Singing a Song to the 81%: An Interview with Daniel Deitrich

On July 17, 2020, Trax on the Trail Research Assistant Haley Strassburger and Founder Dana Gorzelany-Mostak interviewed Daniel Deitrich, the South Bend Indiana singer-songwriter who created quite a stir with his praise anthem “Hymn for the 81%.” Read on to learn more about the song that Religion News Service called “a cocktail of prophetic fire and Christ-like grace.”

Haley Strassburger: So, to begin, can you tell us a little bit more about your background and what led you to songwriting?

Daniel Deitrich: I grew up in Southwest Michigan, [and attended an] Evangelical church called the Church of God. I started playing music in my youth group, and in high school I started a band and started writing for that. It really wasn’t until more recently that I started writing church music. So until the last few years, it was just sad love songs, break-up songs, and songs about being a dad. Then more recently, leading worship for church and just couldn’t find songs that said what I hoped our community could sing together. So, I started writing songs that we could sing as a community. [Check out Daniel’s music on Spotify.]

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: Can you discuss the genesis of “Hymn for the 81%” a little bit? And, maybe talk a bit about your compositional process?

Daniel Deitrich, “Hymn for the 81%”

DD: Sure. It probably started the night after the election, so we had just started meeting as a church. We planted the church in 2016, and we weren’t even meeting on Sundays yet, we were just doing these experimental gatherings on Wednesday nights. I just remember so many of my friends, especially friends of color, LGBTQ friends, just really distraught about this election. And I was bummed as well, but you know, it just took on a whole new meaning. It goes beyond politics. […] People really don’t feel safe now that this guy has been elected. And so, those emotions and everything, were stirring inside me. The enthusiasm with which people of faith voted for Trump was really disconcerting to me. And then the continued support of Trump was even more disturbing. So I could almost understand the “oh, I’ll vote for this guy because I always vote Republican, Supreme Court, et cetera.” But then, to see people continue to support and defend really abhorrent actions by this administration. It made me feel like “I’ve gotta say something about this.” So those ideas and emotions were rolling around, and then it was probably towards the end of last year that [I came up with] one of those key phrases from the song, “why don’t you live the words that you put in my mouth.” Like, “you told me to love these people, you told me to defend those that can’t defend themselves.” All the people, and all the voices that instilled those values in me, [were] just rejecting those values. So that’s where that key phrase from the chorus came from, and it built on that. Obviously the “kids in cages” was just a really stark example of, surely, no one can defend this behavior, [but] sure enough people were defending him. So it was just that. It was heavy on my heart to start writing that. And then, just the structure of the song—I wanted it to be kind of a throwback. The chord structure is really simple, the melody is simple, very hymn-like in that. At the time, I was calling it “Song for the 81%”, and I sent an early draft, just like an iPhone recording, to my friend Ben Grace (He’s a singer-songwriter from Australia who now lives in San Diego.) And he was like, “oh, dude, you need to call this ‘Hymn for the 81%’, it sounds like a hymn.” And so that’s where the title came from, and then I just embraced that hymn vibe as far as structure goes.

GM: I think it works in function as well. I mean, hymns often have some sort of moral message. They speak to the believer in a meaningful way, and have didactic purpose, if you will.. Plus, [the song] is about restoring the idea of sacredness, right. “Song” could certainly be a religious song, but when I think “song” in the context of campaigning, I think of like a pop song. Where obviously your song has a very different tone, [and] a very different purpose to it. So I think “hymn” actually works really well on a lot of different levels for really conveying or encapsulating the song’s message in the title, maybe more than “song” would. 

DD: Yeah.

GM: It’s interesting that someone made that suggestion.

HS: So, in researching more about your background, I learned that you’re one of the founders of the South Bend City Church in Indiana, which has been described as a very open and welcoming environment for devout believers and doubters in the community. How have your experiences working at that church, and working with those communities, influenced your composition of this song?

DD: Yeah, I think, um, again, going back to trying to find songs that we could sing as a community; there’s just not a ton out there. There is, but it’s just a lot of small, independent churches and worship leaders putting it out. It’s just hard to find, unfortunately. So I’d be looking for songs that we could sing together, but I couldn’t find stuff that wasn’t about an angry God that needed blood to be satisfied. [laughs] And so I started writing for that community specifically. A big part of what we did as a community was, uh, we tried to be a home for people who had felt left out by the church at large. Either they had been effectively excommunicated because they came out as LGBTQ, or they just, for any number of reasons, didn’t feel safe or welcome in the church. And so, those friends—those friendships that I developed at South Bend City Church—those folks were definitely on my mind as I was writing “Hymn for the 81%,” as well as other songs that I wrote for that community. 

GM: So, sort of a follow-up on that. In reading these articles in the popular press, you’d think that, in a lot of ways, in this day and age, well at least now, because of COVID, people aren’t attending church in person. But even before then, there certainly was this trend of people not being as active in faith communities as they were a generation ago, or two generations ago. Do you see music as a way of bringing people back into the fold in some kind of way? 

DD: Hmm, I like to think that music and art are important in that. I’d hate to view them as tools to reel people in, but definitely there are people who have left the church that are still very faithful to Jesus and would like to be able to express that. So, I think music and art are really integral in that. So, giving people language that they can sing with their whole selves and not feel like they have to, you know, give up part of their brain or part of themselves to sing these words, I think that’s really important. 

GM: So, when we last checked on the 15th of this month [July 2020], your song was at over 664,000 hits. Obviously this song has been heard by a lot of people, and there’s certainly been conversations about it that we read from publications with religious leanings [and] mainstream media as well. [See these articles in Religious News ServiceHuff Post, and Fox News.] What role do you think musicians could play in political campaigns? I mean, do you see yourself as an activist in some way? 

DD: Well, I think that throughout American history, music has [had] a huge role in every sort of “push forward”—from Civil Rights to Vietnam protest songs and any number of things. There’s always been a soundtrack to those movements. And so, I think the role of the artist to speak truth to the moment and speak truth to power is really important. I don’t know if it’s for everyone, but I felt compelled as an artist to use what little voice I have to say something. It was pretty wild to see it connect like it did, and take off like it did, which I’m very grateful for. I guess I am an activist. [laughs] I hesitate to use that, just because I don’t feel qualified—a little bit of imposter syndrome, when you think about it, but I’m passionate about justice and using any little platform or energy I have to work towards that. Actually, I’m part of a group now called Vote Common Good. It’s a faith-based organization, and before COVID shut everything down, we were doing these sort of rallies—part rally, part worship service. Just a really inspiring group of people, trying to get people of faith and good conscience to vote for the common good. In this case, that means not voting for Donald Trump. We say, “we don’t need you to become Democrats, but we need you to not vote for this Republican this one time.” 

HS: I think what you’re saying—about this idea of imposter syndrome and not knowing if you should self-identify as an activist—that really speaks to the fact that the role of activism has really changed a lot. What an activist looks like has really changed, especially with everything that’s been going on publicly and socially in the past few months. We’re seeing that activism is a lot more digital, a lot more social, and a lot more ingrained in communities than we’ve seen in the past. So I think that speaks to what you’re saying; we never really, or at least commonly, described musicians as activists, unless they’re doing large groups or events. But I think what you’re saying really does speak to the fact that being an activist isn’t always just those large events or gestures. It’s really just the little things, the small steps that build up, that kind of thing.

DD: Yeah, I think that’s really true.

GM: I think that’s a really good point, Haley. If you think about it, we run a website. We’re not, quote-unquote, a “political website,” although we certainly study intersections between music and politics. We don’t get behind candidates or endorse candidates, but in a sense, we are activists, because our mission is to encourage people to listen more critically. I think if we talk about ideal citizenship—the ideal citizen is someone who, in a democracy, is going to be critical and “speak truth to power” whatever form it may take. As I see it, our website is providing the set of tools that allows people to develop that kind of critical ear towards sound. Haley, we’re kind of activists too!

HS: So, sort of jumping off the mindset of looking at music with a more critical eye, reading some of the blurbs or articles written about you and your music, some critics have described your song and its lyrics as “divisive.” How do you feel about that descriptor, especially since your song really focuses on unity and community?

DD: I think that the prophets were divisive, and Jesus was divisive—not because they wanted to start a fight or make people mad, but because when you call out something that’s wrong, people are going to get mad. And so, I wasn’t terribly concerned in writing [the song], or how people would react. Read the words of the prophets, and read the words of Jesus. They never shied away from those harsh truths. So this song is largely in the vein of that tradition, of speaking truth to power. Ultimately, though, it’s a call to come back to something, a call to come back to the way of Jesus, for those of us that call ourselves Christians. I think it can be uncomfortable to have those conversations. I know when I’m called out for whatever, the instinct is to put up defensive walls and bristle at any sort of attacks, but I hope that people can examine those feelings as well. Like, “why does this make me so angry or uncomfortable?” And maybe push past that and find some truth in it as well.

GM: So, what have been the most rewarding effects? I would think that all the attention your song is getting must be pretty exciting. What have the rewards been of this experience?

DD: I think one of the most rewarding things has just been the messages and comments from people, like “I left the church 20 years ago and never thought I’d come back, but this song gives me hope for Christianity.” Or messages saying, “I thought I was the only one who thought this.” “I thought I was crazy because I looked at all the Christians and couldn’t believe that they were voting for this person, and saying these things.” So, I think the most gratifying, was hearing people say “thank you for putting words to what I was feeling.” As a songwriter, that’s definitely a high compliment, to hear “you said something I was feeling but couldn’t put into words myself.” 

GM: Definitely, it must be rewarding.

HS: And I think that speaks to the idea that your song focuses of this idea of the community of the “81%,” and through your song you’re sort of able to establish this new community of those who thought that, by not being in that 81%, they were somehow isolated from their faith.

DD: Yeah, it also really speaks to the 19%. [laughs] It was pretty crazy. At first, it was a lot of really positive feedback, and you probably saw that Shane Claiborne did an interview with me, and that took off. And it hit Huffington Post, and Yahoo, and different places. It was overwhelmingly positive feedback, and then it hit Fox News one day. All of a sudden, it turned really negative, and that’s when death threats started, and threats against the church—we had arson threats. All the real crazy stuff. It was a really interesting experience, just from that perspective too. 

GM: How has your church community responded to the attention? Obviously, arson threats—that’s a whole other thing. But in terms of the success of the song, the visibility that it’s given you and your work. 

DD: Yeah, overwhelmingly positive, but it definitely ruffled some feathers as well. 

GM: We really appreciate you taking the opportunity to talk to us, and we obviously are very moved by your work, and we see the ripple effect of your work, and we think it’s pretty incredible.

HS: So, I think the last thing is—looking forward to the 2020 election. The 81% that you’ve sung about, where do you think they’re standing right now? What do you think their mindset is? 

DD: I’m cautiously optimistic. [laughs] Just anecdotally, it seems like the friends and folks I knew that voted for Trump in 2016 are less vocal now in support of his actions and policies. I think that after four years of this, no one’s real thrilled that he’s the president. I think even Republicans are like “man, can we get anybody else?”

GM: Well, there’s Kanye. (laughs)

DD: [laughs] We’ve got options, right? But I think, even if Trump is voted out, there’s still just a deep sickness within evangelicalism that let this happen in the first place, and so I think that that is something that will require some deep soul-searching by white evangelicals across the board. Like, “how did we get here, that these are the things we’ll tolerate in order to, quote-unquote, ‘have religious freedom.’” Even if the 81% shrinks to 60% like we see in some polls, I think there’s still some hard conversations to be had around what is “white evangelicalism.”

GM: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or anything else you’d like to tell us, that you’d want to include? Or anything that we didn’t ask you that you think we really should’ve asked you? 

DD: [laughs] Um, I don’t know. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. I do have a new song coming out. It’s already available right now on our BandCamp. It’s kind of a pre-release. It’s like a loud lament for the state we’re in currently. It’s sort of a call-back to the psalmists that would cry out “where are you God.” It’s a loud blues rock song. [You can hear Daniel’s new song here.]

GM: We’ll be keeping an eye out for it—what’s it called?

DD: “Where Are You.” And I can send you a link to that as well.

GM: We’re happy to bring some more visibility to your work; I mean, obviously it’s already there, but anything we can do to put forward the really great work you’re doing, we would love to do that. 

DD: I really appreciate that. Thanks so much.

HS: Yes, we’ve appreciated getting to talk to you. It’s been great.

DD: Thanks for reaching out!

Daniel Deitrich, Haley Strassburger, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak

Musicians like Daniel Deitrich and others who rely on the gig economy have been hit hard by COVID. Please consider lending Daniel your support.

Musicians. Organizers. Activists. An interview with Andrew Scotchie and Andrew Fletcher, Organizers of the Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern! Fundraiser, Asheville, NC

On May 19, 2020 Trax founder Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and Trax Research Assistant Sarah Griffin had the pleasure of chatting with the two Asheville-based musicians who organized Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern!, a concert to support the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. The February 26th event, held at the Asheville Music Hall, featured The Paper Crowns, Mike Martinez, Eleanor Underhill & Friends, Lyric, and Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats. What motivates musicians such as Andrew Scotchie and Andrew Fletcher to momentarily set aside their instruments and coordinate a large-scale event? What unique qualities do artists bring to the table when lending their support to a presidential candidate? Read on to find out!

Fig. 1 Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern! Publicity Poster

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: It’s great to have you both here. So, we’re just curious about how you two met and why you decided to organize a Bernie Sanders fundraiser?

Andrew Scotchie: When did we meet, Fletcher? Was that like probably about ten years ago? 

Andrew Fletcher: Probably about ten years ago, man. You were a whippersnapper.

AS: Yeah, I was a wee boy. Your hair looks good, by the way.

AF: Oh, thank you. Thank you. Low maintenance. 

AS: Yeah, I think I met Andrew during a show he did with Firecracker Jazz Band. I was actually in a band with his bandmate’s son, Jerome Widenhouse. I think Andrew [Fletcher] and I saw each other at venues and different events. You did a lot of busking, you know. You took your piano around the streets of downtown Asheville and still do that!

AF: Yeah, and that was like seven, eight years ago. The beginning of my career.

AS: Yeah. So, I think it was just really the nature of Asheville, maybe. Not a lot of degrees of separation.

DGM: Awesome. So, what made you guys decide to organize the event?

AF: Well, for me it was sort of identifying that crossroads of need, network, and personal ability/capability. I remember seeing a Facebook post that Scotchie—I’m going to use last names to make this clear [laughing]. 

DGM: That’s fine [laughing].

AF: I remember seeing a Facebook post that Scotchie had made after going to a smaller event [Barnstorm], a music event that he had said was packed. There was like 100 people or something. A few days later, I ran into a friend of mine [Justin Nemon] who was the third leg of the event, and he had just returned from being a paid staffer in Iowa on the Sanders campaign. We caught up, and then he said, “Okay, so I’m the new Sanders campaign liaison here. I’m a coordinator in Asheville. I need things.” And I was like, “Okay, what do you need? I’ve got a pretty good network here. I’ll see what I can do. No problem.” He said he needed office space and a couple other things, and volunteers and maybe an event around volunteers. I said, “[What about] a musicians for Bernie kind of thing? You know, we could put together a rally. I think we could do that.” And then I remembered Scotchie’s post from the other day and I was like, “Well, I wouldn’t want to do this alone. Let me hit [Scotchie] up and then I’ll see where it goes.” And nine days after that, we had the event [laughing].

DGM: That’s what blows my mind about this whole thing—that you guys really put it together in that amount of time.

AF: Yeah, it blew my mind too. I mean, once it started, it was like, “Woah, hold on, because everyone is saying ‘yes.’”

AS: [We] didn’t have enough room for everybody [all musicians interested in participating]. I mean, there were some times where we were talking about musicians that we wanted, and we were like, “Oh yeah, let’s get that person up here,” but we had to really be careful because so much of the city wanted to be part of it. 

I just wanted to add to what Andrew was saying about the event that I attended. It was called Barnstorm, and it was something that they sent Bernie followers if you had the app or if your phone or email address was in their system. They sent something out like 24 hours in advance, or like not even. The place was packed, so that was a big factor being like, “Well, if we can promote [an event] for at least a couple of days, then it can be more successful than that.” I remember Andrew [Fletcher] messaged me. I thought that he was talking about doing an event like weeks from then [laughing], and then he was like, “No, like next week.” Asheville is an amazing place where you have a lot of resources and people that want to work hard for something that’s going to benefit the community and help get a good message out there. 

DGM: Wow. Were you two the ones that booked the venue, set up somebody to manage sound and lighting and all that? In other words, were you orchestrating all of the behind-the-scenes stuff as well as recruiting the musicians?

AS: So, I reached out to the Asheville Music Hall. I think we [considered] a couple different venues. I can’t [remember] which ones, but we felt the Music Hall would be a really good location because its downtown. I had just done a show at the Asheville Music Hall for my birthday, so I already [had] good rapport with them. We reached out to them and they were really quick to get right back to us. We talked about the date and made sure that we could do it, and a few things had to be shuffled around a little bit as far as the time, but as far as the sound, lights, everything, that all came [from] the venue. All we had to do was get the musicians there. And we had to make a schedule, of course. Andrew was really good about keeping the schedule, and how many minutes did we fall behind? Like a couple minutes, maybe?

Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern! Concert

Sarah Griffin: What ways do you feel music has influenced the 2020 presidential campaign? 

AS: I personally think it’s united and divided in some ways, meaning the people who are really adamant about equality—candidates that are really adamant about equality and moral ethics—they get bands like that. I hate to say it, but like any band I’ve seen support Trump has kind of been not so progressive, I would say [laughing].

DGM: That was tactful [laughing]. 

AS: I don’t want to name any bands. I don’t know if that’s necessarily cool or anything like that [laughing], but I think it says a lot about the candidate. There was a band that played the Bernie rally in New York about a month before we did the [Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern! event] in Asheville, and it was a band called Sunflower Bean. It brought out young fans and everything, and I think it kind of reflects their followers and their ethics, because what band you decide to have as your soundtrack and what message you’re putting out, has got to be in line with who you are as a candidate. 

DGM: Yeah, you’re right about that. 

AF: Yeah, campaign music is a really tricky thing. I mean, for the campaigns and for the musicians. I think I’m old enough to remember the Dixie Chicks [now The Chicks] and what happened to them when they got political, and I feel like that sort of created an unspoken rule that if you’re in a band, you don’t get political. And I think that we’re coming out of that now. Asheville is a really progressive town, and a lot of the musicians are kind of progressive as well. I had only one person say, “I haven’t decided who I’m going to vote for in the primary, so I don’t feel comfortable doing it [performing at the event].” But that person ended up coming to the show and then saying to me afterwards something like, “I really should have done it. This was awesome. I’m sorry I didn’t say yes.” Every other person I talked to said, “Absolutely, I’m voting for Bernie anyway.” You know, they were already there, so no proselytizing was required. I was not trying to convince people to represent something that they don’t feel represents them. 

I did detect some hesitation with people sometimes. They would take that moment and think about it: “Do I want to be associated with a political candidate? Not all of my fans associate with this political candidate.” Do you know Abby the Spoon Lady?

DGM: I don’t think so. Have you Sarah?

SG: I don’t think so, no.

AF: She’s a good friend of mine, and we both were active in the busking scene here and busking activists. Her music has a really broad appeal, and her supporters are like 50/50 [regarding party leaning], just like the rest of the country, and she made a calculated risk. She didn’t perform with us. I would have had her on stage, but she was on tour at the time. She eventually decided to just like lay it out there, be like, “This is who I am, and that’s that.” Even now on Twitter, she’s been talking about wearing masks and things like that which are very unpopular with part of her fanbase, but she’s made the choice to do that, and I think that’s interesting. For a lot of the bands that we had [perform at the event] and a lot of the artists here, I think that consideration wasn’t as great because their fanbases tend to be [in] Asheville and progressive. 

DGM: I’m glad you brought up The Chicks, and I think you make a really sound point about the risks that come along with political engagement for artists. If you’re an artist who has a “50/50” fanbase, there is perhaps more of a risk than if you’re already a group that has an almost exclusively progressive following. Most female country artists before The Chicks weren’t outwardly political—well, I mean, some of them were political, but they didn’t stand on a stage in London and say, “I’m embarrassed that [then president] George Bush is from the state of Texas” [laughing]. 

AS: I’ve got something to add really quick.

DGM: Sure. 

AS: The way that we advertised the event and the way that the musicians supported this candidate, it was all about the way they communicated and the way they advocated. No one was saying, “This is right. This person’s wrong. This person did that.” No one was pointing fingers and spreading hatred or casting shade on the other party. It was, “Let’s meet up and have a conversation. Let’s talk about the things that affect everybody.” This was indeed the first political event that my band [Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats] has ever supported, and Bernie is the first candidate that we’ve ever supported. We have super conservative fans, and I actually saw a few of them, whenever this was getting publicized, hit the little laugh button on Facebook. They were like laughing at us for doing something like that, and I remember telling myself that I had to be okay with that because I knew that it was right, and I knew that so many more people would feel unified from this. [Musicians] have to kind of walk that line of talking about the issues but not telling people what to do or what to believe. Talk about the issues that you feel are wrong or you know, talk about the things you feel are right, but don’t tell other people how to feel because no one really responds well to that, especially nowadays. 

SG: What role do you feel musicians should play in the scheme of politics on the local, state, and national levels?

AF: Well, sort of, I go back to what Nina Simone said about how “It’s the duty of an artist,” I’m going to butcher this quote, but “It’s the duty of an artist to reflect the times.”[i]

I think that music is so often entertainment that we forget that we’re artists. I think that there is a duty to reflect the times as best as you can with your music. [As for] me personally, I’m not really much of a recording artist. I’m much more solidly in the entertainment part of music, so I don’t get a lot of opportunities to make political music. I did recently [release] an album. A bandmate wrote a song about objectification, locally triggered but much more expansive than what it was talking about, and I was really pleased to do that. 

AS: If we don’t reflect the times in music, our future generations, you know, our grandkids and their grandkids, aren’t going to have adequate documentation, and that’s really what good music is, a snapshot of the times. Before we started the interview, I mentioned a song that the band [Andrew Scotchie & the River Rats] is going to put out called “Fear Mongers,” and it features “The Great Dictator Speech” by Charlie Chaplin in The Dictator (1940), which come to find out, was actually improvised. I didn’t know that until today, which I thought was amazing. Anyway, it’s a really phenomenal speech, and I wouldn’t necessarily classify it as political, but we ended up using it because it’s still relevant [to the times], meaning we know that in like two years, whenever people hear this speech, or they still hear the music and the message of the music that they’re going to look back and think about the issues. And you know, hopefully we’re all learning as we go. 

