Adored by many for the freshness and modernity he has breathed into American politics, Barack Obama may not be remembered for his concrete policies, but rather as one of the greatest pop culture icons in recent years. Jodie Yates takes a look back on the Obama administration’s relationship with popular culture and asks the question; Obama: politician or pop culture icon?
Barack Obama’s time is up. Eight years in the White House have come to an end for one of America’s most controversial Presidents. Yet Obama’s legacy has been argued as an indeterminable one as he fell short on many of his promises during his two terms. But beyond the policies, Obama has managed to revolutionise the role of Leader of the Free. Both dignified and respected, yet wholly accessible, Obama seems to belong in the leagues of Beyoncé, Kim and Kanye rather than Cruz, Clinton and Trump.
There is a tension between politics and pop culture as one is seen as inaccessible to the masses; politics is a home for the wealthy and educated, pop culture is for the people. Yet here lies Obama, on the crossroads between Oval Office and homepage of E! News.
Celebrities often make White House appearances – nightmare flashback to Michael Jackson, Ronald and Nancy Reagan sandwich – and celebrity endorsements in political campaigns are common. Though now we have a president who, alongside First Lady Michelle, has managed to become his own celebrity endorsement, morphing flip-flop policies with the blackstar of his Hollywood presidency.
The world swoons under his effortless command of TV appearances. Hearts and wombs flutter worldwide when he seductively slow jams the news with Jimmy Fallon. Ears are pricked and rose petals scattered on beds when the president’s summer nights playlist is published on the White House Spotify account.
Then we reflect on the awkward family party that has been America’s political history. Drunk aunty Hillary Clinton ‘whipped’ and ‘nae nae’d with Ellen DeGeneres on live television. And who could forget that time racist uncle George Bush junior let his hair down with the Kankouran West African Dance Company? Mother America, why did Obama have to go? The cool step-dad who slid his suave, satin way and affordable healthcare into our hearts for two tantalising terms.
Some may say Obama’s cocktail of politics and pop culture is the natural progression for a 21st century presidential administration. No self-respecting candidate is equipped without a Twitter account and a Snapchat story run by a keen yet confused intern. However, during his presidency Obama has transcended from a mere politician with social media presence to pop culture icon-cum-viral superstar-in-command working part-time as president.
But why does it matter if the Obamas are at the top of Oprah’s list of people that she would invite round for Sunday lunch? Likeability is clearly essential, but Barack has a one-up on almost any presidential candidate in the history of presidential nominations – he is relatable. People flock to the Obamas because, despite the power and the presidential post code, they seem like normal people. Michelle described herself as a ‘product of pop culture. I’m a consumer of pop culture’. I repeat these words of reassurance to myself as I stare into the mirror, finger poised over the button which will make me the next victim/owner of a Kylie Jenner lip kit…
Though this would explain the increased voter turnout in the last eight years, particularly amongst young voters and ethnic minority groups. In the US, gerrymandering, the process of manipulating voter boundaries to favour a particular political party or class is common. Voter ID laws have also been put in place in some states, meaning people without an ID, which must be purchased, cannot vote. Under such circumstances where their vote seems unwanted, the relatability of the Obamas creates a new pathway into political involvement.
With the rise of Obama’s pop-politics, it could be argued that pop culture has become increasingly politicised. Recently NPR music hosted an episode of their Tiny Desk Concerts from the White House, featuring Chicago hip-hop artist and activist Common. Common performs ‘Letter to the Free’ written for the Netflix original 13th, a documentary on mass-incarceration in the United States and racial inequality in America’s judicial system.
This song also comes from Common’s latest album Black America Again released towards the end of Obama’s presidency, a salute from a hip-hop icon to someone who has ‘shifted the way [he] looks at politics’.
Though hip-hop has always been a politicised genre, from its beginnings with artists such as Grandmaster Flash, through to Public Enemy and Nas, there has been a renaissance of political hip-hop during the Obama administration, which has spread through to different genres – most vividly in the way musicians have responded to the Black Lives Matter movement.
For the majority of her solo career, Beyoncé, like Obama, has been criticised for being a superficial artist, making music of style over substance. Queue ‘Formation’, the first single from her politically charged visual album Lemonade, released earlier this year. The video for Formation begins with the question “what happened after New Orleans?”, a clear attack on President Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, previously criticised by Kanye West’s infamous statement: “George Bush hates black people”.
In 2014, neo-soul artist D’Angelo released his first album since 2000 Black Messiah ahead of its anticipated release date in response to the controversial decisions in the Ferguson and Eric Garner cases. The lines ‘All we wanted was a chance to talk, ‘stead we only got outlined in chalk’ from his track ‘The Charade’ haunting his trademark neo-soul and jazz-funk sounds.
Not to forget one of 2015’s most prolific and political albums, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. American social and political discourse weaves each conscious narrative together, a sonic response to the African-American experience. ‘Alright’ has become a protest song against police brutality and Obama heralded ‘How Much a Dollar Cost’ as his favourite song of 2015. This took place when Lamar was invited by the president to Washington D.C., a touching nod to the album’s artwork, which features Lamar and others popping champagne bottles outside the White House.
Obama’s legacy may not be one of policies but rather his power to make politics as accessible as any other form of pop culture. It is clear that now more than ever, pop culture and politics are inextricably linked; hip-hop has a home in the White House and it is completely normal for the First Lady to collaborate on a song with Missy Elliott and other female musicians.
In a presidential election where there has been such alienating rhetoric from certain candidates, it is going to be a long come-down from the welcoming embrace of the Obama administration. In the meantime I’ll be working on Bernie Sanders k-pop debut ready for 2020.
One last mic drop for America’s very own Pop Culture President.