Is Obama REALLY listening to, and digging, all that stuff?


I just saw this from our friend Bryan today:

And I’m like ah, yes, “Purple Haze”… It prompts two memories immediately. I can hear it coming from the jukebox in the cafeteria of Robinson High School in Tampa, Fla., where I attended the 10th and 11th grades. Other biggies on that box were “Fire” and “Hey, Jude.” In fact, that was the first place I ever heard “Hey, Jude,” as I was walking across campus and passing the cafeteria door. It made a huge impression as it echoed off the wings of the school within the courtyard that served us as a place to stand for assemblies (we had no auditorium). It was unworldly, transporting. How did McCartney produce music that magical?

But even more, my mind recalls hearing it from the garage bands that used to play at the “teen club” on MacDill Air Force Base. They used to have these dances for us “teens,” I suppose to keep us out of trouble. The bands would play “Purple Haze,” “Sunshine of Your Love,” “Magic Carpet Ride,” and so forth. Sometimes, I’d hear those songs covered by a garage band before I’d heard the original. That was the case with the Beatles’ “Birthday.” I was late getting to the White Album.

Which makes me think, what associations does the song have for Bryan? That was so long before he was born…

Which in turn brings me to this tweet of President Obama’s a couple of days ago:

And while I may remember him fondly as our last honest, normal president, I have to think: Really? Is he really into all that new stuff, from “artists” I haven’t even heard of?

I mean, seriously — where’s he even hearing that stuff? Is it from his kids? Or is he daily, earnestly Googling to see what’s hot, then making himself listen to it so he can seem “with it?”

Because, as I’ve noted before, we live in a time of musical fragmentation. Back in the ’60s, and continuing through maybe the early ’90s, we all experienced a media environment in which current, popular songs were everywhere. Whatever age you were, whatever your tastes, you heard what was hot at the moment — on your radio, on the three available TV networks, or just passing by a cafeteria door. It was ubiquitous.

And some pretty compelling pop music came out of that period — compelling enough that young people like Bryan are familiar with it, and like it. (Something I never experienced — when I was a kid, what grownups had listened to 20 and 30 and 40 years earlier was an unknown country to me. I wouldn’t have known Ella Fitzgerald’s “How High is the Moon,” to name one item from Obama’s list that predates me.) Because since then — since the early ’90s, by my reckoning, about the time MTV and VH-1 changed their formats and downplayed videos — it’s been harder for a song to get a grip on your brain.

That’s because it doesn’t seek you out anymore. You have to actively go out and find it. Music is personal now, not communal. You have no idea what the person right next to you is listening to via earbuds. It could be some awesome new pop tune, or the collected speeches of Adolph Hitler. (The people who carried around boom boxes back in the ’80s were obnoxious, but hey — at least they were sharing.)

And now Obama’s telling us that “Too Good” by “Drake ft. Rihanna” has as much a grip on his consciousness as Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Maybe it does. But it feels like he’s trying too hard to be broad in his tastes. Of course, being Obama, he’s probably worked hard enough at it that he really does like the items on this eclectic list more or less equally. Maybe it’s just a matter of trying hard enough. After all, awhile back I was dismissive of LMFAO’s “Party Rock,” but my son made me try it again, and now I honestly love it. (Although I need to watch the official video to get the full effect.)

There’s something about Obama’s effort in this that makes me smile. My best friend when I lived in New Orleans — 1965-67 — was Tim Moorman, and his Dad was a Navy chaplain. Chaplain Moorman was a great guy who on weekends used to take us kids regularly up to the amusement park at Lake Pontchartrain. It was quite a drive from Algiers, and as we rode, he’d have the radio on a Top 40 station and he would loudly and enthusiastically sing along with us. His fave was the bubble-gum classic “Sweet Pea,” by Tommy Roe. It was obvious that he thought the song was ridiculous, but we thought it pretty silly, too, and did not mind his condescension. Because his enjoyment in singing along was sincere. As he would say, he really wanted to be “hip” and “with it” along with us kids. Or enjoy us being so.

So I’ll think of Obama’s special effort to be current that way. And it will make me smile…

33 thoughts on “Is Obama REALLY listening to, and digging, all that stuff?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, I need to amend something. I said, “I wouldn’t have known Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘How High is the Moon,’ to name one item from Obama’s list that predates me.”