DGM: So, I think you [Andrew Scotchie] answered part of this. Was “Feel the Beat! Feel the Bern!” your first foray into advocacy through your music?

AS: Actually, no. We’ve done two jams against racism at the AB-Tech Community College. The early college hit us up and asked us to do that. [It] was super fun and refreshing to see such a young generation putting on the event like that. And then we’ve also done things for mental health, and that really hits home for me. I have two brothers with mental illnesses. We also have a lot of homelessness in this town, and I’ve done events for something called “Harmonies for Homes,” which took place last October, and that was to get assistance to people that were living on the streets. But yeah, it was definitely the first time that I got behind a candidate. 

SG: With Blue Ridge Public Radio, Andrew [Fletcher], you describe your experiences busking in Asheville. How did your experiences of street performing push or ignite your interest in politics? [In 2017, Andrew Fletcher ran for City Council in Asheville.]

AF: So, I kind of knew some of those folks, but I wasn’t really active. It was sort of leaked from the police department that they were looking at some new rules for the busking community, and I was at that time a very active member of the busking community. And you know, buskers are such a diverse group of people. They’re all kind of go-it-alone types. They’re already like bucking the system and not having a boss. You know, they’re going out and making money on their own terms in public. They are a difficult-to-organize group, but man, having a common enemy really will really bring people together. I was like, “Woah, these people need a spokesperson, and I know how to do that.” So, I sort of assumed that role, because whatever is broken inside me makes me good at speaking in public. And nobody else was like <in a mighty voice> “I want to go to city hall and speak.” 

But I did that. And so that got me a lot of attention, and ultimately our efforts were successful. And I just got the thirst for it, and that got me the attention of some folks, and they started sort of like handing me volunteer roles which I was too dumb to say no to, and I just kept on doing all this volunteer stuff, going in and out of city hall and working as a citizen volunteer on multiple boards and commissions and local causes. 

DGM: Awesome. One last thing we wanted to ask you. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. It’s clear that both of you have strong backgrounds in political engagement and advocacy for various causes and issues. How do you see these roles that you’re playing changing over the next year in the wake of the pandemic? 

AS: Well, first and foremost, we can’t have gatherings like we had at [the Bernie] event. I think the live streams are going to be the way for a while, whether it just be artists trying to support themselves and their music or talking about an issue. I think a lot of good songs are going to be written if they haven’t already been written right now. Not only just talking about social distancing, but how people are reacting to it, how politics are involved, money, greed. I mean, they’re all topics that are going to probably birth a lot of amazing songs for generations to enjoy. We’re going to have music come out of this for a long time, whether it is political or not. 

AF: Personally, I look at my music career. Last year I played about 200 gigs. This year, from now until the end of the year, I have two on the books—one or both of which probably will be canceled because of the nature of the type of gigs they are. [I’m] not a songwriter and not a singer. I’m a sideman. That’s what I do. If you’ve ever ignored a piano player in a hotel lobby, that might have been me. 

I don’t think my career is going to come back in any way that I can recognize or that it is going to sustain me, so I reapplied to UNC-Asheville. I’m going back to school. I will continue to play gigs, and I will continue to be an advocate. Wherever the two can intersect, I will be happy to be there, but I am completely unprepared to prognosticate on what that is going to be like because it’s just completely up in the air right now. This is going to sound pessimistic, but I would not be surprised if you met me in twenty years and I said, “Oh yeah, I used to be a professional musician before.” Numbers released recently by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that 54% of people in my industry are unemployed. 

AS: Musicians [are] having a really hard time right now. 

DGM: So true. I wrote my dissertation on music in American presidential campaigns, and I really didn’t do much ethnographic research, but one of the case studies that I did was on Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign. I don’t know if you guys knew this, but he used a lot of Southern rock artists like Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wet Willie, and the Allman Brothers. Until I did the project, it was sort of a footnote in history that, you know, that these [fundraising] concerts did take place. Carter’s campaign really was on a shoestring budget; truly in every sense of the word a “grassroots” campaign. Without this series of concerts, it would have been very difficult for the campaign to remain afloat financially. There was the money raised, but the concerts also gave Carter [a relative unknown on the national stage] much needed exposure. I actually was able to find the names of some of the people who organized the concerts. They were Tom Beard, Alexander Cooley, and Peter Conlon. (Phil Walden Jr., whose father was the founder of Capricorn Records and a Carter supporter, also joined the meeting.) Back in 1976 they were all just 20-somethings working on a campaign, but now, I mean, Conlon is a very well-known music producer. Beard and Cooley are businessmen in Atlanta. They got their start doing something similar to what you guys are doing right now, and throughout their lives they’ve been, you know, super involved in different music ventures and advocacy and fundraising in various ways. I’m glad that we got a chance to connect with you both because now we can follow you, and hopefully I’ll still be around thirty years from now [laughing] to see where you go because this is all really exciting stuff. I appreciate how insightful you both are about the industry and your roles within it. It’s very fascinating to us, and I think the people that read this are really going to be fascinated as well, not just by the nuts and bolts of your venture, but also by the very thoughtful, profound insights that you shared.

AS: Thanks, Dana. Thank you for asking us to do this, really. 

AF: Yeah, thank you.

*Andrew Fletcher, Andrew Scotchie, Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, and Sarah Griffin 

As this interview attests, musicians like Andrew Scotchie and Andrew Fletcher, and others who rely on the gig economy, have been hit hard by COVID. Please consider lending them your support.

Andrew Scotchie Music

[i] “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live.”

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.

Trax on the Trail: Researching Music on the U.S. Presidential Campaign Trail

Trax on the Trail Research Assistant Sarah Griffin presented her research on campaign music at the Georgia College 23rd Annual Student Research Conference in April 2020. You can check out her poster here.

Sarah Griffin (Student, Georgia College), Dana Gorzelany-Mostak (Assistant Professor of Music, Georgia College), Haley Strassburger (Student, Georgia College), Naomi Graber (Assistant Professor of Musicology, University of Georgia), Zach Sheffield (Independent Web Developer/Data Scientist)


Pundits, journalists, and the public spend a lot of time dissecting the speeches, advertisements, engagements, and actions of presidential candidates. As scholars of music, we contend that the sounds we hear equally contribute to the formation of presidential identity, party identity, and American identity. Founded at Georgia College in 2015, Trax on the Trail is an online research project that tracks, catalogues, and analyzes the soundscape of U.S. presidential campaigns. The website offers comprehensive resources and data to inform scholars, students, educators, and the general public about how music shapes our opinions of presidential candidates. Our contributors include experts from academic fields such as musicology, ethnomusicology, political science, history, sociology, and communications along with student researchers. Using research tools such as Hootsuite and Google Alerts, the Trax on the Trail student researchers locate campaign-related music media, tag it according to specific parameters, including song title, performer/composer, genre, type of media, and date, and catalogue it in our open-access database (Trail Trax). End users can use Trail Trax to explore the many ways candidates use music on the campaign trail, as well as the way the public uses music as a means of participating in campaign-related discourses. For example, simple searches in our database can reveal the music genres favored by each political party, the soundscape of a particular swing state, or the ways in which a single candidate’s music strategy evolves over time. For our poster, we will demonstrate the capabilities of Trail Trax as a research tool and outline strategies for utilizing the database in various educational contexts.

Analyzing and Creating Playlists

Over the past few electoral cycles, political candidates have capitalized on the popularity of playlist sites such as Spotify, circulating campaign playlists in hopes of forging a bond with voters, communicating their values and vision, and asserting their pop culture cred. This assignment offers students the opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of playlists as a music strategy, and create playlists that can work establish a candidate’s brand or presidential persona. This assignment was developed in collaboration with Dr. Laura Pruett and Dr. Anne Flaherty’s Music and Politics course at Merrimack College.

Jamming with Andrew Yang: Rap and the Model Minority

March 26, 2020

Although businessman and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang preferred to ignore it, his campaign attracted a large number of disaffected Trump voters from the alt-right. At first glance, Yang and the former Trumpsters seemed like strange bedfellows given rampant racism among that part of his base, but closer examination reveals an odd symbiotic relationship.

With his “MATH” hats (Fig. 1) and claims to “know a lot of doctors” because of his Asian heritage, Yang often evoked the myth of the “model minority,” that is, the idea that racism does not exist in the United States because some individuals from marginalized communities have made good on the American Dream, working themselves into the middle- and upper-classes. This myth treats all non-white racial and ethnic groups as the same, and ignores the specific legacies of slavery, immigration, settler colonialism, and discrimination that have faced Black, Latinx, Middle Eastern, Indigenous, and other non-white Americans. It also allows former Trump supporters to claim they are not racist, because they do indeed support a non-white candidate: Yang. The ways Yang is made to stand for a generalized idea of “minority” is demonstrated in the original songs and videos his alt-right supporters have posted on YouTube and similar sites. These employ signifiers of a non-specific “Asian-ness” along with Blackness. Such videos allow these supporters to “prove” they are not racist, while still using imagery and sounds that embody damaging stereotypes about Asians and other people of color.

Figure 1 Andrew Yang in his trademark “Math” Hat

This strategy of reframing cultural artifacts in parodic or subversive ways has much in common with alt-right-generated media supporting Trump. In 2016, the alt-right embraced memes, even claiming that they propelled Trump to the White House; Trump-supporter Jay Boone told This American Life “We memed [Trump] into power. We shit-posted our way into the future.” Christine Harold calls this strategy “culture jamming,” that is, redeploying the images, sounds, and language of popular culture in subversive ways to muddy or change the meaning of the original signifiers.[1] Such “rhetorical sabotage” (to use Harold’s term) formed a large part of the alt-right online strategy, as supporters reframed apolitical cultural artifacts such as Pepe the Frog or the musical Les Misérables to support their agenda.[2] The alt-right arm of the #YangGang in turn tried to jam the jammers, wresting these signifiers away from Trump and applying them to Yang. Indeed, characteristic images of Pepe the Frog and “the Chad” meme are rampant in this segment of Yang’s support.

Tim Gionet’s “Yang Gang Anthem” is emblematic of this style, particularly when it comes to music. Gionet, who goes by “Baked Alaska” online, was a high-profile Trump supporter whose original songs and videos garnered him a significant following. But after being banned from Twitter and his subsequent public falling-out with fellow troll Mike Cernovich, he distanced himself from the alt-right, surfacing recently as part of the #YangGang. His “Yang Gang Anthem” resembles videos that have emerged from this new segment of the electorate from creators like Panther Den, 1791, AndrewYang2020, Laddie McLass, and Andrew Yang for President 2020, most of which employ the overtly racist and sexist imagery associated with the alt-right.[3] Gionet’s anthem uses many of the same ideas, albeit in a much subtler and milder form.

Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, “Yang Gang Anthem”

The visual track of “Yang Gang Anthem” consists of jump cuts of Gionet in three different locations: dancing around a small suburban backyard and pool; against a concrete wall; and walking around a city block handing out money, apparently demonstrating the benefits of Yang’s proposed universal income. The video begins shots of an attractive woman in a sailor blouse and pleated miniskirt are interspersed, presumably representing Gionet’s fiancé—he repeats the line “my bitch got a wedding ring”—but we never see her face (Fig. 2). Gionet raps about Yang’s virtues over a sample of Russian rapper Slava KPSS’s (“Glory of the Communist Party”) track “I will sing my music.” The loop features a bell- or chime-like timbre over a trap beat of syncopated subdivisions played on a hi-hat.

Figure 2 Screenshot of “Yang Gang Anthem”

Many of these images and sounds are indelibly tied to Yang’s race. The young woman resembles the anime character Sailor Moon (Fig. 3), recalling other #YangGang videos that include images of scantily-clad female anime characters. This speak to Yang’s Asian heritage, despite the fact that Yang’s parents are from Taiwan and anime is Japanese. Such a view of “Asian-American” as an undifferentiated conglomeration of Asian identities speaks to the assumptions that all non-white cultures are the same. Furthermore, the simple melody in the chimes evokes the idea of a music box. Especially when paired with the image of the school-girl, this plays into stereotypes that Asian women (especially East Asian women) are child-like, sweet, docile, yet sexually available. The image further reinforces Yang’s heterosexual masculinity, which is subject to stereotypes of emasculated Asian men. The appearance of the child-like Asian figure of femininity casts Gionet in the role of red-blooded heterosexual male. Such a person would have no time for “sissies.”

Figure 3 Sailor Moon, Volume I, Japanese Edition. By Source, Fair use,

Gionet’s trap-based beat is also crucial to this formulation. It marks a stark contrast with his Trump videos, which feature a more singer-songwriter style dominated by piano accompaniment and auto-tuned vocals.[4] These videos are racially unmarked, or at least racially heterogenous. Auto-tuned vocals, for example, are associated with Kanye West, but also Cher and Ke$ha. [5] Gionet’s slightly nasal timbre and clear Alaskan accent, however, mark him as white. But in “Yang Gang Anthem,” the husky vocal timbre and the hi-hat pattern mask the accent and evokes Black sonorities. Gionet’s movement—putting his face close to the camera lens, downward chopping motions of his arms—also evoke the Hype Williams video style of the early 1990s.

Gionet is jamming hip hop culture (both music and imagery), using it to add a whiff of Black “cool” to the otherwise nerdy Yang, and to prove both the candidate’s and his own pop-cultural relevance within his newly formed, putatively more diverse worldview. As hip-hop is more associated with Blackness than with Asian-ness, this speaks more to Yang’s status as a person of color rather than anything specifically Asian, and the trap-based beat recalls photoshopped images of the candidate with dreadlocks and grills that proliferated online during the campaign. By associating Yang with hip hop, Gionet further reinforces Yang’s masculinity, drawing on the style’s associations with black masculine cool. This is not a new political strategy; President Obama’s “complex cool” arose in part from his careful engagement with hip hop culture, and Yang himself used Mark Morrison’s classic hip hop track “Return of the Mack” as walk-on music during his rallies.[6] Such images and sounds are not associated with Trump in these alt-right communities, suggesting two underlying racist assumptions: Yang’s masculinity needs reinforcement because of his Asian heritage, and that his skin-tone is “dark” enough for him to borrow those qualities from hip hop.

The video’s racism reflects an odd side effect of the model minority myth: the idea that if you support one non-white ethnic or racial community, you support them all. Figures who criticize Black, Indigenous, Latinx, or Middle-Eastern Americans often point to successful Asian Americans as proof that people of color can succeed in the United States, and that those who don’t are responsible for their own misfortunes. Thus, Asian becomes an acceptable alternative to white, acting as a stand-in for “acceptable” modes of otherness. Support for them is offered as proof that the one producing these video and memes is not racist; indeed, Gionet’s video ends with him giving money to and sharing a hug with a Black woman in a cringe-worthy act of charity.

The symbiotic relationship between Yang and the alt-right speaks to the dangers of the model minority myth. These concepts of undifferentiated “brownness” gloss over the specific struggles not just of different ethnic and racial groups, but of individual communities of Asian immigrants. Gionet’s non-racist racism reduces the idea of “Asian” to a few ostensibly positive prejudices (attractive yet child-like women, economic affluence), and counters a few others (emasculated men) with stereotypes borrowed from other marginalized communities (over-masculine Black men). All of this obscures the more insidious underlying assumptions about what it means to exist in the United States without white skin.

Naomi Graber

[1] Christine Harold, “Pranking Rhetoric: ‘Culture Jamming’ as Media Activism,” Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21, no. 3 (2004): 189–211. 

[2] I discuss this phenomenon in “Do You Hear the People Sing? Theatre and Theatricality in the Trump Campaign,” American Music 35, no. 4 (2017): 435–45.

[3] I have elected not to link to the videos here in order to prevent more traffic directed their way. However, they are archived in the Trax Database.

[4] “MAGA Anthem” does have a hint of the trap beat deep in the texture, but it is not as prominent.

[5] On the racial heterogeneity of autotune, see Jonathan Bogart, “Keep tickin’ and tockin’ work it all around the clock,” in Best Music Writing 2011, ed. Alex Ross and Daphne Carr, 6–19 (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2011), 8–9.

[6] On Obama and hip hop, see Michael P. Jeffries, Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 202–5.

Studying the Presidential Soundscape

Trax on the Trail in the Classroom (Workshop)

In this workshop presented at the Georgia Music Educators Association Conference, Haley Strassburger and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak offer strategies for teaching 9-12 students about the history of American songs. The attached documents include assignment instructions for a lesson on “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and slides from the workshop.

On the Inside Trax: Dr. Nicholas Phillips, Pianist, Educator, and New Music Advocate

A search by genre in the Trail Trax database will reveal very few examples of classical music on the trail. There was Stephen Colbert’s live string quartet with underscore for the final debate, “Hillary” (Kate McKinnon) and “Bernie’s” (Larry David) “Waltz of the Flowers” on Saturday Night Live, and Trump’s memorable entrances to “Nessun dorma” in 2016. Although a good number of operas and other classical works have political undertones, seldom do we connect classical musicans with activism. This may be changing as we approach the 2020 election. On Friday September 6th, the staff at Trax on the Trail had the pleasure of speaking with classical pianist, educator, and new music advocate Dr. Nicholas Phillips about his project #45Miniatures.

Nicholas Phillips

September 6, 2019

Sarah Griffin: I was reading on your website that initially #45Miniatures started out as a joke you posted on your Facebook wall, and I wanted to ask you what your initial reaction was to all the positive comments that you got in response?

Nicholas Phillips, Facebook Post, August 9, 2017

Nicholas Phillips: Yeah, it was just a late night sarcastic post [August 9, 2017], and I think I had just read a story about Trump tweeting that he would bring hell and fury on North Korea if they launched a missile at Guam. This thought of the President using a playground bully’s taunt and threatening nuclear war just kind of put me over the edge, and so I did this sarcastic post, and you know how Facebook is. You have no idea. You could have no likes, you could have one person that likes it, or it could kind of blow up and really resonate with your friends who just saw it at the right time, so I was really pleasantly surprised. I was surprised, I will say that, at the feedback I got, and the encouragement to actually [comission compositions] from a lot of my, initially my Facebook only composer friends, is where it started.

SG: Why do you think it was so successful as a platform or as an outlet for composers?

NP: I think just what you said. So many composers have written me and told me—the ones that have been involved in the project—just basically thanking me for giving them an outlet and a reason, and a medium for them to have a response to Trump and his policies and his administration. I think, like so many people, it is really easy to complain, especially on social media, and that doesn’t really do much good usually, and so this was an opportunity for me as a pianist. I can’t create protest music. I’m not a composer, but I had an idea that allowed these composers to find their own way to voice their frustrations and their anger. Oftentimes their very humorous pieces try to make the best out of an awful situation.

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Don Bowyer, “A Very Stable Genius” 

SG: One thing I really wanted to ask you was if there are any composers who inspired you to do that [this project]? Maybe they wrote political pieces, whether it was early 20th century or before that.

NP: To be honest, no. There weren’t any composers that specifically inspired this project. Of course, I’m a big fan of [Frederic Anthony] Rzewski’s “The People United Will Never Be Defeated!”, which is a massive piece of variations for piano, and I remember coming across—I think the composer’s name was Ted Hearne—the Katrina Ballads, when George W. Bush was still president, and I remember that piece kind of struck me at the time because I hadn’t really seen any classical composers responding to politics in that way. So, maybe in the subconscious that particular piece was, in my mind, but as I said, this started as a joke. I used my favorite weapon, which is sarcasm, and then it kind of exploded from there, and there was a process where I wasn’t sure if I was actually gonna do this call for scores or not, and then I did, and after that it exploded from an initial group of about twenty composers to now over fifty. 

SG: Sort of segueing from what you said about not really having a lot of political inspiration other than the Katrina [Ballads], how do you think that #45Miniatures could change coming up to the new elections?

NP: I was thinking about that question and, in some respects, it’s a finite project. I’ve got concerts scheduled this fall around the country where I’ll be playing, not all of them, but quite a few pieces in recital, and so at some point, I can’t really take more submissions. I could take more submissions, but I can’t just keep learning, all this music, but at the same time, the source material expands exponentially every day with tweets and campaign speeches and things that are happening in policies, so it is a project that really could go on as long as he is president. But also it is one thing of many that I do. I have a full time teaching job. I have other performances—solo and collaborative. I love getting all these pieces, but there is a limit to my own time, which is one reason I really hope that other pianists take it on. I’ve said all along that it’s not about me, it’s about the pieces, and I don’t have to be the one that premieres them. I don’t have to be the sole performer that performs them. I want other pianists to say, you know, “I really like ‘LOCK HER UP!’ [by Nick Omiccioli]. I’d like to program that on a program for other pieces for speaking pianists,” for example.

Nick Omiccioli, ‘Lock Her Up,” performed by Nicholas Phillips

SG: In what ways do you feel like musical movements such as this one can unify people, especially given today’s tense political climate?

NP: I don’t know that this project is a unifying project, except that maybe it unifies people who are disgusted with what is going on. I will say, it has been surprising to see some positive feedback and reactions from people that I know, either in my community or in my online community, who I would not have thought would like the project. People who are of a different political persuasion, but perhaps are really disgusted by what Trump is doing. If anything, I think perhaps it unifies people in awareness that what is going on isn’t normal, and the shear presence of this project and the response speaks volumes. Nobody had an Obama commissioning project. There were people that didn’t like him as a president, but they didn’t turn that into a protest music project, so it’s kind of unique in that way. 

SG: How has #45Miniatures, impacted you as a musician or just as a person?

NP: It certainly expanded the number of pieces that have been written for me by a lot. There is that professional perk. I think that it has helped me find my own voice in being brave enough to have a project like this and have my name on it. In a way that’s very different than, as I said before, complaining on Facebook to your own set of friends who feel the same way you do. It’s not impactful. I feel like [this project is] making an impact. 

SG: Did you have any concerns before starting the project because it’s a very bold movement, I believe, just from looking at the pieces. It’s all very emotional, and so I wanted to know if you had prior concerns?

