WASHINGTON – Michelle and Barack Obama sat one table over from J. Lo and Marc Anthony, and all four of them were rocking in their seats as Sheila E. shook the house – well, really the tent.
The latest installment of the White House music series was too big for the East Room, so a high-wattage assortment of Latin musicians sent pulsating, can’t-help-but-bob-along rhythms tumbling out of a giant tent on the mansion’s South Lawn.
As it happens, music of all sorts – rock, jazz, country, classical – has been busting out of the White House all year long.
Presidents have long used the White House as a platform to showcase the best of music and the arts: Chester Arthur staged the first formal East Room concert in the late 1800s.
But the Obamas are demonstrating a commitment to use the White House to promote the arts in a huge way. And they’re not just tapping safe, living legends: Fresh faces like bachata band Aventura and Mexican pop sensation Thalia (who lured Obama on to the dance floor briefly) shared a stage with gray eminence Jose Feliciano at last week’s Fiesta Latina.
The Obamas’ musical push started on Day One, when the Wynton Marsalis Quintet played for a private inaugural celebration party of 100 at the White House.
A month later, the White House brought in Earth, Wind and Fire to entertain visiting governors. And days later, the Obamas hosted an East Room tribute to Stevie Wonder that featured Tony Bennett, Martina McBride and Wonder himself. The president called it “the most accomplished Stevie Wonder cover band in history.”
Since then, the lineup has zigzagged all over the musical spectrum.
The first installment of the Obamas’ ongoing White House music series was a June day devoted to jazz that included daytime workshops for 150 young musicians and an evening concert headlined by Paquito D’Rivera.
That was when Michelle Obama let it be known she wants her daughters, Malia and Sasha, to be “aware of all kinds of music – other than hip-hop.”
In July, self-proclaimed “city boy” Barack Obama presided over an evening of country music that brought together Alison Krauss and Union Station, Brad Paisley and veteran Charley Pride.
Joe Reinstein, the deputy social secretary who coordinates the White House music series, said the Obamas made it clear early on that they wanted to use their new home as a platform for the “best and the brightest that America has to offer.” But he said the first couple has taken a hands-off approach when it comes to picking specific genres and artists.
“We knew that they loved jazz, so that was an easy one to start with,” says Reinstein, whose musical background is limited to playing in the band as a kid and being an appreciative listener. “Now, we’re trying to move through as many genres of music as we can and keep going.”
Next up: Classical music in November. And beyond that, the White House is exploring events to feature opera, dance and perhaps film.
Reinstein says it’s a win-win deal when he calls artists with an invitation to perform at the White House.
“I am so excited to be talking to them, but they’re just as excited to get a call from the White House,” he said. “I’m giddy; they’re giddy.”
Some eager artists don’t even wait for an invitation. They volunteer.
“My inbox is full of a lot of the talent that America has to offer,” says Reinstein.
Past performers say that playing at the White House carries with it a special significance, even if the audience is relatively small.
And because many of the White House musical events are televised – Fiesta Latina, for example, is airing on PBS, Telemundo and V-me – the exposure gets magnified exponentially.
Aventura lead singer Romeo Santos said in an interview that there couldn’t have been a better way to launch the group’s new U.S. tour, adding that he thought his manager was joking when he said the White House had called.
“It’s really powerful,” Santos said. “What it does for Latino music is it gives it a mainstream respect.”
At an afternoon soundcheck for Fiesta Latina on a sunny day on the back lawn of the White House, Los Lobos singer-songwriter David Hidalgo spoke quietly about the impact of the White House spotlight.
“A lot of times minorities get treated like second-class citizens,” he said. “It doesn’t feel that way today.”
Musicologist Elise Kirk, author of a book about the history of music at the White House, wrote that the groups featured there over the years have “tended to be more conservative than innovative, more reflective than prophetic.”
But there have been notable exceptions, and plenty of unexpected moments.
Theodore Roosevelt’s White House showcased American music, chamber music and the modern French and Russian schools “at a time when these styles were barely recognized in this country,” Kirk recounts.
When Carol Feraci performed at the Nixon White House, she shocked the audience by unfurling a blue banner that read “Stop the Killing,” as a protest against the war in Vietnam.
The Kennedy administration, in particular, was known for putting a huge focus on the arts.
“My main concern,” Jacqueline Kennedy told Kirk, “was to present the best in the arts, not necessarily what was popular at the time.”