January 12, 2017
In a previous contribution to Trax on the Trail, I noted that Donald Trump had received “more nightly [i.e. televisual] news attention than all of the Democratic campaigns combined,” and “unquestionably more attention online than any other Republican candidate.”[i] As the official Republican presidential candidate, Trump continued to garner extensive audiovisual coverage, but his candidacy also generated more substantial satirical moving-image posts than his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Trump’s controversial political positions and personality continue to inspire user-generated musical posts to YouTube and other sites, even after the election. The present essay discusses some pre-convention posts in terms both of satire as a mode of social criticism, and of remixing methods, strategies, and outcomes.
In 2005, the first YouTube post notified the world that “home-made” movies could be shot, edited, and distributed online by anyone equipped with a digital camera, appropriate computer software, and an Internet connection.[ii] What once, in theory, could only have been screened in movie theaters or broadcast on network television, can now be “narrowcast,” not only on cable TV channels, but also online. Like other Internet posts, user-generated music videos have helped facilitate “a remarkable acceleration toward de-privileging expert knowledge, decentralizing culture production, and unhooking cultural units of information from their origins.”[iii] In these ways as well as others, user-generated campaign posts have contributed to the transformation of the production of cultural knowledge as theorized by Annette Markham.[iv]
Satire resides at the heart of the videos created about Trump by detractors. Satire, including political satire, has existed since antiquity. Today, the Internet is flooded with satirical posts, and many of them—perhaps most of them—are “political” in some sense or another. Internet satire “has the potential to generate a chain of related satirical work[s], which can create a satire movement and subject power to sustained shame and ridicule.”[v] Thus, politically motivated YouTube posts not only contribute to the production of cultural knowledge, but also fashion solidarity among groups of Internet users, communities of politically engaged citizens who will consume these satirical creations and may generate more in turn.
The “deeply individualized and self-centered value systems” of the creators, distributors, and audiences participate in remix culture, with almost every form of expression understood in terms of “remixes, fusions, collages, or mash-ups.”[vi] Furthermore, what began as a comparatively “chaste treatment” of remixed materials is now often employed far more aggressively—especially in politically motivated circumstances—to evoke laughter, revulsion, or dismay.[vii] Satire, of course, is often employed as a weapon, yet it cannot always be separated from valid arguments and opinion based on re-presented and remixed source materials.
Once a technical term with a precise and narrow meaning based on multi-track sound transfers that made each song component available for individual manipulation, remixing now refers “to any reworking of already existing cultural work[s].”[viii] Today it all but defines contemporary cultural production methods, and almost every user-generated, politically motivated Internet post employs remix technology to one extent or another. Moreover, homemade posts cannot always be distinguished, either aurally or visually, from professional productions—of course, not every user-generated post is technologically sophisticated. A parody song for Jeb Bush from August 2015, for example, consists of little more than crudely drawn images of the candidates and an off-key scalar song verse, presumably rendered by the artist/composer.[ix] No remixing here.
One feature of the more aggressive type of politically motivated Internet satire is the re-presentation of a candidate’s own words, gestures, and circumstances in some contradictory context. Remixes of these kinds deliberately blur boundaries between individuals, situations, agencies, and performativity. We are invited to ask ourselves, as viewers and listeners: in what context(s), under whose control, and for what particular purpose(s)?[x]
*Video no longer available
Consider, among other examples, the “Ultimate Donald Trump Remix” created by the Australian group Bombs Away and posted in December 2015.[xi] What may initially seem a semi-random miscellany of audiovisual sources is actually a carefully edited conflation of music, spoken words, and images to satirize the candidate. Hip hop and EDM sounds permeate the video. This is not to imply that the “Ultimate Donald Trump Remix” is satiric because it is a remix. Trump is initially presented in “real” life, speaking from a podium. Later we encounter “authentic” images of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. However, his opponents are presented as if they too are watching Trump dance on a CNN broadcast, his head “photoshopped” onto the body of an anonymous dancer who sings, “I love China, China all the time.”[xii] Even Barack Obama makes a politically ambiguous, “photoshopped” appearance, one that suggests that the current president endorses The Donald. The combination of Trump, Obama, Clinton, and Sanders, interspersed with the phrase “I love doing the raping” and images of rave-party dancers, simultaneously seems to confirm a lunatic brand of political enthusiasm and utter political desperation. The individual who posted this video sums it up this way: “Trump aims to hit it big with his first two songs. He realizes that not only must he get his ratings in the polls higher [sic] but he must use social media to ensure a solid win in the 2016 elections in the United States of America. Trump harnasses [sic] all his power and shows off all he’s got in this crazy music video.”[xiii] Even though the precise interpretation of the video’s individual cameos and antics may remain unclear, this product of remix technology and aesthetics clearly has satire as its basis.
