Politicians Awkwardly Dropping Pop Culture References

Can a United States senator be cool? As it happens, the current Senate has a number of members in their early 40s, and for at least some of them, that youth is a big part of what defines them. There was a time when as a 40-year-old in the Senate you'd worry about establishing your gravitas, but this group seems to be just as interested, if not more, in playing up their youth. That may be particularly true for the Republicans, since their party not only worries about its appeal to young people but wants to make sure it stays relevant in the future. But this can be tricky, especially since, with a few exceptions, the kind of person who becomes a professional politician probably wasn't the coolest person to begin with. After all, part of being cool is not looking like you're trying to be cool, and politicians usually look like they're trying too hard (because they usually are).

You may be asking, "Are you talking about Marco Rubio?" The answer is yes, but before we get to him, Rebecca Berg has an interesting story in Buzzfeed about Chris Murphy, at 39 America's youngest senator. The story begins with Murphy tweeting about how much he likes will.i.am and Britney Spears' "Scream & Shout," an execrable piece of musical tripe that sounds as if it were written, recorded, and mixed in about 45 minutes. "It's the kind of thing a mom, reaching for common ground, might say to a carpool of middle-school girls," Berg writes. "But even if Murphy isn't that cool, he has little choice but to keep trying." To his credit, Murphy seems to have few illusions about how cool he is. But he does want his constituents to see him as human. "I think, to way too many people, we are game show hosts, we just look like caricatures of ourselves," he says. True enough.

I wouldn't tell him to keep his musical opinions to himself, because hey, if he wants to praise a turd of a tune like "Scream & Shout," he should go right ahead. He seems not to be too worried it'll mark him as insufficiently cool, but if you're a politician and you want to establish your coolness through pop culture references, it has to be done judiciously. You can't do it willy-nilly, and you can't have it seem forced. Barack Obama is good at this; he'll either pick something timeless (singing the opening of "Let's Stay Together") or express an actual opinion on a current cultural controversy (calling Kanye West a "jackass" for interrupting Taylor Swift at the MTV video awards), and he only does it every so often. What does doing it wrong look like? It looks like Marco Rubio. While he was pinch-hitting during Rand Paul's filibuster last week, Rubio shocked everyone by yet again dropping in a couple of hip-hop references, one to Wiz Khalifa and one to Jay-Z, apropos of nothing. Here's the former:

In that question, he used Shakespeare references, he used a reference to the movie Patton, which is one of the great movies. I didn't bring my Shakespeare book, so let me just begin by quoting a modern-day poet. His name is Wiz Khalifa. He has a song called "Work Hard, Play Hard." If you look at the time, it's a time when many of our colleagues expected to be in the home state playing hard, but I'm happy that we're here still working hard on this issue.

My god, could that be any more strained? The song title doesn't add any depth or insight to what he's saying (and it's not like Wiz Khalifa was the first person to ever unite the ideas of working hard and playing hard). It makes no sense beyond, "Let me take this opportunity to remind you that I am young and keep abreast of today's culture." Look, Marco, we get it—you like hip-hop! Bully for you.

Alyssa Rosenberg asks just what Rubio is trying to achieve here. "Is it supposed to signal that he's young? … if I were Rubio's advisors, I'd be concerned that the candidate's fondness for hip-hop and ability to roll with a joke were becoming the core of his brand." I'd answer that yes, it's supposed to signal that he's young. But not to young people, and certainly not to hip-hop fans, who I'm guessing aren't buying it. Many years ago, Michael Kinsley described Al Gore as an old person's idea of what a young person should be like, and I think that's what's going on. Rubio's endless reminders that he listens to hip-hop are aimed at the old white men who make up the Republican establishment. They know they need to modernize their image, and Rubio wants them to look at him and say, "Look how young he is! He even listens to that hippity-hoppity all the kids like these days! It would be great if he ran for president." A secondary audience for that shtick is the political media, who are also easily impressed by this kind of thing. So who knows—if those are his real target audiences, maybe it'll work.

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