NP: I certainly did because I’ve never done anything like this, and it is not like programming a typical solo piano recital or even a thematic recital that addresses things, broadly speaking, so there is that concern. We are a very divided country right now, but I think that if we stay quiet about things that bother us, that’s worse than taking a step like this. There are certainly going to be people that don’t like the project; I don’t [think] many of them will find their way to it. I read an article that the great author Margaret Atwood wrote right after Trump was elected where she talks about art in the era of Trump, and she made a great comment, that as far as interest in the arts go, for Trump on a scale from 1 to 100, it’s about a negative 10. The fear of any sort of repercussions on a national level are pretty slim for me, I think. 

SG: What sort of issues or challenges do you think creators, whether they are musicians, or dancers, or artists, face when they want to address political issues in their work? 

NP:  I think that’s a very real concern, and I think that’s one reason [why] there are a handful of composers that I know [who have] express[ed] privately that they really like the project, and they were considering writing a piece for it, but just didn’t feel they could, which is too bad. I think as a performer, one of the challenges is what venues can you play these concerts in? I want to play it here in town, and there is a church, for example, that has a nice piano, but they’re concerned about remaining nonpartisan, because he’s a candidate, and they don’t want to lose IRS status because it’s a political project. Universities are kind of tricky to play it at, so I’ve had to be creative in the spaces that I perform. That’s limiting as an artist; you’re inevitably narrowing your potential audience even though we know [Trump] didn’t get the majority of the vote, so we can’t say that it’s limiting half the population. It’s much smaller than that. You’re not being inclusive, I guess, to people that would be interested in coming to hear it, so there’s always that component, too, as an artist that wants to reach as many people as possible through their work.

SG: What has been the most rewarding aspect of seeing [the project] grow the way that it has?

NP: The most rewarding for me is whenever I get a new piece of music from a composer. It’s really like Christmas morning because you got a present and just don’t know what’s under the wrapping, so seeing the really ingenious way that composers kind of stick a middle finger up through their music has been really cool. Whether it is the way they include obscure musical quotes in kind of ridiculous ways or indications in the score that are really just for the performer to see or the way they use combinations of four measure phrases followed by 5 measure phrases to tie into the 45 aspect. If you really look at the music as a performer, and get to learn it, it’s just so rewarding to see how rich and creative these composers are. It consistently amazed me. Some of [the pieces] are overtly just funny and are intended to be that, and others are much more intellectual in an abstract way that doesn’t really come across to an audience member, but some of them are sort of intellectual in a way that when followed with a really great program note, the audience will see what the composer is after, even if they’re not doing bombastic things or having speech. One piece by Jason Sifford called “Look, Having Nuclear” has got this long run-on sentence that Trump gave at a speech before he was president, and it’s just all over the place in terms of topics. Jason uses the pattern of speech from Trump’s words to create a melody, and he puts it over a left hand ostinato that spells out “gasbag.” Just funny things like that that are just really, really cool to see. 

Jason Sifford, “Look, Having Nuclear,” performed by Nicholas Phillips

SG: As people go through and listen to the different compositions, what encompassing message do you hope that people take away from the compositions and reading about the composers?

NP: I think that they should take away from the individual pieces awe at the variety, the variety of topics, the variety of presentations, the variety of approaches, and then hopefully they come away laughing a little bit but also feeling like they need to do the best they can to make sure that this doesn’t become the new normal. That we have to do projects like this. Things I’d like them to take away from the project as a whole are that, and I mentioned this earlier, anyone regardless of their political tendencies should look at this project and see “Wow, this is a huge response to a president, in a medium [where it] is very unusual to have that.” This is not ‘60s folk singers’ rallies about the Vietnam War. This is Western art music responding to a sitting president, and so I think just kind of taking that in, hopefully people will realize that the times we’re living in, nothing about him or his administration is or should be considered normal, and they should do something about it.

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: I do have one more question for you. In doing this project, when you go into these kinds of spaces and you perform, do you equally see yourself as an activist as much as you see yourself as a musician? 

NP: Yeah, I guess I would say so. I think the project is the activist, I’m just the vessel. It’s not just me, it could be anyone, that’s the point, it could be anyone and it could be any piece, any collection of pieces. 

DGM: I have one more question, and you sort of already answered it before, but I want to return to it. The website that I run [Trax on the Trail], is a nonpartisan website. Now, anybody that dissects music in the sort of the fashion that we do tends to lean to the left. As much as we have tried to bring diverse voices into the equation, it is a challenge to find people in musicology that study music and politics that don’t have a left to far-left political orientation. That being said, in terms of what we put on our social media and what we write about, we do try to maintain a nonpartisanship tone. I can’t say I’ve actually gotten in trouble, but I’ve had the [title redacted] walk into my office and say, “Someone tells me you’re running an anti-Trump wesbite on the GCSU server.” I’m not [running an anti-Trump website], but somehow that message was put out there. Do you have any concerns [about backlash]? Whether it’s shareholders in the university, board members, your foundation—do you have any concerns that those people might voice an objection to what it is you’re doing and say that you’re being politically active on the school’s time clock? 

NP: I’ve been pretty careful, I think, about that. I haven’t really made a big deal about the project on campus. I don’t have the university attached to my name on the #45Miniatures website, for example. I certainly could play a concert here because freedom of speech is protected. I think maybe I’m in a school or in a position that I don’t feel that that’s a huge issue. I could see that being an issue for some colleagues, especially junior colleagues, and it’s kind of sad that one should have to feel like they have tenure before they could do a project like this. 

DGM: Do you think to a certain extent people who perform certain genres of music might be considered more suspect for communicating political messages through their music? Obviously, some scholars and fields of study might be more suspect, in some ways, of having political leanings that they’re expressing through their work or through their art. Not to say that there aren’t great works in the classical musical canon that are political in some way, but that being said, in comparison to a hierarchy of genres, classical music is more towards the bottom in terms of overt messages of protest. Do you think you’re shielded by nature of the genre in which you are an expert from the kind of criticism that I’m talking about?

NP: Sure, I said as I quoted Margaret Atwood earlier, Trump is not interested in [indiscernible, sounds like “arts”]. There was an article, I think it was in the Washington Post, recently about how he’s the least musical president, in recent history for sure. [We believe the article Dr. Phillip’s refers to is here in the Chicago Tribune.] I’m definitely not on his radar, this project’s not on his radar, um, and I don’t feel like it’s got the kind of legs that would get it to a level where Sean Hannity’s gonna be putting a pitchfork in my hand and have something on his show about my project. I could be wrong.

DGM: Yeah, Fox [News] hasn’t called us either, so I guess we’re okay. 

For more information on Dr. Phillips and his project, please see the following links:

Nicholas Phillips Webpage

#45Minatures Website

Nicholas Phillips article for NewMusicBox

Rebecca Pronsky: Singer-Songwriter, Brooklyn’s Truth Bearer

On October 28, 2019 Trax research assistant Sarah Griffin and Trax founder Dana Gorzelany-Mostak had the pleasure of speaking to Rebecca Pronsky, a singer-songwriter based in Brooklyn. Pronsky first came to our attention when we heard her delightful 2020 Candidate Jams, 60-second didactic songs dedicated to each Democratic presidential candidate. What made this country-noir artist turn to the campaign for source material? Read on to find out.

Sarah Griffin: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? 

Rebecca Pronsky: Sure. I’m a singer-songwriter born and raised in Brooklyn and after the 2016 election, my music pivoted from introspective folk songs written mostly on guitar to political commentary and comedy written mostly on piano. 

SG: Speaking of your political music, as I was going through mainly YouTube, your Candidate Jams kept coming up.

RP: That’s awesome!

SG: Yeah! I wanted to ask what inspired you to compose 60-second songs for just voice and piano?

RP: At the time it struck me as absurd just how many people were throwing their name in the hat to run for the nomination. It was like a clown car, one after the other. They just kept coming. Since the situation was comical in its own right, it was easy to expand upon the comedy that was already there. I also thought it’d be fun to learn more about the candidates myself and make the project somewhat educational for listeners. I’m pretty involved in politics and before I wrote the songs, even I didn’t know who half of these people were. Most of the folks I know didn’t either. I wrote about half of them on piano and the other half on drums, guitar, ukulele, bass and auto-harp. I had to change it up for the sake of variety.

“Elizabeth Warren” from #2020CandidateJams (Rebecca Pronsky)

SG: Was there a purpose behind the 60-second limit per video or was that just a part of the fun aspect of it? 

RP: Instagram has a 60-second video limit and I thought this would be a great limitation to work with. I used the Instagram rule to help me create a structure for the project. I think limits can be really useful in sparking creativity. The time limit helped me to think of the songs more as jingles. The Kirsten Gillibrand song has some information about her, but the memorable part is just the part where I sing her name “Kirsten Gillibrand.” That melody is very catchy. It sounds like a jingle. After she dropped out of the race, people I know came up to me and things like “ It’s too bad about (singing) Kirsten Gillibrand.” I feel like 60 seconds is a good amount of time to cover one or two aspects of a candidate’s story. And honestly, for some of these people, even 60 seconds seemed like maybe too much time.

“Kirsten Gillibrand” from #2020CandidateJams (Rebecca Pronsky)

SG: Did you face any sort of challenges composing political music, and that also applies to your Witness: Hillary’s Song Cycle?  

RP: To be fair, I live in a liberal bubble, so I don’t really face that many challenges as far as confrontation or political disagreements. Everyone I know is on the same page about most things, so I didn’t feel like people were gonna hate on what I did or fight with me about it, at least not in person or at a live performance. I will say, though, that on the internet, there have definitely been some surprising reactions. After I wrote a few of the songs, I began putting them up on YouTube. I did this mainly so they could be seen by friends who weren’t on Instagram. I didn’t actually expect anyone else to watch them; I couldn’t imagine how they’d be found. But two of my videos have been seen a lot: the Andrew Yang song and the Tulsi Gabbard song. The Andrew Yang song got a lot of views, and it ended up on a #YangGang Reddit page. Someone who saw it assumed I was a supporter, and tweeted at me asking me if would record ‘Let It Be’ and just change “Mother Mary” into “Andrew Yang?” which I thought was a very strange request. None of these songs were intended to impugn or support any candidates, so I was surprised that people sometimes took them that way. The Andrew Yang song is only about how he used to be goth in high school and does not contain any opinion about his potential fitness to be president! The song I wrote about Tusli Gabbard definitely wasn’t very flattering, but it was just a list of facts about her, about how she used to support a lot of the anti-gay agenda and came late to abortion rights. I got trolled so hard for it! People commented one after another with things like “You suck” or “How dare you smear a veteran?” and “Don’t quit your day job.” Just a lot of really mean, really angry things. A lot of the commenters didn’t have a photo for their profile and were just generic gray silhouettes of a head, which leads me to I think that a lot of them are Russian bots. There was some terrible spelling and a lot of capital letters and stuff like that. All of that was very unexpected. 

“Tulsi Gabbard” from #2020Candidate Jams (Rebecca Pronsky)

The other interesting situation I fell into was that a conservative YouTube personality asked permission to use my songs in his videos. Like I said, I had not expected the videos to actually be seen by almost anyone. At the time I got the request, I had just started writing the songs. I put the first five or six of them up on YouTube and the next day, this person with 300,000 followers asked me if he could use them. He tried to sell me on letting him use them by saying that he is only trying to get at the truth about who these candidates are. I didn’t want rule it out, so I watched some stuff on his channel, and I was like, “Ugh, this makes me so uncomfortable.” He makes these political commentary videos that are supposed be funny and “own the libs,” but they’re snarky and insensitive. I disagree with all the politics in it of course, but he was very respectful when he asked me about the songs. It was not my intention for the project to really support either side of the political conversation, but when you do political music, I guess it’s inevitable. I became afraid my sarcasm and humor could be misconstrued, so I said no to the request. The experience was definitely unexpected and made me think for a minute, “Why am I even doing this? Is this a good idea? Where is this going?”, but I really wanted to finish the project, so I kept going. 

“Andrew Yang” from #2020CandidateJams (Rebecca Pronsky)

SG: Was there a similar reaction to Witness: Hillary’s Song Cycle or was that only with the candidate jams? 

RP: Nobody really saw the Witness stuff on YouTube. I think maybe it doesn’t fit the YouTube algorithm. That project also wasn’t meant so much for the internet. It started as a recording project and morphed into a live theatre piece.

SG: How did audiences, whether it was online or in person audiences, react to it?

RP: I had already had a career of being a singer-songwriter for fifteen years before doing Witness. My music hadn’t been particularly political, so when I announced to my mailing list that was going to be doing a concept album about Hillary Clinton and the 2016 election, some folks decided to jump ship. One fan unsubscribed and then wrote me saying “Hillary is killing America.” She was offended that I’d write about someone so terrible. With Witness I wasn’t even trying to say Hillary is a blameless, perfect person. It was more a way for me to process and express the sadness and rage and distress of the loss for women. No one was experiencing the loss more directly than Hillary herself so having her be the mouthpiece for the project made sense. A lot of people told me, “If you’re losing people from your mailing list, that means you’ve hit a nerve and that means you’re doing something right.” It’s an interesting way of looking at it. The project was super fun. I worked with only women, from the recording with an all-female band, engineer, and the female designer of the album art, to the live show with a female director and female co-star. It was really healing for the all-women band to work together in the studio just months after the election. Then the songs turned into a show, and the show was very cathartic for people to watch. A lot of people I know came and cried. I wasn’t really concerned about people who disagreed with me coming to the show, because unless you’re an extremely confrontational person, I don’t think you would spend money to go to a show called Hillary Clinton’s Song Cycle!

SG: Going off of that, what was your thought process when you were composing Hillary’s Song Cycle: Witness, and how did it help you to cope with the 2016 election?

RP: After the election, I ran a bunch of charity concerts out of my music studio. The first one was called “Songs of Resistance,” and all the musicians who participated had to write and perform songs on the theme of resistance. I wrote the first two Witness songs for that show, and I don’t think it was until after I wrote them that I realized I was writing in someone else’s voice. Then I was like, “Oh, I’m writing in Hillary Clinton’s voice?! That’s weird!” So that’s where it started. Before those first two songs, I hadn’t been able to write at all for a while, and I just felt too depressed and also very disconnected from what I had been doing before. All of a sudden, I had something to say. I have a duo folk songwriter project with my husband [that] I’ve been doing for fifteen years and did not expect to end up in an all-female band doing a Fringe Festival musical about Hillary Clinton.

Rebecca Pronsky in Hillary Clinton’s Song Cycle: Witness

SG: When you began composing music that had more political subject matter, did you ever anticipate that it would resonate with people the way that it has? 

RP: No, I don’t think so. I hoped it would resonate, but that kind of happened as Witness developed. In the beginning it was just a few songs my audience liked. Then it became an all-female recording project and all the women in the project felt really connected to the songs. We did the CD release show on the one-year anniversary of the election and we interspersed quotes from Hillary Clinton into the show, spoken by members of the band. People were crying in the audience and I realized how different this was from what I had been doing before. Then Witness became a theater show and it went to two Fringe Festivals. The songs got paired down from a full band and developed into a two-woman show with my friend Deidre Rodman Struck. The show was directed by my friend Irene Carroll, who is an improv comedian, and she helped me get into character and added an interactive element to make the show more theatrical. The show started with me running on stage to “Ladies and gentlemen… Hillary Clinton!” I wasn’t really sure what to expect from the project, but the more it became developed, the more it resonated with people, and the more people were crying, but also laughing and feeling relieved. I had so many great women work with me and the audiences were really moved. The project sort of took on its own life and its own energy that I don’t feel entirely responsible for. 

“What’re You Gonna Do” from Hillary’s Song Cycle: Witness (Rebecca Pronsky)

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: A question for you: I’m assuming after these performances people probably came up and talked to you. Was there any conversation that you particularly remember when fans engaged with you after [the show]? What they said the impact of the work was on them.

RP: A lot of folks told me that they felt like the show helped them to go back and reexperience the emotions of the 2016 election in a safe space. I think people were grateful that they could have an experience surrounding Hillary Clinton that felt fulfilling and hopeful and connected, as opposed to depressed. That is really what I kept hearing from people. People would tell me about how they campaigned for her or they would share where they were on election night, what it was like for them. Not everyone who saw the show had been a big fan of Hillary. Some supported Bernie first, but everyone was devastated by the loss. It’s something we all remember. It’s one of those national events like the Kennedy assassination—everyone will remember where they were when it happened.

SG: Based on your experiences, would you say that music has unified people or do you feel like in some ways it can push people apart?

RP: Wait, you mean my music or just music in general?

SG: Music in general when it addresses political subject matter.

RP: Well, I’m still new to political music, and topical music in general. In my limited personal experience and observations of the culture at large, I think that music can unify people who are already in the same camp, strengthen their bonds, and create a general sense of goodwill and kindness. Music can give people energy and fuel to fight the fight, but I don’t think people on different teams are going to suddenly feel unified over music. We are in such a broken time. Even the National Anthem is divisive now. An American flag can feel threatening. And to do a project about Hillary Clinton—that’s not going to convince any new folks to like her, but it does bring together folks who felt traumatized by her loss. I gotta say, I’m still amazed by how much people hate Hillary Clinton. I mean, people really hate her, almost inexplicably so. So, my project has limited capacity to unify. It is definitely not going to make any new Hillary fans.

SG: As we approach upcoming elections, how do you see your compositional style or music subjects changing?

RP: I’d really been struggling to come up with a new project because the news happens so fast. Also, it’s hard to know how to make comedy when regular news headlines are essentially Onion headlines. But I have something in mind that I’m cooking up. It’s for even shorter than 60-second attention spans!

DGM: We need a jingle for our website!

RP: Do you really?

DGM: Kinda.

RP: That’s an idea, though. (Gorzelany-Mostak starts pumping her fist.)

SG: What would you say has been the most exciting or enjoyable aspect of composing political music or just music in general?

RP: Before these political musical projects, I’d never written topical music. I wrote introspective, folky, country-noir songs and that’s still the kind of thing I like to listen to. I always thought topical music was a little hokey. But life is so influenced by politics now. I can’t not think about it all the time, so it seems like anything introspective is going to include current events and politics. I might as well just lean in all the way. People really relate to topical music in a way that I didn’t understand before. Audiences kind of already “get it” before it starts, because I’m talking about something they know about. I think that can be comforting for everyone when an audience is collectively familiar with a topic. When you respond to recent or current events, there’s just a different kind of energy that you give, and a different kind of energy that you get back. That sounds kind of dorky.

DGM: Not at all.

RP: (jokingly) There’s an “energy.”

DGM: When you’re out there on the stage performing, do you consider yourself to be an artist or an activist or some sort of combination of both?

RP: So wait, when I’m performing?

DGM: When you’re performing, yes.

RP: Great question. When I started writing political music, I was already engaged in activism, but I did not consider myself to be an activist. My job was artist, but that has really changed as I’ve been doing this stuff. Since 2016, I’ve done most of my shows as fundraisers for various candidates and action groups, and have become involved in campaigns and so on. People ask me all the time “Who should I vote for?” or “What’s on the ballot?” I’m still a musician but my performances are always a way to get people to learn about new causes or candidates. I feel like you just asked me the question that I should have been asking myself lately, but I didn’t think of. For my next project, which is it? Am I going to, like, be an artist again? Or is it going to be more about activism and I’m gonna have to put that to music? That is a really important question.

DGM: Is there anything else that you want to share with us or anything else that you would like us to know? Because we’re happy to hear you talk!

RP: I don’t know if I explained why I wrote the Hillary project or if that’s important.

DGM: Yeah, we’d love to hear more, yeah go for it.

RP: I was so devastated after the election. I didn’t know what my function as a musician would be going forward. I was upset by the results, naturally, but—and I’m sure this was partly a projection—I was consumed with worry about Hillary Clinton as an individual. I just felt so bad for her and couldn’t imagine how she was getting through personally. I think that’s where the idea came from. I used to only write about my own experience, but I took her voice, because, well, nobody feels it more than her. If anyone’s going to be able to communicate the complexity of how devastated we are right now, it’s her. It’s not me! I’m just some chick in Brooklyn. It’s got to be from the figurehead in order to reach people. After I wrote the songs, her book came out and I read it. What I wrote turned out to be pretty accurate to the experience and emotions she reported in the book. I wasn’t trying to put words in her mouth, though. It was more supposed to be for all of us to express ourselves, and she was just the avenue to do that.

You can learn more about Rebecca Pronsky and her upcoming performances here.

Trax on the Trail and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame join forces to bring you Rock & Roll to the White House

Kassie Kelly (Trax Education and Outreach Coordinator) and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak (Trax Creator and Co-editor) join forces with Leah Branstetter (Rock Hall Digital Education Coordinator), Mandy Smith (Rock Hall Education Programs Manager), Kathryn Metz (Rock Hall Manager of Education Outreach) and Deanna Nebel (Rock Hall Education Instructor) to bring you an exciting and timely lesson unit that explores the use of rock music in presidential campaigns. Our unit includes footage of artists and politicians opining on intersections between music and politics, a Spotify playlist, images of artifacts from Rock Hall’s own museum, and slides to accompany class discussions.

You can check out our plan here: Rock & Roll to the White House

Also check out the other terrific lesson plans available through Rock Hall’s Digital Classroom.

Songs in the Key of President C

A Short History of Music on the Campaign Trail (Digital Lecture)

From the 1840 bid of William Henry Harrison, who was “sung into office,” to Donald Trump, who entered the 2016 Republican National Convention to Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” music has played a significant role in presidential campaign pageantry. This lecture traces the history of the campaign song through examples that span from 1840, the first campaign marked by unprecedented musical activity, to the most recent 2016 presidential race in order to shed light on the aural dimension of electoral politics.

This lecture was made possible by the Digital Lectures in American Music initiative, sponsored by the Society for American Music’s Education Committee. Aimed at a general audience, each Digital Lecture seeks to explore a compelling topic of broad interest and to engage with contemporary scholarship in American music studies.

Pop Songs on Political Platforms

November 2, 2017

Our project on pop songs and political campaigning began in the fall of 2015, when we decided to work on a campaign music article that we could present at the Music and Entertainment Industry Educators Association (MEIEA) Conference in April 2016. We thought that it was especially appropriate, since the conference that year was to be held in Washington, D.C. We started following the 2016 presidential elections by both paying close attention to the music selected by presidential hopefuls and tracking the reactions of the artists whose music was being used (in some cases, without their permission). Our focus was commercially produced songs, which spanned many genres and were played at a campaign event such as a rally, fundraiser, stop on the trail, or convention. We did not focus specifically on music used in campaign advertisements on television or Internet per se, although we identify some of this music in the full article. The April conference came, and we presented some of our initial findings to a large audience, followed by a robust Q&A session. This feedback encouraged us to go back a few election cycles to dig deeper and document trends in candidate usage, if such trends were to be identified. The main challenge for our project was the development of a methodology. How could we document trends over four election cycles when we collected both numerical and qualitative data? We ultimately settled on a hybrid approach, combining traditional statistics with non-linear Social Network Analysis (SNA) that has the potential to document the social connections between candidates, targeted voters, and musical genres. (We address the parameters of SNA in more depth in our full article which appears in the Journal for Popular Music Studies.)

