Tommy Oswalt Weighs in on Pop Culture and the American Presidency

On May 14th Trax Co-editor Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and Research Assistant Sarah Griffin had the pleasure of interviewing recent Vanderbilt University graduate Tommy Oswalt, who developed a TEDx talk and an interactive game exploring campaign playlists. Here Tommy weighs in on music and political engagement, candidate music strategies, and music’s role in sustaining a robust democracy.

Tommy Oswalt

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: So just to begin, I was hoping you could share a little bit about your background with our readers.

Tommy Oswalt: My name is Tommy Oswalt. I am a recent graduate of Vanderbilt University. While at Vanderbilt, I studied psychology and communication studies with a minor in Spanish. I grew up in this small town in Alabama called Muscle Shoals, which I mentioned in my TED Talk. It’s kind of this like small town in the middle of nowhere, Alabama, that suddenly became really popular in the late 60s/early 70s for its music. So, I guess a lot of my background is also tied to growing up in that music-rich environment, as well. I grew up playing instruments.

DGM: And I think I remember from the TEDx Talk—is it your mother or your father who’s also a musician? Am I remembering this right?

Tommy Oswalt TEDx Talk, Vanderbilt University, January 2020

TO: My mom is a musician, and she works in a music store, and my dad is a local politician.

DGM: Wow, so it’s very easy to see how you came to this topic, then! [laughing] Could you tell us a little bit more about how you arrived at this topic? I’m sure when one’s doing a senior project, there’s a lot of things to choose from. What brought you to presidential playlists?

TO: It’s kind of a mix of various things. So I mentioned that I grew up a lot around music and politics, and I would maybe say like around high school, I sort of started getting really into using Spotify to make really random, specific playlists. Like I have a playlist called, “Fiscal Responsibility,” all songs about saving money, things like that.

DGM: [laughing]

TO: Really random stuff like that. And I think that kind of first sparked an interest in the power of music and playlists to create very specific emotions or themes. I further developed this interest in a communications class my sophomore year of college called “Pop Culture and the Presidency.” We each had to choose a special project just to learn a little bit more [about] the intersection between those two topics. So for me, I started looking into campaign playlists and the history of those. So that kind of put me along this path [to] where I am now.

DGM: It’s great that you got to take a course in politics and pop culture. That’s like my dream course. [laughing]. So I’m sure you’re following the 2020 campaign, and Sarah and I obviously are as well. I think you’re familiar with [Trax on the Trail], so you know that one of the things we do is track what sounds are being heard on the trail. So we were curious to ask your opinion. Is there a candidate that sort of sticks out to you for having a really compelling music strategy for their campaign?

TO: From out of all the candidates that have been in and out of the race, I’d say it would be between Elizabeth Warren, I think, on the Democratic party side, and then obviously Donald Trump on the Republican side, but particularly those two playlists. Elizabeth Warren really had this large focus throughout on having the music kind of [articulate] her persona and a lot of the policies that she was putting out. She was kind of a policy nerd and she was fully leaning into that. And I think her music really reflected that as well, and kind of showed who she was and the background [that] she came from. I think she did a really good job of cultivating that. And with Donald Trump, I think it was a little bit similar. He kind of leaned into his presidential persona that he’s cultivated over the past couple of years, where his music kind of had this really nice nostalgic feel to it, but it also was kind of self-congratulatory at times, which I think also speaks to how he is as a president.

DGM: Yeah, I think that’s a really good point, and that’s something that we also talked about in 2016. He’s choosing music of bands like the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith. [They have] these very flamboyant, charismatic frontmen, so it’s almost like this form of self-fashioning where he sort of sees that type of star persona and he is sort of painting himself in that same light. If he’s, you know, former star of The Apprentice, it would only make sense that he would use music to cultivate sort of that larger-than-life persona that we associate with rock stars. Obviously the 80s is like, or 70s and 80s, is kind of the height of that sort of persona in rock music, as well. So I think you’re absolutely right. It was very much an effective strategy and certainly spoke as much to his persona as Warren’s [music] did to her policy.

