On December 21, TNT will broadcast the performance of Korean rap sensation PSY (“Gangnam Style”) before President Obama and his family at the White House. While PSY is a superstar because of his multi-million download YouTube video, he is also a controversial figure, who sang a virulently anti-American rap song in 2004. At the time, PSY sang the words “Kill those f—-ing Yankees who have been torturing Iraqi captives” and “Kill their daughters, mothers, daughters-in-law and fathers.”
PSY-gate is far from the first artistic controversy to take place during the Obama administration. In fact, as CBS’s Lindsey Boerma characterized the situation, “Another rapper, another musician controversy for Obama.” These earlier controversies include the inclusion of the rapper Common, who had rapped, “tell the law, my Uzi weighs a ton,” at a Michelle Obama-hosted White House poetry event. As offensive as Common’s anti-police comments were, PSY’s hateful anti-Americanism is far worse. The sentiments he expressed are so offensive that they can unite nearly all Americans in disagreement, a rare event in these hyper-partisan times. The Atlantic’s David Graham, contrasting PSY to Common, admits that “The critics seem to have a more serious bone to pick this time around.”
This period before the PSY performance airs presents Obama with an opportunity to exercise some moral leadership on behalf of the nation he leads. It is unsurprising that he has not yet taken this stand, given his embrace of all things pop culture in his first term and especially in his reelection campaign. Nonetheless, there are some behaviors that should not be embraced, even from the entertainment community, and anti-Americanism is at the top of the list.
Other presidents have been willing to use the White House to take moral stands with respect to the entertainment industry. In the 1950s, after Walter Winchell falsely accused Lucille Ball of being a communist, President Dwight Eisenhower chose to defend the television star. He and wife Mamie invited Lucy and her husband Desi Arnaz to the White House for a celebration of the president’s birthday. To make their support unequivocal, the president and first lady gave their guests seats of honor next to them. This invitation was a welcome imprimatur from the White House at a trying time for the well-known comedienne. Arnaz showed his gratitude to the president by exclaiming to the crowd “God bless America!” Winchell would end up retracting the communist accusation against Ball — live and on the air — in September of 1953.
In the 1990s, both George H. W. Bush and presidential challenger and future president Bill Clinton took stands against incitements to racial violence in popular culture. In the summer of 1992, Bush—whose personal tastes ran to Broadway musicals and country music — spoke out against violence in rap music, calling music that glorified violence against the police “sick.” Even though he never mentioned specifics, everyone knew that Bush was referring to Ice-T and his song “Cop Killer.” In taking a stand “against those who use films or records or television or video games to glorify killing law enforcement officers,” Bush stood for a cause that had appeal across the aisle.
Earlier that same summer, Clinton spoke for American ideals and against hate by condemning marginal rap artist and activist Sister Souljah. Against the backdrop of the Los Angeles riots, Souljah said, “I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” This comment, made by an obscure artist whom no one had heard of before the interview, gave Clinton an opportunity to criticize racially incendiary speech, revealing himself to be a different kind of Democrat. Clinton told the crowd at a Rainbow Coalition conference organized by Jesse Jackson that Souljah’s “comments before and after Los Angeles were filled with a kind of hatred that you do not honor.” This attack showed up Jackson, the host and an important Democratic power broker at the time, and angered both Jackson and Souljah, but the point was made.
While these approaches differ in many ways, they are united in the willingness of elected officials to take a strong stance on moral language that incites or threatens the lives and rights of other Americans. So far, they stand in contrast to Obama’s silence in the face of PSY’s hateful history. But all is not lost. The president still can comment on the situation, and condemn PSY’s anti-Americanism, before the Christmas special airs on December 21. He can also remind people of the positive aspects of America, our ideals of freedom and democracy, in contrast to PSY’s negative portrayal. For the sake of national pride and unity, let’s hope he takes that stand.