Thus, our full article, “Pop Songs on Political Platforms,” investigates popular music usage in the campaigns of American presidential candidates from 2004 to 2016. Using both numerical and qualitative data, we established certain criteria for each candidate to assess whether connections existed between party affiliation, age and other demographic information for the candidates, song details for the music selected (with title, performer, copyright year, and genre), demographics of targeted voters, cease and desist order/copyright infringement allegations, and resulting success in polls.

We presented visual outputs of the data in the form of networks. When numerical data was available (i.e., age of candidates and copyright year), linear statistics such as scatter diagrams or line graphs were the best tool to present correlations and trends. In order to show emerging patterns and behaviors using qualitative data, SNA was employed.

This mixed methodology allowed us to explore the following research questions:

  1. Is there a correlation between the age of presidential hopefuls and copyright years of songs selected for their campaigns?
  2. What are some of the emerging patterns between demographic data of presidential hopefuls (age, ethnicity, sex, and religion) and the music genre(s) of the songs selected for their campaigns?
  3. How can we determine the correlation between the candidates’ party affiliation and artists’ claims of copyright infringement?
  4. Is there a specific connection between the music genres selected by the campaigns and the demographics of their targeted voters?
  5. How significant is the number of songs and music genres used in campaigns and does the size or diversity of a candidate’s playlist affect the election results? Is there a correlation between the average copyright years of the music selected and election results?

Our research model was an effective one, and we were able to reveal patterns and document them throughout our study. We observed that younger presidential candidates, Republicans and Democrats alike, tended to select pop songs copyrighted more recently (21st century), whereas older candidates preferred songs that appealed to an older, white target voter demographic (mostly rock spanning from the 1960s to the early 1990s). Still, Democratic candidates draw upon a more diversified, broader selection of music than their Republican counterparts. (See Appendix I for a list of titles and their genre designation.) Most presidential candidates appear to be white males in their early to mid-60s who are prominently Roman CatholicsUnited Methodists and Southern Baptists are the other two religious affiliations well represented amongst presidential hopefuls. Rock music is the most popular music genre selected, followed closely by alternative rockcountry music, and hard rock. The most common music genres shared by Republican and Democratic voters are rock and country music, but Republican candidates have used country music, patriotic songs, and heartland rock (rock music featuring themes associated with struggles of “ordinary” Americans) in addition to hard rock, classic rock, and orchestral pop to target their mostly white Christian and middle-aged voters. Rock, pop, Latin pop, blues rock, indie pop, salsa, soul, and R&B are the genres mostly used to target African American and Hispanic voters. Also, EDM has been associated with LGBT voters as well as with young voters. Lastly, women voters are closely linked to pop and rock music.[i] (See Figure 1 for a visual depiction of music genres and target voters.)

Figure 1. Candidates Music Genre Selection and Target Voters/Social Network Analysis (SNA) from 2004 to 2016

We observed that Republican candidates were most likely to be accused of copyright infringement and/or subject to opposition from artists in the 2008, 2012, and 2016 presidential campaigns. However, the findings suggested that there does not seem to be a clear pattern showing a connection between the age of the presidential candidates and copyright infringement. Since 2004, the Democratic presidential candidates have consistently used a larger pool of songs and a wider diversity of music genres in their campaigns. Conversely, on the Republican side, candidates have consistently used approximately the same sized portfolio of songs and music genres. Candidates who have won the popular vote during their race for the presidency since 2004 have had a more recent copyright year for the songs they have used, whereas unsuccessful candidates, on average, selected older songs (Fig. 2).[ii] And for the past three election cycles, the Democratic candidates were the ones to formulate such a music strategy for their campaigns. However, we are seeing an increase in song usage on the Republican side.

Figure 2. Correlation Line Graph of the Average Song Copyright Year and Popular Vote

Thus, the dramatic increase in popular song usage is apparent just in reviewing four presidential campaign cycles within this study. We believe the Internet will continue to open new avenues for music usage in campaigns, even by individuals not officially associated with candidates. Furthermore, the innovative ways candidates will continue to use music in their campaigns remains to be seen. This study of pop songs on political platforms is particularly important because of the positive correlations discovered between the higher quantity and variety of music used, more recent copyright year, and election or securing the popular vote (in the case of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign cycle). The implications from this study underscore the importance of popular music within political platforms and will likely impact key music strategy decisions in future presidential campaigns.

– Stan Renard and Courtney Blankenship

Appendix I: Sample titles for genres cited in this study

Hard Rock – “More Than a Feeling” (Boston)

Rock – “Power to the People” (John Lennon)

Pop – “Stronger Together” (Jessica Sanchez)

Soul – “Let’s Stay Together” performed by Al Green

R&B – “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” (Stevie Wonder)

Country – “Everyday America” (Sugarland)

Hip-Hop – “Unite the Nation” (Misa/Misa)

Alt Rock – “Even Better Than the Real Thing” (U2 )

Pop Songs on Political Platforms was published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies on August 18, 2017. The full article is available through open access here. Courtney and Stan are excited to be joining the impressive list of contributors at Trax on The Trail as they gear up towards the 2020 elections. You may reach them by email at and

[i] Figure 2 is labeled as Figure 15 in the full article.

[ii] Figure 1 is labeled as Figure 13 in the full article.

Campaign Music 101 in the Music History Classroom

Teaching Music History Conference, Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, June 11, 2017

Presenters Dana Gorzelany-Mostak (Georgia College), Naomi Graber (University of Georgia), Hanna Lisa Stefansson (University of Georgia), Cameron Steuart (University of Georgia), Mary Helen Hoque (University of Georgia), Sarah Kitts (Georgia College), and Kassie Kelly (Trinity University) gave a workshop on how to incorporate campaign music into music history classes at the 2017 Teaching Music History Conference. You can access the slides for our presentation and our handout below. The handout contains campaign music lesson plans and a comprehensive bibliography on the topic.

Popular Music in U.S. Presidential Commercials

Candidates typically enter the rally stage to a pop song, but what happens when they use these tunes in their commercials? In this lesson plan, Joanna Love (University of Richmond) offers discussion points and activities for teachers of non-majors who wish to explore the role pop music plays in branding the candidate.

A Media Scholar’s Response to Trax, Trump, and a Strange New World

July 31, 2017

Trax on the Trail has helped keep me connected to political events for over a year.

As many of us academics seek ways to respond to the new normal, some of us may want to do what I did—sign up to participate in blogs like Trax o the Trail. Most of us agree that now more than ever we need to devote time to the commons (according to Wikipedia, the commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately). Blogs like Trax are a good way of doing so. I’m hoping that by sharing my experiences I might help others decide to make this kind of commitment.

A year ago, Trax on the Trail co-editors James Deaville and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak asked me to contribute to the blog, partly because of my work on audiovisual aesthetics and the 2008 presidential election, including “Audiovisual Change: Viral Media in the Obama Campaign” in my book Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema.[i] I was told contributions would be aimed towards a broader public and open to possibilities. I thought, “Oh great, I’ll just keep one eye on unfolding events and write on a moment that tugs at me.”

But then not surprisingly I fell into the maelstrom. I became a track-the-clickbait nail-biter, hoping that with each increasingly outrageous Trump tweet we would have a reset of the election campaign. I made my way through vast amounts of corporate-tinged, television-oriented Clinton advertising from the persuasive to the embarrassing; Trump advertising too, of course. Instances hailed me, like a “Rickroll” moment (a phenomenon I’d followed during Obama’s 2008 campaign), or the DNC’s spoof on Trump’s convention entrance accompanied by Queens’ “We are the Champions.” It is only now after the January Women’s March that the power of Elizabeth Banks’ DNC spoof of Trump’s convention entrance feels graspable to me. The actress’s white crinoline dress and doll-like movements seemed to say that Stepford wives could possess more authority than Trump.

Donald Trump enters the RNC to Queen’s “We Are the Champions”
Elizabeth Banks Mocks Trump’s Entrance at the DNC

The Republican convention felt like a terrible schematic pulled from scenes of Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar. In Ray’s film, a small-town lynch mob of men, headed by Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), a woman overcome with lust/jealousy for Vienna (Joan Crawford), and backed up by streaks of technicolor golds and reds seemed now even more LED-amped up, as Chris Christie and his mob’s increasingly shrill calls and responses of “lock her up” morphed into a twisted cinematic nightmare of the western. Without Trax on the Trail’s light obligation, I’m sure I would have fled from time to time; for me, instead this minimal promise to Trax called on me to connect.

Johnny Guitar (1954)
Chris Christie at the RNC

And then, for better or worse—I overshot Trax, producing work that was the wrong shape or size. Trump’s provocations could endanger my family and me. I’ve taught in large red-state schools for many years, and I knew Trump’s simplistic, authoritarian pronouncements would resonate with many people. There’s also some residual remorse from when I taught in these places—a sense that somehow I wasn’t able to sketch a compelling enough counterargument for those with religious or political views that differed from mine. I’d always assigned some Karl  Marx and John Rawls, but these seemed to yield few rewards (a Canadian documentary called The Corporation, and an Oprah Winfrey infomercial about working at Google, were more persuasive). Now, in my Stanford bubble, I know no Trump supporters who might hear my simply-posed argument, like “So you don’t want the government in your life? But then who and what might take its place? Corporations? A corporation’s first responsibility is to produce quarterly reports showing consistently increasing short-term profits for their shareholders. Upper management’s strongest obligation is to depress wages: a company may project a thin veneer of care, but in truth labor most often falls under the same optics as the cheapest available oil or minerals.”

It was in this sudden pressured moment that I was hit by an obvious limitation we academics have. We have skills at providing historical and cultural context, we can make persuasive arguments, but most of us don’t write quickly enough, nor with the kinds of pithy voice valued by popular media like Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, the New York Times or the Atlantic. But we can try. If we want to get materials out quickly that might contribute to the conversation—that are both available to the public and findable in the academic databases—we need new places to turn.

I’ve posted some of my contributions to protecting the commons on the Film International Journal blog “Protecting the Commons.” The site is open, and I invite readers and other interested publics to post there as well. I am currently working toward a fleet online journal that might be responsive to unfolding events, and that might be included in the academic databases. Materials might be generated at the local level: scholars on Facebook, Twitter, and blogs might forward their posts to Facebook pages based on the topic. When work starts to emerge (four or five pieces), they might be gathered together to be published online.

I still have questions about audiovisual aesthetics and the election, and I’m hoping I and others will publish about them soon. My basic claim is that popular music and music video are media we turn to when we need to think about unfolding events. How might I demonstrate this?

A first basic question: in the era of social media, do we use pop music differently from the way we did in the past? I’ve noticed that on Facebook, music works for me as a quick intensifier, though others may not experience it in this way. I participated in one of the first phone conferences to protect Obamacare. Though the call felt canned (why did they make us listen on a phone at an appointed time to what must surely have been a pre-recorded message?), still I felt I’d made a step toward a contribution with other people’s lives. For the first time after the election, I felt progressives had a chance in the face of a potential new reign of terror (the Women’s March, with the awe-inspiring numbers of 1 of every 100 Americans participating, was still weeks away). For some unplumbed reason, in the evening, I had a yearning for Earth, Wind, and Fire. “Can’t Let Go” resounded through the speakers, and I suddenly felt my toddler, husband, and I would make it through. There just was no way the Trump regime could possibly endure. Later, when I was in the Burbank airport’s long corridors, I heard some more Earth, Wind, and Fire, and I thought the person who programmed the music must have been feeling like me (Dana Gorzelany-Mostak has noted, EWF’s precision chimes with Obama’s, an attention to detail, equipoise, uplift, and grace).

Similarly, I was anguished during the electoral college vote, and perplexed by what friends were posting on Facebook. I noticed a satirical audiovisual clip about Trump loving Putin at the top of my Facebook feed. I was suddenly newly poised to disseminate, analyze, and promote. Are my visceral responses a function of our highly saturated media environment?

Putin and Trump in Love Actually

And how much can an ad or a gif or a music video mobilize a community? Which pieces mattered in this election? How much do music and music videos mirror our moment, and can they serve as a lens to help us understand where we came from and where we might be going? (This is an argument Siegfried Kracauer made in his book Caligari’s Children: The Film As Tale Of Terror. For Kracauer, fascism was nascent but also self-evident in Weimar-period popular culture.) I noticed that the Chainsmokers mirrored Trump’s aesthetics, though without realizing it (during concerts they stopped songs and admonished crowds not to vote for Trump). The Chainsmokers’ videos tout white male privilege, asserting both their cultural powerlessness and their dominion over women (and thereby claiming the right to seize women’s bodies). Their music is painfully white. Their live shows and videos were the hit of this past summer. I wonder if we might have seen it coming. Of course, the people who spoof are on it. There’s a mash-up of Trump singing “Closer,” but I prefer the mash-up of him singing emo.

The Chainsmokers “Closer”
Donald Trump Sings “Closer” by The Chainsmokers

Post-election, many music videos are muddy and dark (sharing a palate with Pepe the Frog), as if the musicians and the directors are trying to modulate their sense of depression. I can’t believe music videos would look this way had Clinton been elected. Trolling still remains an issue. (Note the ways Shia Lebeouf has been chased by trolls and Pepe the Frog simply for a radio podcast and a white flag.) I don’t know all of the ways the entertainment industry is coping.

Sadly, many blogs now seem to be going into hiatus or shutting down just when we need them the most. Some people call this “Trump Burnout,” authors and readers needing to carry on in the face of what feels like shrinking possibilities. Trax may take a hiatus, and Antenna closed up shop. I hope new forms will emerge to combat our new normal. The future, of course, is uncertain—many of the newest technologies, from psychometrics, big data, to A.I, seem double-edged. We’re waiting for a new contingent to help us face what, for right now, feels like an ever-darkening horizon.

– Carol Vernallis

[i] Carol Vernallis, Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema (New York: Oxford, 2014).

Korean Drumming at the Women’s March in Lexington, KY

February 17, 2017

Like dozens of cities around the nation and globe, Lexington, Kentucky witnessed a women’s march with thousands in attendance the day after Trump’s inauguration (January 21, 2017). Lexington police and the Kentucky National Organization for Women said it was the largest march seen in city history. The overarching goal of this march and the sister marches was to challenge the overtones, attitudes, and rhetoric and language of the Trump presidency while uniting all people “for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families—recognizing that our vibrant and diverse communities are the strength of our country.”

Prior to the Lexington march itself speeches were made by local politicians and civic leaders including Kentucky Secretary of State, Alison Lundergan Grimes. 

*Video no longer available

Women’s March on Washington – Lexington, KY from Pinnacle Productions on Vimeo.

Alison Lundergan Grimes Speech, January 21, 2017 (at 1:25)

Following Grimes’s speech, you will notice a short clip of the Korean drumming seen and heard at the march.

Six musicians performed at the Lexington march: Donna Kwon, Martina Vasil, Elizabeth Navarro Varnado, Isaac Maupin, Emily Furnish, and myself, Megan Murph. What follows is my reflection on the sights and sounds of the event. This context along with footage, photographs, and performer’s reflections will help in understanding the role of music in the greater social movement represented by the march. These primary sources will reveal how the drumming was used in exciting the crowds, unifying the chants, and keeping the walk together; the drumming was also a way the performers could creatively serve their fellow marchers and offer a unique sonic experience for the event.  

The four percussive instruments included in the performance were the changgo (hour-glass drum), puk (barrel drum), jing (gong), and kkwaenggwari (small gong). These instruments are used in P’ungmul, a genre of Korean instrumental folk music, which also includes dancing. The band is led by the small gong player. While today P’ungmul is seen primarily as a performance art, it is rooted in providing rhythms for farmers or workers in collective labor, as well as used to accompany shamanistic rituals and community events. According to native Korean beliefs and scholarship, P’ungmul was created for and by the people as a harmonic way to unify the three elements of heaven, earth, and humans (Kwon 2011). P’ungmul has been an important aspect of political protests in South Korea since the 1970s (Lee 2012). In the United States, Korean American activists sympathetic with Korean politics formed P’ungmul groups beginning in the 1980s. Still today P’ungmul is used in protest movements both in the USA and in Korea (Kwon 2001, Kim 2011, Lee 2012).

Our Lexington band wore traditional P’ungmul costumes in red, white, and blue, which allowed for us to pay tribute to the colors of the American flag (Fig. 1). We performed rhythms and choreographed steps when the march was at a halt (Fig. 2).

Fig. 1 Photo Courtesy of Martina Vasil

Marcher’s Video Recording of Drumming from Facebook (Courtesy of Roaa Jarrar)

Fig. 2 Photo courtesy of Ysabel Sarte

The music we performed at the march mainly included improvised rhythms intended to accompany the chants of the people around us. You may hear this in the first video. Some of the chants we accompanied included (in no particular order):

  • “Ho ho, Hey hey, Women’s rights are here to stay”
  • “Women united will never be divided”
  • “No Trump, No KKK, No Fascist USA”
  • “Unafraid” 
  • “We gon’ be alright” (Kendrick Lamar reference)
  • “Black Lives Matter” 

We also occasionally inserted Korean phrases traditionally heard in P’ungmul, such as “Olshigu,” (which roughly translates to “Right On!”), “Jolshigu” (“We’re on track!”), and “Jotta” (“Good job!”). These declamations functioned within the group as a way to affirm that we were playing well together and in time, but they also reflected the larger picture of the thousands marching in unity together and being “on track.” 

During the event, I found myself having to listen, watch, and pay attention to many aspects of the march and its music: tuning into the patterns the group was playing and ensuring I was playing Puk well; making sure our rhythms matched the chants of the crowds around us and that our steps were unified; and safeguarding that our drums or sticks were clear of the small children marching or riding in strollers.

Walking through the soundscape was at times magnificent. There were a few intense moments involving the sound when I could not decipher between the chants, yells, drums, and other external sonorities (like cars, sirens, talking, etc.), not to mention the physical and sonic impact of feeling and hearing the Puk, a bass drum, which was strapped to my torso. I felt the vibrations of the drum with every step and breath, thinking about how my breath, step, and musical action aligned, a concept that master P’ungmul players ingrain in their teachings (Kwon 2011).

I experienced an especially powerful moment at the Martin Luther King bridge. Dozens of people were standing above on the bridge watching and cheering us on. As we walked under the bridge, the sounds were amplified. The structure of the bridge caused a convergence of sounds from the people above, the people on the street, and the drums. Those walking through the space experienced a collision with the sonorities around them, physically feeling the resulting reverberations throughout their bodies with pressure on their ears. This moment was a stark contrast from being out on the open street. Under the bridge, everything felt sonically louder and physically tighter, and perhaps emotionally we, the marchers, were even closer.

Two concerns I had going into the day were whether my fellow marchers would even want the drums to be a part of the event and/or if people would be offended by me, a white person, playing a Korean folk instrument. I wondered if there would be anger or questions about appropriation. I was playing an instrument that I did not culturally grow up around and for me, it was more about providing rhythms for the day’s demonstration rather than trying to recreate a tradition that I will never be able to fully understand or be a part of. This reminded me of Ted Solís’s introduction to the book, Performing 

Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensembles, where he discusses the challenges of what cultural information is put out there when an outsider plays a world music instrument (Solís 2004, 10–13). Such engagement requires respect and a sense of responsibility to balance learning, interpreting, creating, and recreating the music. There seemed to be public understanding that we were being respectful of P’ungmul at the Lexington march. People stopped to ask questions about the instruments’ origins and were intrigued and impressed by the instruments’ tone and beauty. Many were excited we performed and encouraged us by cheering, clapping, waving, or verbally saying “thank you” for being a part of the march. These interactions assured me that our band was welcomed at the action.

When the march wrapped around to its ending point, we performed the traditional P’ungmul closing rhythms and bowed to show appreciation to our fellow marchers.

I had the opportunity to talk with a few of the other drummers about why they chose to march and what they thought the drums brought to the event.

Kwon played the small gong and said she joined the march “to show solidarity with the women’s march in Washington, DC.” She stated: “I’m excited to be part of a local movement of people who care about women’s rights and about the rights of diverse people in the United States, including immigrants, people of all religions, all sexualities, classes, races, ethnicities, etc. I’m excited to express our diversity through sound – through the Korean drums – and hopefully people will be supportive and accepting of this. The last time I marched with Korean drums was during protests in San Francisco against the war in Iraq and this was such a powerful experience in my life. In so many ways, I feel so overwhelmed in facing the new agenda of Trump’s presidency that is so fundamentally against what I believe in on so many levels: rights of women, working to avert climate change and protecting the environment from neoliberal development, protecting public education, the arts and the humanities, affordable health care, and the list goes on and on. I feel like this will be a good step in working locally to mobilize against so many of the fights ahead.”

When asked why she wanted to perform, Kwon said: “I think it can be used to both support the marchers and provide some sonic energy for people and accompany chants. If we get a chance to play Korean rhythms then it will be a nice opportunity to insert some diversity into the march, but I’m sure whatever happens we will be there to support, to unite and come together.”

From Kwon’s statements we see that she was more concerned with using the drumming to support the local marchers and to be a part of the demonstration itself than to play or recreate traditional Korean customs, which connects to Solís’s aforementioned commentary.

Vasil performed changgo, sharing that she joined Lexington’s march because “women’s rights are being restricted and I want to protest.” She continued: “Already in the state of Kentucky, two bills were passed: one prohibits an abortion at or after twenty weeks even in the case of rape or incest, and the second requires a physician or technician to perform an ultrasound, describe and display the ultrasound images to the mother, and provide audio of the fetal heartbeat to the mother before she may have an abortion. Additionally, I continue to be abhorred by president-elect Trump’s comments and actions toward women and think that his behavior has emboldened more people to treat women disrespectfully.”

Vasil said that “performing changgo will provide a powerful sound to the march and the protest that will support the chants and energize the crowd. Playing the drum makes me feel powerful and makes me feel like I have a strong voice in this march.”

