Contemporary American politics often bows to the pressures of entertainment. Many of the candidates in this year’s GOP primaries seemed more like the cast of a reality TV show (Toothy Delusional Penthouse? I guess that’s just The Apprentice) than people seriously contending for a spot in the big white dome. Politicians pander to 24-hour news cycle with empty sound bites that appear ripped from the latest “In a world…” disaster movie trailers. Meanwhile, a media starved for content often focuses on inane details that have little to do with practical matters of government (CookieGate: the new arugula?) .
But as President Obama’s Tuesday appearance on Jimmy Fallon shows, the marriage of politics and entertainment can be a two-way street. While entertainment value often dumbs down political conversations, the student loan slow jam harnessed the fun of watching the Barack-ness monster get his groove on in order to get out a serious message.
Accompanied by the dulcet vocals of Fallon and the Roots, Obama broke down the issue at hand. Interest on Stafford student loans will double from 3.4 to 6.8 percent interest in July unless Congress acts to stop it. Insert movie trailer guy voice here, but for real: In a world where $1 trillion worth of U.S. student loan debt could become the next subprime mortgage crisis, where tuition costs climb ever higher as the feasibility of getting a decent job without a college degree continues to shrink, we must take action to make higher education affordable for everyone. As the POTUS himself says, “Now is not the time to make school more expensive for our young people.”
The student loan slow jam was a smooth, smart move. Its conceit is plenty goofy, but the subject matter is serious. The song strikes just the right balance between the two tones by leaving the wisecracks to Fallon and the Roots. Obama plays the straight man, explaining why the vote on Stafford loans matters. His message is delivered a little more rhythmically than usual thanks to a cool beat, but it comes through loud and clear. The sketch is also great PR for Obama: he comes across as both accessible and presidential, the kind of man who can afford to be a little silly because he’s got gravitas to spare.
What’s more, the skit worked. By Wednesday morning, the video had already gone viral; blogs, Facebook and Twitter feeds were littered with links to the slow jam. In response to a surge of public interest, and corresponding public pressure, House Speaker John Boehner scheduled a Friday vote on the extension.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the vote will pass, or that it will pass without big trade-offs. Republicans want to use health care funds to pay for the lost revenue, which will likely be cause for another contentious debate. (Even if, as the song pleads, “The right and left should join on this like Kim and Kanye.”) But the student loan slow jam was a reminder that pop culture can spark effective political conversations without stooping to the lowest common denominator — particularly when star power is wielded by politicians who know how, and when, to use it.