In two days Donald Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. But, before that happens I want to look back at what Barack Obama has done for the world of popular culture. From that first fist-bump people knew it was going to be different.
Eight years is a long time in the fast-moving pace of mass media. When Obama won the election, Facebook had only been available to non-college students for two years. The first hashtag on Twitter was sent only a year prior. Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist. I was a year too young to register to vote.
Obama’s campaign needed to tap into fledgling social media, and anything else hip, to reach the young voters. He had street artist Shepard Fairey, known for the Andre the Giant OBEY brand, to create the iconic HOPE poster. Yet Obama didn’t stop embracing the new once he took office and both he and Michelle would eventually take the @POTUS and @FLOTUS handles.
Since Jimmy Fallon has only been the host of “The Tonight Show” for roughly three years, Obama was the first president to slow jam the news with The Roots. He has also talked with Jerry Seinfield on “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee” and sat behind the desk of the “Colbert Report.”
The television appearances weren’t only to have fun but to educate people as well. Obama tried to convince people to signup for healthcare on “Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis,” he encouraged retesting hypotheses on a 2010 episode of “Mythbusters” and he discussed climate change on “Running Wild With Bear Grylls.”
Michelle, too, would make appearances on the small screen by singing with Missy Elliott and James Corden on “The Late Late Show” and going on “Sesame Street” to talk about the importance of being healthy.
Occasionally the stars would come to The White House. In 2013 Beyoncé sang the national anthem at Obama’s second inauguration. Anyone could have done it, but they chose the female artist who has been nominated for the most Grammys and has won the second most.
At the 2015 White House Correspondent’s Dinner Keegan-Michael Key recreated his anger translator sketch from the show “Key and Peele.” As the character Luther, Key would take Obama’s calm phrases and throw some spice into them.
Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura in the original “Star Trek” series, visited with Obama. An actor from a popular show going to the Oval Office isn’t special on it’s own, however, Uhura is a culturally significant character. She was one of the first African-American to have a main role on TV and her kiss with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk was the first interracial one to be broadcasted.
And like embracing social media, Obama knew he would need to dip his toes in the growing world of podcasts. For that, he appeared for an intimate interview on Marc Maron’s “WTF.” The two candidly discussed the Charleston shootings, racism and politics. It brought Maron’s show into the mainstream spotlight and remains one of his top episodes.
Obama didn’t just affect entertainment culture but food culture as well. He brought pour-over coffee to White House along with craft beer. In the most recent season of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” he joined Bourdain in Veitnam for a bowl of pork and noodles. While sitting on plastic chairs in an unassuming restaurant drinking cheap beer, Bourdain and Obama talked about proper toppings for hotdogs and slurping etiquette.
Yet arguably the biggest cultural moment in Obama’s presidency is introducing the musical “Hamilton: An American Musical” to the public. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the writer and lead, went to the White House Poetry Jam in 2009 to perform songs from his other Broadway hit, “In the Heights.” However, Miranda had something else in mind.
He and pianist Alex Lacamoire debuted the first song from “Hamilton” six years before it would enter the zeitgeist as a phenomenon. Miranda performed all parts of the first draft himself since there were no other vocalists. The audience didn’t quite understand what they were witnessing so it was met with a mix of laughter and applause. Yet Miranda and the entire ensemble would return to The White House this past March to perform highlights. It was met with a standing ovation and hugs from Obama himself.
Miranda, a son of an immigrant, rapped about Hamilton, a son of an immigrant, to Obama, a son of an immigrant and the first black president. How American (and awesome) is that?
No matter where you are on the political spectrum, it’s hard to ignore Obama’s impact on culture. I don’t have a crystal ball for the next for years but I can tell you that Obama’s legacy will be difficult to top.
This column was originally published in the January 18, 2017 edition of the Valley Courier.