February 20, 2016
On 16 June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Since then, Trump has received “more nightly [i.e., televisual] news attention than all the Democratic campaigns combined,” and unquestionably more online attention than any other Republican candidate.[i] Trump’s pronouncements—especially his proclamations concerning Muslims and Hispanic immigrants—have generated controversy around the world and have fed “the megaphone of the ratings-hungry cable media that replays his every utterance.”[ii] As of the time of writing—mid-February 2016—the next presidential election is still more than ten months away and the forthcoming Republican Convention more than seven months away. Nevertheless, Trump’s candidacy has already inspired many musical offerings from the citizenry (see the Trail Trax database). These posts, whether “for” or “against” the man also known as “The Donald,” represent responses to his nativist and populist right-wing political positions.
In late 2015, I published an article in which I outlined theoretical and practical approaches to musical-political YouTube content (user-generated campaign music) by people not directly involved with individual presidential candidates and their campaigns.[iii] Instead of repeating what I have already written about these approaches, I want to present a few observations on what I call the “Trump Bump,” based on the current state of the presidential race. Whether these observations will continue to be relevant in the future is anyone’s guess. As Jeff Greenfield has argued, front-runners (like Trump) always seem to stumble—the question is, can they recover?[iv] Trump may eventually win the presidency, or he may drop out of the race before his party has an opportunity to nominate him as its candidate. On the one hand, Trump might be remembered metaphorically as little more than a crack in the pavement on the American political highway, a “Trump Bump.” Perhaps, on the other hand, he will be embraced or shunned as an axle-breaking pothole on our nation’s presidential freeway.
Before I begin, however, one caution: the term “music video” is usually defined in terms of, or at least has long been associated with, the MTV (Music Television) cable network.[v] In certain respects 21st-century Internet posts do not meet the accepted definition of music videos as “short film[s] paid [for] by the music industry to be shown by TV channels.”[vi] YouTube videos, including user-generated campaign music videos, are prepared, preserved, and distributed in digital rather than analog or “filmic” format and are often created and disseminated without hope of financial gain; such material is not intended for commercial television. For these reasons I prefer the term “posts” to “music videos” when discussing the user-generated music associated with the American political process.[vii]
Such editing of video material had already established itself in the 1970s, as the practice of “vidding,” before the advent of MTV and digital technologies.[viii] Originally associated with fan editing of footage from analog media, vidding came to serve as a vehicle of digital mediation for public commentary on favorite films, despised politicians, and everything in between. The fan-editor may take existing footage or create new images, but as we shall see (and hear), the added music is crucial. And, as recently argued by Laura Filardo-Llamas (2015), the combination of a political text, music, and visuals creates the optimal “mental space” for the most effective communication of a political message.
By the end of 2015, Trump had not yet been honored with as many online user-generated musical posts as were Romney and Obama during the 2012 presidential race. However, a few interesting items have already come to light. Last September, for example, Kenny Lee posted a pro-Trump, country-western song entitled “The Trump Card” and illustrated it with little more than a title, performance credits, and, in this case, Trump’s motto: “It’s Time to Make America Great Again.”[ix] The song’s lyrics mention corruption, illegal immigration, CNN, and the Devil in support of its assertion that America has “already gone to hell.” “What’s the country gone to hell coming to?” is Lee’s catch phrase, appearing throughout the song and concluding most of the verses. The overall sound? Nashville. The opening makes clear the stylistic base, even before the voice enters: the sounds of the banjo and slide guitar, the thrum of twangy guitar, and the emphatic chord progression conspire to spell out country, and then, Lee enters with the stylistically unmistakable sounds of “an untrained voice in nasal style.”[x] “The Trump Card” follows a standard verse-chorus path, eschewing images of the candidate until the very end.[xi]
To date, only a few more than 5,000 Internet users have viewed “The Trump Card.” The more popular post, “The Trump Song,” has reached 52,000 hits.[xii] Published by Richland Station and written by Ronnie Mcdowell, James Ducker and Stacy Hogan, “The Trump Song” is saturated with the catchphrase, “I wanna be like the Donald Trump.” The song, a combination of pop-rock vocals and disco rhythmic backup takes its inspiration from “Uptown Funk,” Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s 2015 chart topper. Illustrated with lyrics projected over a background image of the American flag, the song’s words emphasize Trump’s wealth (“my own jet plane”) and fame (“my picture on the cover of Time”), as well as his branding motto, “make American great again.”
