What Obama's Playlist Says About His Re-Election Campaign

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The musical selections for the president's campaign events seem carefully calibrated to appeal to a wide range of voters.

Politico's Mike Allen scored a sweet scoop this morning: the 29-song playlist for President Obama's re-election push. Unlike Allen's usual fare, this isn't about political maneuvering and Washington wheeling-and-dealing. Or is it? Given the famous discipline of the Obama campaign, it's fair to assume this list is carefully calibrated to appeal for optimal demographic appeal -- age, gender, geography, race, and socioeconomics. Here's a quick tour through the playlist and what its selections mean politically.

CLASSIC ROCK
Number: 5
Examples: "We Take Care of Our Own," Bruce Springsteen; "Mr. Blue Sky," Electric Light Orchestra
What It Says: Classic rock is completely inoffensive, so it's bound to play a major role. Furthermore, its biggest fans -- middle-aged, middle-class voters -- are a key election bloc. The Springsteen song is new and could practically have been written for the Obama 2012 campaign, and the Boss is a liberal staple.

INDIE ROCK
Number: 5
Examples: "We Used to Wait," Arcade Fire; "You Are the Best Thing," Ray Lamontagne.
What It Says: It's a blatant pander to twenty-somethings. "Hey kids! Remember how much you loved me in 2008? Well, look, I'm still hip and with it." Arcade Fire played benefits for Obama in 2008, and their anthemic bombast is perfect for big rallies.

OLDSTER ROCK
Number:
2
Examples: "Your Smiling Face," James Taylor; "I Got You," Wilco
What It Says: Dad-rockers are basically Obama's key demographic: Well-to-do, suburban, educated, and (probably) moderate Democrats politically. The only surprise about Wilco's inclusion was that there's only one of their tunes on the list. The band is from Obama's home base of Chicago, it has played benefits for him, and he's noted his love for its members. If Obama loses, he'll be singing not "I Got You" but rather "Misunderstood" (I'd like to thank you all/For nothing/Nothing at all."). One might expect a president working hard to win the Tar Heel State might have chosen Taylor's "Carolina in My Mind."

SOUL AND R&B
Number:
9
Examples: "Let's Stay Together," Al Green; "Love You I Do," Jennifer Hudson; "Green Onions," Booker T. & the MGs
What It Says: This is the largest single genre group, but it runs the gamut from classic soul (Aretha is for the same aging boomer population as James Taylor) to more contemporary fare like Raphael Saadiq. A large number of R&B tunes helps the president connect with black audiences without turning off older white folks: Who doesn't love "Green Onions"? And after his own impromptu rendition, the Al Green standard was a mandatory selection.

POP
Number: 2
Examples: "Different People," No Doubt; "The Best Thing About Me Is You," Rick Martin feat. Joss Stone
What It Says: We're frankly puzzled. Obama has very few straight pop tunes, and the ones he does are a little offbeat -- No Doubt? Is he running for president of 1998? It's also a little surprising that he left off his pal Justin Bieber.

COUNTRY
Number: 7
Examples: "My Town," Montgomery Gentry; "Stand Up," Sugarland
What It Says: The president knows he needs to firm up his support among white working-class voters, so country is the second-largest group of songs after soul and R&B. The choices tend to be patriotic, small-town-America-celebrating songs, logically enough. But they show a rather limited taste for and knowledge of all things twang: there are two songs apiece from country-pop crossover stars Sugarland and from Darius Rucker, the former Hootie & the Blowfish frontman who's remade himself as a Nashville star.

RAP
Number:
0
Examples: N/A
What It Says: In a shocking omission, Obama hasn't included a single rap song on his list. That's despite vocal support and occasional musical shoutouts from Jay-Z, Nas, and others; despite his own professed love for Lil Wayne; despite his invitation of Common to the White House; and despite K'Naan publicly offering the president use of his "Wavin' Flag" even as he asked Mitt Romney to stop using it. But rap is dangerous territory for a politician, liable to scare off older white voters and with lyrics often marred by casual sexism and talk of violence. After Common's appearance caused a kerfuffle, the Obama team is trying to tread carefully.

MISCELLANY
Gender Breakdown:
Only six of these songs center around a female singer, while 19 have male lead singers. Four are mixed, and one is an instrumental. The president is apparently not too concerned about losing the female vote, which he won 56-43 in 2008.
Nationality Breakdown: Surprisingly, nearly a sixth of the choices on the list are by foreign bands (including Arcade Fire, a Montreal-based group of American ex-pats). That includes a sizable English contingent: twee indie rockers Noah and the Whale, Florence and the Machine, and ELO. There's an appearance by Irish rockers U2, but they've become such a staple of campaign music that we're just thankful he didn't choose "Beautiful Day" (the song is perhaps tainted by being the theme of John Kerry's unsuccessful 2004 run). Skipping "With or Without You" was probably a smart electoral choice, too.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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