    I just gave it a listen, because if he is including something that old it must be awesome. And of course, I’m perfectly familiar with the tune, even if I couldn’t have named it. It’s one of the standards that was always in the background when I was a kid — as an instrumental, or being sung or played by some old people on the variety shows we watched, patiently waiting for an appearance by the Stones or some such.

    I was aware of my parents’ music as a kid, but mostly the contemporary releases by the fogies rather than the oldies — Sinatra’s “Strangers in the Night,” for instance.

    Because the thing is, as irrepressible as Boomer pop culture was, the grownups were still in charge of the mass media. So we heard show tunes and covers of standards all the time. And some of the contemporary stuff that old people were into was pretty cool — like Burt Bacharach and Herb Alpert….

  2. Doug Ross

    Have you heard Old Town Road by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus? It’s been the hottest song of the summer — biggest hit ever.

    Obama’s not going to win any crossover votes in SC from that list. Not a single country song (even though Old Town Road is categorized as country).

    I’ve been listening to a lot more country lately . Mercy (Brett Young), Beautful Crazy (Luke Combs) , On My Way To You (Cody Johnson), Whiskey and You (Chris Stapleton) are in heavy rotation… along with an old Beatles tune that I hadn’t heard in years but now find I enjoy very much “Don’t Let Me Down”.

    1. Bob Amundson

      I got lots of cred with my 10 year old grandson when I played Old Town Road while he was visiting; PaPa’s cool (for now). New Riders of the Purple Sage have reappeared on my playlist.

    2. Bryan Caskey

      Oh no! “Old Town Road” is ubiquitous at this point. My kids have absolutely played it out, to where I don’t allow it anymore. At a talent show for the end of first grade, every dance routine was to “Old Town Road”. Imagine sitting through a talent show where every first grader girl group dances to the same song…for an hour.

      Hope you’re doing well, Doug.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        OK, so I went to YouTube to hear “Old Town Road” and see what y’all are talking about.

        It sounded… vaguely familiar, but I’m not sure I’d ever heard it before.

        Where do y’all hear this stuff? How is it “ubiquitous?” Is it that my grandchildren aren’t the right ages?

        You want to talk ubiquitous? Before I could listen to that video, YouTube wanted me to watch a trailer for the “Downton Abbey” movie. Now, THAT’S ubiquitous. I can’t seem to get away from it. It seems the king and queen are coming for a visit….

        1. Doug Ross

          Wikipedia: “The song was produced by YoungKio and features a sample of the instrumental piece “34 Ghosts IV” by Nine Inch Nails, ” Are you a Trent Reznor fan?

          It was #1 on the Billboard for 19 weeks… a new record.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yeah, but what does that mean now? Where does one hear songs that are #1 on the Billboard chart?

            Admittedly, I don’t listen much to commercial radio. And for that matter, I don’t listen much to NPR live, preferring to go the on-demand route via my phone. (Anyway, I haven’t been able to get 88.1 on any radio I own for a couple of weeks. Anyone know what’s up with that?)

            But when I DO scan through the dial and look for some commercial radio — say, when I’m on a long drive — I don’t run across Top-40-type stations. (Or maybe I do, and I don’t know what it is, and it doesn’t grab me, so I keep going. That’s a distinct possibility.) I find oldies, talk, country or gospel for the most part…

            1. Doug Ross

              We have XM in our car so I hear new stuff when I flip thru the channels. Or if I’m in my daughter’s car without XM, the radio is usually tuned to WNOK or another top 40 station.

              FYI, the new hot singer apparently is someone called Lizzo. Google her VMA performance from the other night at your own risk.

              1. Brad Warthen Post author

                I’ve read about Lizzo. Someone I follow made a passing reference, and I Googled. My curiosity was satisfied. I haven’t looked any further into the phenomenon than that…

        2. Norm Ivey

          Where do y’all hear this stuff?

          I know Old Town Road because I have my Spectrum set up to turn on MTV Live when I turn it on. I chose that station because between the Epic. Awesome .Videos., the concerts, and Live with Jools Holland, I’m constantly hearing something new.

          You know how you’ve talked about chasing rabbits when you look up something, and that leads to something else, and then something else? Music is like that for me. I hear something I like, and then I look at Google Play’s related artists, which leads to something else. Or I’ll choose a song I like and launch it as a radio station, which introduces me to all kinds of new artists. And my favorite part of Rolling Stone is the album reviews.

