What the Presidential Playlists Mean for Obama and All of Us

Obama smiling, looking pensive.

Imagine your name is Barack Obama. Imagine sitting in the Oval Office, at the Resolute desk, and tapping your fingers.

Just imagine being one of the most influential, powerful and (I daresay) coolest people in the world, and thinking to yourself: Shall I create a universal healthcare system? Shall I solve relations with Cuba? No, today I’mma write a playlist.

Okay, I’m not trying to comment on Obama’s policies or time in office. And actually, I was taking a bit of creative license there. Barack put together the two Spotify playlists this week while on his summer break, so there was no finger tapping behind that famous desk.

But I do think we can learn something about the man from his musical choices. After all, we’re all partly defined by the culture we choose to engage with.

And therein lies the big question. Were these playlists, one for Summer days and one for Summer nights, really put together by the POTUS himself? Would Barack really take time out of his vacation to let us know what he was jamming to? Would his selection not need to be carefully pored over by a crack team of White House employees for any potential overtones or undertones?

When you listen to the music in question, you do get a nagging feeling that the tracks chosen are a little too cool without being too edgy or offensive (there’s a bit of explicit language, but just enough to make a point). An impressively broad range of music is covered, from Jazz to Indie to RnB to Latin. But, for me at least, it feels like more than just an exercise in box-ticking or a stunt to shine up the image of the man.

I don’t doubt that Obama is very clever, and everything in the way he’s marketed himself to date suggests he’s entirely capable of toeing that uniquely thin line between what is awesome and outrageous for a president to do. He’s a good sense of his supporters, his critics, and what the songs he picks will say about him. I think it’s entirely possible that he picked out these playlists all by himself, without any need for tweaking by PR managers.

So let’s assume that these tracks were actually put together by Barack Obama.

Or at least, put together by a carefully tailored version of him that currently exists in the form of the President of the United States (hey, if I had that title I’d be careful to not shout about my worst musical indulgences too – the less said about cheesy ’80s pop the better).

With that said, let’s take a look at some of the more interesting things we can learn from the President’s playlists. To help I’ve put together some very impressive pie charts, which you can now proceed to marvel at.

Data time

First of all, I listed the genders and races of the artists that Obama chose across 40 songs. Listening to the playlists I felt that the President had quite diplomatically chosen a broad range of not only song genres, but also different kinds of musicians – and the data backs this up.

The music he’s chosen represents artists of all genders, races, and walks of life. It’s a positive message from a President who has always tried to espouse equality (but also sort of a given).

So here are the percentages of black and white musicians:

A pie chart showing the race of musicians in Obama's playlists; 57% black, 43% white.

And here, the percentages of male and female musicians. ‘Both’ refers to groups with both male and female members:

A pie chart showing the gender of musicians in Obama's playlists; 60% male, 35% female, 5% both.

So far, so to be expected. The songs show an even-handed selection of artists when it comes to both race and gender. Sure, these playlists weren’t plucked from thin air – they’ve been carefully thought about, and artfully chosen. But these playlists aren’t burned into cassette tapes. They’re reported on around the world. Fair game, Obama.

Next, I split the songs based on the decade they were released in. Here are the results:

A pie chart showing the decades of music in Obama's playlists.

There’s a definite skew towards older tunes, but after the POTUS’ favourite musical decade of the ’60s, his second favourite is the 2010s. Obama was born in 1961, so it makes sense that many of his favourite songs would originate in childhood memories. Maybe the newer tunes come from the influence of his teenage daughters, or maybe Obama gets recommendations from his own musical mates (Beyoncé makes the list, after all).

But the President skips over the ’80s entirely. I can sort of understand why – the synthesizers and big hair aren’t really in keeping with his personal brand. Plus, in the ’80s he was a young man going to university and getting started in his career. The songs of his college days likely don’t represent the man he is today, and all the lessons he’s learnt since then. Or maybe he just doesn’t like New wave.

Oh, and two of the 40 songs on the playlists were released in 2008, the year Obama first got into office. Happy memories?

Finally, I categorised the playlists according to musical genres. I assigned a genre to each song according to its description on Wikipedia (or other relevant info that I dug up, if there was no Wiki entry). If multiple genres were listed I just picked the first, and I eventually merged some genres because the list was growing too long and it’s my own damn blog so I can do as I please.

A pie chart showing the genres of music in Obama's playlists.

So, according to the playlists, Obama’s favourite musical genres are Soul, RnB, and Jazz. His second favourites are Hip hop and Indie. Cool.

What does this tell us? Honestly, not that much. He’s got a pretty diverse interest in music. He wanted to include at least one example of some of the various types of music he enjoys listening to most. But it is interesting to see just how eclectic his choices are, and to understand all the musical influences that make up a man like Barack Obama.

But what does it all mean?

Yes, I think the President wanted to be a bit provocative in his song selection. There’s a track by Justin Timberlake, for example, which compares a relationship with a girl to being high on a string of illegal drugs, and several anti-war, anti-establishment themes from the Vietnam era. In “Good Day” by Nappy Roots, a day in the hood is described where “Ain’t nobody gotta cry today / Cause ain’t nobody gonna die today.” It’s a poignant choice given the current situation of crime and punishment in modern-day America.

Despite the way these playlists have been carefully curated, I still believe these tracks come from a very real place. Many of Obama’s picks aren’t even singles – they’re buried deep in albums, so he would genuinely have to listen to this music to find them.

The themes running through these songs tell us about some of the most important things in Obama’s life: love, happiness, a better world. We can’t get into his head, but I’d take a guess that many of his chosen tracks remind him of his childhood, his family, his wife, his children, specific times and places. Don’t all our favourite songs?

So, here’s what I’ve taken from the music.

It means that Obama is a real person just like anybody else, no matter what his title might be. Some days it must feel like the weight of the world rests on his shoulders. I know that music has helped me and so many others through difficult times, and I think the President feels the same way.

In fact, I want to take a moment to point out how remarkable it is that I think I know so specifically what kind of person Barack Obama is. We live in a uniquely interconnected world, and Obama has always been such a savvy user of social channels, that today I (and millions of others) can feel that they know the President of the United States in a way that was unthinkable decades ago. Nowadays it’s possible for all of us to, on some level, get to know some of the most powerful people in the world. They tweet, they post social updates, and they make Spotify playlists. It makes us feel like we might sort of be friends.

So here’s my final message: let’s not overthink the choice of an incumbent President to put together a Summer playlist. Take it as a publicity stunt if you want, but don’t ignore the intimate, and honest, glimpse it gives into one of the most interesting people on the planet.

I’ll leave you with these words from the man himself, spoken in a 2010 interview with Rolling Stone:

My iPod now has about 2,000 songs, and it is a source of great pleasure to me. I am probably still more heavily weighted toward the music of my childhood than I am the new stuff. There’s still 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. Those are the old standards. Music is still a great source of joy and occasional solace in the midst of what can be some difficult days.”

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