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Obama and Springsteen’s Podcast Is Here to Lull America
February 28, 2021
In “Renegades,” a new Spotify podcast, the rock superstar and the former President dub themselves rebellious outsiders while playing their familiar hits.Photograph by Rob DeMartin / Spotify
eorge W. Bush took up painting. After the maximum number of goes at America’s top gig, during which he invented a calamitous war overseas and a network of imperious government agencies at home, the former President put himself out to pasture. He and Laura Bush settled on an estate in the swanky Preston Hollow neighborhood in north Dallas. He wrote memoirs, made a few dutiful appearances, and returned to his post at Rangers games. While other former Presidents had reinvented themselves in public, Bush dipped through oil pots
, crafting thickly textured portraits of the veterans of his wars (along with dogs, still-lifes, and world leaders, including himself). Some might call this solo exhibitionism, but it was also a public service of its own, sparing everyone the reminder of what was. Keeping out of the public eye, Bush knew, was the best he could do.
Our other recent former President—no, not that one—has taken an altogether different approach. Since leaving office, Barack Obama has vigorously campaigned for fellow-Democrats and released the first volume of his Presidential memoirs. He has also, with the former First Lady Michelle Obama, become the public face of a burgeoning media empire. The Obamas’ company, Higher Ground Productions, has a multiyear deal with Netflix, with a lineup of projects calculated not just to entertain but to “educate, connect and inspire us all,” as Barack told the Times
. (Earlier this month, Netflix shared the trailer for one of them, a kids’ cooking show hosted by Michelle called “Waffles + Mochi.”) Michelle’s best-selling memoir, “Becoming,” from 2018, marked, as Doreen St. Félix wrote at the time
, her reincarnation as a “potentially billion-dollar American brand.” This past July, she launched “The Michelle Obama Podcast,” with a very special first guest: her husband. And now the former potus is podding, too, with the launch, last Monday, of Spotify’s “Renegades,” on which he joins his buddy and co-host, Bruce Springsteen, to chat about “race, fatherhood, marriage, and the state of America.”
The friendship between the two men, who recorded the podcast sitting toe to toe on Springsteen’s estate last year, grew out of a series of encounters during Obama’s Presidency. There was a dinner at the White House, they explain at the beginning of the first episode. They “loosened up” over drinks and talked philosophy; the wives “hit it off.” It was then, Obama says, that he realized how much they had in common, “the same issues . . . the same joys and doubts.” They were drawn together as fellow “outsiders.” That they are both rich and famous goes unmentioned, as does their 2017 yacht trip with Oprah Winfrey and Tom Hanks, off the coast of Tahiti. It’s almost too easy to poke fun at the whole thing. I dare you to name something more archetypally boomer than these two cherished idols—the Boss and the Chief—dubbing themselves rebellious in a Spotify-exclusive podcast, sponsored by Comcast and Dollar Shave Club. (“How do I handle grooming below the belt?” the ad spot asks; mercifully, neither host is made to read it.)
As Willa Paskin wrote in a recent piece for Slate, the Obamas are far from the only ones who are treating content creation as an inevitable extension of public service. Counting off the politicians who have recently announced some audio or visual something or other (Hillary Clinton, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Mike Pence), Paskin notes the trend’s unsettling inversion of Donald Trump’s path to the White House: political capital deployed in the name of entertainment. But it is remarkable just how fully Obama has embraced the soft-power gambit. Take, for instance, his habit of cultural list-making—favorite books, movies, music, TV, “memorable songs from my administration.” Something even fluffier than taste-making is at work. It’s one thing to imagine Obama tucked away with the latest Jonathan Franzen novel; now we are urged to picture him bingeing “The Queen’s Gambit.” Even recommendations from Oprah and Reese Witherspoon have more of an edge.