Varnado also performed changgo and shared that she joined the march because she felt “if our country held the things that women—as caring, thoughtful, compassionate humans—typically value most, we would be a happier and healthier nation. I also want to express my intention to make sure that a cultural attitude of respect towards women continues to grow, despite what our country’s leaders may say or do.”

Varnado proceeded to say she wanted to do something “to be heard, and something that is fun, encouraging and uplifting, not chanting that is condemning or anti-Trump. I just don’t see that as something that is helpful. But playing music, maybe getting some people to dance to clap along, unites and strengthens everyone who takes part.”

There are similarities in Kwon, Vasil, and Varnado’s comments—each addresses issues of human rights and seeks a common good for people in our country. This was the overarching theme for the women’s marches held across the nation and world the weekend of January 21. In regard to the intention behind drumming, they all mentioned wanting to provide energy for the event that would be uplifting and meaningful for the marchers.

I joined the march because I wanted to stand in solidarity with people of color, women, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities, and other marginalized people here in Kentucky and beyond. For me, this march was not about our new president, but about the system as a whole not supporting its people. I joined the march because I believe everyone should have access to equitable resources to live a meaningful life (like good healthcare, quality education, jobs, a living wage, etc.). As a group, we should demand these resources. While I am a musician and I have been involved in local organizing, activism, and protests for several years, this was the first time I had marched with a musical instrument. I was amazed at the impact the sounds had on exciting the crowd, which in turn was energizing and made me want to continue playing.

From the sonic synchronicity to the lyrical expressions from the people, we see music as a resource that may be used to enhance demonstrations as well as other large-group activities. This reflection on Korean drumming heard at the women’s march in Lexington is just one small example of music heard during the 2017 inauguration weekend demonstrations. I hope the people who performed or heard music/sounds at other events, protests, or marches around the globe will document their experiences in order to serve as a catalyst for future action and research in this area. Not only should we keep talking and learning about how music is involved in marches and protests from the inauguration weekend in particular, but we should stay actively engaged in these movements. For when we cannot accept the injustices around us, we must do everything in our power to help change them. 

– Megan Murph


Gwak, S. Sonya. Be(com)Ing Korean in the United States: Exploring Ethnic Identity Formation Through Cultural Practices. Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2008.

Hesselink, Nathan. P’ungmul: South Korean Drumming and Dance. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

Kim, Soo-Jin. “Diasporic P’ungmul in the United States: A Journey between Korea and the United States.” PhD diss., Ohio State University, 2011.

Kwon, Donna. Music in Korea: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

_____.“The Roots and Routes of P’ungmul in the United States.” Umakgwa Munhwa [Music and Culture] No. 5 (2001).  

Lee, Katherine In-Young. “The Drumming of Dissent during South Korea’s Democratization Movement.” Ethnomusicology 56, no. 2 (Spring/Summer 2012), 179–205.

Solís, Ted. “Teaching What Cannot Be Taught: An Optimistic Overview” in Performing Ethnomusicology: Teaching and Representation in World Music Ensembles, edited by Ted Solís, 1–19. University of California Press, 2004.

Yoon, Paul Jong-Chul. “She’s Really Become Japanese Now!: Taiko Drumming and Asian American Identifications.” American Music 19, no. 4 Asian American Music (Winter 2001), 417–38.

Donald Trump, Jackie Evancho, and the Performance of Embattled Whiteness

January 18, 2017

You can access this essay at Musicology Now.

Interested in learning more about inauguration music? Please check out Musicology Now’s other inauguration-related essays. And join Musicology Now for their live blog event which will start on January 19th and continue into inauguration day.

Musicology Now is a blog sponsored by the American Musicological Society, written for the general public. It seeks to promote the results of recent research and discovery in the field of musicology (broadly construed), foster dialogue, and generate a better awareness of the subject matter. Using links, images, and sound, it references conversations within and around the academy and in the principal institutions of music making around the world.

The Trump Bump II: Satire, Remix Culture, and User-generated Campaign Musical Posts

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]

– Michael Saffle

[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, 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, See also “User-generated Campaign Music and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election,” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (Summer 2015),;rgn=main.

[ii] Jewed, “Me at the Zoo,” April 23, 2005, video clip, YouTube,

[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),

[v] Lijun Tang and Syamantak Bhattacharya, “Power and Resistance: A Case Study of Satire on the Internet,” Sociological Research Online

[vi] Lev Manovich, “What Comes After Remix?” Remix Theory (2007),

[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.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] “Jeb Bush 2016 Election Parody Song,” August 31, 2015, video clip, YouTube,

[x] Paraphrased from Markham, “Remix Cultures.”

[xi]  “Ultimate Donald Trump Remix – Official music Video ft Donald Trump,” December 17, 2015, video clip, YouTube, 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.”

[xiv] Purple Knight, “The Ultimate Donald Trump Remix!!!” May 7, 2016, video clip, YouTube,

[xv] For more on Gaben, see

[xvi] Zoja Pavlovskis-Petit, “Irony and Satire,” in A Companion to Satire: Ancient and Modern, ed. Ruben Quintero (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 200), 517.

[xvii] Hugh Atkin, “Classic Trump: A Little Trump Music,” December 2, 2015, video clip, YouTube,

[xviii]  “Donald Trump Sings & Dances – Songify This” [Gregory Brothers] November 6, 2015, video clip, YouTube,

[xix] The Gregory Brothers are known for “Songify the News” and “Autotune the News.”

[xx] Steve Berkes, “Trump – He’s in your Head (Parody),” September 1, 2015, video clip, YouTube,

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Lizette Alvarez, “Comedian is Serious (Mostly) as Candidate,” New York Times, October 29, 2011,

[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]. Only VT users can access this resource.

[xxiv] Jeremy Diamond, “Comedian, Roger Stone Pair up for Donald Trump Music Video,” CNN, September 1, 2015,

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] “Black Trump” (a.k.a. Roy Wood), “They Love Me” Music Video – Black Trump (ft. Jordan Keppler),” video clip, Facebook,

[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. 

Just Sing No: 30 Days, 50 Songs and the Musical Campaign for a Trump-Free America

December 19, 2016

30 Days 30 Songs Playlist

Ryan Bañagale’s essay on the first seven songs of the 30 Days, 30 Songs website discussed the project’s beginnings.[i] Since then, more songs have been released. On October 24, organizers Dave Eggers and Jordan Kurland pointed out that they were expanding it to 30 days and 40 songs because so many more artists wanted to participate. They revealed in a Facebook post,

We are happy to announce that we are expanding this project to include 40 songs in 30 days. Since launching, we’ve received songs of protest from artists across the country. Like the artists we’ve already featured, these musicians want to speak out against the hateful, divisive campaign of Donald Trump.

On November 1, the project once again announced that there would be yet another 10 songs released, totaling 50 songs on the website (Fig. 1). The purpose of the project, as the “About” section of the website states, is as follows: “As artists, we are united in our desire to speak out against the ignorant, divisive, and hateful campaign of Donald Trump.” The reactions to the project by journalists, media authors, and the fans have been striking in how blunt and vocal they are: journalist Meredith Connelly, for example, says that the project gives a musical middle finger to Trump in how the lyrics of the songs denigrate him.[ii]

Figure 1 30 Days, 50 Songs Masthead

Eggers and Kurland have granted various interviews since the project began on October 10. According to Kurland, the purpose of the project was to rally young voters. He and Eggers did not assign the topics to the artists, but instead they “just wanted people to write something inspired by Trump and all the things he’s said and done.”[iii] In Vogue, Eggers pointed out that the target audience for the songs is the undecided voter.[iv] Favoring hyperbolic rhetoric, he referred to Trump as a “world-ending meteorite heading toward the United States.”[v]

The website invests each song with its own page, including not only the lyrics and the video—if one was made—but also the artist’s story about how he or she came up with the song and, in some cases, why people should not vote for Trump. Some of these artists, such as Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, and The Long Winters, came out of a long hiatus just to participate in the project (this was the latter’s first “release” in a decade). Forty-eight different artists released 49 of the songs, the exception being Moby, who recorded two different songs for the project on the same day, each performed with a choir.[vi] Most of the songs on the website are newly composed, though there are a few parody songs and cover songs.

Many of the songs overtly criticize Trump’s actions. Lila Downs’ newly composed mariachi song, “The Demagogue,” musically, but not textually, refers to Trump’s incendiary remarks directed toward Mexicans.[vii] By using mariachi music, the song indirectly references his desire to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the southern border (in fact, on the night of the election, a mariachi band paraded outside of Trump Tower). The lyrics to Franz Ferdinand’s newly composed song “Demagogue,” which was released a mere two days after the unveiling of an audio tape where Trump bragged about his sexually aggressive treatment of women to a television host, mentions his “pussy grabbing fingers.”[viii] The song is in the alternative rock style typical for the band’s releases. Cold War Kids were inspired to join the project with their newly composed track “Locker Room Talk” after hearing Death Cab for Cutie’s song.[ix] The first verse, as well as the title, is a direct reference to the tape and Trump’s response to it, in which he justified his sexually abusive comments as just “locker room talk.”

Just one day after Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was destroyed, clipping. released their newly composed song,  “Fat Fingers,” a hip hop track and accompanying video which featured video footage of the person destroying the star.[x] The song begins with sounds from a playground and ends with people whistling the Canadian National Anthem, perhaps a nod to Trump detractors’ claims that they will move to Canada in the event of a Trump win.

Two of the songs use a folk style typical of 1960s protest music. The first, “Old Man Trump,” is actually a newly composed song that sets a text that Woody Guthrie a wrote in the 1950s about his landlord, Trump’s father (Fred Trump).[xi] These lyrics were uncovered at the Woody Guthrie Archives.[xii] Guthrie’s estate gave U.S. Elevator (Mac McCaughan and Tim Bluhm) permission to cover the song specifically for this project, partially because U.S. Elevator’s front man, Johnny Irion, is married to Guthrie’s granddaughter.[xiii] While the lyrics are Guthrie’s, typical of the singer-songwriter’s style, the musical style is modern in that it is a modern alternative rock song but the band has its roots in folk music.[xiv] The second newly composed song, Andrew St. James’s “Makin’ It Great Again!,” is in the style of protest songs created by Bob Dylan, not only musically, but also in the way St. James sings (he seems to imitate Dylan’s voice) and how the recording was mastered.[xv] Like much of Dylan’s music, the song is in urban folk style and features the guitar and harmonica as prominent instruments, just as Dylan does in his music. And speaking of Bob Dylan, Wesley Stace’s parody song “Mr. Tangerine Man,” sung to the tune of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” berates Trump’s outwardly “orange” appearance and his out-of-control hair, then ridicules his sore-loser attitude and even makes fun of his children’s appearances.[xvi]

There are other covers as well. The fiftieth and final song, “Vote for Me Dummy,” performed by Rogue Wave, is a cover of the same song originally performed by Guided by Voices.[xvii] The newly composed song “Bart to the Future Part 2: The Musical” by Modern Baseball is inspired by the prescient March 19, 2000 episode of The Simpsons called “Bart to the Future,” a parody in title of the film Back to the Future, in which Trump becomes president (Fig. 2).[xviii]

Figure 2 “Bart to the Future Simpsons Episode

Many of the songs use Trump’s rhetoric against him in their titles and/or lyrics, such as in St. James’s newly composed song “Makin’ It Great Again!” and The Long Winters’ newly composed song “Make America Great Again.”[xix] These two songs are linked topically by using the basic idea of Trump’s own words. Other songs address Trump’s relationship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: thus the video for Baz Bhiman’s newly composed song “With Love From Russia,” a play on the title of the James Bond movie From Russia with Love (1963), features a still shot of a painted mural that shows both men embracing and kissing (Fig. 3).[xx]

Figure 3 Putin and Trump in “With Love From Russia”

Several of the songs take on a humorous or satirical tone in imagining a Trump presidency. For example, in a video collaboration with comedy video website Funny or Die, Loudon Wainwright III, father of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, performs his newly composed song “I Had a Dream” about a Trump presidency.[xxi] He imagines who Trump would install in his cabinet, referring to a Trump presidency as a nightmare while at the same time citing the title of Martin Luther King’s iconic speech. Like St. James’s “Makin’ It Great Again,” this song is for solo acoustic guitar, harmonica, and voice in urban folk style. Tim Heidecker’s newly composed black humor song “Trump’s Pilot” is sung from the perspective of the person piloting Trump’s airplane, who takes the plane down to deter him from being elected.[xxii]

Two of the newly composed songs, Death Cab for Cutie’s “Million Dollar Loan” and Heidecker’s “Trump’s Pilot” received updates during the course of the election’s last days.[xxiii] On November 7, Death Cab released a new animated music video for “Million Dollar Loan” which, as of this writing, has almost 33,683 views on YouTube. Only a few hours after the release of “Trump’s Pilot,” Father John Misty released a cover of the song, showing how significant this song was to Misty.[xxiv]

The 30 Days, 30 Songs project is unusual in its representation of a wide range of genres. It is not as homogenous as musicians’ earlier anti-election projects, such as those against George W. Bush and John Kerry, which were mainly confined to a single genre. Here, there is a mix of every genre from Indie rock to spoken word to hip-hop to metal and everything in between.[xxv]

The project released its last two songs on Election Day. The final Facebook post of the day reminded people of their duty: “The first polls close at 6 p.m. EST. Get out there and #vote! Thank you to everyone who contributed to and supported this project. No matter what happens tonight, we will remain united against the ignorance and bigotry that has defined Donald Trump’s campaign.” The goal of the project, it seems, was to prevent the unthinkable from happening.

But the unthinkable did happen. Trump was elected to the presidency and, two days later, the project’s Facebook page featured a new cover photo that counts the days left in Trump’s presidency, phrasing it as 1460 Days, 1460 Songs, though no songs will actually be released (Fig. 4). The project’s creators voiced their resilience to not give up and this was accompanied by a simple caption: “Keep your heads up. Keep fighting.”

Figure 4 1460 Days, 1460 Songs Masthead

– Reba Wissner

[i] Ryan Raul Bañagale, “30 Days, 30 Songs: ‘Puncturing That Inflated Horror of an Ego,” Trax on the Trail, October 17, 2016,

[ii] Meredith Connelly, “30 Days, 30 Songs Gives a Musical Middle Finger to Trump,” Noise Porn, October 22, 2016,  

[iii] Alex Galbraith, “Meet the Man That Rallied Your Favorite Artists to Write Donald Trump Protest Songs,” Uproxx, October 19, 2016),

[iv] Julia Felsenthal, “Dave Eggers on 30 Days, 30 Songs, His Project for a Trump-Free America, Vogue, October 14, 2016),

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Moby and the Homeland Choir, “Trump Is on Your Side,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,; and Moby and the Void Pacific Choir, “Little Failure,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[vii] Lila Downs, “The Demagogue,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[viii] Franz Ferdinand, “Demagogue,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[ix] Cold War Kids, “Locker Room Talk,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[x] clipping., “Fat Fingers,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xi] Michael Kennedy, “‘This Land is (Once Again) Your Land’: Woody Guthrie and the 2015-2016 US Presidential Race,” Trax on the Trail, August 24, 2016.

[xii] U.S. Elevator (feat. Mac McCaughan and Tim Bluhm), “Old Man Trump,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] U.S. Elevator, “About,” August 29, 2015),

[xv] Andrew St. James, “Makin’ It Great Again!,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xvi] Welsey Stace, “Mr. Tangerine Man,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,; and ZeDesXia, “Bob Dylan – Mr. Tambourine Man,” September 17, 2016, YouTube, video clip,

[xvii] Rogue Wave, “Vote for Me Dummy,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,; and Guided By Voices, “Vote for Me Dummy,” February 8, 2014, YouTube, video clip,

[xviii] Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis, 1985; and Modern Baseball, “Bart to the Future Part 2: The Musical,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xix] The Long Winters, “Make America Great Again,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xx] Baz Bhiman, “With Love From Russia,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xxi] Loudon Wainwright III, “I Had a Dream,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xxii] Tim Heidecker, “Trump’s Pilot,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xxiii] Death Cab for Cutie, “Million Dollar Loan,” 30 Days, 30 Songs, video clip,

[xxiv] Death Cab for Cutie, “Death Cab for Cutie – ‘Million Dollar Loan,’” November 7, 2016, YouTube, video clip,; and I live in the woods. My intentions are good, “Father John Misty – ‘Trump’s Pilot,’” November 7, 2016, YouTube, video clip,

[xxv] Reba Wissner, “Not Another Term: Music as Persuasion in the Campaign Against the Re-Election of George W. Bush,” Trax on the Trail, October 5, 2016.

The President Takes the Stage: On Theatre and Safe Spaces for Politicians

December 8, 2016

On November 18, Republican Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multicultural hip-hop retelling of the life of the titular founding father. Miranda had used songs from the musical to campaign for Democrat Hillary Clinton, and was publically against the Republican platform, particularly its plank on immigration. In response to Pence’s attendance, he collaborated with director Thomas Kail, producer Jeffrey Seller, and the current to cast to craft a statement to be read after the curtain call. As soon as the bows were complete, actor Brandon Victor Dixon (who portrayed Vice President Aaron Burr) asked Pence to wait a moment before leaving the theatre. As the audience began to boo, he made the following remarks:

There’s nothing to boo. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you sir, we hope that you will hear us out. […] Vice president-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do. We, sir, are the diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us: our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Thank you truly for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.

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Pence was not bothered by the statement; he listened from the lobby, and took the audience boos in the spirit of the first amendment, saying they were “what freedom sounds like.” President-elect Donald Trump was another matter. The following morning, Trump took to Twitter to excoriate the cast of Hamilton:

The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016

But Trump’s description of theatre as a “safe” space where politicians can take a break from the world of governance does not hold up to historical scrutiny (Craft). Playwrights, composers, actors, and other theatre professionals have used Broadway to criticize politicians and the political process throughout the twentieth century. While to my knowledge a cast has never directly addressed a politician from the stage, there have been cases where elected officials went out of their way to see or support shows that were openly critical of their positions. One case stands out as particularly relevant to the Hamilton kerfuffle: Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s Knickerbocker Holiday, which took on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal in 1938. The show is remembered only for the immortal “September Song,” largely because its politics don’t resonate with today’s audiences, but like HamiltonKnickerbocker Holiday is an American origin story. It takes place in Dutch New Amsterdam in the 17th century, with a story that concerns the arrival of the tyrannical Governor Pieter Stuyvesant. The townsfolk realize that being American means fighting for liberty and freedom, and so they reject the governor’s reign of terror (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 Poster for Knickerbocker Holiday, 1938 (Courtesy of the Kurt Weill Foundation)

On October 15, 1938, FDR attended Anderson and Weill’s musical, where he was treated to a viciously satirical vision of his presidency.  Anderson, who probably would be called a libertarian today, believed that Roosevelt’s New Deal was a criminal governmental power grab that paved the way for fascism. In the “Preface to the Politics of Knickerbocker Holiday,” he wrote

The members of a government are not only in business, but in a business which is in continual danger of lapsing into pure gangsterism, pure terrorism and plundering, buttering over at the top by a hypocritical pretense at patriotic unselfishness. The continent of Europe has been captured by such governments within the last few years, and our own government is rapidly assuming economic and social responsibility which take us in the same direction (Anderson vi).

In order to make his point, Anderson turned the historical Governor Stuyvesant into a stand-in for the President (Fig 2). The idea was particularly pointed given that Roosevelt was one of Stuyvesant’s successors; he’d been governor of New York between 1929 and 1932. Anderson painted Stuyvesant as a greedy, power-mad tyrant disguised as a populist, who hid all of his unsavory agenda in the fine print of his policies. When Stuyvesant first arrives in New York, he delivers a stump speech that lays out his plans:

STUYVESANT: From this date forth the council has no function except the voting of those wise and just laws which you and I find that we need! From this date forth all taxes are abolished! [a tremendous cheer goes up.] Except for those at present in effect and a very few others which you and I may find necessary for the accomplishment of desired reforms. [The CROWD looks a little worried] (Anderson 41).

To add insult to injury, one of those corrupt councilmen is named Roosevelt (based on the president’s direct ancestor). Before Stuyvesant’s arrival, the character Roosevelt leads the council in a “Dutch”-dialect song describing their governmental philosophy:

ROOSEVELT: Ven you first come to session

For making of der laws

You liff on der salary only

But you don’t make no impression

And you don’t get no applause

And der guilders dey look so lonely

So you maybe ask a question of a fellow standing by

And he nefer gives an answer, and he nefer makes reply

But he slips a little silver and he looks you in the eye

And he says, “Hush, hush,” to you (Anderson 11).

Weill actually admired Roosevelt and was somewhat uncomfortable with Anderson’s politics (Juchem 81), but nevertheless supported the message of the drama with his music. He gives the “government” characters of Stuyvesant and the council old-fashioned European idioms. Roosevelt’s song “Hush Hush” is an old-fashioned polka with a bouncy “oom-pah” accompaniment. For Stuyvesant, he composed “All Hail the Political Honeymoon,” a militaristic march that the souvenir program referred to as “Prussian,” linking the would-be tyrant (and therefore Roosevelt) with Hitler. Stuyvesant even sings of “an age of strength through joy,” evoking the well-known Nazi slogan “Kraft durch Freude” (Anderson 44). For the younger generation, particularly the hero Brom Broeck (who proclaims himself the “first American”), Weill composed typical Broadway-style numbers to emphasize their inherent “American-ness.” The breezy soft-shoe “There’s Nowhere to Go But Up” and the forceful foxtrot “How Can You Tell an American?” communicate the essential optimism and individualism that formed Anderson’s vision of the nation’s best characteristics.

Despite the fact that the musical accused Roosevelt of being corrupt, incompetent, and proto-fascist, the President apparently enjoyed the performance. The newspapers wrote that he “laughed heartily” (Hinton 280), although he may have been trying to prove that he was a good sport. By 1938, he may also have developed a relatively high tolerance for Broadway making fun of him. The Pulitzer-prize winning Of Thee I Sing by George and Ira Gershwin mocked his difficulties with the Supreme Court in 1932, and Rodgers and Hart’s I’d Rather Be Right starred the legendary George M. Cohan as Roosevelt himself in 1937. Roosevelt seemed to take it all in stride.

