It’s not too often that Canadian music and the American political world intersect, but when they do the Canadians are certainly beneficiaries. In the olden days (the ‘60s/’70s), caustic commentary was the form it usually took. Gordon Lightfoot’s “Black Day in July,” Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Ohio” (with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young), even The Guess Who’s “American Woman” were all hits – especially if you count Lightfoot’s song being banned in 30 states as a badge of honour. For the Trump Administration, the enduring popularity of the Obamas’ annual Spotify playlists have been a thorn in its side, a playful reminder of the previous president’s popularity and strong connection to younger demographics. Several Canadian artists have found themselves among Barack and Michelle’s favourites over the last five years.
Both Joni Mitchell (“Help Me”) and Leonard Cohen (“Suzanne”) appeared on Barack’s very first playlists (the Summer 2015 Night list) but more contemporary artists have been on his and his wife’s lists in recent years. Drake, of course, has made several appearances, but some lesser-known lights have made the grade as well. This year both Barack and Michelle chose Canadian artists who – including Drake, Shay Lia, Liza (with Carnyval), and Andy Shauf – were both surprised and thrilled to find themselves among the chosen.
The news almost killed Liza. Driving with some friends for a weekend getaway, the singer received a text sharing the scoop. “I was worried about crashing the car because I almost had a panic attack. I’ve loved Michelle Obama since I was about 12,” she says. Her song, “Consistency” with Carnyval, made it onto the former first lady’s Summer 2020 list, as did Shay Lia’s “Good Together.” Andy Shauf’s “Neon Skyline” made it onto Barack’s Summer 2020 list, and previous lists had several written or co-written by SOCAN members, including Drake, Daniel Caesar, Partynextdoor, and T-Minus.
The how and why of being chosen for the lists can only be answered by the Obamas themselves, but Shay Lia thinks the synergy between two popular podcasters helped her make the grade. “It was a combination of many factors,” she theorizes. “My music has been supported many times by The Joe Budden Podcast since last year, and Ms. Obama also happens to have a Spotify podcast, so there was an alignment there. I also think that ‘Good Together’ speaks to some of the values she’s trying to convey in her show – like in the conversation she had with Conan O’Brian, about marriage.”
Through a representative, Andy Shauf shared that he had no idea how President Obama came across his song, but being on the list “Is one of the coolest things to ever happen to me.” While Shauf’s publicist says there was no appreciable bump in sales, both Lia and Liza have noted an uptick, at least in streaming.
As Liza says, “With streaming, there’s always a monetary increase. It’s directly related, so there was that, of course, but it [the honour of being selected] was less about my career and more about myself. Being recognized by someone I looked up to so greatly was very validating.”
“Being recognized by someone I looked up to so greatly was very validating” – Liza
Shay Lia feels much the same way. “As a new artist and as an independent artist,” she says, “I’m totally aware of how hard it is to get attention in the music industry! Having such an incredible opportunity is making me proud. I feel like I’m doing something right, and that I’m going in the right direction… It’s even more flattering when it’s coming from Ms. Obama. I love her, her values and what she represents as a Black woman of excellence! I feel incredibly honoured and thankful!”
Lia also points out that a major collateral benefit of being on the playlist is that the increase in publicity, and the resultant higher profile has a significant impact. “I think it helped strengthen my position as an International act,” she says. “The media response has been amazing. It really helped us prepare the roll out for my new EP, Solaris.” Liza concurs: “There was a lot of people covering the actual Michelle Obama playlist, so I got mentioned in a lot of publications I look up to as well. So that was really cool.”
In the end, all politics and international borders aside, being selected by the Obamas is a win-win situation for all involved. As Liza enthuses, “It was definitely the highlight of this year – and potentially, my life!”