One of the best parts of Spotify on desktop is the feature that shows what one’s friends are listening to. It’s riveting to lurk from account to account, and guess why people are playing artists as varied as Waka Flaka Flame, Nine Inch Nails and Justin Bieber. By sharing their favorite songs, people express their moods, hopes, fears and ideas. Hearing someone’s playlist can feel as intimate as reading their diary.
Perhaps that’s why Barack and Michelle Obama release yearly summer playlists — to connect with Americans on a deeper, more personal level that isn’t possible with interviews or speeches. Their 2020 edition was especially moving and weaves disparate, yet perfectly complementary, tunes together such as “Gaslighter,” by The Chicks, “My Future,” by Billie Eilish and “Goodbye Jimmy Reed,” by Bob Dylan.
While it’s fascinating in its own right to glimpse the Spotify queue of a presidential power couple, through this playlist, the Obamas analyze and project hope onto an especially tumultuous period. They know the power music can have, and how the right playlist can offer comfort, revelation, peace and even change. The presidency and pop culture haven’t always gone hand in hand, though, and might not even today. After all, has 45 shown any sort of genuine cultural interest? It takes a certain kind of President, like Barack Obama, to take the potentially vulnerable step to engage with constituents in a cultural manner.
Nobody knew this better than President Jimmy Carter.
“Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President,” released this week, depicts the often maligned Carter Presidency from 1976 to 1980 through the lens of President Carter’s fascination with music.
While the doc hits the beats one would expect, like the Camp David Accords and the Iranian Hostage Crisis, they are intertwined with often surprising sonic tidbits. The film unpacks Carter’s immense love for music and even uses it to help explain the rationale behind certain political decisions before, during and after his Presidency. President Carter was the first of his line to completely embrace the music of his time and use it as a sort of “soft power” for campaigning, diplomacy and political connection.
So many wide-ranging and iconic figures like Willie Nelson, Cher, Aretha Franklin, Bono and Dizzy Gillepsie flit in and out of the film through archival footage and interviewed anecdotes that attempting to name them all would take up the word count alloted to this review. In one especially heartening moment that seems almost impossible in 2020, Carter invites a Chinese ambassador to spend a weekend in Nashville with him, meeting and greeting country music stars. It’s theorized that, because of this visit, the relationship between the two nations improved.
While it is fascinating to see how Willie Nelson’s music may have impacted the Iranian Hostage Crisis, or how the Allman Brothers might have gotten him elected, what is most evident at the conclusion of the film is Carter’s sheer, joyous humanity. In practically every frame, both past and present, Carter is grinning. It is instantly infectious, and, no matter one’s politics, it should be refreshing to see a President who not only acts like a human being, but exemplifies the best of the species.
The film links Carter’s humanity, manifested in his hatred of warfare, progressive policies and post-presidential quest for peace and human rights, to his love for music. Carter himself calls it a sort of universal language, which exemplifies peace, harmony and expression. While one can argue over his political decisions, the documentary, to the backdrop of some of the greatest musicians of all time, cements Carter’s immense kindness.
Boy, the presidency could use some of that today.