One interesting aspect of the Knickerbocker Holiday story is that Weill was not a citizen when the show premiered. He had arrived in the United States as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany only three years prior and applied for citizenship in 1937, but the process was not complete until 1943. This may be why the issue of who is and who isn’t an American infuses the story. Like in Hamilton, Weill’s America is made up of a contentious group of immigrants and native-born citizens struggling to define their new nation. Also like in Hamilton, Weill and Anderson framed their historical story in ways that resonated with contemporary audiences. During the 1920s and 1930s, stages were rife with “Dutch” acts, but they did not come from The Netherlands. Rather, they came from Germany, with “Dutch” a mispronunciation of “Deutsch.” “German/Dutch” was often elided with Yiddish, so that many of these “Dutch” acts played into the notion of what John Koegel calls “the immigrant Everyman” (189). Many of the German immigrants of the 1930s were like Weill: Jews who fled Nazi Germany, but who had trouble finding a place to settle. Many nations feared that the flood of refugees would not be able to assimilate, or worse, concealed German spies in their numbers (Graber 264–66). Knickerbocker Holiday opened only two months after the Évian Conference, a summit where world leaders attempted (unsuccessfully) to figure out how to cope with the tide of German-Jewish refugees. Amidst this cultural climate, Knickerbocker Holiday tells the story of how immigrants can become loyal American citizens.

Perhaps Knickerbocker Holiday was Weill’s way of reminding Roosevelt (already fairly pro-immigration) and the rest of the nation that the first Americans were immigrants—that “immigrant” and “American” were synonymous rather than mutually exclusive. While the older generation of immigrants resist assimilation, the younger generation sings in the familiar pop music styles of the time, demonstrating that they could indeed assimilate into—and maybe even improve—American culture. If nothing else, Knickerbocker Holiday proves that immigrants do indeed get the job done.

– Naomi Graber

Un-Conventional Music

November 25, 2016

Historical precedents inform us that national party conventions are supposed to ratify a platform and select a nominee, affirm party identity, and celebrate collective unity.[i] This occurs through a four-day spectacle of sight and sound that builds to the climax, the nominee’s acceptance speech at the end of the last day. Not totally unlike the experience of Wagner’s four-day Ring der Nibelungen performance, the musico-dramatic spectacle of the convention should uplift and overwhelm the participants, when it functions according to plan and tradition. Music is mobilized in this context to help create and reinforce a certain spirit among delegates, to foster unity on the convention floor, and to fill in gaps in the stage action.

However, custom-dictated purposes and practices can be derailed by natural disasters like hurricanes (Gustav in 2008 and Isaac in 2012, the latter causing the Republican National Convention to abbreviate its proceedings), or like the tectonic party rifts that opened the Republican and Democratic national conventions this year. Whether the split between Sanders adherents and Hillary Clinton, or the self-distancing of the Republican leadership from a possible Trump nomination, the respective party conventions were wild affairs that reflected more disunity and uncivility than the spectacle of harmony and discipline that tradition dictated. Vocal signs of delegate disapproval flourished on the first day of the respective conventions. In such a welter of anger, music’s voice in underscoring spectacle was diminished until later in the weeks, when the expected display of harmony was at the fore. Still, the first day of the DNC did bring an opportunity for music to redeem a difficult situation: Paul Simon took the stage and performed solo his (and Art Garfunkel’s) song “Bridge Over Troubled Water” to reconcile the Bernie supporters to the idea of a Clinton nomination (Fig. 1). After all, Simon and Garfunkel had given permission for the Sanders camp to use their song “America” in a campaign ad. Although the gesture may not have stilled the derisive chorus of Bernie supporters—Simon himself was in poor voice—,the symbolism of music bridging the gap between Clinton and Sanders was not lost on all delegates, and then Sanders spoke and tried to heal the division within the party by endorsing Hillary Clinton.

Fig 1. Paul Simon performing “Bridge over Troubled Water” at the DNC, Monday, 25 July 2016[ii]

In general, the music at the two conventions followed predictable paths: the Republicans relied upon their allegiances with rock and country, while the Democrats tended towards pop sounds.[iii] As their house band the RNC brought back G.E. Smith and associates, who had provided most of the tracks at the 2012 convention (Fig. 2). The guitarist-band leader justified taking up the offer with the following words: “Not only will this pay for several years of Josie’s school but I can hire six or seven of my friends, and give them a really good pay day too… I’ve been a professional musician since I was 11 years old. It’s what I do: work.”[iv] Smith’s band certainly was more than competent in its musical execution, but they tended to homogenize whatever music they played, so there was not much distinction between David Bowie’s “Station to Station” and Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” for example. In contrast, the Democrats had a full roster of guest appearances by noted artists, as they did in 2012 (but with a decided shift towards the pop side: Boyz II Men, Demi Lovato, Carole King, Lenny Kravitz, Paul Simon, Alicia Keys, and Katy Perry, among others). It was an all-star line-up that rivaled Obama’s in celebrity; the primary difference with four years earlier was in the music to accompany stage action, to fill in gaps, and to motivate delegates: while Obama gave the musical direction over to a DJ, DJ Cassidy, who laid down pre-recorded tracks for walk-ons and walk-offs and the like, Clinton had a band director lead the live performances that accompanied such onstage actions. The Democratic house band was led by Rickey Minor, a former musical director on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno – he not only directed but also produced the music at the DNC (Fig. 3). This espousal of a live performance house-band aesthetic over the work of a DJ marks one of the ways that the Clinton team musically distanced themselves from the Obama legacy, in what might be considered something of a retreat from the edgier musical profile established by the sitting President.

Fig. 2 G.E. Smith (far left) and band at the RNC[v]
Fig. 3 Rickey Minor at the DNC[vi]

In fact, if we were to compare the playlists from the convention halls in Cleveland (Quicken Loans Arena) and Philadelphia (Wells Fargo Center), we might have to recognize the Republicans for their eclectic mix (despite Smith’s smoothing out of rough edges in performance). Yes, GOP stalwarts Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynard did perform in Cleveland, but only off-site, at invitation-only concerts offered ostensibly for the benefit of veterans. The shift in the soundtrack of the RNC was not lost on the reporting media. Writing for NPR, Tsioulcas  observed that “Smith and his fellow musicians put together some intriguing song choices to entertain the delegates.”[vii] Indeed, on the same playlist as “Sweet Caroline” you would find David Bowie’s cocaine-referencing “Station to Station” and the Rolling Stones’ classic song about love, politics, and drugs “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Commenters throughout the Internet were quick to point out the apparent disconnect between the disillusionment of the Stones lyrics and the song’s placement after Trump’s acceptance speech, supposedly the climax in the convention’s spectacle of unity. As an explanation for the music’s repeated performance at his rally, Trump simply remarked, “I like Mick Jagger. I like their songs.”[viii] With such a justification and logic for inclusion, it would be hard for a campaign manager to devise a consistent musical strategy for the convention that based itself upon traditional criterion of unity of style and message. Trump’s disruption of conventional wisdom in running a campaign clearly extended to music at the party’s convention as well. Other songs at the RNC that did not conform to the conservative, white, “heartland” image of the typical Republican included The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” REO Speedwagon’s “Roll with the Changes,” AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” Faces’ “Stay with Me,” and even “Born in the USA” by outspoken Republican opponent Bruce Springsteen. The fact that these songs were all performed by the Smith band re-defines the concept of liveness, for they were all live but not realized by their creators; in essence it turned G.E. Smith and associates into cover artists, a point seemingly overlooked by the press, including musical news outlets. The limiting of musical performance to one group of agents had several results: first of all, it eliminated the possibility of unwanted political demonstrations on the part of the performers; secondly, delegates would be kept unaware of the relative paucity of live musical offerings onstage; and finally, the reliance on covers played by one band ensured a uniformity of musical performance, and at an acceptable level of expression.

The reasons for the anomalies of the RNC playlist are unclear, but besides having a candidate with unorthodox tastes, we should keep in mind that the convention took place in Cleveland, home of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (an electric guitar was featured on the convention logo). Whether or not he was responsible for the musical selections, Smith’s reprise of his role as band leader for the RNC had more than a tinge of irony: G.E. Smith was born George Edward Haddad, the son of Lebanese immigrants—his last name translates from the Arabic to “blacksmith,” or “smith” for short. Under a Trump presidency, his parents may well not have been admitted to the United States.

Fig. 4 RNC Convention Logo[ix]

For their part, the Democrats could count on the active support of musicians, who as a lot tend to support liberal causes and candidates. Like in the past, the DNC foregrounded the diversity of its supporters, and thus representation of artists and groups from the Democratic voter bases of African-Americans, Latinos, and college-educated whites was quite apparent on the stage and undoubtedly drove their selection of musical acts. This contributed to the broad spread of live performances, from the troupe of Broadway musical cast members to the solitary Paul Simon, from Jessica Sanchez performing a song written for the occasion to Carole King rendering her classic “You’ve Got a Friend.” The convention stage was understandably by and large given over to female artists, especially the fourth night: Star Swain, Carole King, Sheila E., and Katy Perry. Most of the artists let their music speak for them, but Demi Lovato delivered an impassioned speech on mental illness on the first night of the DNC (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5 Demi Lovato at the DNC[x]

As already mentioned, Rickey Minor led and produced the music at the DNC. He was interviewed by C-SPAN regarding his responsibilities, which provides some interesting insights into how the house bands function. Minor’s band (which has been together since 1999) rehearsed for two days in LA prior to the convention, bringing a repertory of 300 songs to Philadelphia. He remarked that some presenters suggest songs they would like to have represent them for the walk-ons, but since they perform all-instrumental music for speakers, titles matter less than the energy of the song. When asked about what to do during booing, as happened at the beginning of the DNC, Minor said, “that’s easy. Play louder. I have power. I can turn it up to twelve.”[xi] However, booing has been an exception at the party conventions, although in the current climate of uncivility or—seen otherwise—speaking your mind, it may become a permanent feature of conventions. Ted Cruz received a chorus of boos after his RNC speech, when he refused to endorse Trump. And I may add, booing also contributes to the musical soundscape of a party convention, much as cheering and other spontaneous audience sounds of affirmation do.

One musical phenomenon associated with conventions that is growing in popularity is the off-site concert, whether as a benefit for veterans or the city of Camden, New Jersey, or as a means to offer an alternative entertainment to what is happening on the convention floor of the other party. For example, the American country group The Band Perry was heard not in Quicken Loans Arena, but rather at the Jacobs Pavilion after the proceedings closed on Monday, 18 July, the concert intending to “honor” the House Republican Leadership, the House Republican Conference, the Wisconsin Delegates, and national state-level Republican leadership. The next night, Super 18 Diamond (a Neil Diamond tribute band) and Rick Springfield furnished the music for an event at the same time and in the same place, ”to honor the House Republican whip team.”[xii] It was at such an event (and not in the convention hall) that GOP VIPs got to hear conservative favorites Kid Rock and Lynyrd Skynyrd, But the Democrats were not beyond providing elite musical entertainments of their own: by one estimate they offered 170 off-site activities for guests, albeit often to benefit specific charitable causes and recognize the work of party members.[xiii] Thus, on Thursday, 28 July, Lady Gaga, Lenny Kravitz, and DJ Jazzy Jeff wrapped up the convention with a free concert at the BB&T Pavilion in Camden, New Jersey, under the event title “Camden Rising.” Elsewhere in Philly you could take in convention- or party-themed performances by Ke$ha, Drive-By Truckers, Alicia Keys, and Haim, just to name a few of the pro-Democratic (or anti-Trump) musicians. One of the causes underscored by a special off-site concert was Gabby Giffords’ pro-gun control super PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, which hosted Ke$ha, Drive-By Truckers, and DJ Reach on Tuesday, at 10 p.m.

For 2012, major performances still took place within the frame of the conventions, where all of the delegates could benefit from a brush with celebrity. The proliferation of musical events outside the convention halls in 2016 should cause the researcher (and the delegate) to reconsider what exactly constitutes the DNC and RNC. This redefining is especially needed in light of the media’s collapsing of all convention-related events in a given host city under the umbrella rubrics of “Democratic National Convention” and “Republican National Convention.” If the traditional in-hall convention experience were to spill out into the surrounding community, as increasingly appears to be the case, it might also be necessary to redefine the spectacle that has characterized the national party conventions from the start.

– James Deaville

[i] For a discussion of the history and aesthetics of the national party conventions, with special emphasis on those of 2012, see this author’s “The Sound of Media Spectacle: Music at the Party Conventions,” Music and Politics 9, no. 2 (2015), at:;rgn=main.

[ii] Image:

[iii] The candidate Barack Obama and the Democratic party drew upon classic R & B/soul for the 2008 convention and the same with a healthy dose of classic rock in 2012, while for Hillary Clinton’s nomination, the predominant sound was (female) pop.

[iv] Anastasia Tsioulcas, “Cleveland, Rocked: Music at The Republican National Convention,” NPR Music, July 22, 2016,

[v] Image:

[vi] Image:

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Image:

[x] Image:

[xi] “Democratic National Convention House Band Leader,” C-SPAN, July 27, 2016,

[xii] “Music Stars Lining Up to Perform at Charity Concert Events at RNC in Cleveland,” Webster Public Relations, July 8, 2016,

[xiii] Peter Weber, “The Democratic National Convention Will Have Some Serious Star Power,” The Week, July 14, 2016,

30 Days, 30 Songs: “Puncturing that inflated horror of an ego”

October 17, 2016

I won’t lie. I’m a fan of just about anything Ben Gibbard does—be that as frontman for Death Cab for Cutie, as fifty-percent of The Postal Service, or as trail running fanatic. When word of a new Death Cab for Cutie song came across my newsfeed last week, I immediately clicked through to take a listen. The track—entitled “Million Dollar Loan”—stands in sonic lockstep with what we have come to expect from the band: sparse suspended chords, alternating minor and major tonalities, and contemplative space between vocal utterances. And perhaps this familiarity is all by design. As the inaugural song for a new music-oriented political website called 30 Days, 30 Songs, “Million Dollar Loan” has to grab listeners by the ears and entice them to explore further offerings (Fig. 1).

Figure 1 30 Days, 30 Songs Website

Launched on October 10, 2016, 30 Days, 30 Songs provides a new piece of music to accompany each day during the final month of the election. All songs are written and recorded by “Artists for a Trump-Free America”—though individual names are not announced until their respective songs are released—and proceeds will be donated to the Center for Popular Democracy. The “about” section of the website does not mince words:

We hope these songs provide both motivation and soundtrack to doing the right thing these last few weeks before this most pivotal election. Consider this the music by which you will register to vote and cast your ballot for Hillary Clinton, the only candidate who can prevent the apocalypse that would be Donald Trump as president.

As various news outlets report, this new unabashedly anti-Trump music site is the creation of Dave Eggers (author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and founder of McSweeny’s).  His inspiration for the project was hearing music at a Donald Trump rally in Sacramento that he covered at the start of June. Eggers’ reported in The Guardian that music was being used by artists he felt would not want to be associated with Trump, including “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John and the theme from the Hollywood movie Air Force One by the late film composer Jerry Goldsmith. Indeed, a producer for that film subsequently requested the campaign stop, stating “Goldsmith composed music to underscore a make-believe, heroic president … not to help create a phony soundtrack for Trump.”

As readers of Trax on the Trail are well aware, artists such as Aerosmith, Backstreet Boys, Queen, R.E.M., and Neil Young are only a few of many who have similarly reproached the Trump campaign’s unauthorized use of their music. Television host John Oliver did a nice bit about the issue of politicians appropriating songs in a segment for his show Last Week Tonight after the Republican National Convention in July. And although not all the artists whose music is heard at Trump rallies take issue with such use, the artists participating in the 30 Days, 30 Songs project assuredly do not support his campaign.

The 30 Days website proudly displays a quotation from The Washington Post: “A playlist of songs that Donald Trump will hate.” So far that list includes songs composed specifically for this project: “Million Dollar Loan” by Death Cab for Cutie, “Can’t You Tell?” by Aimee Mann, “With Love from Russia” by Bhi Bhiman, “Demagogue” by Franz Ferdinand, and “Before You Vote” by Thao Nguyen of The Get Down Stay Down. Each of these tracks—composed, recorded, and produced between mid-June (when Eggers initiated the project) and mid-October—directly addresses the Republican candidate. For example, in addition to referencing the money Trump borrowed from his father at the outset of his career, the accompanying music video for “Million Dollar Loan” plays with the candidate’s platform position of building of a wall between the United States and Mexico. Brick by brick, a cinder block structure is erected on screen. First by Trump and then by others. In the end, however, the construction is not a wall but a solitary box with the candidate left standing alone inside. Franz Ferdinand’s “Demagogue” contains the lyric “those pussy grabbing fingers won’t let go of me now”—a not so subtle reference to the now infamous “hot mic” remarks made by Trump to Billy Bush during a 2005 Access Hollywood segment. That tape was released by the press on October 7 and Franz Ferdinand’s song was published online exactly one week later. In this respect, the 30 Days endeavor takes advantage of our age of digital production and instant distribution in a way that protest music of previous generations could not.

Dave Eggers stated in a recent interview with Vogue that these songs “might even at first sound benign to Trump supporters, but if you listen closely, they’d all be puncturing that inflated horror of an ego he has.” This is particularly true of tracks that do not reference Trump directly. Jim James of the band My Morning Jacket contributed “Same Old Lie”—a song slated as the opening track for his solo album Eternally Even to be released next month. The song speaks more broadly to the cyclical nature of political deception—one that could just as easily be applied to either of the major party candidates. But when placed alongside the anti-Trump laden rhetoric of the other songs, it squarely targets the Republican candidate. Similarly, Josh Ritter’s “The Temptation of Adam” is a song first released almost a decade ago. Yet this mid-nuclear-apocalypse-love-song about a relationship blossoming in an isolated missile silo takes on new meaning when placed in the context of a future presumably overseen by President Trump.

As of this writing, the “Million Dollar Loan” music video has 370,000 views on YouTube and more than 1,400 comments. Reading through the wide range of responses posted alongside this video prompts several questions: Who are these songs for? Are they for the undecided voter?  Are they for fans of the individual artists who may or may not change how they think because their favorite band has come out against Trump?  Do they unintentionally become fodder for Trump supporters to spurn the anti-Trump crowd? Perhaps as the playlist continues to unfold, we’ll get a clearer sense of the answers to some of these questions.  And more likely than not, new questions will emerge as well.

Death Cab for Cutie has been the most prominent contributor to this point—but that might change in the coming days. A quick scan of participants from Eggers’ 90 Days, 90 Reasons—a 2012 project dedicated to President Obama’s reelection campaign—suggests we are in for some heavy hitters. Probably not by coincidence, Ben Gibbard, also provided the first entry for the 90 Days project. Two other contributors to that previous endeavor also provided songs in the first week: Jim James and Thao Nguyen. Dave Eggers has indicated that R.E.M. will contribute a previously unreleased live version of a song relevant to the cause. And R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe formerly provided reason number twenty-three. It remains entirely possible that other 90 Days, 90 Reasons authors will reprise their electoral support through song, including prominent acts such as Paul Simon, Moby, Mike McCready (Pearl Jam), and Nate Mendel (Foo Fighters).

But one of the more important features of 30 Days, 30 Songs is that it casually mixes well-known acts with lesser known artists—it is a democratic playlist in this regard as well. Currently, alongside Death Cab for Cutie, Aimee Mann, and Franz Ferdinand are offerings by Bhi Bhian, Jim James, Josh Ritter, and Thao. And the 90 Days, 90 Reasons list features a set of lesser-known but wonderfully thoughtful and talented musicians: Reggie Watts, Win and Will Butler (Arcade Fire), Michael Franti (and Spearhead), Ben Jaffe, Dee-1, and Steve Aoki. We might also expect to see these artists participating in the project.

According to Eggers, the endeavor has more songs than days—twenty-five more songs, to be exact. I would imagine that in the days leading up to the election, more and more artists will give voice to this musical anti-Trump movement regardless of whether or not they are directly involved with the 30 Days, 30 Songs project. Just this past Friday, for example, of Black Eyed Peas fame released “GRAB’m by the PU$$Y” via Funny Or Die—it already has over half-a-million views.

Stay tuned.

– Ryan Raul Bañagale

The Snowths & Mahna Mahna, Baby & Johnny, Michael Myers & the Final Girl Join the Debate

Much to the delight of Trax on the Trail and its contributors, the second presidential debate inspired at least a dozen musical settings. We have seen Hillary and Donald singing duets, busting out dance moves, assuming Muppet personas, and appearing as the leads in a horror film. Indeed this activity brings some much needed levity as we move toward the final countdown to election day, but what should we make of these quirky musical gems? For Sound Trax this week, Naomi Graber (University of Georgia), Eric Hung (Westminster Choir College of Rider University) and Aaron Manela (Case Western Reserve University) weigh in on musicalized versions of the second presidential debate.

Need more debate music? Check out our Pinterest Board!

October 9, 2016

Much to the delight of Trax on the Trail and its contributors, the second presidential debate inspired at least a dozen musical settings. We have seen Hillary and Donald singing duets, busting out dance moves, assuming Muppet personas, and appearing as the leads in a horror film. Indeed this activity brings some much needed levity as we move toward the final countdown to election day, but what should we make of these quirky musical gems? For Sound Trax this week, Naomi Graber (University of Georgia), Eric Hung (Westminster Choir College of Rider University) and Aaron Manela (Case Western Reserve University) weigh in on musicalized versions of the second presidential debate.

Need more debate music? Check out our Pinterest Board!


Terror at the Townhall

Naomi Graber

*Video unavailable

In any good horror film there comes a moment when you feel the overwhelming urge to shout “look behind you!” at the screen. Some viewers had a similar reaction to the second presidential debate, in which Donald J. Trump appeared to prowl behind Hillary Clinton, possibly with some less-than-savory intent. For Grammy- and Emmy-winning composer Danny Elfman, the scene certainly felt unsettling. “Watching Trump lurching behind Hillary during the debate felt a bit like a zombie movie,” he told the website Funny or Die, “like at any moment he was going to attack her, rip off her head, and eat her brains.” Elfman would know—since 1985 he has been director Tim Burton’s go-to composer for scoring his weird, creepy, and occasionally bone-chillingly scary films, including Beetlejuice (1987), The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and Sleepy Hollow (1999). Inspired by Trump’s performance, Elfman collaborated with director Richard Kraft and editor James E. Jacoby on a recut of the debate called “Trump Stalks Hillary.” The new musical underscore makes it seem like the Republican nominee is silently menacing Clinton a la Michael Myers and Laurie Strode in Halloween (1978), or Norman Bates spying on an unsuspecting Marion Crane in Psycho (1961). He does this by drawing on a number of the musical sounds associated with horror film. There are whining mechanical noises reminiscent of Charlie Clouser’s music for the Saw franchise (2004–) and a low thumping that sounds like a heartbeat, calling to mind Franz Waxman’s classic music for The Bride of Frankenstein (1935). As is typical for horror soundtracks, there are also elements inspired by mid-century avant-garde techniques, including frenzied tone clusters in the strings and dissonant drones both high and low.

