What separates Michelle Obama’s ‘Go to College’ rap from Ben Carson’s ‘Vote’? Irony.
If there’s one thing we hope remains in the culture long after the Obamas leave the White House in 2017, it’s Michelle Obama’s sense of humor.
The first lady’s willingness and comfort with engaging in all things zeitgeisty was once again on display Thursday morning, thanks to a rap collaboration she did for College Humor with “Saturday Night Live” star Jay Pharaoh.
It’s a ditty encouraging our nation’s youths to go to college if they’re unsure about their next steps — right as we’re in the midst of college application season. While Shelley-O’s innocuous enough message is lovely, the thing that makes this video sing, as well as make it ripe for social media remixing, already taking place, is Obama’s self-awareness and her sense of irony. (As of this typing, #FlotusBars is trending on Twitter.)
That is to say, she’s not afraid to acknowledge the cornball move and fully lean into it anyway, whether it be in the name of higher education or encouraging us to eat well and drink more water alongside the Miami Heat.
That’s an important distinction. Last month, presidential candidate Ben Carson drew reams of head-shaking when his campaign aired this radio ad that was very earnestly aimed at attracting African Americans to his campaign with the rappity rap and the hippity hop. The targeted spot aired in Miami; Atlanta; Houston; Detroit; Memphis; Birmingham, Ala.; Jackson, Miss.; and Little Rock, Ark.
Unfortunately, for Carson, it was not received with the same level of enthusiasm as Obama’s forays into the rap world. Suffice it to say, a good portion of the people Carson was targeting were laughing at the candidate and not with him, if they were laughing at all. Sites like Very Smart Brothas posted about what they identified as obvious and cynical pandering.
Wrote Panama Jackson:
I see what you’re trying to do Ben Carson. But let’s be honest here for a second, okay, Uncle Ben? This ad isn’t going to make anybody vote for you. In fact, it sounds like exactly what would happen if a white person was trying to make a rap ad. Maybe it’s a class thing. Maybe Ben is so out of touch with the very community he’s seeking that he doesn’t even know that he looks worse than Jeb Bush doing this. Sure, Jeb would do this and it would be racist. But at least he could feign ignorance.
Both sides of the political aisle have shown a willingness to engage with hip-hop as superficial acknowledgements of the younger and browner parts of the electorate. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) isn’t shy about identifying himself as a Nicki Minaj fan, and even Hillary Clinton has given Silento’s Whip/Nae Nae her best shot. At the very least, pandering signals that a particular group is being seen, though it also arguably signals that it’s not being taken seriously, especially on the occasions when said pandering is obviously transparent.
And this is why goofy Michelle Obama rap videos always make the Internet go bonkers: She’s not pandering, but she is making fun of herself. And she’s savvy enough to know the difference.