Even stranger and more ambiguous Trump remixes can be found online. “The Ultimate Donald Trump Remix!!!,” a brief, sonically violent post, interleaves fragmentary excerpts from Hollywood films as well as the AMC television series Breaking Bad with images of Trump; all of this is presented as a send-up of Trump’s “loud” self-posturing.[xiv] Repeated images of the Abadu Gaben meme, associated with video gaming, suggests playfulness, and the creator’s seemingly random combination of existing materials suggests bricolage.[xv] What, however, is the meaning of the satire? Is Trump merely “playing” at politics, as the Abadu Gaben meme seems to suggest? Is Trump’s message, and perhaps his cultural significance, as confusing as the contents of the post? To answer this, I would say that the fragmented narrative necessarily creates an impression of satire, since ambiguity and fragmentation are important components to this mode of creative engagement.[xvi]
“Classic Trump: A Little Trump Music” is a more straightforward, less complicated musical-political remix.[xvii] It (re-)presents comments Trump made about himself at political rallies, accompanied by passages from the opening movement of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525. Among the comments included are: “It’s the summer of Trump,” “Trump’s really smart,” “If Trump doesn’t make it, won’t that be a terrible thing?” and “Don’t you dare say that about Donald Trump!” At the very beginning and end of the post, the single word “Trump” as enunciated by him is timed to fit the rhythm of Mozart’s phrases. This remix seems less concerned with complex visual editing techniques than the “Ultimate Trump” video described above, and its use of music is more carefully timed. Juxtaposing Trump with dancers at a rave party before cutting to a “photoshopped” Obama moonwalking through a White House corridor suggests what? Perhaps that everyone’s Dancing to the Donald? Pitting Trump’s self-aggrandizing narcissism against Mozart’s elegant phrases almost certainly suggests past gentility replaced by arrogant vulgarity. In the former post, we learn that Trump probably does not “love China, love China all the time.” The soundtrack protests too much. In the latter, we learn that Trump unquestionably loves himself, a point satirized by the use of his own voice to underline his vulgarity.
Bridging these two videos in both contents and style is a somewhat more straightforward video entitled “The Greatest.”[xviii] Posted to YouTube by the Gregory Brothers, the song incorporates some of the same televisual source material found at the beginning of the “Ultimate Trump” post mentioned above, together with footage of Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and other unsuccessful contenders for the Republican nomination. “The Greatest” remix also presents newly “songified” Trump lyrics.[xix] Viewers learn, for example, that Mexicans are “rapists,” and during the song’s bridge, Trump asks voters to “get [their] asses in gear” and let him win. Again, a “photoshopped” Trump dances and sings, this time accompanied by an entire “photoshopped” dance troupe. The music is “easy-listening” pop with the Brothers’ trademark auto-tuning and a hint of Latin rhythm: less tasteful than Mozart, more superficially soothing than the “Ultimate Trump” video’s fragments of melody.
Not every Trump remix features “photoshopped” dancers or clips of Trump timed to intersect with particular musical moments, and not every one of them qualifies as satire. Steve Berke’s “Trump – He’s in your Head (Parody),” for example, is not what many people would call a “user-generated” post, both suggesting the work of a professional and taking on the genre of a parody.[xx] Berke’s video features five actors (including Berke himself) who play the part of Trump.[xxi] A self-proclaimed “anti-politician,” Berke ran for mayor of Miami in 2011 and 2013 but lost both times.[xxii] Like “Work of Art,” Berke’s video is “songified.” It is also a “parody” rather than a “satire” to the extent that it (re-)presents and transforms “Lump,” a song created and originally performed by The Presidents of the United States of America.[xxiii] Berke explains that “Lump” possesses so captivating a tune that he simply couldn’t shake it.[xxiv] Outfitting an existing melody with new lyrics, especially lyrics about a controversial political candidate, suggests criticism, but this is not the case here. Berke takes the Presidents’ tune—and Trump—seriously and supports both of them: “He’s changed the public discourse in this election … he’s motivated young people in this primary to pay attention a year in advance… I support his candidacy because he is the anti-politician and because he is forcing people to look at issues that weren’t previously being looked at.” That’s not an endorsement, Berke insists, but he was “absolutely” considering voting for Trump, though it was too early to tell.[xxv] The appearance of Roger Stone, Trump’s former political adviser, who appears at the end of “In Your Head,” confirms Berke’s as well as Stone’s commitment to The Donald, or at least their willingness to consider him a viable presidential hopeful and potential national leader.