Elfman’s soundtrack illustrates the power of film music to alter the viewer’s response to images. Without Elfman’s score, Trump’s meandering might seem harmless, or maybe vaguely worrisome at worst. But set to these disturbing sounds, Trump’s behavior appears downright threatening. The effect is a result of one of the unique facets of horror soundtracks. Horror is a “body genre,” that is, a genre that is meant to produce a direct effect on the audience’s physical body; in the case of horror, the trembling and adrenaline rush that accompanies fear.[i] Music plays a key role in this physiological reaction.[ii] The thumping pulses mimic our own pounding hearts (and may even induce the same pounding, depending on the volume), the drones resemble the ringing in our ears, and the dissonant and atonal elements serve to disorient us. In short, Elfman’s soundtrack makes it seem like Trump is not only threatening Clinton, but threatening us as well. The composer makes us experience the physiological and psychological feelings of fear by his skillful use of music, even though nothing in the visual track is overtly frightening.

Elfman depicts Trump as the typical horror movie villain, but Clinton’s role is less clear. She might be just another hapless victim, destined to fall prey to Elfman’s psychotic monster. However, she might be the triumphant Final Girl, the only one with the pluck, courage, and gumption to take out the killer. We’ll have to wait for November 8 to find out.


The Clinton-Trump Debate: A Dirty Dancing Fantasy

Eric Hung

Two days after the second presidential debate in St. Louis, Dutch entertainer Sander van de Pavert posted a parody video of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump “singing” “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life,” the theme song from the popular romantic drama Dirty Dancing (1987). Since its launch on October 11, this video has garnered over 1.5 million hits on YouTube, and it has been featured on numerous news and entertainment programs. So, why does this two-minute video resonate with so many people?

Most obviously, the video plays on the enemies-turned-lovers cliché that so many writers, playwrights, and opera composers have used so effectively for centuries. Clinton and Trump couldn’t even shake hands with each other at the beginning of the debate; now suddenly, they are declaring their love for each other. Voters who see both Trump and Clinton as neoliberal puppets might find this narrative to be particularly appropriate. After all, the two candidates used to be friendly with each other—the Clintons did attend Trump’s third wedding. Although they are now battling hard against one another, the two continue to share—according to this line of thought—the same love for the one-percent. Chances are, whatever the outcome, the two will be on the same team again after the election.

For fans of Dirty Dancing, this video might resonant in a very different way. In the film, the male voice represents the character Johnny Castle (Patrick Swayze), a working-class dancer who heads the entertainment staff at a posh resort. The female voice represents Frances Houseman (Jennifer Grey), the sheltered younger daughter of an affluent and well-connected family. Throughout the film, she demonstrates the ability to think for herself.  However, her lack of life experience, the result of very strict upbringing, is dramatized by the fact that everyone—except Castle at the very end—calls her “Baby.”

Considering this odd couple to be an allegory for Trump and Clinton is frankly not difficult. For Baby, part of Castle’s appeal is his outsider status. Although reminded of his place and warned to stay in line, he refuses to conform to the mores of polite society and instead opens Baby’s eyes to the “real” world. Despite the fact that Trump is extremely rich, his appeal lies largely in the fact that he is a political outsider. He refuses to play by that group’s code of acceptable behavior; his abrasive and confrontational manner of speaking is, for his supporters, refreshing. When Castle develops a relationship with Baby, he faces baseless accusations of theft and of impregnating his former dance partner. Trump likewise lives an embattled life: thousands of workers claim that Trump stole their salaries, and numerous women have accused him of sexual assault. Although there is a great deal of evidence against Trump, the fact that so many came forward at the moment he became the political elite’s “ugly duckling” provides an interesting parallel to the Castle character.

Like Baby, Clinton is a part of a well-connected family. As a former first lady, senator, and a secretary of state, she is unquestionably a political insider. Despite her many achievements, however, many detractors have infantilized her over the course of the campaign, largely because of her gender. They complain that she giggles too much, or doesn’t smile enough. Even her campaign called her “our girl” in an email to supporters!

Another way that van de Pavert’s video resonates with viewers is that it dramatizes the changing likeability of the two candidates. In recent weeks, Clinton’s favorability index has been improving. As observed in the video, she appears composed and prepared during the debate.  Meanwhile, Trump has become increasingly disliked over the past month, and van de Pavert decided to highlight his disingenuous character in the video. After he “sings” the line “Now I’ve finally found someone / To stand by me,” Trump’s exasperated facial expression makes it clear that he did not for one second believe the words that just came out of his mouth. To put it more bluntly, van de Pavert made him appear to be a womanizer who would say anything to get what he wants.

At the end of Dirty Dancing, both protagonists are vindicated. Baby’s father apologizes to Castle for falsely accusing him of impregnating his former dance partner, and Castle uses the name Frances for her instead of Baby, acknowledging that she is a self-actualized adult. In this election, such a happy ending would be impossible to achieve, and that might be one more reason why we enjoy this parody so much. 


Everyone is a Snowth: Trump Sings “Mah Nà Ma Nà”

Aaron Manela

On October 14, 2016, the Atlanta-based “surreal comedy group” The Woodcreek Faction posted a video of selections from the second presidential debate, set to the music of Piero Umiliani’s “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” as performed by the Muppets Mahna Mahna and the Snowths on the premier episode of The Muppet Show in 1977.[iii] Their selection of footage has Donald Trump in effect lip syncing in the place of the blustering male Muppet Mahna Mahna (named after the song), who was brilliantly voiced by Jim Henson (Fig. 1). When The Snowths sing, we see footage of Hillary Clinton, her family, Trump’s family, and the audience, everyone looking uncomfortable. The satire here lies in the Woodcreek Faction’s engagement with the song’s content and history, taking square aim at issues of gender and power dynamics central to Trump’s personality and rhetorical style.

Fig 1. Mahna Mahna and the Snowths

This satire works so effectively because of the song’s history as a piece of multimedia that audiences have viewed in many different contexts over time. The YouTube audience is in a privileged position because it knows how the music will proceed as well as the relationship of that music to its previous film and television settings. They know it signifies an interrupting male figure, whom they can project onto Trump, and a chorus that can’t get a note in edgewise, which they can project onto the on-screen debate audience. The famous historian and philosopher Michel Foucault described this exercise in projecting physical and even political properties onto the people an audience is looking at “the gaze.”[iv]

The song’s origin is surprising for those who remember it from The Muppet Show. In 1968, Piero Umiliani scored the cue “Viva La Sauna Svedese” for the mondo movie Svezia Inferno e Paradiso (Sweden: Heaven and Hell), for a scene in which a number of fur clad young women run through the snow toward a sauna (link NSFW for frontal nudity). The cue’s music and voiceover about young, sexually innocent women perfectly accompany this soft-core pornographic film as the male singer’s short ejaculatory phrases continuously supplant and interrupt the female singers.[v] Umiliani’s conception of the song lies in the “male gaze:” the power dynamic of its original context.[vi] This dynamic is physical because of its pornographic sexuality, political because it maps Italian sexual mores onto imagined Swedish women, and powerful because it strips the women of their individual identities and agency.

While Henson removed the overt sexual nature of the audience’s “gaze” by transforming visual representations of female bodies, he retained the musical aspects of the gendered power dynamics, beginning in early performances with the Muppets, which he did for many years before The Muppet Show began.[vii] For The Muppet Show’s premiere, Henson used a new Muppet named after the song and two pink Muppets with conic (and yonic) trumpet-shaped mouths. These new Muppets, The Snowths, abstracted the original cue’s sexuality into this subtle visual joke for a family audience. The blustering male interrupter remains, with the scat verses now shortened.[viii] Unable to complete an improvisational idea, Mahna Mahna has a tendency to impotently trail off, becoming uncomfortable and then returning to the chorus. The Snowths can only shake their heads in confusion during his outbursts.

After its success on The Muppet Show, the song entered mainstream consciousness.[ix] The song’s longevity means that its humor is thus repeatable and predictable. The Woodcreek Faction removed it from the original televisual milieu while retaining all of its pre-existent meanings, and then placed Trump within that context. This satire group, and YouTube video creators in general, have in the words of Jacques Attali become modern day jongleurs, “the collective memory, the essential site of cultural creation, the circulation of information from the courts to the people,”[x] democratizing the “gaze” in the form of creative mediation.

Mahna Mahna bolsters his performance of masculinity by interrupting women. He sings the same chorus over and over, his (premature) ejaculatory scat limiting the women to confirming his chorus, even though he cannot complete an original improvisatory expression. By placing him at the center of “Mah Nà Mah Nà,” The Woodcreek Faction takes Trump, who through his career on The Apprentice and through recordings of him bragging of sexual assaults, has exercised his powerful “gaze” on the physical and political bodies around him, and inverts the audience’s “gaze” back onto him. They show Trump as a self-congratulatory musical mansplainer who cannot stop despite his failings and the discomfort of the audience. Therein lies the humor.

At the end of the 1977 Muppet Show sketch, the heckler-Muppet Statler says to his box-mate Waldorf, “The question is: ‘What’s a Mahna Mahna?’” to which Waldorf replies, “The question is: ‘Who cares?’”

Trump is a Mahna Mahna. And we are all of us the Snowths.

[i] Linda Williams. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44, no. 4 (1991): 4.

[ii] K.J. Donnelly, The Spectre of Sound: Music in Film and Television (London: BFI, 2005), 88.

[iii] Muppet Wiki, “Mahna Mahna (song),” (accessed October 16, 2016).

[iv] Clare O’Farrell, Michel Foucault (London: Sage Publications, 1997), 39.

[v] The improvisatory-scat verses between the “mah na mah na” choruses recapitulate the movie’s theme song (“You Tried to Warn Me”) three times, while the fourth verse refers to the reveille solo from “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.” The song was renamed “Mah Nà Mah Nà” by the Edward Marks Music Co. for sale in the USA, and it can be spelled with or without the accents graves. Piero Umiliani: The Official Site, “Mah-Nà Mah Nà,” (accessed October 16, 2016). IMDB, “Sweden Heaven and Hell (1968),” (accessed October 16, 2016).

[vi] The “male gaze” is where a woman is “the object of the combined gaze of the spectator and all the male protagonists,” in this case of the scene “Viva La Sauna Svedese” demonstrating a generalized and generic female sexuality. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 no. 3 (1975), 6-18 reprinted in The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader, ed. Amelia Jones 44-52 (London: Routledge, 2003), 50.

[vii] Henson first performed an arrangement of the song on Sesame Street in 1969 using Muppet Bip Bippadotta and two female “anything muppets” intended to be representative of young girls.  The skit entered Henson’s repertoire; he later fronted performances with different sets of puppets on variety shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and The Dick Cavett Show before shooting the iconic version in 1977. 

[viii] With the exception of a brief melodic outline, Henson’s performance erases the references to the original movie theme and “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B.”

[ix] See Piero Umiliani: The Official Site, “Mah-Nà Mah Nà,” for a list of covers and chart statistics.

[x] Attali was talking about amateur performers in 1985, but YouTube mashup artists fit his description exceptionally well. Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985), 141.

Not Another Term: Music as Persuasion in the Campaign Against the Re-Election of George W. Bush

October 5, 2016

Not Another Term: Music as Persuasion in the Campaign Against the Re-Election of George W. Bush

October 5, 2016

It is not unusual for pop musicians to use their fame and their music as a platform for critique of presidents. Former presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan were on the receiving end of songs and music videos that highlighted their alleged incompetence. Tom Paxton’s 1965 country folk song “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” critiqued President Johnson for supporting the draft and downplaying the severity of the Vietnam War.[i] Almost ten years later, Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” criticized Richard Nixon without actually naming him. The 1974 funk song expressed the American public’s disappointment regarding Nixon’s unfulfilled promises, going so far as calling life under his presidency a nightmare.[ii] The 1986 video to the Genesis rock song “Land of Confusion” used Reagan’s movie career and incipient dementia as a basis for poking fun at the septuagenarian president’s age and lack of experience.[iii] In the video, starring puppets, the aging leader mistakes the nuke button for the nurse button at his bedside and consequently blows up the country.

However, George W. Bush is the politician who has engendered the most musical critiques to date. During the 2004 re-election campaign, musicians assumed the role of public “persuaders” against his re-election. This essay will examine the on- and off-stage work of punk artists who took a stand against Bush during his first term as well as his 2004 re-election bid by crafting songs that protested his platform and organizing voter mobilization campaigns to ensure a robust youth turnout. While most of this essay focuses on punk rock, other genres will be briefly discussed.

One cannot look back to the 2000 presidential campaign without citing the winning candidate’s failure to attain the popular vote (not to mention the “hanging chad” fiasco). Opponent Al Gore’s campaign manager, Donna Brazile, stated the importance of musicians during that first election. In 2003, she expressed her belief that “musicians have reach that politicians need to motivate people to take an active interest in their future.”[iv] It is not surprising that Bush’s approval rating dropped during his first term.[v] Tax cuts for the wealthy and the war in Iraq caused Americans to become increasingly disenfranchised with him and his administration during the early years. When it came time for him to face re-election in 2004 against Democratic contender John Kerry, actors and musicians took special effort to make their opinions known. Their main purposes were to bring to light the errors of his administration and to persuade the American public not to subject themselves to an additional four years of his presidency.

One of the first anti-Bush, get-out-and-vote songs was heartland rocker John Mellencamp’s “To Washington,” which turned the 2000 presidential election saga into a type of folk song in country style.[vi] The music video, which formed part of a live streaming performance via satellite, juxtaposed the song’s lyrics floating across the bottom of the screen with quotes on the right side from famous Americans about how “change is in our own hands.” Combined with the quotes, the lyrics are meant to persuade the unregistered citizen to register. Mellencamp’s accompaniment on acoustic guitar, paired with the lyrics, makes the song sound like a ballad that people could visualize themselves listening to while sitting around a campfire. Mellencamp highlights Bush’s wrongdoings in the hopes that such knowledge will motivate the politically inert to vote in the next election, thus improving the likeliness of Bush’s ouster.

During the 2004 election season, however, musicians—mainly hailing from the punk genre—targeted young voters, who historically have had the lowest turnout at the polls.[vii] The artists used their own voices as celebrities not only to speak against Bush, but to also sing against him. This alliance of bands, known as the PunkVoter movement, included about 200 bands (Myers 195). The band considered responsible for the PunkVoter movement, NOFX, released its anti-Bush album The War on Errorism on May 3, 2003 (Fig. 1).[viii] Getting the youth out to vote proved so important to NOFX front man Mike Burkett, also known as Fat Mike, that he dedicated $100,000 of his own money to start, an organization dedicated to youth voter registration (Ardizzone 55).[ix]

Figure 1 War on Errorism, Cover

Many of these same bands formed another alliance, also in 2004, called Bands Against Bush. In contrast, however, this organization had regional chapters throughout the country, and their motto was “your apathy is their victory.”[x] Punk music’s notoriously anti-establishment ways seemed to destine it to undertake this mission of public enlightenment.[xi] Fat Mike himself had never voted until the 2000 election (when he was 33 years old), but he felt compelled to do so at that time: “I wasn’t sleeping because of the outcome. I thought that if only 600 NOFX fans in Florida would have voted, everything would have been different” (Jones 8). Indeed, Fat Mike notably stated that, “Bush getting elected was good for punk music.”[xii]

In addition to PunkVoter, Fat Mike started an organization called Rock Against Bush that was inspired by a 1980s movement called Rock Against Reagan. Rock Against Bush not only produced two eponymous albums in two volumes, but also spawned a tour under that name (Fig. 2).[xiii] The albums were issued by the Fat Wreck Chords label, which focuses on skate and pop punk artists, and as a result, most of the songs were recorded by punk bands. The Rock Against Bush movement was geared toward (but not limited to the target of) 18 to 22-year-old punk and alternative fans who lived in the swing states.[xiv]

Figure 2 Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1, Cover

Most of the Rock Against Bush songs, such as “Sink, Florida, Sink,” which blames the state of Florida for Bush’s initial election, criticize the politician’s policies or actions. The election occasioned a recount, which in turn gave Bush a majority of Electoral College votes in the state and a victory in the general election. Ministry’s punk track “No W” samples the first and last movements on a loop of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana, which addresses the wheel of fortune.[xv] The section that is sampled is translated as “fate is against me in health and virtue, driven on and weighted down, always enslaved.” “O Fortuna” has been used numerous times in film, television, and commercials, often to represent dramatic situations or moments of tension.[xvi] By sampling the repetitive bass pattern of “O Fortuna,” the band musically illustrates the American people being stuck in a situation out of which they cannot find their way. The music’s ominous sound likely appealed to punk musicians, given that they wanted to express the gravity of the situation facing the American people.

The Ataris’s alternative rock track “Heaven is Falling” is a cover of the Bad Religion song, originally written in 1991 during the Gulf War and the presidency of George H. W. Bush.[xvii] The song, which is accompanied by solo acoustic guitar like Mellencamp’s, sounds like a folk song. The cover song’s lyrics remain unchanged from the original version, right down to the allusion to Psalm 23. The opening line calls Bush “King George” and makes the claim that he is responsible for the legalization of murder—a reference to the Gulf War. Audiences in 2004 might have perceived this as a reference to the innocent civilians and members of the military who died from attacks during the Gulf War and the War in Iraq.

There were two legs to the Rock Against Bush Tour, the first taking place around the time of the album’s release and the second occurring closer to the election. The group set up voter registration booths at each concert to encourage young people to vote. The two Rock Against Bush compilation CDs (volume 1 released on April 10, 2004 and volume 2 on August 20, 2004) had great financial success; both volumes sold over 650,000 copies. For the tour, Fat Mike recruited over 200 punk bands total and strategically planned how to get support from them; he noted that musicians are notably reluctant to part with their money, so in lieu of donations he asked them to write and record an anti-Bush song for the compilations, thus signing on over twenty bands. Proceeds from the two Rock Against Bush recordings financed print and television ads meant to encourage young people to vote.

The Rock Against Bush concerts were not the only voter mobilization concerts. Another organization,, initiated the 2004 Vote for Change Tour from which the profits went toward America Coming Together (ACT).[xviii] The Vote for Change Tour hit swing states, and while the organization as a whole claimed to be non-partisan, in reality the majority of the performers who ostensibly represented the organization were Democrats. The organization’s other missions included generating media attention and raising money for ACT. They were successful in the latter mission but not the former. The band System of a Down also held a benefit concert on April 24, 2004 called “SOULS 2004” that sought to highlight what they claimed were Bush’s broken promises.[xix] Another organization with a similar modus operandi, Music for America, held concerts in states with Super Tuesday primaries, and they were none too subtle about their position: “Youth of America—Bush is screwing us and voting is the least we can do.”[xx]

Other musicians used their songs to criticize Bush during his two terms, resulting in further anti-Bush songs that were not part of the Rock Against Bush collections. In her jazz ballad “Ugly Man,” Rickie Lee Jones compared the younger George Bush to his father, stating that both are liars who are ugly inside.[xxi] When paired with the lyrics, the song’s cool jazz sound is almost incongruous. Pearl Jam’s rock song “Bu$hleaguer” plays on the baseball term to describe Bush as someone amateurish and below good standards, who therefore does not belong in the big leagues.[xxii] The dollar sign in the place of the letter “S” in the title alludes to Bush’s fixation with money. The electric guitar has a prominent role in the song and its timbre, combined with the minor key, gives the song an ominous sound. The alternative rock song “Holiday” by Green Day, which has a thrashing rock sound, raises the bar by comparing Bush to Adolf Hitler, calling him “President Gasman” and prefacing this title with the German words, “Sieg heil.”[xxiii] NOFX’s punk song “Idiot Son of an Asshole,” from their 2003 album War on Errorism, is a direct attack on Bush:[xxiv] The first two verses frame the refrain that repeats, “He’s the idiot son of an asshole,” and both verses assail his intelligence. The music almost has a comical sound to it, with a simple electric guitar accompaniment. Neil Young’s “Let’s Impeach the President” calls for the removal of Bush from office for a variety of reasons, from lying and abuse of power to dividing the country and spying on American citizens.[xxv] The song opens with the first two measures of the tune “Taps” played by a trumpet. The song is not sung just by Young, but by a vocal ensemble as well. Each line of the song features the same melody, which is simple and stepwise. When combined with the group singing, the musical structure illustrates the need for the American people to come together to accomplish the goal of impeachment.

Eminem’s rap song “Mosh” is the most outspoken and explicit of the songs that did not appear on any of the anti-Bush compilations.[xxvi] The video, released only a week before the 2004 presidential election, opens with the “Pledge of Allegiance” and closes with Eminem’s own metrically-analogue pledge, in which he proposes that everyone unite to oust Bush from the White House for the sake of future generations. The song has a repeating bass line, which functions like that of Ministry’s “No W.” From the music video’s opening, Eminem criticizes Bush and comments on his intelligence. The rapper himself plays the role of Bush during the September 11 terror attacks and reads to school children but holds a simple children’s book upside down (Fig. 3).[xxvii]

Figure 3 Eminem as George W. Bush in “Mosh”

The most powerful image in the video is a black-hooded group led by Eminem that appears to be marching toward the White House but is actually marching to the polls. At the end, a pro-vote message flashes onto the screen. After the 2004 election, Eminem released a new version of “Mosh” called “The Mosh Continues,” with a video featuring the same people from the first video. This time, instead of storming the election booths, they crash Bush’s State of the Union address.[xxviii]

Despite the concerted effort to mobilize youth through music, none of the anti-Bush songs beyond “Mosh,” System of a Down’s “Boom!,” Green Day’s “Holiday,” and Rise Against’s “Give It All” received radio or music video play.[xxix] This was likely because the majority of anti-Bush songs were not in a style that was very friendly to radio-play. Nonetheless, focusing on the fans of their respective genres, these artists released the songs anyway, assuming that the fans would still be interested in both the music and the message. The artists who composed several of the early anti-Bush songs chose to release their songs as download-only for free tracks rather than on CDs for profit, at least initially. These artists were more interested in disseminating the message than they were in making a profit. Of course, in the pre-YouTube era of these songs, their circulation was significantly more difficult. (See Table 1 for a comprehensive list of Anti-Bush songs.)

