There is something reassuring about Barack Obama’s summer listening list. First, it’s a list. We all like lists. They bring order and a focal point for an argument. The list arrives annually in high summer, a marker of time, like a putative hosepipe ban but with better choruses.
The list also always feels real. It’s probably carefully curated, but it never feels confected. In the past when Obama settled on Phoebe Bridgers and Mitski there was a very real sense of a father recommending tunes he’d heard and quite liked when giving his daughters lifts into town. There is less of that now, and, with acts like Wet Leg, Kendrick Lamar and Jack White on his list he has the air of the ageing gent of BBC 6 Music who isn’t quite ready to slip into the Elbow easy chair.
The other sense of Obama reality comes from the choices themselves. The Miles Davis pick, Blue in Green, might be from Kind of Blue, but it’s not the obvious one. The Rakim track is not exactly drawn from his glory years, The Detroit Spinners song is from when they were moving into Philly soul rather than the Motown years, and who decides of all the Springsteen tracks they’re going for Dancing In The Dark? It’s easy to believe he is genuinely listening to this stuff when he’s on his own, or as on his own as a former president gets, heading out to walk the dog.
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Obama is a man who likes music and has a fine ear. And liking music, as all the best people know, is a marker of somebody to get along with. It also sits in stark contrast to what came after, and what comes next.
Donald Trump continues to bleat that the last election was stolen from him, and he may yet face criminal charges over the January 6 Capitol insurrection.
The only music he is associated with comes from a catalogue of artists so incensed he used their songs at campaign rallies – and they range from Neil Young and The Beatles to Adele and Creedence Clearwater Revival – that cease and desist orders were issued demanding he stop. The Leonard Cohen estate, when they heard he was using Hallelujah, joked that Cohen’s late-period peak You Want It Darker was a more fitting choice.
To choose a playlist as varied and interesting as Obama’s requires a rich cultural hinterland, meaning the listener is open to the joy and creativity that artists can bring as they shape and articulate the world.