We could multiply the examples of Trump-directed satirical remixes – the mildly satirical “Black Trump” with its remixed rap lyrics was particularly popular in the days before the national convention in Cleveland.[xxvi] However, the examples discussed above effectively illustrate the various options for remix technology used to satirize Trump before his official nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. Of course, the number of satirical and parodic remix posts dramatically increased after his official nomination, but they arose under different conditions and thus would be subjects for a distinct investigation. Nevertheless, we hazard a guess that all of this fan- (and media-) generated attention may have helped Trump to the White House – after all, the proverb may be true that “there is no such thing as bad publicity.”[xxvii]
[i] From June 16, 2015 (the day he announced his candidacy) to the publication of the February 20, 2016 Trax article. Brian Skelter and Ken Olshansky, “How Much Does Donald Trump Dominate TV News Coverage? This Much.” CNN Money, December 6, 2015, http://money.cnn.com/2015/12/06/media/donald-trump-nightly-news-coverage. Quoted in Michael Saffle, “The Trump Bump: 2015 User-generated Music Videos about Donald Trump and Several of His Political Opponents,” Trax on the Trail, February 20, 2016, https://www.traxonthetrail.com/article/trump-bump-2016-user-generated-campaign-music-about-donald-trump-and-his-political-opponents. See also “User-generated Campaign Music and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election,” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (Summer 2015), http://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/mp/9460447.0009.204?view=text;rgn=main.
[iii] Saffle, “User-generated Campaign Music.”
[iv] Annette N. Markham, “Remix Cultures, Remix Methods: Reframing Qualitative Inquiry for Social Media Contexts,” in Global Dimensions of Qualitative Inquiry, ed. Norman Denzin and Michael Giardina (New York: Routledge, 2013), http://www.markham.internetinquiry.org/writing/markhamremixmethodchapterreprint.pdf.
[vii] See Ulf Poschardt, DJ Culture, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: Quartet, 1998), 123. Poschardt compares early disco remixes of disc jockey Tom Moulton with the remixes of 1990s DJs, who added techno sounds and altered house-inspired rhythm-section backups to rap releases.
[x] Paraphrased from Markham, “Remix Cultures.”
[xi] “Ultimate Donald Trump Remix – Official music Video ft Donald Trump,” December 17, 2015, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LPeTHucokaA/. This video should not be confused with other “ultimate” Trump videos available online.
[xii] References to China played a major role in Trump parodies throughout the election cycle.
[xiii] See “Ultimate Donald Trump Remix.”
[xvi] Zoja Pavlovskis-Petit, “Irony and Satire,” in A Companion to Satire: Ancient and Modern, ed. Ruben Quintero (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 200), 517.
[xix] The Gregory Brothers are known for “Songify the News” and “Autotune the News.”
[xxii] Lizette Alvarez, “Comedian is Serious (Mostly) as Candidate,” New York Times, October 29, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/30/us/politics/miami-beach-comedians-serious-mostly-candidacy.html.
[xxiii] For a definition of “parody” in terms of “imitation … not always at the expense of the parodied text,” see Linda Hutcheon, “The Pragmatic Range of Parody,” in A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms (New York: Methuen, 1985), 3. Musicologists often use “parody” to describe “a technique of composition, primarily associated with the 16th century, involving the use of pre-existing material” [Michael Tilmouth and Richard Sherr, “Parody (1),” Grove Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/subscriber/article/grove/music/20937?q=parody&search=quick&pos=1&_start=1#firsthit]. Only VT users can access this resource.
[xxiv] Jeremy Diamond, “Comedian, Roger Stone Pair up for Donald Trump Music Video,” CNN, September 1, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/01/politics/donald-trump-music-video-parody-steve-berke/.
[xxvi] “Black Trump” (a.k.a. Roy Wood), “They Love Me” Music Video – Black Trump (ft. Jordan Keppler),” video clip, Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/thedailyshow/videos/10154121207271800.
[xxvii] This phrase found widespread circulation in the early 20th century. Its origins are unclear, although P.T. Barnum said something similar in the mid-19th century. See Charles C. Doyle et al., The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 253.