          And of course, the more I read about music and artists, the more my Google benefactors feed me. You know why Downton Abbey appears ubiquitous to you? Because you’ve let the Overlords know that you’re interested in it. It doesn’t show up for me at all, because I’ve never done anything to make them think I care about it.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            But that’s the thing! I haven’t watched Downton Abbey since about halfway through the series. A main character was killed off in a particularly gratuitous and manipulative manner, and I’ve boycotted it from that moment on.

            The last time I looked up anything having to do with it was when when I posted that spoof P. Diddy did back in 2013: “Downtown Abbey.”

            OK, I just Googled it now, though, so I could confirm: The last episode I watched was on Christmas Day 2012…

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              It’s probably because the only thing I watch on live TV is PBS. Everything else is streaming for me — Netflix, Prime, a little Hulu.

              But I do watch some Brit shows on PBS — Endeavour and the like. Maybe they think that translates into being a Downton fan.

              Anyway, mind how you go…

      1. Doug Ross

        Not a Ringo fan… as a singer, he was a good drummer. Although one wonders how his song “Sixteen” would go over today…

    3. Brad Warthen Post author

      The last country song I paid attention to was “Brand New Girlfriend” by Steve Holy.

      There was something about the comic timing of it that I liked. Especially at the start when he says, “I, uh….”


      It’s not normally something I’d laugh at, but it was so well done…

      1. Norm Ivey

        There’s country, and then there’s country. Most of what your hear on the country stations, whether radio or cable, is what I call Bro’ Country. It’s guys who’ve never soiled their hands singing about tractors and girls in boots and shorts. It just doesn’t feel authentic the way old school country does.

        There are exceptions. Margo Price is as classic as they get. Kacey Musgraves is good. I prefer the very broad genre of Americana, which includes folk, old school country, bluegrass, southern rock and more. Authentic stuff.

  3. Bryan Caskey

    What song associations does “Purple Haze” have? (I was born in January of 1981, by the way.)

    Similarly, it’s a song I first heard in late middle school (probably around 8th grade) when I actually gravitated towards songs of that era. It’s a song that that I associate with high school, summertime, and being a little out on the edge.

    Song associations are great, aren’t they? Sometimes we can hear a song, and it immediately takes you back in time to a specific point, where you were doing a certain thing. For instance, one of my friends and I used to play chess in his room. He had an older brother, so he was always exposed to cool music first. He had a CD of Bush’s Sixteen Stone, that we would put on repeat and listen to while we played chess. Whenever I hear any of those songs, I go back to that memory.

    1. Norm Ivey

      Memories and music are inseparable. You and Brad have both mentioning remembering the first time you heard a song. There are many songs I can remember hearing for the first time (though Purple Haze is not one of them).

      The last several years, I put together a playlist when we take a big vacation (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, this year it was Colorado). I’ve found that listening to the playlist helps me re-live the experiences of the vacation even better than photographs. I think it’s the extended time of the songs. It gives me enough time to reflect on the moment rather than just remember it from a photo.

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I know I’ve written about this before, but when I was younger I formed unbreakable associations between whatever I was reading at the time and whatever new music I was obsessively playing.

      Unlikely associations. Like Leon Uris’ Battle Cry, his novel about the Marines in the Pacific in WWII, which is totally tied up with the second side of “Abbey Road.”

      Or Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James” album, especially the song “Sunny Skies”…

      That doesn’t happen to me any more. Must have something to do with the suggestibility of a 16 or 17-year-old…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        It would be SO much more logical if the Heinlein novel were tied to the Leon Russell song, “Stranger in a Strange Land.” But I first heard that several months too late for the imprinting to occur.

        I mean, I DO associate them, just not in the same way….

  4. Norm Ivey

    It looks to me like he’s trying too hard, but I probably think that because he’s a public figure. If this were just some friend’s playlist, I probably would remark on its eclecticism. Interesting, but a little in-cohesive for my tastes.

    You’ve remarked on the differences in how we access music a few times before, and I get the feeling that you feel we’ve lost something, and perhaps we have. The thing that makes pop culture pop is that shared experience. But it also seems that it’s a shallow experience. I abandoned broadcast radio and its incessant and inane commercials one I got my first mp3 player. I’ve never looked back.

