The time I knew Obama really had arrived to a younger generation is when his bootleg “Change” shirt was getting more requests at our Hip Hop Co-Op Shop than the Kanye West gear, or all the various shirts with prints of guns, which is like 80 percent of them. The young and hip in San Jose have been taking that iconic image of Obama’s face, and silk-screening their own versions of the shirts, adding symbols, and making new color combinations to match their vintage Air Jordans. They have made Obama theirs to keep.
To say that the Obama frenzy is a new political movement is a stretch, but the embrace of the presidential candidate by young people who before made opting out of electoral political discourse—a prerequisite of “cool”—is startling. The shirts say it all. That a political figure has garnered more attention from a detached and distracted generation is one thing, but for that same political figure to have penetrated the consumer culture of today’s youth is the more sacred tribute. Obama may have indeed transcended politics as we know it, and arrived at a more powerful identity: a cultural icon.
Unprecedented numbers of young people voting in the primary may have been an important indicator to the pundits, but it didn’t feel that cataclysmic on the ground. There has always been a slice of the 18-to-25-year-old demographic that could be politically engaged if given a reason. They are in college and perhaps volunteer for the Young Democrats club—something a bit extra to add to their law school applications for the experience. And the truth is that every attempt to include the rest of the younger generation—the ones working entry level jobs, the ones who have an on and off relationship to community college, the ones who are still living at home because they need to help their parents keep their home—has failed, and looked desperate and lame in the process.
The “Vote or Die” effort in 2004 was probably the best example. The premise of this campaign was to take MTV characters like P Diddy and Paris Hilton, have them wear this ultimatum t-shirt, and do media blitzes with them giving this mandate. I saw a lot of those shirts on stars on TV, and can’t recall seeing any in the streets. Although numbers did go up on voting day, a new level of political involvement was not achieved. The attempt for political inclusion lacked an acknowledgement of the decision-making of young people— that they are more sophisticated than to blindly follow whatever any pop star tells them to do. It was light-weight insulting, and spoke more to what low regard America’s political class had for its youth than anything else.
What wasn’t said during these past elections is that younger Americans were consciously opting out of voting and finding different ways to “make change.” It turns out there were other options beyond voting that did not lead to death. Ironically, it was not a lack of understanding of politics, but, rather, a clear understanding of that game and its limitations—a strategy guided by realpolitik. They had seen an election in 2000 where their vote literally did not matter in the end, and saw decisions being made about their lives (like going to war) made without their approval. In turn, a generation’s political energy turned elsewhere. They became community organizers, entrepreneurs, artists and musicians who exercised their voice beyond a ballot box every four years. That is why homemade silkscreened shirts of Obama mean so much. It’s a case of a traditional political character—a presidential candidate— being invited into a do-it-yourself culture. It was never that the younger generation wanted political icons to tell them what to do. They wanted to invent their political icons in their own way.
Really down political thinkers tell me the Obama infatuation is irrelevant and that young people who wear his shirt don’t really even know what policies he stands for. That may be true. But what they do see is some representation of themselves in him—a complicated, perhaps even confused, personal biography. To this generation, to be the children of immigrants, mixed blood, mixed religious backgrounds, even mixed class, makes perfect sense.
However, what may really be attributed to Obama’s appeal to a younger America may be beyond Obama himself, and be more about the opportunity at the time in which he arrived. To be in a historic American moment for today’s younger generation has always been an experience of tragedy—towers falling, cities drowning, and wars starting. That “historic moment” could mean a forward step for the country. The first African-American Democratic nominee for president is a starkly different and welcome change from what they are used to. For those who have equated a country’s fixed attention with disaster, Obama’s slogan, “Change You Can Believe In,” is more than enough. He could have said, “Change That Will Not Be All Bad,” and still illicit hope.
Actually, that might look good on a shirt.