TO: From what I was able to find from some of the other playlists, I think some were too specific. Like for example, I know the playlist that Bernie had available was very much focused on music about revolution and things like that, which I think does speak to who he is, who he was as a candidate, but then also I think Biden’s, for example, was very broad and almost didn’t feel to be super authentic to who he was, which I found really interesting.

DGM: Yeah, I think you make a really excellent point. I think it’s sort of like this delicate balance, right, in that you know your sound can’t be too generic, but at the same time, you don’t want to make it too specific to, you know, one constituency that you’re trying to target. Candidates need to find that balance between specificity and, you know, universalism, I guess for a lack of a better word, and certainly some of them have done it better than others in a lot of ways, so I think that’s very, very true. So before I spoke with you today, I did spend some time with “2020: Tune In” the game, and before I talk too much about it, I’d love for you to tell us how you developed it, how you programmed it. I will say this, I did play it, and my preferences are most aligned with President Trump [laughing]. I loved it because it’s a creative way to get people thinking about politics and engaging in the process. I think it’s terrific, so I was hoping that you could maybe speak a little bit more about the role that you think music could play on the one hand in engaging marginally attentive voters but on the other, in upholding a strong democracy as well.

TO: Sure. So how I came about the game, I’ll answer that first question first. I kind of developed it with this larger question of “How do we tackle political disengagement?” This is something I know a lot of people have on their minds all the time in politics, like “How do we engage voters?” “How do we get them involved in this political process?” And for me, I’m sort of thinking about the people that I know who aren’t super engaged in politics, who don’t really tune into what’s happening day-to-day. What are some things that they care about? And so music just happened to be one that I also cared a lot about, and I think that just gives me a nice avenue in thinking of ways to engage voters.

2020 Tune-In

So the reason I did a game was because I knew that I could create a platform where everyone could go check out what each candidate is playing on the campaign trail. But I also felt like that would solely be informational. I didn’t think it would necessarily draw people in who don’t normally look for that kind of thing. So I was thinking if it were more like, I almost want to say, like a glorified Buzzfeed quiz, then I thought maybe that can help bring in different people who maybe would just be curious. Like, okay, “Which candidate do I most relate with? Maybe I don’t align with them politically but who [do] I align with musically?” But speaking on music more largely in democracy, I think music has this amazing ability just to unite everyone from all different backgrounds, no matter where you are globally. I feel like, kind of the bottom line, music has this kind of universal aspect to it that connects everyone, and I think tying that to politics is going to help tie people into politics.

DGM: Yeah, all really good points. Could you tell us how you did create the game? And I’m wondering, are you able to run metrics on it to see how many people are [playing] it and what their responses are and so forth?

TO: I wanted to do a game that I would have to learn a little bit of coding in order to make that happen. I reached out to Vanderbilt’s Office of Digital Scholarship and Communications. I basically went a couple mornings a week to learn coding to meet Sarah Swanz a person from that office, to be able to develop the type of game that I had in mind. And so after using, there’s a website called “Twine,” which is a platform that I built the game on. It’s more of a story-telling platform, but it also works for basic coding as well. And so, I created the game on there, and I didn’t really have any plans to save the data after. It was more just where I could find an experiment for people to use for their own purposes. I didn’t really want to gather that data, but that’s something that I’ve thought about maybe doing in the future.

DGM: Well, it was very cool. I really enjoyed it. Sarah, could I have you ask the last two questions for us?

Sarah Griffin: Oh, sure. So you kind of already touched on this—about music being able to connect people—but what kind of advantages do you believe music has over other forms of communication?

TO: I think one thing that sets music apart is that it has many components to it. It has the lyrics, it has the instrumentation, and it even, a lot of music has this cultural context. And so people can generally be moved by lyrics of a song or the quality of the song. The combination of the two in addition to that cultural context, I think, is really powerful. I think a great example of this historically was Bill Clinton’s use of “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac [in 1992].

