First Family of Pop

The fusses over President Obama's apparent "Star Trek"-"Star Wars" confusion and Michelle Obama's Oscars cameo underscore the couple's tricky relationship with the power of popular culture.

By Jere Hester
|  Monday, Mar 4, 2013  |  Updated 10:12 PM EDT
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The First Lady of American Fashion

AP

President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama wave to guests after their dance at the Inaugural Ball at the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013.

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The First Lady of American Fashion

When Michelle Obama took up residence in the White House four years ago, she became not only the first lady of the United States, but also the first lady of American fashion. Check out her style evolution.
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Jay Pharaoh, channeling President Barack Obama while opening the latest "Saturday Night Live," told the American people the stark truth about what sequestration cuts will mean: "From now on, my wife Michelle will only do four television appearances a week, down from her usual 75."

The crack targeting the TV-friendly first lady's surprising and controversial Oscars cameo came a day after the real president inadvertently earned some laughs with his apparent "Star Trek"-"Star Wars" confusion while expressing sequestration frustration with Republicans. Obama, who has been compared by some to famed Vulcan Mr. Spock, said he can't "do a Jedi mind meld with these folks and convince them to do what's right."
 
The seemingly silly fusses underscore the first couple's tricky relationship with a force that's helped and occasionally hurt them: the power of pop culture.
 
It's a force employed frequently by the Obamas. Barack Obama almost certainly has made more entertainment show appearances than any sitting president, parking himself next to Jay Leno, David Letterman and Jon Stewart, while rising to "slow jam" the news with Jimmy Fallon. The president showed up on "Mythbusters" and visited "The View" with his wife.
 
Even as Obama gets his Gene Roddenberry mixed up with his George Lucas, the early days of his second term have proven less TV-filled. Not so for Michelle Obama, who recently marked the third anniversary of her Let's Move! childhood fitness campaign by letting her hair down, celebrated bangs and all, joining Fallon for a move-busting musical bit called "The Evolution of Mom Dancing."
 
The segment went viral but didn't get anywhere near the instant worldwide exposure of her unexpected – and somewhat puzzling – Academy Awards role, in which she declared "Argo" Best Picture, via live video. The gig handed detractors fuel to reignite claims that Hollywood is too cozy with the Obamas, even if then-First Lady Laura Bush made a taped guest shot during the 2002 Oscars. Political criticism aside, Michelle Obama’s Academy Award performance felt out of place, especially the odd juxtaposition of pairing her with Jack Nicholson.
 
The first lady said last week she wasn’t surprised by the negative chatter – and offered a rare glimpse into her thoughts on how the public judges her, particularly in a snark-happy online age.
 
"Shoot, my bangs set off a national conversation. My shoes can set off a national conversation. That's just sort of where we are. We've got a lot of talking going on," she reportedly said Thursday. "It's like everybody's kitchen-table conversation is now accessible to everybody else, so there's a national conversation about anything."
 
This first couple, perhaps like no other before, recognizes the value in using the entertainment sphere to dominate that conversationn – while campaigning and, in the case of Michelle Obama, while promoting her hallmark cause.
 
There’s certainly much to be gained for the First Couple in presenting themselves as relatable and with a healthy sense of humor. The first lady’s frequent TV forays are an extension of Jacqueline Kennedy’s televised tour of the redecorated White House in 1962, and they reflect a fascination with Washington life that’s recently spawned shows ranging from Netflix's intrigue-filled "House of Cards" to NBC’s first family comedy "1600 Penn."
 
Still, there’s inherent risk for a first family in embracing, participating in and reacting to pop culture – particularly when any public utterance or act is potential fodder for critics, satirists and even rappers. Kanye West, smarting from twice being called a "jackass" by the president, profanely slammed Obama during a recent London concert appearance.
 
As we await the First Family of Pop’s next move, check out the SNL spoof and Michelle Obama's number with Fallon, which includes a dance called the "reel it in":

 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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