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In praise of Barack Obama, music critic
THE Grammy Awards arrive early every new year, showering knickknacks on the musical feats of the previous months. But this ceremony has long been the cheesy domain of record executives, session keyboardists and wearers of piano keys ties. For a more rarefied subset of music fans - the world's B-side conversant - the real action traditionally arrives in December, when critics' year-end lists begin rolling in via various choice magazines and newspapers.
Or at least, that was the case. The current media climate has felled such publications while chasing others - including my twin totems, Spin and The Village Voice - into web-only purgatory. A lovely culture magazine that once employed me as a music writer is now making its way in the world in part as a food court in Downtown Brooklyn. While a number of talented critics continue their yeoman's work, others have fled to more remunerative labour - say, manning a child's lemonade stand. As a fan and critic, it can be difficult to know where to turn.
In recent years, however, one unlikely critic has emerged whose year-end list I find myself coveting: Barack Obama, who every December issues deliriously geeky inventories that catalogue his favourite pop songs, books and films from the year.
(He also issues "summer playlists" that include older songs.) His erudite book choices fall under his professional purview, and his movie picks seem fine enough. But Mr Obama's music lists - unruly, spiked with surprises and a tad quirky - can truly sing.
As it turns out, the former president's ears really do protrude outward, swooping up a generous hodgepodge of genres and styles: hip-hop, rock ("dad" and otherwise), R&B and more. My favourite entry comes in his 2017 list, delivered as a nerdy asterisked addendum: "Bonus," he writes. "Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen (not out yet, but the blues version in his Broadway show is the best!)."
Regardless of any feelings about the recent leader of the free world transitioning into a Nick Hornby protagonist, Mr Obama makes a knockout music critic.
Putting together these year-end lists is no picnic. When staff positions compelled me to assemble them, the task reliably bedeviled me. Year after year, I would cavalierly shun entire musical movements, turn my nose up at anything hinting of trendiness and punish personal favourites if they fell short of masterpieces.
A sentimental streak tripped me up: If a singer and his entire audience seemed on the verge of succumbing to old age, the artist was pretty much guaranteed a spot near the top of my list. In these faults, I was not alone; year-end lists tend to expose any critic's flaws.
Mr Obama avoids such nonsense. While he retains some generational tics (he's sticking by U2), his taste mostly tilts toward fresh voices, an asset that eludes many professional critics: Meet the semi-retired law professor with two kids in college, rapidly greying hair and a willingness to welcome Young Thug into his life. Through Mr Obama, I have been hipped to the Congolese singer Jupiter Bokondji, prodded to give a closer listen to the hirsute country star Chris Stapleton and reminded of the unadulterated joy of Cardi B, J Balvin and Bad Bunny's I Like It.
His prose, always electric, assumes an extra whiff of fire when applied to music. "American history wells up when Aretha sings," Mr Obama wrote to the New Yorker in response to an email query about the artist in 2016. (True to rock critic cliché, he was then working a day job.) "That's why, when she sits down at a piano and sings A Natural Woman, she can move me to tears," he said, adding, "It captures the fullness of the American experience, the view from the bottom as well as the top, the good and the bad, and the possibility of synthesis, reconciliation, transcendence."
Increasingly, I have come to recognise Mr Obama as a fellow critic. Naturally, with such status comes bitterness and nit-picking. If the president digs Kurt Vile's garage rock, might he like Ty Segall? He obviously appreciates smart turns of phrase - so where are his reads on David Berman and Stephin Merritt? And what, exactly, was he thinking in slighting Bettye LaVette's dive into the Bob Dylan songbook? Did he not even hear it? Surely, he could have nothing more pressing on his agenda.
But perhaps this is unfair. United States presidents tend not to be celebrated for their groovy record collections. The current officeholder's favourite Beach Boy is most likely Mike Love, which alone should qualify him for yet another impeachable offence.
If this is a bewildering time to be an American, so, too, is it a disconcerting time to be a fan of rock and pop, among the country's maddest and most characteristic concoctions. Barack Obama, music critic, has become an unlikely balm, his beautifully detailed lists acting as strange flickers of continuity and survival. In his Cardi B fandom, he remains a figure of hope. But if the former president so much as thinks of neglecting the new Raphael Saadiq record, may he be stripped of his Nobel. NYTIMES