These are strange days for culture critics. People can’t stop talking about Santana and Smash Mouth. A surprise album release is surprising because the album isn’t released. Memes have turned wholesome. How fitting it is, in this period of unpredictability, that one of the most dependable resources for pop culture recommendations should be the President of the United States.
Last week, President Obama curated a rich summer reading list, and not one, but two excellent summer mix tapes. In that same window of time, MTV and The New York Times convinced me to buy a ticket for Sausage Party, the unholy splicing of South Park and a Christopher Hitchens subreddit.
As curator, Obama has numerous advantages over the traditional culture critic. He isn’t expected to attract readership, publish with any sense of regularity, or even provide context or justification for his endorsements. And most importantly, he has an expert social media squad, one that’s likely responsible for ghostwriting the entirety of his pop culture communiques.
Then again, those excuses could let POTUS and Co. off the hook. What could be obligatory checks off the social media to-do list are elevated because some folks at the White House cares enough to discover Miles Davis' "My Funny Valentine" is the harmonic-equivalent of an alley-oop to "Do You Fell Me" by Anthony Hamilton, which in turn delivers the dunk.
I do wonder if I should be embarrassed for loving Obama’s occasional cultural guidance. Am I really to believe this is what Obama enjoys? Or even what his staff likes? Isn’t it possible that every list of books and songs is carefully selected to appease the largest possible audience, validating the things were already love, without explicitly showboating for the lowest common denominator?
Been waiting to drop this: summer playlist, the encore. What's everybody listening to? pic.twitter.com/mqh1YVrycj— President Obama (@POTUS) August 11, 2016
For example, let's breakdown Obama’s summer playlists divided in two for daytime and nighttime. Day includes Wale, Courtney Barnett, Janelle Monaé, Prince, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, and the Beach Boys. Nighttime stars Chance the Rapper, Aaron Neville, Esperanza Spalding, Billie Holiday, Fionna Apple, and concludes with the back-to-back pairing of War and Floetry. Hillary Clinton could keep a copy of the complete mixtape on her hard drive, and she would have at least one pander-ready song for every campaign stop from today until the election.
Meanwhile, Obama’s summer reading list includes a stack of thoughtful literature, though hardly anything avant-garde. If anything, it’s the aspirational to-do list of a New York Times subscriber or the summer reading homework from the cool high school English teacher that encourages you to really consider that career in writing. H is for Hawk won the Samuel Johnson Prize, Barbarian Days won a Pulitzer Prize, and every copy of Underground Railroad comes with an Oprah endorsement sticker.
These are the things I briefly fret over. Then I crack open another good book while listening to great music, gradually displacing Sausage Party from my memory.