In an interview to be published this Friday in Rolling Stone, Barack Obama doesn’t come right out and declare himself to be a Stones person. But when quizzed about the contents of his iPod by cub reporter Jann Wenner, he references the Stones twice, cites the awesomely apocalyptic “Gimme Shelter” specifically, and doesn’t give the Fab Four so much as a name-check. Also on the oPod: “[A] lot of Coltrane, a lot of Miles Davis, a lot of Charlie Parker”; “everything from Howlin’ Wolf to Yo-Yo Ma to Sheryl Crow to Jay-Z”; and music from Barack’s ’70s youth, including Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Elton John. When prompted by Wenner, Obama even cops to an appreciation for the Grateful Dead (“Not only do I enjoy the music, but I just like them as people.”) He says nice things about Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom have said nice things about him in public.
By the (incredibly low) standards of presidential-candidate hipness, Barack Obama is almost unbelievably hip, and so’s that playlist—a little safe, maybe, a little old-dude, a little too Rolling Stone, but still. John McCain doesn’t even use a computer, so he’s probably not surfing iTunes with regularity. And remember The New York Times story from 2005, about the songs on George W. Bush’s iPod? Some classic rock, some red-state country (Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney), “Brown-Eyed Girl,” and a few ringers by Joni Mitchell and the Knack, courtesy of Bush’s frequent mountain-biking partner, media strategist Mark McKinnon, and Blake Gottesman, whose duties as Bush’s “body man” included maintaining the First iPod.
But here’s the thing about Obama’s playlist. It’s exciting, modern, and a little vague, like Obama himself, and it doesn’t tell us as much about Obama as it’s supposed to, because it doesn’t tell us much about what he’s actually listening to.
Any iWonk worth his noise-cancelling Sennheisers knows that in the age of the 80-gig iPod, the metric that really matters is “play count.” John Mayer’s guiltily pleasurable “Bigger Than My Body” is one of the 9,400 songs on my iPod, sure, but I’ve played the Hold Steady’s Catholic-girls-on-drugs anthem “Banging Camp” 36 times in the last three years, and I’d like to think--I’d really like to think--that the latter says more about me than the former.
For example: It’s good news that the man who might be our next President can rattle off the titles of the five albums that made up Stevie Wonder’s near-superhuman 1971-1976 hot streak. Somehow that phase of Stevie’s career is perfectly Obama--out from under the thumb of Motown founder Berry Gordy, Wonder eschewed the cynically post-racial pop of Motown to pursue a eclectic, utopian, personal vision that turned out to have an even broader crossover sweep. That means a lot. But it would mean a lot more if we knew what Obama’s favorite track on Talking Book was. Maybe he warms up for every debate by cranking the merciless synthesized funk of “Maybe Your Baby”--but somehow it’s easier to picture him and Michelle slow-dancing in the kitchen to “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”
And okay--the fact that he responds to Wenner’s question about hip-hop with the most straight-down-the-middle liberal platitudes imaginable (praising it as “rebel music” while expressing concern about its “misogyny and materialism”) clearly matters less than the fact that there’s a guy running for President who knows who Jay-Z is. But forget that. When Obama shuffles through Jay-Hova’s catalog, which of Jay’s many incarnations speaks to him more-- the unapologetically ruthless crack-slinger who made Reasonable Doubt, or the reflective, mature mogul of Kingdom Come?
Until he makes his playlists as public as his tax returns--a degree of pop-cultural transparency that should be required of all White House aspirants from here on out--it’s impossible to say for sure.
One of the only individual tracks Obama mentions in his conversation with Wenner is Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” which he says is one of “probably 30” Dylan selections in his personal rotation. He describes it as “one of my favorites during the political season. … It speaks to me as I listen to some of the political rhetoric.”
That’s a bold choice. “Maggie’s Farm,” from 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home, is speed-era Dylan, thin-wild-mercury-sound Dylan, head-full-of-ideas-driving-him-insane Dylan, and like most of Dylan’s output during that era, it’s harsh and funny and punk-before-the-fact. It’s written from the perspective of a menial laborer, but it plays like a snarling rebuke of any club that would have Bob as a member, particularly the pious, doctrinaire early-‘60s folk scene that wanted Dylan to keep the protest songs coming long after he’d lost interest in writing them. It was the first song Dylan played during his infamous electric set at the Newport Folk Festival; Todd Haynes depicts the moment in I’m Not There by having Cate Blanchett and her band spray the audience with machine-gun fire.
You have to wonder why Obama digs this one. Whose expectations is he thinking about when he hears Dylan sing “Well, I try my best/To be just like I am/But everybody wants you/To be just like them”? Can we infer that when Hilary was downing those Crown Royal shots in Indiana, the lines about Maggie’s Ma--“She talks to all the servants/About man and God and law/Everybody says she’s the brains behind Pa”--kept running through his head?
Well, no, we probably can’t. But “Maggie’s Farm” is still kind of a great choice on Obama’s part, because it feels so uncalculated. “Blowin’ in the Wind” would have implied “change”; “Masters of War” would have implied “Screw John McCain.” But “Maggie’s Farm” is about individualism, and about the way folk heroes are built up and torn down, and somewhere between the Reverend Wright scandal and the Indiana primary--when the rhetoric was at its looniest and the process was at its ugliest--Obama probably heard his own frustration in its fed-up whine. And by the standards of Presidential-candidate hipness, that’s pretty hip.
Finally, it’s worth noting that when John Kerry was asked to name his favorite Dylan song, the only title he could come up with was “Lay Lady Lay.”
Alex Pappademas is a GQ staff writer.
By Alex Pappademas