As the nation celebrates the inauguration of its 44th president, there will be no shortage of megawatt star power in Washington. Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Denzel Washington, Bruce Springsteen, Jamie Foxx, the Jonas Brothers, John Legend, Bono, Shakira, Sheryl Crow and Stevie Wonder, among many others, will honor the incoming chief executive.
There'll be no question, however, as to who's the most omnipresent pop cultural icon on the banks of the Potomac.
That would be Barack Obama, the self-described "skinny kid with a funny name" who shares the cover of the sold-out current issue of Marvel Comics' "The Amazing Spider-Man" with another web-savvy superhero.
Obama is the president-elect-as-pop-star who's got his own set of Topps trading cards, including one of him in his high school basketball uniform. In a downward-spiraling economy, his mug is a reliable sales tool, adorning T-shirts, sneakers and coffee mugs, as well as endless iterations of street artist Shepard Fairey's HOPE poster, which hangs in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and has been retrofitted for covers of Time and Esquire.
In July, Dean Rader, coauthor of the blog "SemiObama," which focuses on the "new visual culture" surrounding Obama, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that "in the history of this country, no American politician has so thoroughly saturated the vast stretches of the semiotic imagination as Obama."
What that means is that even more so now, Obama is everywhere.
And one reason he is so everywhere is that "there are so many more places to be now," as Rader, who teaches English at the University of San Francisco, put it in an interview last week.
An often-used analogy of the Democratic primary season was that Hillary Clinton's more conventional campaign qualified her as a PC, while Obama's edgier approach made him a Mac.
"But Obama is also an iPod, and an iPhone, and a BlackBerry and a PlayStation," says Rader. "If you think of the gadgets and the options on those gadgets - Twitter, MySpace, Facebook - as the domain of a new generation, he used that domain to reach out to a new group of people and involve them in the political process. There are so many spaces that so many Americans go to now where there haven't been politicians before. And he was the first guy to get there."
"And it's not just the Internet stuff," says James Peterson, a professor at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., and founder of the educational consulting company Hip-Hop Scholars. "It's his relationship to technology. He doesn't want to let go of that BlackBerry, man. That's pop culture. Because our relationship to technology is very different than those who came before us. . . . For people who grew up in the information age, technology is a big part of their lives."
The interactive means by which the candidate built his constituency also will give his supporters an outlet to voice frustrations, should the Obama presidency not live up to expectations. "The bloggers are going to be all over him" if they're disappointed, says Peterson.
Adds Rader, "It will be interesting to see how the images of him change as he has to make difficult decisions. What happens if all the people making tennis shoes with his picture on them get laid off?"
Obama's stature as pop-culture figure also grows out of what comes across as authentic passion for popular culture. In July, he told Rolling Stone - whose commemorative edition he adorns - that he had Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Howlin' Wolf on his iPod, in addition to Wonder, Springsteen and Crow.
He referenced Jay-Z's "Dirt Off My Shoulder" after debating Clinton in Philadelphia in April in "a [brush-off] gesture that endears him to youth culture," says Peterson, who calls Obama the "first hip-hop generation candidate."
Obama has been critical of rap content, but hip-hop has shown him only love, with tributes from mainstream acts like Nas and Ludacris as well as underground MCs like Murs and Mekka Don, whose new Obama-themed EP All Eyes on Me recasts Tupac Shakur's "Dear Mama" as "Dear Obama."
After Obama was elected, his campaign released "50 Things You Don't Know About Barack Obama." The first revealed that he's a fan boy at heart: "He collects Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian comics."
"I just thought, 'This has got to be the coolest thing on Planet Earth for us,'" says Joe Quesada, Marvel's editor. "The commander-in-chief is actually a nerd-in-chief."
Since Marvel comics are set in the real world, incorporating Obama in a Spidey strip made sense. (Too bad the strip doesn't offer a better likeness of him.) Past presidents have appeared beside Peter Parker, as have pop-cult figures like Stephen Colbert. And Spidey does not have political preferences. "If it had been John McCain elected president, and he said he was a Marvel fan, he would have been the one on the cover," says Quesada.
Obama's comfort with the entertainment world, without seeming hopelessly in thrall, has drawn the entertainment world to him.
"He's as at ease with Jay-Z as he would be with the president of France," says actor Blair Underwood, who narrates the hagiographic DVD President Barack Obama: The Man and His Journey, which comes out Tuesday. (Underwood met Obama in the early 1990s, when he was on L.A. Law and his character was the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. "I'm the first black president of the Harvard Law Review," Obama told him, "so you're playing me.")
Underwood believes that the keys to Obama's pop-cultural appeal are "his youth, his intellect, and the fact that he's biracial. He has experience reconciling different cultures. He can see other people's points of view and other people can see themselves in him."
As with the electorate at large, Obama "expanded the pool of politically active people within the entertainment industry," says Ted Johnson, managing editor of Variety, who writes a blog on Variety.com about politics and entertainment. Obama's Harvard friend and CSI:NY actor Hill Harper recruited Underwood. Rapper will.i.am's "Yes We Can" video on the eve of Super Tuesday gave a forum to everyone from Scarlett Johansson to Herbie Hancock.
The sheer scale of entertainment at the inaugural is due to "pent-up demand," says Johnson. A broad range of artists, from soul man Sam Moore to teen star Demi Lovato to Philadelphia native and avant-pop star Santogold, will perform at shindigs that Creative Coalition director Robin Bronk collectively calls "Obamarama."
Johnson calls this presidential fete "the biggest ever," with Bill Clinton's 1993 swearing-in the only real competition. "There has been such anti-Bush sentiment within the industry since about 2002. Everyone's just ready."
The celebratory mood can be summed up in the name of a Beastie Boys-Sheryl Crow concert: "Hey, America Feels Kinda Cool Again."
Obama's celebrity was mocked by McCain, and in opinion polls, voters say celeb endorsements don't influence them. So did the Obama campaign's success at bonding the candidate to a youthful demographic really help him get elected?
"It made a huge difference," NBC News and Wall Street Journal pollster Peter D. Hart told Rolling Stone. "Youth voters . . . turned to Obama in numbers that are just hard to fathom. . . . It was a connection that was as psychological as it was issue-driven.
"This is somebody who spoke their language, who understood the times. . . . Gore carried young voters by two points. Kerry carried them by about nine points. Obama carried them by 34 points."
That's no surprise to pop-culture decoders like Bucknell's Peterson and "SemiObama's" Rader.
"You'll find plenty of pictures of Mariah Carey and Britney Spears and even George Bush on the Web," Rader says. "But they're not icons. Obama is."
Rader brings the overused word back to its religious meaning, where "someone's face carries some transcendent, profound sense of significance. And in a world that's obsessed with pop culture and is obsessed with image, how could that not translate into election results?"
Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.