Obama's Playlist Proves It: When It Comes to Coolness, He's Second Only to Kennedy

You can argue about his Mideast policy or failure with gun reform, but Obama's new playlist cements his cultural legacy as one of America's coolest presidents.

U.S. President Barack Obama adjusts his suit jacket as he walks across the tarmac before boarding Air Force One, California, U.S., February 11, 2016.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais, AP

Perhaps it’s the latest polls that are finally showing a growing gap in favor of the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, or perhaps it’s just natural weariness at the end of eight years, but there seems to be a strong feeling of "the end of the road" these days in Barack Obama’s White House.

After John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960, several pundits noted that Kennedy was the first president who had not only begun to influence popular culture, but had been born into a generation that was already influenced by that same culture. While some Hollywood stars may have been inspired by the young president, by almost the same token, Kennedy and his advisers deliberately fashioned his public persona after the heroes of his favorite films.

The cultural preferences of the presidents who came afterward were widely documented by the media. Richard Nixon, for example, was an obsessive fan of the movie “Patton,” about the famous World War II general, and he would watch it repeatedly in the White House screening room even as the Watergate scandal began to evolve. And the strange encounter between Nixon and iconic singer Elvis Presley, who wanted the president to enlist him as a special agent in the war against drugs, was recalled in a movie just this past year.

Ronald Reagan and both Bushes, father and son, preferred Westerns, tended to invite aging pop and country music stars to the White House, and in general exhibited tastes that were pretty similar to those of most of the white voters in “red” states – those who tend to vote Republican – which helped clinch their election victories.

In contrast, the two Southern Democratic presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, seemed most enamored of rock stars (Carter was especially fond of the legendary The Band). Clinton, for his part, was constantly drawing media attention with his fairly modest talent for playing the saxophone.

Still, even his some of his Republican enemies will grudgingly admit that Obama, who released two lists of his favorite songs for this summer a few days ago, leaves most of his predecessors (with the exception of Kennedy, perhaps) in the dust when it comes to taste and style. One can criticize Obama’s policy in the Middle East, get angry at his unwillingness to intervene militarily to stop the massacres in Syria, or be disappointed with his failure to pass reforms that would somehow tighten up America’s liberal gun laws – but it’s hard to argue with the impression that the man practically embodies “cool” as proven by his playlists.

This is the second year the president has released his summer playlist, through the digital music service Spotify. Obama released one list of 20 “summer songs” for daytime listening, and another for listening to at night. If you combine these with last year’s lists and with his frequent remarks over the years in interviews about his musical taste and preferences – you get a pretty broad picture of Obama as a music lover and a consumer of pop culture.

This all fits in with the artists that the president and his wife, Michelle, invite to the White House, with articles about his favorite TV series (including “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad”), and the summer reading list he has released every year since being elected, mostly nonfiction and some works of prose that have gotten good reviews.

Listening to the songs on Obama’s playlist reflects the taste of a music consumer who’s making an effort to stay current, although at 55 he’s relatively old in pop music terms. There’s a clear preference for black music and a systematic disregard for styles that apparently don’t excite him, like classical or country music. Hip-hop has a notable presence, perhaps more than usual for a black man his age.

Obama likes rappers, particularly those who broke out during the 1990s, like Jay-Z, Nas, and Common; old-time soul and rhythm and blues singers such as Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Aaron Neville; artists of about his same age (Prince, who died this year, and Janet Jackson) as well as some younger ones (Anthony Hamilton, Leon Bridges, and Janelle Monae). He also likes punk (War and Tower of Power) and jazz (Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday). Here and there you can find a few pop or rock songs, along with a little world music (Caetano Veloso and Manu Chao).

One can assume that the two lists reflect Obama’s personal taste to a great extent. A few months ago, in a short interview with New Yorker editor David Remnick in a piece about Aretha Franklin, the president said that her song “Rock Steady” was a good bet for any party – and that song is indeed on his lists.

Still, it’s hard to believe that the lists were compiled without some input from experts in the field. Someone described as a White House official even admitted to The Washington Post last week that publishing the lists was an alternative way of reaching the public in a period when American society is more divided than usual over political issues. In an age when many young people are deterred from dealing with politics, and when on the other hand you have a president worried about the kind of mark he’ll leave on history, even a playlist can be a way to achieve one’s goal.