yet serious (Charlie Parker). Smart, but not obnoxiously so (Bob Dylan). Playfully ironic (Elton John). Effortlessly witty (The Rolling Stones). Up-to-the-minute (Jay-Z), yet respectful of tradition (Yo-Yo Ma). Down-to-earth (Bruce Springsteen), yet whimsical (John Coltrane).

So, Rolling Stone, what does Barack, you know, rock to? With what tunes is he wooing us on his profile—what will be on potential-President Obama’s iPod One? Well…Miles Davis! And Stevie Wonder! And The Grateful Dead! And Charlie Parker! And Bob Dylan! And Elton John! And the Rolling Stones! And Jay-Z! And Yo-Yo Ma! And Springsteen! And Coltrane!

(Wow, intriguing profile, YesWeCan2008! We are so gonna wink at you.)

And lest the “oPod” playlist seem overly curated: Obama also mentions (read: cops to) liking Sheryl Crow…and, for that extra stamp of no-communications-strategist-or-online-profile- advisor-would-ever-tell-him-to-say-this authenticity, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee reveals his love for the sublimely campy uber-group Earth, Wind, and Fire.

Politicians “revealing” themselves through their music choices (and journalists finding meaning in the revelations) are nothing new. Presidents, both practicing and potential—and politicians in general (not to mention every B-list celebrity who has ever created a “celebrity playlist” for iTunes)—have a long, proud tradition of carefully cultivating personal quirks in the service of political charisma; and of doing so, in particular, through an exhibition of their musical tastes.

Politicians’ musical playlists—or, rather, the playlists those politicians publicize, which aren’t necessarily the same thing—generally emphasize empathy over authenticity. They’re almost always populated by artists and songs that seem hand-picked to appeal to a specific demographic or contingent of voters. (George Bush enjoys Joni Mitchell, Alan Jackson, and, somewhat controversially, The Knack; New York senator Chuck Schumer grooves to the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Louie Armstrong and the Counting Crows; Condi Rice admires Mozart and U2 and Cream and Aretha Franklin; John McCain—charming idiosyncrasy alert!—loves ABBA.)

And, hey, maybe those pols really do enjoy the music they list in their playlists. But it’s worth wondering why we place so much emphasis on the lists in the first place, and why we continue to revere and revel in them as jingly little vehicles for Profound Revelations About the Self. Those revelations, after all, often serve to frame the pols in question as something they fundamentally are not: ordinary. See, they suggest, I’m just like you, average Joe! I, like you, Average Jane, have tons of time to groove to the tunes on my iPod. I, like you, love music. I like you, love John Lennon. I, like you, imagine all the people, living for today (ooh, ooh). You may say I’m a dreamer…but I’m not the only one… Because you, dear voter, are one, too.

In the awkward intersection it enforces between apparent authenticity and political propaganda—indeed, in the massive irony of the attempt to render average the people whose very claim to lead us is that they are, you know, better than average—the whole “what’s on your iPod” tradition is almost laughably trite. And most politicians wind up appearing either fake or, at least, pander-happy in their attempts to take part in it. Take Jann Wenner’s 2004 Rolling Stone interview with Candidate Kerry:

Who are your favorite rock & roll artists?

Oh, gosh. I’m, you know, a huge Rolling Stones fan; Beatles fan. One of the most cherished photographs in my life is a picture of me with John Lennon—who I met back in 1971 at an anti-war rally. But I love a lot of different performers.

Do you have a favorite Beatles song—or Stones song?

I love “Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Brown Sugar.” I love “Imagine” and “Yesterday.”

You’re a greatest-hits kind of guy.

My favorite album is Abbey Road. I love “Hey Jude.” I also like folk music. I like some classical. I love guitar. Oh, God. I mean, you know—Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Buffett….

Obama, for his part, fares better in his Rolling Stone interview. He discusses (read: justifies) his musical tastes at length, rooting them in his life story (re: the “Stevie Wonder geek”iness: “When I was just at that point when you start getting involved with music, Stevie had that run with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Fulfillingness’s First Finale, and Innervisions, and then Songs in the Key of Life. Those are as brilliant a set of five albums as we’ve ever seen”)—and, even more interestingly, in his connection to mass culture:

I know Jay-Z. I know Ludacris. I know Russell Simmons. I know a bunch of these guys. They are great talents and great businessmen, which is something that doesn’t get emphasized enough. It would be nice if I could have my daughters listen to their music without me worrying that they were getting bad images of themselves.

But Obama doesn’t need the pop-culture cred that Kerry (and Gore and even Bush the Younger) so desperately did. Obama is a cool guy in his own right (Donatella Versace doesn’t design an entire line of clothing for just anyone); he’s a pop-culture phenomenon unto himself. He doesn’t need to pander to the “what’s on your iPod” tradition—and he certainly doesn’t need to pander to the “yeah, the Rolling Stones really speak to me” brand of catch-all triteness that other pols have engaged in.

