What Makes a Presidential Playlist Good?

What Makes a Presidential Playlist Good?

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How much of your time I need: 6 minutes

This article originally appeared in The Florida Basement, the former Swamp Records Gainesville-based blog. Since writing, actually not a whole helluva lot has changed, even though everything has.

Last month the big man on campus, Barry O, released his official summer playlist, which includes several tracks I would consider off the beaten path. I’ve listened to President Obama’s playlist as well as the two frontrunners of the election, D Daddy Trump and Hilldawg, in an attempt to discern the underlying themes of the musical tastes of each candidate — or more likely, their demographic — and unfairly generalize it to their entire persona. First up, the Don.

I don’t have anything personal against Donald Trump, dear reader. As far as I’m concerned he’s just a guy who showed up at the perfect time to manipulate an increasingly vulnerable organization. He’s certainly used the platform to foment a message of… discontent with the system? Hatred for specific groups, especially Latinos and Muslims? A stunning lack of understanding regarding military affairs? There’s definitely some ambiguity going on here, and I don’t think his campaign music really clears it up.

Diving in, we see “We’re Not Gonna Take It” by Twisted Sister, a track so laughably Donald Trump even his dumpster fire of a campaign probably scurried to include it in the first meeting they had about “things we can relate to Donald Trump”. Along the same vein we find “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M., Neil Young’s “Rocking in the Free World”, all playing on the motifs of fire, brimstone, and freedom of expression the Trump campaign has drummed up endlessly.

At this point, I think it’s important to note that pretty much every article addressing this topic has a different playlist. I’ll assume this is what being unpredictable counts for in the Trump campaign mind, but at least it adds some variety to the mix. Most articles highlight the negative aspects, like the preponderance of “white people” music or rock and roll. It’s easy to hate a man so easily hateable. But that’s not a reason to dismiss a man’s taste in music. At least he’s honest and assertive about what he likes, and a few Phantom of the Opera snippets will always be hype.

Trump’s obsession with a single Broadway play and a series of disjointed musical revolutions notwithstanding, the rest of the list is actually quite pedestrian. Adele, The Beatles, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones dominate the list, and that’s maybe the only four artists or groups Trump has ever heard echoing outside the black hole of egoism surrounding his orbit. But this is not bad music. This is his music, even if it happens to be his demographic’s music too.

Hillary Clinton is pretty exposed to the same apathy that drives my opinion of Donald Trump. The playlist is chock full of what I call relatable tracks. “Roar” by Katy Perry, “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson, “Let’s Get Loud” by Jennifer Lopez. You got your Demi Lovatos, your Pharrell Williamses — seriously, they put “Happy” in here —, with little exception Clinton’s playlist is pretty uninspiring, like her campaign. But when your platform is four more years of Obama, and the only time you get a word into the media edgewise (that darned Trump again) is when you collapse in public, are at a congressional hearing, spurn the youth vote, become a meme for trying to say something edgy to resonate with the people you just spurned, or associating a green frog on the internet with neonazis, you can probably understand why she went with the safe bets here.

But even more critically obvious than Clinton’s choices is the startling reality that there is no way in hell she actually enjoys this music. I don’t even enjoy this music. No one at the club or at a house party enjoys this music. The radio doesn’t even like this music anymore. It’s not because the songs are bad, even though “Happy” is indefensible as a musical choice. Okay, I lied, a lot of this music is patently terrible. But there’s no heart going on here. It’s so bad dwelling further on it is physically uncomfortable and moving on is the only thing to keep me from retching at the overload of sugary bullshit I just aurally ingested.

Now, disclaimer: I am a Barack Obama fan. My extensive research (read as a degree in political science and history) informs me that our current president is at least top three and possibly GOAT in the category of “Most Chill President”, his socioeconomic and other policies notwithstanding. This dude plays basketball, listens to rap music, fist bumps his fellow man, and still finds time to throw shade back at world leaders around the world. Let’s take a look.

Obama starts his playlist off by separating it into day and night, already a personal or campaign decision more profound than the two campaigning to be his replacement. The first song is “LoveHate Thing” by Wale, a song that is three years old and not exactly on anyone’s radar for daytime classic, although it is a solid track. I already am infinitely more convinced Obama actually gives a shit about his playlist because seriously, Wale?

Obama follows up with some other tracks that are actually profound. Whoever he hired to do this if he didn’t do himself can definitely find work in the Clinton camp. He knocks his classic jazz out of the park with “My Funny Valentine” by Miles Davis, rounds the bases with great rap from Chance the Rapper (“Acid Rain”? Obama is clearly a second term president with this track choice), Jay Z, and Nas. He hits the R&B swag with Ledisi, Prince, D’Angelo, and more. Pours his soul out to Sara Bareilles, caters to the new hits crowd with Aloe Blacc and Jidenna — at this point you have to wonder if Blacc was talking about Obama when he cooked up “The Man”—, throws it back with the Beach Boys and Aretha Franklin. Is there anything this guy doesn’t listen to? Does anyone reach the bottom of this list and not marvel at the remarkable variety of music that keeps the Oval Office bumping into the wee hours of the night?

A great presidential playlist is variously defined by the individual’s personal touch, its relatability and listening value, and the relationship of the songs to the message of the individual. The big winner here is definitely Obama, who mixes several different genres, and pulls from a spectrum of popular, classic, modern, and sometimes fairly unknown artists. His tracks are excellent to listen to, convey a personal taste, and pretty much emanate the chill factor he is rapidly becoming known for in these trying times. There is probably something here for everyone, too. Trump is in middling ground. His music veers towards the average white person’s tastes, but even he has some oddball preferences of his own that can convince me he took a hard look at the list before giving it the okay. And at least he threw in some tracks with heart.

Clinton’s playlist is so egregiously offensive to me it deserves its own concluding note. Inundated with syrupy pop, Hilldawg eviscerates any notion that music can come from the heart, preferring instead to rely upon some corny call to bravery and mixes it with distorted overtones of happiness and pride. It is the epitome of her campaign, it is almost complete garbage, and for me to even look at it brings a tear to my eye knowing a dozen or more people filed into a conference room and put together this underwear streak of a playlist. If this is what passes for a political campaign getting in touch with its supporters, I’ll take tinnitus.

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