(Editor’s note: Happy Presidents’ Day! We’ll be back tomorrow, but, for now, enjoy this reposting of last year’s Presidents’ Day mixtape!)
Mixtape: If Presidents Liked Indie Rock (Podcast #273)
Despite their various political differences, if there’s one thing that we know all U.S. presidents have shared, it’s that they have horrible taste in music. Seriously, most candidates pick cheesy, corny songs for their campaigns, and it’s not like anything gets better after they get elected. Even President Obama, who ran on a platform of hope and change, recently released a Spotify playlist with a lot of duds (Ricky Martin? Two songs by Sugarland? James Taylor? A 15-year-old No Doubt deep cut?) crowding out a handful of decent songs.
It’s not that we ought to expect our political leaders to have good taste in music; in fact, that should probably be one of the things that least matter in selecting them. Still, in honor of Presidents’ Day, we decided to make a mixtape that answers the following never-before-asked questions: what contemporary indie music might various presidents from history have liked, if it existed when they were around? What music might be appropriate given their accomplishments and temperaments? In this thoroughly pointless flight of fancy, we’ve collected ten songs for ten presidents. Do your patriotic duty and enjoy this mix.
About the presidents and bands:
So maybe Abraham Lincoln wouldn’t want to revisit the Civil War themes that feature prominently in Titus Andronicus‘ (“A More Perfect Union”) 2010 album, The Monitor, especially when the record kicks off with the Lincoln quote, “From whence shall we expect the approach of danger?” But Lincoln, with his mix of hardscrabble frontier upbringing and powerful oratorical skills, might have identified with the energetic New Jersey punk band’s driving emotive anthems.
Like President Obama, Bill Clinton‘s officially-sanctioned musical tastes are bland Boomer stuff, but, if anything, Clinton tipped his hand to other musical interests when he busted out the saxophone on Arsenio so many years ago. Instead of Simon & Garfunkel, I’d think the R&B-influenced garage rock of the Reigning Sound (“Everything I Do Is Wrong”) — whose Greg Cartwright once sang, “I went walking the other day/ Under the bridge to Arkansas” — would make Clinton want to break out the sax again.
The thing that was so maddening about Barack Obama‘s Spotify playlist was that it just seemed like pandering. Surely such an brainy guy wouldn’t be listening to pop drivel! It may just be projecting, but it’s difficult for me to believe that during all his years in Chicago — as a professor no less! — Obama didn’t embrace any of the music emerging from Thrill Jockey, Touch & Go, and Drag City. I suspect, and history will no doubt someday validate, that, behind closed doors, our current Commander in Chief is still spinning The Sea and Cake (“Up on the North Shore”) and Tortoise records during his rare moments of downtime.
Despite his intellect and achievements, Thomas Jefferson‘s “fear of public speaking made him ‘one of the most secluded and publicly invisible Presidents in American history.’” Jefferson might have found a kindred spirit in Destroyer‘s Dan Bejar (“Chinatown”), who was once described as “one of the best, and most reluctant, lyricists in rock.” Bejar’s aversion to the spotlight stands in contrast to the soaring achievements in his dense, rich songwriting.
Woodrow Wilson‘s legacy of international involvement — from the decision to lead the US into World War I to the proposal to create the League of Nations — suggests that he might be inclined to something from beyond America’s borders. How about The Radio Dept. (“Heaven’s on Fire”), a Swedish band drawing inspiration from a wide range of global indie-pop reference points? Radio-related trivia: a broadcast of a speech by Wilson about Armistice Day is apparently “the earliest surviving sound recording of a regular radio broadcast.”
Even though he was the first, George Washington remains one of our most popular presidents, a man who emphasized unity at the dawning of the new nation. While relaxing at Mount Vernon, perhaps Washington might have enjoyed the musical stylings of Justin Vernon, who, funny enough, used to lead a band called Mount Vernon. Speaking of unifiers, with Bon Iver (“Holocene”), Vernon’s folk rock recently united the country’s Grammy voters (if not the Grammy audience). How appropriate is it then that Vernon’s band is traveling to George, Washington to headline the Sasquatch Festival later this year?
Teddy Roosevelt was known as a fiery outdoorsmen who, as president, significantly advanced the cause of conservation by creating numerous national forests in California and elsewhere. It’s not inconceivable that, were he alive today, he’d be enamored of the more nature-inspired wing of modern Northern California psych rock, including Sleepy Sun (“Marina” [Live]), who mix the heavy and the pastoral quite well. Speak softly and carry a big stick, indeed.
Calvin Coolidge‘s strange legacy includes being “the most negative and remote of Presidents,” a man with a well-known “frugality with words.” Given his distaste for conversation, “Silent Cal” might have preferred the lyric-free, meditative work of Barn Owl (“Turiya”), a band that says quite a lot through droning instrumental jams.
It might not be fair to assume that Richard Nixon would dig creepy, paranoid music just because he was a creepy, paranoid guy, but it seems appropriate that the man might be listening to gothic electronica while brooding over his enemies. Zola Jesus (“Vessel”) brings the gloom, only with a melancholic underpinning that seems appropriate for Tricky Dick’s more tragic side.
During his one term, James K. Polk aggressively expanded the US, acquiring over one million square miles of land, including California, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, as well as Texas and the Territory of Oregon. If we’re talking aggressive, expansive sounds, it’s difficult to ignore Thee Oh Sees (“Contraption/Soul Desert”). I’m sure President Polk would’ve dug the SF garage-psych titans, whose latest album ranks among the group’s most experimental and ambitious.