He doesn’t need, in other words, to attract through embellishment, or, as e-Cyrano might say, to “rebrand and market” himself in order to charm voters into giving him a shot. Obama can actually—dating profile scandal!—be honest about who he is. Yet what music does he list in his Rolling Stone profile? Why, the Stones! And Bruce Springsteen! And Yo-Yo Ma! Et cetera. The music Obama lists in the interview might have been hand-picked for him by e-Cyrano himself. One wonders: if Obama were a fan of Cat Stevens—whether pre- or post- the Yusuf Islam name-change—would he come out and say that?

Regardless. If music be the food of love (between candidates and their constituencies), one wonders why, exactly, that’s so. There’s a line between humanizing candidates and normalizing them, after all; it’s understandable to want to relate to our politicians, but it’s unrealistic to expect that that relation will be one of equals. Why do we care so much what our candidates are listening to—and why, more to the point, do we want to assume that they’re listening to the same stuff we are? Why are we so desperate to believe that our candidates are just like us?

The Wenner interview makes a telling example in that respect. The piece, even if it’s a tad fawning (Wenner is a professed Obamaphile, and Rolling Stone itself endorsed the senator back in March), is a good read, both substantial and entertaining. And Obama’s musical picks are very much a side note, if you will, in the overall interview—over the course of which the candidate discusses his plan for lowering carbon emissions, his plan for curbing lobbyists’ power over politics, his personal transformation (“the older I get, the less important feeding my vanity becomes”), and the transformation he hopes to bring about for the country (“I want us to rediscover our bonds to each other and to get out of this petty bickering that’s come to characterize our politics”). When it comes to the question of the kind of leader Obama will make if elected, the Q&A is revealing in its own right.

And yet the attention it’s received—and, for a magazine story, it’s already received a lot of it—has been distilled, in the mainstream press, to The Huge, Breaking News that is Obama’s iPod playlist. We were greeted, yesterday, with the following headlines:

- Rock, Pop, Classical—Music to Obama’s Ears (Washington Post)
- Obama talks about music tastes (Dallas Morning News)
- What’s on Obama’s iPod? (Arizona Republic)
- The tunes that get Obama moving and grooving (The Globe and Mail)
- Obama’s iPod choices underwhelm (Houston Chronicle)
- Baracking out: Candidate’s playlist ranges from Jay-Z to Dylan to Yo-Yo Ma—‘I have pretty eclectic tastes’ (Chicago Sun-Times)
- Barack Obama has a serious iPod (Chicago Tribune’s blog)
- What is on Barack Obama’s iPod? (U.K.
Telegraph)
- Obama’s iPod: everything but Garth Brooks (U.K. Guardian)

And here’s the lede for the NYT’s June 24 blog post on the Rolling Stone interview:

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine to be published on Wednesday, Mr. Obama revealed that his iPod was full of dozens of selections from, top to bottom, Bob Dylan, Sheryl Crow, Jay-Z and Yo-Yo Ma. (Joining perhaps every other Democratic politician alive, he also confessed a deep love for Bruce Springsteen.)

You could argue that there’s an element of substance hidden deep within all these sedimentary layers of musical frivolity; a president’s cultural attitudes can certainly have a trickle-down and ripple-out effect on his or her moment in the mass culture. (See “Clinton, Bill,” who all but introduced Maya Angelou to the American public when she read her poetry at his 1992 inauguration; or, of course, “Kennedy, John,” who made cultural advancement a focal point of his administration: “I am determined that we begin to grow again, and that there will be an American renaissance in which imagination, daring and the creative arts point the way.”)

But this isn’t about culture so much as acculturation. Why, after all, do we still seem to have so much invested in the everydayness of our presidential aspirants—why do we expect candidates to force themselves, like the elitist stepsister meeting Cinderella’s slipper, into a mold that fundamentally doesn’t fit them? Politicians are simply not average. And they shouldn’t have to “rebrand and market” their personalities, e-Cyrano-style, in order to lure us into agreeing to a date. We’re not signing up for dinner and a movie, after all, or even a casual drink. (The fallacy of the “who’d you rather have a beer with” logic of leader-selecting is obvious. It shouldn’t have taken a failed presidency to make us realize that.)

We don’t need our politicians to be beer-swigging, iceberg lettuce-eating, Rolling Stones-listening Average Joes (and, if they are, that should be a matter of serendipity rather than design). We need them to be, rather, smart and thoughtful and invested in the improvement of the nation. Perhaps we should stop caring what kind of music our candidates prefer, in the hope that whoever next occupies the Oval Office won’t have time to listen to it. In the hope that his presidency will keep him, you know, occupied with other things. Like fixing the country.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.