Anti-Trump posts have garnered significantly more attention than pro-Trump offerings, such as those mentioned above. The “Barack Obama Rap Song Dissing Donald Trump,” for instance, has been viewed almost 90,000 times.[xiii] In this mashup, an Obama impersonator, who also appeared in several Obama 2012 YouTube posts, ridicules Trump’s hair, racism, and wealth. The song opens with real-life footage of Trump proclaiming Obama “perhaps the worst president in the history of our country”; the impersonator replies with observations such as “I’m convinced that this man is just straight insane,” “You [Trump] gonna make me go buy you a new toupee,” and “You can’t just diss Mexicans and take that back.” Two African-American men, one of them wearing a baseball cap, dance behind the post’s faux-Obama and occasionally upstage him even as we continue to hear the impersonator dismiss Trump’s candidacy.
Even more popular, with almost two million hits to date, is “Trump: A ‘Stitches Parody’” posted by “Rucka Rucka Ali” and introduced with a disclaimer stating that it is not intended for children, and that “All celebrity/brand similarities [contained in it] are coincidental or parodic.”[xiv] This parody of the popular 2015 Shawn Mendes song features a lengthy series of digitally manipulated stills, including images of Trump dressed in Batman and Superman costumes and a shot of the White House bearing the word “Trump” in enormous gold letters on its roof. The singer takes on an almost cartoonish voice in order to reinforce the absurdity of the altered images. The musical background for these images takes the Mendes original and literally reproduces the minimal accompaniment. Faithfully follows Mendes’ melody but with new words, the parody occurs in the voice, the closeness to the musical model enhancing audience pleasure in the world of parody (Kaempfer and Swanson 2004: 66). Occasionally in the song, the real Trump appears in action, speaking at one of the Republican debates. We never get to hear his voice, however. Instead, “I bought at least a couple wives [sic],” “I’ll sell America to myself,” and “I’ll make these Chinese dogs my bitches, I’m the filthy richest” are samples of the lyrics Rucka more or less plausibly inserts into Trump’s virtual mouth. This is one of many videos that imbues Trump with an air of hip hop bravado.
In comparison, the very few support songs to date for Hillary Clinton as Democratic Party candidate have almost entirely eschewed explicit sex and exciting or exotic surroundings. “Chelsea’s Mom,” a take-off on “Stacy’s Mom” (created by Fountains of Wayne and released in 2003), is one example of what many viewers might describe as “Liberal gentleness.”[xv] Written and played by Well-Strung, an all-male string quartet that specializes in instrumental as well as vocal covers of familiar numbers, “Chelsea’s Mom” is far less emphatic than the pro-Trump videos mentioned above, and the post’s lyrics are less explicitly political as well. Well-Strung’s online performance suggests the commodified MTV-style videos of the 1980s and early 1990s, insofar as most of its three and a half minutes are devoted to a real-time performance that takes place in appropriate surroundings: Clinton’s imagined campaign headquarters.
“Chelsea’s Mom” includes “images of Clinton tossing her hair and smiling at the camera” as the lyrics proclaim that “she’s all we want and we’ve waited for so long” and “From sea to shining sea, she’ll fight for liberty.”[xvi] However, even muted suggestions that Clinton is “sexy” may prove inappropriate on behalf of a candidate often associated with health-care and minority issues. Intriguingly, at least one YouTube user believes that Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” represents Clinton more effectively.[xvii] Swift’s quiet beauty and spectacular success might indeed serve, albeit tentatively, as metaphors for Hillary’s hoped-for 2016 victory. Anti-Clinton posts, among them a “Hillary Clinton Email Scandal Song” (which has received fewer than 8,200 hits), are also “gentle” in style, preferring voice and acoustic instruments lightly scored and moderate in tempo.[xviii] In this particular homemade post, a fixed camera is used to document Red Review singing and accompanying himself on the piano in a real or simulated sound studio. The singer parodies Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” setting lyrics that present the known facts about the email scandal and emphasizing the phrase “scandal in the wind” in the chorus section.