Is there a discernible political dimension to all of this? In the first two episodes of “Renegades” (six more will be released, weekly), Obama and Springsteen’s main mode is reminiscing, though they treat the activity as a tool of critique. The pair are here to meet the immensity of misbegotten history—America’s “founding myths” and “mythic stories”—with their own well-trodden first-person narratives. (“The political comes from the personal,” Springsteen says, sagely.) As a cultural figure, the Boss sits in a cross-racial sweet spot, as an anointed idol for the coded white working class who pairs his aging denim with bright-blue politics. He is also comfortable playing the good white liberal without self-punishing overtures. His home town of Freehold, New Jersey, was “your typical small, provincial, redneck, racist little American nineteen-fifties town,” he says without squeamishness. After a pair of police officers beat a Black cab driver, in July of 1967, Newark rioted. Freehold followed. “I can’t talk to you right now,” one Black friend told Spingsteen at the time. Unlike so many people who share tales of “reckoning,” Springsteen feels no need to concoct a myth of race-blind childhood innocence.
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In Episode 2, he discusses Clarence Clemons, the late saxophonist of the E Street Band and, for most of the band’s life, its only Black member. “I always felt our audience looked at us and saw the America that they wanted,” Springsteen explains, while “Born to Run” plays in the background. Here his conversation contains notes of discomfort, hesitations and slight sputters, as Obama invites him to speak on behalf of his departed friend. A longtime partnership like theirs doesn’t offer easy racial lessons, but podcasts bend toward clear, communicable ideas. “It was forty-five years of your life you don’t . . . It’s never something that comes again,” Springsteen says, sighing. The strumming guitar returns.
I am dwelling on the chewier moments of “Renegades,” but for the most part it is clean and pleasant and airy, even when the men are discussing politics directly. Obama briefly addresses the question of reparations, with a nod to Ta-Nehisi Coates
, and returns again and again to the memory of John Lewis, the activist who grew into playing by the rules, and whose funeral Obama had just spoken at before recording for “Renegades” began. Discussing the protests of last summer, Obama comes just short of infantilizing the activities of those who were on the ground. “I think there’s a little bit of an element of young people saying, ‘You’ve told us this is who we’re supposed to be.’ ” A guitar strums gently in the background. “And that’s why as long as protests and activism doesn’t veer into violence, my general attitude is—I want and expect young people to push those boundaries.”
Obama’s post-Presidency has been disappointing, in part, because it came with special burdens. In the months after the 2016 election, amid the noxious encroachment of Trumpism, Obama’s conciliatory approach to politics felt flimsier than ever, but there was speculation and, yes, still, hope that his next chapter might provide something to cling to. Those who look back on his Administration now and see only the disappointment of compromise—Obama’s failure, as the writer and sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom has put it, to “know his whites”—perhaps respect themselves too much to be overheard jamming along to the establishment. But I can understand the people who might still take comfort in hearing Obama right up against their eardrums, doing his host schtick, asking, “Did you see the movie ‘Get Out’?,” referring to a memorable line that invokes his name. By Episode 2, I’d almost grown accustomed to the duo’s rumble and rasp as it followed me into the kitchen, providing a lulling soundtrack as I unloaded the dishwasher and measured out tea.
Such is the pleasure of conversations: having them, hearing them being had. The writer Alex Green has a cheeky coinage to refer to the proliferation of the form in today’s culture: the “Having Conversations Industrial Complex
,” which answers the crises of our time with the promise of future dialogue. It is the “listening” and “learning” pledged by corporations and other culpable institutions in the face of political upheaval (one thinks of the corporate slogan from Season Two of “Succession”: “We hear for you”). The conversation “doesn’t need to show tangible results,” Green writes, because “the only role of the conversation is to generate more conversations.”
At the close of the first episode of “Renegades,” Obama revisits one of his Presidential speeches, delivered in Selma, in 2015, on the fiftieth anniversary of the bloody civil-rights protests that occurred there. He begins, as if off the cuff, “Let me tell you about America. We’re Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea. We’re the pioneers and the farmers and the miners and the entrepreneurs and the hucksters.” Then an audio clip from the original speech fades in. You can hear the faint echo of an open space, the noise of the crowd. And then we are back in the studio, and Obama continues quoting his own words. How distant this man sounds from himself, advancing the ideal of American pluralism then and now. The projection of the orator has been replaced by the proximity of the interviewer, and neither from this vantage sounds particularly moving.
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