In a segment for James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” series that aired last night, Michelle Obama told the late-night host that this was one of the only times she’s been near the steering wheel of an automobile since arriving at the White House: “I’ve been in a car maybe months ago with my daughter who learned to drive, and we rocked out with her. But that was the only time in seven and a half years that I’ve been in the passenger seat, listening to music, rocking out like this.”
It’s one little anecdote that does so much: remind of how long we’ve all lived with this first family, of the isolating conditions they exist in, and also of their relatability as parents, as teenagers, and as people who love belting Beyoncé on their commute. The exchange also provides a near metaphor for what Michelle Obama has done with this instantly viral Late Late Show segment. She’s technically in the passenger seat, but really, she’s driving the car.
The Obamas have had a closer, more symbiotic relationship with pop culture than any first family before them. The risks and rewards of remaining a staple on the talk-show circuit, or of starting up a Snapchat account, or of making rappers and pop singers regular White House visitors, are obvious: cultural buzz can be political power, but one wrong move and embarrassment shall be swift. Yet memorable media mishaps have been mostly absent for the last two terms. As I argued around the time of the Hamilton cast’s White House appearance, the Obamas exercise a lot of strategic restraint in these matters. Always, they try to make pop-culture serve them, rather than the other way around.
So it is with the “Carpool Karaoke” segment. In a week when the Republican nominee’s wife gave a speech with zero humanizing details about herself or her husband while lifting language from the current first lady’s warm and personable 2008 address, Michelle giving 10+ minutes of friendly, pseudo-off-the-cuff wit runs up the already uneven likeability scoreboard. (It also invites jokes about what Melania Trump’s carpool karaoke might be—just playing a sample of this one?) Premature nostalgia for the first family is no trivial thing: It boosts Hillary Clinton’s bid to, in many peoples’ minds, serve the third Obama term. Accordingly, there’s a brief reminder here of the serious business of the presidency, though tied with a sitcom-y joke about marital politics. Driving by the Oval Office, Michelle says her husband is inside—or at least “he better be, that’s where he said he was.”
The first song they sing along to is Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours,” which has the dual virtues of being by Michelle’s favorite musician and of reminding the public of the heady 2008 campaign where it frequently played as Barack’s walk-off music. Next, Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” gives the first lady a chance to flaunt her hipness with effortlessly on-beat hand twists and a Lemonade joke.
Then comes “This Is for My Girls,” the charity single Michelle commissioned to feature a host of famous women including Kelly Clarkson, Janelle Monáe, and Missy Elliott—who, poof, appears backseat to rap her verse. The song, meant to promote the first lady’s Let Girls Learn initiative, grabbed headlines when it was first released but hasn’t quite stuck in the public consciousness since then. Its appearance here, with the splashy Missy Elliott feature followed by the sublime sight of the wife of the leader of the free world rapping to “Get Ur Freak On,” serves as a major reintroduction. Elliott has so much fun she doesn't want to leave the car.
The banter throughout is lively and watchable, but definitely driven by an agenda. At the end of the clip, back at his desk, Corden recaps all of the things Obama had been promoting: her Snapchat account, Let Girls Learn, “This Is For My Girls” on iTunes. But the main thing being sold is affection for a first lady who can make the act of driving in circles a total delight.