You can tell a lot about America’s commitment to the arts, someone once said, by the fact that our cultural capital and our political capital are not the same city. While places like New York and Los Angeles pump out creative product for a global audience, Washington, DC is largely a repository for older art to be memorialized in the Smithsonian or at the Kennedy Center (plus various major subcultural things like go-go and hardcore punk, but still). The culture of politics and the culture of the arts don’t seem to align much in America, and as a result it’s generally been dangerous for politicians to tie themselves too much to any creative figure. Most famously, John F. Kennedy campaigned with Frank Sinatra during his 1960 election, but canceled a trip to Sinatra’s house at the last minute in 1962 after a picture of Sinatra hugging mobster Sam Giancana surfaced. It’s OK for singers to pretend to be gangsters, but not for presidents to hang out with pretend gangsters.
This received wisdom is being put to the test during the current fracas about Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba. Two Republican Congressmen took issue with the trip because of the embargo the U.S. currently has on travel to the country; Americans are only supposed to be able to go for serious reasons, and Blue Ivy’s parents did not seem very serious while in Havana. Obama is, of course, closely identified with both musicians, and Republicans have tried to make an issue of this before, with little success. This time, though, it seemed to have some traction, enough so that Jay released a song called “Open Letter” basically making fun of people for caring, which seems about right.
This prompted one of the most delicious and perfect summations of the mismatch between art and politics in America: at a White House briefing on Thursday, a reporter from Politico tried to nail White House spokesperson Jay Carney by using a quote from the song. It’s worth reproducing in full, because oh man:
DONOVAN SLACK, POLITICO: I just want to return to Beyonce and Jay-Z. Jay-Z released a rap today, I know the other day you said that Treasury was the one that cleared their trip, he suggested that he got White House permission – that he personally spoke with the President. I’ll just quote: “I turned Havana into Atlanta. Boy from the hood, I got White House Clearance. Obama said chill you gonna get me impeached. You don’t need this expletive anyway, chill with me on the beach.”
JAY CARNEY: I guess nothing rhymes with Treasury, because Treasury offers and gives licenses for travel, as you know, and the White House has nothing to do with it.
SLACK: So are you saying that he did not, the President, did not have a conversation with Jay-Z?
JAY CARNEY: I am absolutely saying that the White House, from the President on down, had nothing to do with anybody’s personal — anybody’s travel to Cuba. That is something that Treasury handles.
SLACK: You can’t rhyme that?
CARNEY: It’s a song, Donovan. The president did not communicate with Jay-Z over this trip.
It seems hardly worth repeating that the way musicians express themselves is much different from how politicians express themselves. Artists can play characters, exaggerate, experiment with language, reference other creative works, and just generally use words expressively rather than literally. Indeed, this is sort of the essence of what you do when you create art with words. As human beings who communicate with other human beings, we recognize that when someone says words in a song they mean something different than when they say it to you in conversation. But it’s convenient to ignore this clear truth sometimes, as the Politico reporter tried to do here, and political opponents have gotten away with it enough times that politicians generally stay the hell away from anyone artistic except for the most squeaky-clean youths or respected elders (Sinatra got respectable enough that he could hang out with Nancy Reagan).
Obama, though, is sticking by Jay-Z, and is probably right that the fallout will be minimal. It would be nice if he did, and it would be especially nice if future presidents could keep the trend going. To see politics and the arts stay so resolutely apart does not imply very positive things about American culture. It seems to validate the idea that we have two separate national identities: one that is expressive and creative and captures who we want to be, and one that is buttoned-up and respectable and captures our true, core values. That’s not really the case, and one of the things a smart politician could do (as Obama has done) would be to use the shared language of pop music or movies or TV to speak to Americans in the way we speak to one another.