    I’ve discovered lots of music I never would have known I would enjoy now that I have to actively engage with seeking it out. Sometimes I find myself listening to something and I can’t even tell you how I came across the artist or song. I’ve become so engrossed in finding and experiencing new music that I find myself at a concert every couple of weeks or so (much to the chagrin of my bride).

    Here’s a playlist of (mostly Americana) stuff I’ve come to love that I’m certain even Barry wouldn’t call obvious…

    New Americana (Halsey)
    In Hell I’ll be in Good Company (Dead South)
    Chevrolet Van (Nude Party)
    Caravan of Fools (John Prine)
    Highway Queen (Nikki Lane)
    Oklahoma (Keb’ Mo’)
    God Bless the Ramones (Jason Ringenberg)
    It Ain’t Easy Being Me (Chris Knight)
    Change on the Rise (Avi Kaplan)
    Runaway (Elle King)
    Ride (ZZ Ward and Gary Clark Jr.)
    Living in the City (Hurray for the Riff Raff)
    Mama Was a Redbone (Cris Jacobs)
    Arkansas (Tenth Mountain Division)
    SOB (Nathaniel Rateliff and the NIght Sweats)
    Diamond Ring (Dead South)
    Skin (Rag ‘n Bone Man)
    Better Get it Right the First Time (Rhiannon Giddens)
    My Friends (Trae Pierce and the T-Stone Band)
    24 Hours More (Little Lesley and the Bloodshots)
    Records (Nude Party)
    Fine (Chasing Vixen)
    Traveling Companions (Chris Compton)
    The Weight of the World (Syr)
    A Seed (Trent Jeffcoat)

    Sorry for the lengthy list. I just started listing them as they popped in my head and then edited the order slightly. I cut several songs.

    Looking it over, I like it enough that I’m going to add it to my library.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I’m trying listening to Norm’s songs.

      Had to look up this Halsey person, who doesn’t look at all the way I expect a person named “Halsey” to look.

      Not liking the song so far. Seems overproduced to me, with the excessive reverb that seems to characterize so much current pop. And the tune isn’t grabbing me. Already tired of the “Americana”/”marijuana” rhyme, and the song’s not over.

      But I’m going to keep trying.

      Is it OK if I listen to something I like between the songs on the list? I’m going to pause and listen to “Sulky Girl” right now… Ahhh… And maybe then I’ll indulge myself with “So Like Candy.” I associate the two…

      1. Norm Ivey

        Try Halsey’s version of Walk the Line. It’s not often a cover of a Cash song challenges the original.

        If I were to suggest some of the songs from my list that I think you’d take a liking to, I’d say try The Nude Party’s Records without the video the first time. And Fine by Chasing Vixen. They both have a very retro feel to them.

        Chasing Vixen is from Greenville, and they will be playing at Steel Hands Brewery in October.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I’ll try. But I worry that even after I’ve tried as hard as I can, I may have to admit defeat, like Billy Jack. “I try… I really try…” (When I get to the “berserk” part, everybody run!)

          But seriously. I tried the Halsey version and it wasn’t quite for me.

          But I do like a good cover now and then. I’ve collected a few good ones into a Spotify playlist. Examples:

          • The Dillards’ version of the Beatles’ “I’ve Just Seen a Face”
          • “Louie, Louie” by the Sandpipers (seriously weird)
          • Donny Hathaway’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy”
          • Astrud Gilberto singing The Association’s “Never, My Love” (actually, I recommend Astrud singing ANYTHING)
          • Everything but the Girl doing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Only Living Boy in New York”

          Oh, and I’ve recommended these before, but they’re worth mentioning again:

          • for a laugh, the Devo version of “Satisfaction”
          • Then, Otis Redding’s version of “Satisfaction,” which shows Jagger how it’s done

          And as a bonus:

          • Menschlichkeit doing Elvis Costello’s “Human Touch” in German (actually, there was a better cover of the song that I heard once in a movie, but I couldn’t find it)
  5. Bill

    I first heard,Purple Haze in middle-school(junior-high),too.I saw him play it live,a few years later,and he could chew gum at the same time…

  6. Bill

    I think in terms of music.When you mentioned,Lake Pontchartrain the other day,I couldn’t stop listening to this song by Miller William’s daughter,Lucinda.She’s a national treasure:


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