Ted Cruz, another Republican contender and apparently the leading candidate in at least one primary race, has also attracted online musical attention.[xix] “Set It on Fire,” the self-proclaimed “first Rap Song of The 2016 Presidential Election,” is one of a comparatively small number of stylistically alternative support songs posted to date.[xx] We Are Watchmen, the group that created “Set It on Fire,” projects a conservative political doctrine similar to Trump’s, but in a hip hop musical style. Here are samples of their lyrics: “Make DC listen, shut off the dead news / The lame stream media feeding us the fed stew / Collectivism everyone’s a victim like the Reds do / And for our next president we’re all in for Ted Cruz.” These and other words, superimposed over a red, white, blue, and black background, constitute almost all of the images employed in “Set It on Fire.” References to religion are missing, even though the We Are Watchmen home page foregrounds their Christian messages to America.[xxi]
What will happen with online campaign music videos in the future is anyone’s guess. Certainly Clinton will inspire better user-generated musical material than “Stand with Hillary,” a country-western ballad produced and written in part by Miguel Orozco, a 2008 Obama supporter and a member of the Stand with Hillary PAC (see the Trax on the Trail essay by Joanna Love for a detailed analysis of this video).[xxii] Accompanied by “various throwback pictures of the Clinton family interspersed with images of blue-collar, working-class rural America,” “Stand with Hillary” has found few supporters.[xxiii] One blogger commented that the “nice thing about [“Stand with Hillary”] is it made us laugh twice. The first time we laughed was when we first heard the song. The second time we laughed was when we thought about how much this cost to produce and how quickly it disappeared.”[xxiv] In fact, the original post garnered fewer than 1,400 hits. But Trump’s supporters may have to do better too.
I would like to thank Virginia Tech, especially the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for support toward the completion of this article.
[i] Brian Skelter and Ken Olshansky, “How Much does Donald Trump Dominate TV News Coverage? This Much.” CNN Money, December 6, 2015.
[ii] Victor Williams, “Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and a Disrupted Electoral College: High Unfavorable Ratings, Multi-Candidate General Election Ballots, and Pursuing the ‘Art of the Deal’ with Free-Agent Electors in December 2016,” Syracuse Law and Civic Engagement Forum 3 (2015).
[v] As Diane Railton and Paul Watson argue, “the music video becomes conflated, and confused, with the context of its distribution.” Railton and Watson, Music Video and the Politics of Representation (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 44.
[vi] Gianna Sibilla, “‘It’s the End of Music Videos As We Know Them (But We Feel Fine): Death and Resurrection of Music Videos in the YouTube Age,’” in Rewind, Play, Fast Forward: The Past, Present, and Future of the Music Video, ed. Henry Keaor and Thorsten Wübbena (Bielefeld: transcript, 2010), 225.
[vii] See Saffle, “User-generated Campaign Music,” concluding remarks. Some posts mimic the visual rhetoric that is commonly deployed in music videos.
[viii] See Katharina Freund, “‘Veni, Vivi, Vids! Audiences, Gender, and Community in Fan Vidding” (PhD diss., University of Wollongong, 2011).
[x] Richard A. Peterson, “The Dialectic of Hard-Core and Soft-Shell Country Music,” in Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky-tonk Bars, ed. Cecelia Tichi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 244.
[xi] Lee, a relative new comer to YouTube, has his own channels that post his songs, which can be accessed for comparison at https://www.youtube.com/user/MrKenny1220 and https://www.youtube.com/user/1220mrkenny. “The Trump Card” appears to be his only foray into political song.
[xv] “WELL-STRUNG Chelsea’s Mom,” uploaded by Well-Strung, June 25, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrEmQk3u88U. Ginger Gibson, “Election 2016: “Chelsea’s Mom” is Hillary Clinton’s Fan Love Song,” International Business Times, June 25, 2015.
[xxi] See the Watchmen’s home page at http://wearewatchmen.org. This page presents an imaginary Newsweek cover that alludes to an actual Newsweek article written by Jon Meacham. The Watchmen title their article “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” whereas Meacham’s original was titled “The End of Christian America.”
[xxiv] “Stand with Hillary Music Video” user comments. See note 23 above.