DGM: Everyone, now. [singing] “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow….” Sorry, go on….

TO: [laughing]

DGM: You can’t not, right? That’s the point you’re making. [laughing]

TO: I think it’s catchy, and it’s a very positive and optimistic song, which I think speaks a lot to the vision that he was trying to create as a candidate. However, I think what’s fascinating about that song in particular is also the cultural context behind Fleetwood Mac as a band and how there’s a lot of interesting questions romantically amongst the group. The whole album of Rumours is about all the band’s different romantic hurdles, and so I think that’s probably one of the biggest advantages to music. That it has all these distinct, narrative components that come together and are able to tell this completely unique story every single time.

SG: I definitely agree. I actually played the game yesterday when I like was looking at it. Apparently I got Elizabeth Warren, which was really interesting because I had no idea that we both liked a lot of the same songs, but it’s kind of like when she first started using “9 to 5” as a walk-on song, which I mean, it’s a bop, so I can’t blame her for that [laughing]. But when you listen to the song, because it is based off of the movie, it was like written for the movie about women in the workplace who are, you know, harassed, and so when you look at her career as a woman in the 70s and 80s it makes so much cultural sense as to why she would use that song. So I think you make a really excellent point. You kind of mentioned this already with the development process of the game, but the last question we have is what direction do you think you might take your future research?

TO: Well, I don’t currently have any concrete directions where I might want to take it since I just graduated college, and I’m about to start the workforce now. However, I think some ways that I could potentially take this as like a side project would be to start to collect data from the game, which would be fascinating to see and maybe publish as well. And then, in addition to that I’ve also started doing a lot more songwriting. I’ve been songwriting for a couple of years now, and I think learning a lot more about how to communicate emotions and ideas is also important to the study of music. So at the moment, that’s currently where I’m at.  

SG: Yeah, that’s really nice. Yeah, kind of like what you mentioned with the game being like a “glorified Buzzfeed,” as soon as I found out it was a game that would only take me like a minute, I was like, “Oh, let’s go!” because it’s so fast, it’s really easy to use, and you know, I’m a really big fan of kind of like corny quizzes like Buzzfeed. You know like “What salad dressing are you?” and things like that, so I thought it was a really cool idea.

DGM: Yeah, I mean it definitely speaks to your generation and to this specific cultural moment in a very profound way. I do have one last question for you that wasn’t on the list. So could you tell us what job you’re now about to start and in what way you think the skills or the knowledge that you acquired from this project might translate into the career path that you’re following at this moment?

TO: So at the moment, I’m actually doing something seemingly unrelated to all of this. I’m going to be working for Citi in New York City as a human resources analyst, and so starting that this summer is going to be really exciting and also a little bit difficult with the current coronavirus situation, but I think this project in particular, both the game and the TED Talk, taught me a lot about taking ownership of a project and really driving it to completion, but also seeing where future research could go in that—where things could still grow. So I think, even as an HR analyst at Citi, there’ll be many times where I am hoping to make processes smoother or to improve bits and pieces of Citi where I can, but I think it’s always important to remember that there is always room to grow. There is always room to learn and develop both personally and professionally.

DGM: Well, we really enjoyed talking to you. This is really fascinating stuff. We were impressed by the sophistication of your ideas, and your presentation, and it’s just phenomenal work on your part. We were all very intrigued here at Trax on the Trail, so I’m just glad you were willing to talk to us. [laughing]

TO: Thank you, thank you.


Amy Wolf, “Playlist Politics: Students Create Ways to Engage Apathetic, Angry Voters,” Vanderbilt University, May 2, 2020.

Tommy Oswalt, “Why Music Matters in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election,” TEDx Talk, January 2, 2020,

“Pop Culture and the Presidency” is taught by Prof. Vanessa Beasley at Vanderbilt University.

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