Mike Huckabee had to know this would happen, right? After review copies of his new book, God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy (subtle, no?), went out last week, the media immediately singled out an astonishing attack on pop culture icons Beyoncé and Jay Z. For a candidate who has touted his appeal to black voters (he won 48% of blacks in a gubernatorial election many, many years ago, he will be quick to tell you), this is utterly tone deaf:
“Beyoncé is incredibly talented – gifted, in fact,” Huckabee writes in the book, which hits stores until Jan. 20. “She has an exceptional set of pipes and can actually sing. She is a terrific dancer – without the explicit moves best left for the privacy of her bedroom. Jay Z is a very shrewd businessman, but I wonder: Does it occur to him that he is arguably crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?”
Huckabee chides Mrs. Obama for this, with a knock at her healthy-eating work in the nation’s schools: “With the first lady so concerned about making sure her daughters’ bellies don’t ingest unhealthy food, how can she let their brains ingest obnoxious and toxic mental poison in the form of song lyrics? If lived out, those lyrics would be far more devastating to someone’s health than a cupcake.”
Huckabee gets so many things wrong about Jay Z, Beyoncé, and the First Lady’s parenting decisions that it’s hard to know where to start. I guess, purely as a signaling mechanism, Huckabee can say he’s attracting voters who haven’t heard Beyoncé or R&B or modern pop, but who are certain they don’t like it. As far as everyone else goes, though, Huckabee should take a second look at what he’s criticizing and apologize.
First, Huckabee is falling into the same trap conservative culture critics always seem to: if it’s popular, they don’t like it. This is a form of self-imposed cultural isolation, that may work fine in niche markets (the Iowa caucuses?), but that only hurts candidates in national races. Entirely apart from whether Huckabee believes what he’s saying, he has now held himself out as someone who is never going to get more voters than not to believe that he “cares about people like me,” which is an important component to winning a presidential race.
Second, the suggestion that Jay Z is pimping Beyoncé is abhorrent because it deprives Beyoncé of her own agency. It also gives the impression that Huckabee is such a fuddy-duddy that he actually believes that the woman who co-wrote, um, Independent Women (before Jay Z was on the scene, natch) and, more recently, Run The World (Girls) would let Jay Z exploit her. This is very far from the public impression of Beyoncé or Jay Z, which again suggests that Huckabee does not really know of what he speaks.
Third, the shot at the First Lady reinforces Huckabee’s isolation from mainstream America because it is also far from the public impression of Mrs. Obama, Malia, and Sasha. Both teenagers appear, to the extent we can know, to be happy, well-adjusted young ladies. Malia is also going off to college next year, where she will presumably be able to choose her own music free from parental intervention, in any case.
Perhaps cognizant of his error, today Huckabee responded to questions about this attack, but stuck his foot right back in his mouth. This time he praised the Obamas as “excellent and exemplary parents in many ways,” and boy howdy can you hear that “but” coming:
“That’s the whole point. I don’t understand how on one hand they can be such doting parents and so careful about the intake of everything – how much broccoli they eat and where they go to school and making sure they’re kind of sheltered and shielded from so many things – and yet they don’t see anything that might not be suitable for either a preteen or a teen in some of the lyrical content and choreography of Beyoncé, who has sort of a regular key to the door” of the White House.
Huckabee appears also to be unaware that Beyoncé and Jay Z are regularly held out as icons in the music and black communities for their commitment to marriage and monogamy, which is the subject of many of Beyoncé’s hit songs. Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It) and the more recent Partition and even Drunk in Love are notable because they don’t lack for Beyoncé’s trademark expressions of female empowerment and the sexuality that Huckabee finds so offensive and because the whole point of these songs is that this female empowerment and sexuality reach their peak within the bounds of marriage. This is a message that religious conservatives have been trying to share with teenagers forever, but Huckabee seems to have missed it. One of the Beyoncé concerts that Mrs. Obama took Malia and Sasha to was in Beyoncé’s Mrs. Carter Tour, which was named, naturally, for her husband. That’s another powerful message for a woman who ordinarily goes by only her first name—why does she need to brag about being Mrs. Carter?—and it’s a message that has apparently escaped Huckabee.
At bottom, Huckabee’s targeting of the Obamas, Beyoncé, and Jay Z on this basis is offensive, ignorant, and shallow. Yes, popular music is sexually explicit—it has been for decades. Knocking other parents for encouraging their children to hear it, though, leads to the obvious question: “why is this your business?” Huckabee’s decision to include it in the book, where it is only an aside, is even more confusing. This cannot be the opening salvo for his 2016 race that he intended to have discussed. But how could he have believed this would not be controversial?