The politics of iPod playlists.

The thinking behind the news.
May 24 2006 3:44 PM

Playlist Politics

What's on your iPod, Senator?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

A low moment in the annals of Clintonism occurred in 1994 at an MTV forum, when the then-president answered a question about whether he wore boxers or briefs. Less well-remembered is Bill Clinton's actual answer. "Usually briefs," he responded, offering a glimpse of the carefully wrought shadings that came to define his political career. Tighty whiteys will play better with these kids and the NASCAR crowd, he might have been thinking. But I don't want to alienate East Coast preppies … Of course, Clinton missed the real trap of the question, which is that the Leader of the Free World shouldn't talk about his underpants in public.

Jacob  Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

You could see the other Clinton making the same sort of calculations this week, when the New York Post put to Hillary the key culturally identifying question of our era: What's on your iPod? Musical taste is eternally revealing, and thanks to the growing ubiquity of MP3 players, many people now wear this signifying data on their belts. The senator from New York responded that she has the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the white iPod that her husband gave her for a birthday present, along with Motown and classical music. She then rattled off a list of songs: the Beatles "Hey Jude," Aretha Franklin's, "Respect," the Eagles "Take It to the Limit," and U2's "Beautiful Day."

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Hillary Clinton is the least spontaneous of politicians, and this playlist suggests premeditation, if not actual poll-testing. She first indicates that she basically likes everything before coming to roost on classic rock and soul, which any baby boomer must identify with, lest she or he be branded terminally uncool. Hillary avoids, however, anything too racy, druggie, or aggressive, while naming tunes that are empowering and inspirational. On the world-is-divided-into-two-kinds-of-people question "the Beatles or the Stones," she, like her husband, finds a middle path: both. She names no Stones songs and chooses a consensus, universally liked, neither-early-nor-late Beatles tune, "Hey Jude." Hillary also manages a shout-out to racial diversity and feminism via Aretha Franklin, and she strikes a younger, socially conscious chord with U2. "Take It to the Limit," on the other hand, is such a lame, black-hole-of-the-1970s choice that it can't be taken for anything other than an expression of actual taste.

Voters wondering if they like the same music as Hillary but wanting a bit more to go on have at their disposal a wonderful tool called Pandora. This Web site uses music you like to predict other music you might also like, then plays the selections it generates on an individually tailored "radio" station. Unlike Amazon.com, which uses a collaborative filtering model for its recommendations (people who bought Abbey Road also bought Let It Be), Pandora filters on the basis of "genomic" musical analysis. If the songs you like are sung by women in a major key with acoustic guitars, it finds more songs like that.

Hillary, it seems, likes "basic rock song structures," "repetitive melodic phrasing," and "extensive vamping." Pandora predicts she would enjoy various '60s girl groups and '70s soul singers: Gladys Knight and the Pips, Carla Thomas, and the Velvelettes. The service can be a bit uncanny. One of its first recommendations on the Hillary station I created was "Girls Can't Do What the Guys Do," by Betty Wright, a feminist-minded '70s soul artist. This was followed by Barbra Streisand's rendition of David Bowie's "Life on Mars," a deeply unfortunate recording, but one somehow indicative of the present predicament of the Democratic Party.

In point of fact, I doubt that the relentlessly driven Hillary Clinton spends much time listening to music of any kind. Condoleezza Rice, by contrast, who recently revealed her musical Top 10 to Bono when he guest-edited The Independent newspaper in Britain for a day, clearly loves many kinds of music. For Condi, who was trained as a classical pianist, the playlist is an opportunity to show that she is not as uptight as she sometimes seems. In addition to Brahms, Mozart, and Mussorgsky, she reveals that she likes to work out to Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love" and loves "anything by U2." Aretha Franklin's "Respect" gets another vote, along with Kool and the Gang's "Celebration," and Elton John's "Rocket Man," which the secretary of state says reminds her of her first boyfriend. Hmmm. Pandora doesn't do classical, but based on her pop choices, Secretary Rice responds to "disco influences," "a busy horn section," and "groove-based composition." Radio Condi is a lot more fun than Radio Hillary.

Last year, the president also revealed part of the playlist of his iPod, which he listens to while mountain biking. It includes "My Sharona" by the Knack, "Centerfield" by John Fogerty, "Brown-Eyed Girl" by Van Morrison, and music by the honky-tonk singer George Jones. Unlike Hillary and Condi, this all sounds pretty uncalculated. Bush doesn't worry about being politically correct or care what other people think of him. He likes to listen to white guys singing country and rock and doesn't care if Jerry Falwell objects to some of the lyrics. According to Pandora, Bush likes "mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation," "meandering melodic phrasing," "major key tonality" and "a smooth male lead vocalist." It is recommended that he try Van Halen and Jimi Hendrix as well as Billy Ray Cyrus and Conway Twitty. You could wait a long time for Morrissey or Neil Young to surface on his radio station, and Pandora was wise enough not to suggest the Dixie Chicks.

Dick Cheney likes the same kind of country music Bush does. And I'm sorry to say that leaders who liked invading Iraq also considered bombing Iran and North Korea.