Leslie Kreiner Wilson, executive director of the Institute for the Study of American Popular Culture, once stated: “I believe Bush’s legacy will be almost entirely shaped by pop culture. Pop culture has always had some impact on our perception of presidents, but the media explosion since the 1980s has made things much harder on the presidents since then, like Bill Clinton and George W. [Bush].”[xxx] One thing is certain: music played a more powerful role during the 2004 election than anyone could have imagined. While the musicians had hoped for a different outcome, they did manage to assist broader efforts created to bring the 18–24 demographic to the polls. By targeting the population segment with the lowest voter turnout, punk artists and other concerned musicians still managed to leave their imprint on the 2004 election.

– Reba Wissner


Anderson, Mark. “PunkVoter.” In We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews, edited by David Sinker, 297–304. Chicago: Punk Planet, 2008.

Ardizzone, Leonissa. “Yelling and Listening: Youth Culture, Punk Rock and Power.” Taboo 9 (2005): 49–58.

Cave, Damien. “Rockers Unite to Oust Bush.” Rolling Stone, November 26, 2003.

Collins, Dan. “Punk Bands Play Anti-Bush Music.” CBS News, April 25, 2004.

De Sola, David. “The Politics of Music.” CNN, August 30, 2004.

File, Thom. “Young Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections, 1964–2012: Population Characteristics.”, April 2014.

Garofoli, Joe. “Beyond PunkVoter/‘Fat’ Mike Burkett Built a Legitimate Interest in Politics Among Apolitical Punk Listeners, But Who’ll Carry That Torch in 2008?” SF GateMay 27, 2008.

Gronbeth, Bruce E., and Danielle R. Wiese. “The Repersonalization of Presidential Campaigning in 2004.” American Behavioral Scientist 49 (2005): 520–35.

Hajdu, David. “Where Has ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Gone.” The New Republic, June 28, 2004.   

Horton, Scott. “O Fortuna!” The Harper’s Blog, September 7, 2008.

Humphries, Stephen. “George W. Bush and Pop Culture’s Perception.” Christian Science Monitor, October 23, 2008.

Johnson, Sasha. “‘Punkvoter’ Founder Aims to Unify Youth Vote.” CNN, November 4, 2003.

Kot, Greg. Ripped: How The Wired Generation Revolutionized Music. New York and London: Scribner, 2009.

Myers, Ben. Green Day: American Idiots and the New Punk Explosion. New York: The Disinformation Company, 2006.

“Presidential Approval Ratings — George W. Bush.” Gallup Poll, n.d. Accessed July 28, 2016.

“‘Punk Voter’ Slates ‘Rock Against Bush’ Tour.” Billboard, August 18, 2004.

Roberts, Joel. “How Swing States Are Swinging.” CBS News, September 22, 2004.

Ross, Michael E. “Younger Activists Use Music to Get Out the Vote.” NBC News, February 24, 2004. .

“Springsteen, R.E.M. Open ‘Vote For Change’ Tour.” Billboard, October 4, 2004.

“System of a Down Perform to Capacity Crowd at SOULS 2004 Benefit.”,  April 26, 2004.

Wiederhorn, John. “Good Charlotte, Green Day, NOFX to Rock Against President Bush.” MTV News, September 19, 2003.

[i] Hamlet Omlet, “Tom Paxton – ‘Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation,’” June 21, 2010, YouTube, video clip,

[ii] Stevie Wonder – Topic, “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” YouTube, video clip, November 23, 2014,

[iii] Jamesnov1970, “Genesis – ‘Land of Confusion,’” December 1, 2010, YouTube, video clip,

[iv] Donna Brazile quoted in Damien Cave “Rockers Unite to Oust Bush,” Rolling Stone, November 26, 2003.

[v] “George W. Bush Approval Rating,” Gallup Poll, n.d.,

[vi] John Mellencamp, “To Washington,” March 1, 2008, YouTube, video clip,

[vii] Thom File, “Young Adult Voting: An Analysis of Presidential Elections, 1964-2012: Population Characteristics,”, April 2014.

[viii] John Bosco, “NOFX – War on Errorism,” June 26, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[ix] During the 2004 election, the organization raised over one million dollars. According to the mission statement on their website, their goal is to “educate, register and mobilize over 500,000 of today’s youth as one voice.” See Joe Garofoli, “Beyond PunkVoter/‘Fat’ Mike Burkett Built a Legitimate Interest in Politics Among Apolitical Punk Listeners, But Who’ll Carry That Torch in 2008?,” SF Gate, May 27, 2008,

[x] Bands Against Bush Website,

[xi] Dan Collins, “Punk Bands Play Anti-Bush Music,” CBS News, April 25, 2004,

[xii] Sasha Johnson, “‘Punkvoter’ Founder Aims to Unify Youth Vote,” CNN, November 4, 2003,

[xiii] “Rock Against Bush, Volume 1,” YouTube playlist, June 1, 2014,; “Rock Against Bush, Volume 2,” YouTube playlist, December 19, 2012, For more about the tour, see “‘Punk Voter’ Slates ‘Rock Against Bush’ Tour,” Billboard, August 18, 2004,

[xiv] Swing states, also known as battleground states, are the states where the two political parties have similar voter support, and are important in determining which party will win the presidential election. For more on the swing states during the 2004 election, see Joel Roberts, “How Swing States Are Swinging,” CBS News, September 22, 2004,

[xv] “Against Me! – ‘Sink, Florida, Sink,’” June 2, 2014, YouTube, video clip,; “Ministry, ‘No W,’ November 13, 2006, YouTube, video clip,; “O Fortuna” (Carmina Burana), September 10, 2009, YouTube, video clip,

[xvi] For more on this, see Scott Horton, “O Fortuna!” The Harper’s Blog, September 7, 2008, For a list of the uses of “O Fortuna” in popular culture, see “Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ in Popular Culture,” Wikipedia,

[xvii] “Bad Religion ~ heaven is falling,” December 15, 2012, YouTube video clip,; “The Ataris – Heaven Is Falling,” March 6, 2013, YouTube, video clip,

[xviii] See “Springsteen, R.E.M. Open ‘Vote For Change’ Tour,” Billboard, October 4, 2004,

[xix] See “System of a Down Perform to Capacity Crowd at SOULS 2004 Benefit,”, April 26, 2004,

[xx] Michael E. Ross, “Younger Activists Use Music to Get Out the Vote,” NBC News, February 24, 2004,

[xxi] “Ugly Man,” January 28, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[xxii] “Pearl Jam – Bu$hleaguer,” February 13, 2009, YouTube, video clip,

[xxiii] “Green Day: ‘Holiday’ – [Official Video]” January 8, 2013, YouTube, video clip,

[xxiv] “NOFX – Idiot Son of an Asshole,” July 6 2011, YouTube, video clip,

[xxv] “‘Let’s Impeach the President by Neil Young,” May 16, 2006,  YouTube, video clip,

[xxvi] “Eminem Mosh, – Original Version,” September 8, 2006, YouTube, video clip,

[xxvii] With this impersonation, the rapper alludes to the president’s response upon hearing about the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center.

[xxviii] Eminem, “The Mosh Continues,”

[xxix] See David Hajdu, “Where Has ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ Gone,” The New Republic, June 28, 2004,

[xxx] Stephen Humphries, “George W. Bush and Pop Culture’s Perception,” Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2008,

On the Inside Trax: Stuart Schimler, Founder, American Pioneer Music

September 20, 2016

Today on the Inside Trax, I chat with Stuart Schimler, founder of American Pioneer Music. The former UC Berkeley history major makes his living as a software exec by day, but he also has a secret (or not so secret) passion—he loves campaign songs! Schimler’s company has produced two campaign song albums: the first, Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election, revives the campaign songs of yore. The second, a concept album titled The Candidates From New York, tackles 2016 by pairing traditional tunes with 21st-century subject matter. Unlike his campaign-song loving counterparts on sites such as YouTube and SoundCloud, Schimler is not interested in beating down one candidate to elevate the other. The albums bipartisan stance is likely to delight music lovers of all political stripes. The album includes a title track (set to the tune “The Sidewalks of New York”) and then five songs for Hillary Clinton and five for Donald Trump. Schimler’s recent album is less about the message and more about reviving the creativity and ingenuity of the 19th-century campaign song.

Mr. Schimler was interviewed on August 15, 2016.


Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: Could you tell me a bit about your background? Were you a music student or a history student? What do you do now? Is creating albums of campaign songs your full-time gig?

Stuart Schimler: I was a history major and I was always passionate about U.S. history. I studied mostly the Antebellum period. I was really interested of course in political, cultural, and economic history in the early 1800s so you see where [campaign] songs fall into that context. When I was growing up, baseball history was my first passion. [Schimler has also published on the topic of baseball.] I guess it was when I was thirteen and cut from the team that I had to figure out how I could actually be attached to the game. As I grew older, my interests became a bit more serious, but I am not a career historian. But, of course, this is something that I am passionate about, and it means a lot to me, so I definitely want to be as connected to it as possible. You find that there are actually quite a few people who have these interests and musical tastes and actually appreciate the music, too.

DGM: Can you tell us a bit about your most recent campaign song album, The Candidates from New York?

SS: Sure. So the reason why I created this CD, The Candidates from New York, is more out of a historical appreciation for 19th-century political campaign songs, rather than trying to contribute and vote for a particular candidate. So if you go through the tracks, I took a swipe at both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, because I’m not necessarily trying to influence anyone’s vote; rather, I’m attempting to advertise the concept of campaign songs and get people to understand exactly what purpose and what part they had in American history.

DGM: Indeed, they are important. It really is a wonderful CD in so many regards. Could you maybe tell us a bit about how you got hooked on campaign music of all things?

SS: Yeah, I think that’s a great question, and it really has deep roots in my childhood. Sometime in high school, around sixteen or so years ago, I discovered Napster. [Napster was an early P2P music-sharing platform.] And I was actually just perusing through songs, searching for different types of music I hadn’t heard before. And I somehow stumbled upon music from the Civil War and 19th-century American history. And through that discovery, I uncovered presidential campaign songs. Probably the first songs I came across were by Oscar Brand. He recorded an album in 1960 called Election Songs of the United States. My website has the same title as sort of a tribute to that original Oscar Brand album.

I quickly realized those songs were mainly using old Irish or English tunes and also very popular minstrel songs, so I started to draw a parallel to understand how those songs were used in elections, and I became fascinated with it more and more. Eventually, in college, it actually became the topic of my senior thesis, so my interests haven’t gone away since then. Now I’m in a position where I can bring those [songs] to the market and to those who haven’t really been exposed to this music previously.

DGM: The folks at Trax on the Trail are glad you did! How do you develop the lyrics to your songs? What is your process?

SS: The process really first started with a melody and a concept. Those were the most important things to the songs. The tunes that I chose were probably just as, if not more important, than the lyrics. My rule was that I had to start with a 19th-century song, and it had to be a parody that sort of made sense. And very often, I actually drew from original campaign song lyrics. For example, “The Clinton Girl’s Song” is actually a complete rip off of “The Clay Girl’s Song,” which was from Henry Clay’s 1844 presidential campaign. [The song lyrics were published in The National Clay Melodist, A Collection of Popular and Patriotic Songs (1844)] So I obviously knew what the melody and concept would be. Then, I needed to modernize it while staying somewhat true to the original concept. So, with a song like that, it was really taking the first and last verses and keeping them the same, and then figuring out exactly how I could make it more modern and associate it with the modern world.

Of course, in “The Clinton Girl’s Song,” the girl is stalking some guy on Facebook or Twitter, and any guy she dates has to be fan of Hillary Clinton, so I really just sort of try to come up with fun rhymes and have a couple of people look over it and clean it up so that it makes more sense, because I’m not a professional lyricist or songwriter. I’m really someone who is interested in the concept of campaign songs. I’m not very artistic, and you can tell from my voice [that] I’m probably not a very great singer either.

DGM: You mentioned that the tunes had to be 19th century. How do you decide which tune to use? For example, why did you choose “Battle Cry of Freedom?”

SS: Let me give you the best example When I was coming up with the concept, the title track was the most important. This song is actually neutral. It is not for Clinton or for Trump; it pokes fun at the political process. I basically looked at history, and I realized that this is actually the first campaign since 1944 where two candidates came from the same state. Of course, the last time just happened to be from New York also—it was Thomas E. Dewey and Franklin D. Roosevelt. So, I had to come up with a song that was New Yorkish, and most of the New York songs that we know today are from the 20th century, like the Frank Sinatra song “New York, New York.” So coming up with a tune that was related to New York—there was only one obvious choice, and it’s “The Sidewalks of New York,” which also played prominently in Al Smith’s campaign in 1928. It is perfect in the sense that it comes from presidential campaign history; it is a song from the 19th century, and [the phrase] “Can-di-dates from New York” has syllables very close to “Sidewalks of New York.” It is just an obvious choice.

Title Track, “The Candidates from New York”

A lot of times the choice was almost already there for me. I just had to reapply the lyrics. So it is a title, for example, like “We’ll Give Em Billy,” which is one of the pro-Clinton songs. If that sounds weird, it is because it is based off of the song “We’ll Give ‘Em Jessie” from John C. Fremont’s 1856 campaign. Jessie Fremont was the candidate’s wife, so I thought it would be somewhat obvious that if Hillary Clinton were running in the 19th century and her husband was an ex-president, wouldn’t she have a song called “We’ll Give ‘Em Billy”?

The song’s preexisting tune “Wait for the Wagon” was already there, and it was very popular. It was used in a lot of songs and a lot of other campaigns. Millard Fillmore had it for one of his songs in 1856, and it was very popular during the Civil War as well—there is a song called “The Southern Wagon.” That tune and melody had so much historical significance. It was natural that I didn’t need to change it.

A couple of places where I did think of selections, such as “Hillary’s Land,” I picked the tune “Dixie’s Land,” because any Democratic politician today would never have a campaign song with “Dixie’s Land” right? I thought so, but in the 19th century, anyone would have used this song because it wasn’t as associated with the South. I think that association really comes more in the Civil Rights era and not before. Since I’m trying to put this election in the context of the 19th century, I thought it would be not only almost humorous, but also appropriate, to use that as the melody. So, as you can see, if you go through each song lyric, there’s a specific reason why each melody was chosen. A lot of times it was merely tied to the original, but a few times I broke with the past and had to make editorial decisions.

DGM: I had trouble identifying some of the tunes.

SS: That is one of the important things about our website. Every song has the lyrics and the melody. It’s listed under “air,” next to all the songs, which is a very old-fashioned word for tune or melody. Which song stumped you, out of curiosity?

DGM: The one called “Washington is a Hard Road to Travel.”

SS: Great choice. That is to the tune of “Jordan is a Hard Road to Travel” by Dan Emmett, who is the same man that wrote “Dixie’s Land.” Now there was a very famous song during the Civil War called “Richmond is a Hard Road to Travel,” which was basically a southern parody that pretended to be in the shoes of Union troops who struggled with their Richmond campaign to try to take over the South. The song outlined all of their mishaps and losses throughout this military campaign. So “Washington is a Hard Road to Travel” outlines Hillary Clinton’s struggle in Washington throughout her career and many political scandals.

DGM: Got it. The second one to stump me was “Oh I’m a Good Ole Worker.”

SS: The original tune is “Joe Bowers,” which is a very famous old Irish melody. Its most popular usage was in the song titled “Oh I’m a Good Ole Rebel” after the Civil War. And that song is about an ex-Confederate soldier who is dissatisfied with the Confederate loss and will never give up and never really put down his gun. Even if he can’t go into battle, he will fight the war spiritually. “Oh I’m a Good Ole Worker” is basically about a dissatisfied blue-collar worker who finds himself attracted to Donald Trump.

DGM: So this next one, I was close to thinking I knew it [the tune]” “When This Old Hat Was New.”

SS: This tune was used all over the place in 19th-century political music. The tune is an old Robert Burns poem, called “John Anderson My Jo.” And it is one of the most beautiful melodies, and you could find dozens of songs written to this tune. There are critiques of James Madison, John Quincy Adams, John C. Calhoun, and there is actually a song on my first album [Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election] called “Abraham Ain’t It So” which was a pro-George McClellan, very anti-Abraham Lincoln song. So this title, if it sounds like it is a very 19th-century title, that is because it is. I ripped this straight out of a William Henry Harrison songbook from 1840. It was called “When This Old Hat Was New.” I thought it would be an interesting choice, since both Clinton and Trump have been around since the late 80s/early 90s and have been prominent figures. It is almost like we are reliving the 90s now with this campaign. I thought it would be an interesting way to look back on Hillary Clinton’s scandals—hey, when this old hat was new, she was doing the same old things. I think that was a very funny take on this campaign season.

DGM: So one of the Clinton songs uses “Oh Susannah”…

SS: “Oh That Donald” is “Oh Susannah,” yes. A great choice because “Oh Susannah” is used in hundreds and hundreds of songs. It is just all over the place. Of course it is a popular children’s song today, but it was also popular in the 1850s and was used prominently in many campaign songs. The funny thing about this is, a great lesson in history, is that despite all these songs built off of Stephen Foster tunes, he never saw a penny of any of this. The way copyright laws were back then, it was very difficult to collect anything when someone parodied a song. When he died he was pretty much broke, despite his songs being used over and over again by everyone under the sun.

DGM: Can you talk a bit about the production process? Are you the one who arranges the music?

SS: I actually hire singers to record the music. When I did my first album, Abraham Lincoln and the 1864 Election, I was very big on authenticity and not changing around lyrics to change the meaning of the songs. And one thing you notice from Oscar Brand, and also anyone who records old minstrel songs, is that they clean up the lyrics because they aren’t appropriate for contemporary audiences. I don’t do that. There were artists who were really reluctant to put their name with the album. At that point I figured, well, you know, it is probably better that the songs stand for themselves. The songs should have more meaning than the individual performers. In the 19th century, there were not any songs that were associated with any individual, because the lyrics were published in songs or song sheets. My company is called American Pioneer Music, so everything I release is under the name American Pioneer Singers. I hope to keep with that tradition as I continue moving forward. What we essentially have here is a number of artists and voices on the album. Basically the artist records the song, I give feedback, and we make a couple of modifications if it is a bit off. The process includes myself and the freelancers I hire, and I critique it and try to make small improvements. I don’t read or write music, so it is really me commenting based on my ear. That is how the songs really get arranged.

DGM: Do you do much post-production? In the way it is recorded, I don’t know if it is the particular voices and instruments that make it have an archaic sound, or if you are doing something post-production that makes it sound more “old.”

SS: I’m not really sure. I don’t add anything post-production. Anything we do is as raw as possible. So you notice there is nothing electric, right? Everything is acoustic. You hear in both albums mostly guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Occasionally you have tambourine, maybe a drum at the end of a couple songs, so they build at the end, which is really a little bit more for modern audiences who can’t stand too much repetition. It’s amazing, if you look at some of these older campaign songs, they are very very long. It is interesting that people don’t get tired of the same melodies, right? It is the same melodies year after year many times. I think that is one of the big breaks between what we see with the modern campaign songs that you study and the original campaign songs. They are really not part of the same tradition.

DGM: This is all really fascinating. When I listened to the album, I knew in the back of my mind there was an elaborate process as to how you made a lot of these decisions. But, to be honest, there was something about the music that was so entertaining and uplifting, I sort of turned my “scholar switch” off. This album is just fun to listen to. There is something about your work that has the power of endurance on its side. I think there is something that is rooted in history and timeless at the same time.

SS: I’m fascinated that you say that, because that’s exactly what I was going for. I think Pete Seeger said, when someone asked him, what’s the meaning of a song and he said, “Well what does it mean to you?” I’m happy that I broke through your scholarly lens, that I just make you human again. That’s quite an accomplishment.

Transcribed and abridged by Sarah Kitts and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.

For more on Stuart Schimler and American Pioneer Music, see

Trial, Transformation, and Redemption: Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Banks, and Women in Competition—Popular Culture and the Audiovisual Transformation of My “Fight Song” into Our “Fight Song”

September 13, 2016

In the context of political campaigns, music is almost always linked to a visual context, be it a campaign rally or political spot.[i] The interaction of audio and visual elements is central to understanding such political communication. This was driven home to me during the second session of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in late July. Host Elizabeth Banks produced a music video featuring “her friends” (a variety of celebrities including actors and musicians) performing an a cappella version of Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” The song had been played at the end of Hillary Clinton’s campaign events around the country for months.[ii]

DNC “Fight Song” Video

As a rally anthem, the song at some level seemed mismatched.[iii] Clinton is nearly twice as old as Platten, whose pop music peers are artists like Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, and Kelly Clarkson. As such, the song comes across as a somewhat craven attempt to appeal to younger voters or to make the candidate appear more current. Many commentators saw the release of Mrs. Clinton’s first Spotify playlist in June 2015 in exactly this light.[iv] As Daniella Diaz noted on CNN’s website, “None of the 14 songs on the 67-year-old candidate’s playlist was released before 1999 ….” (Diaz 2015). On the website, Courtney Such wrote: “The second-oldest presidential candidate (third-oldest if Joe Biden gets in) is no fuddy-duddy: she now has a campaign playlist” (Such 2015). And in an article on the Guardian website titled “Just One of the Cool Kids,” Jana Kasperkevic described the playlist as “mostly geared towards the millennial female voter” (Kasperkevic 2015). Given Mrs. Clinton’s well-documented struggles with authenticity and trust, this can perhaps be seen as at least awkward if not problematic.[v]

The Official Hillary 2016 Playlist on Spotify

Ms. Banks herself embodies a complex constellation of attributes that might evoke various associations in the minds of viewers. There are the roles that she has played in films. She is, of course, widely known for playing Effie Trinket, an ultimately sympathetic rebel who evolved out of a shallow striver working as a “handler” for contestants in The Hunger Games films. There is her present status as a rare rising female power in Hollywood production; such status, it should be noted, ranks differently for Democrats and Republicans.

Perhaps it is the power of the Effie Trinket association that led to Banks taking the stage in Philadelphia in an over-the-top, backlit parody of Donald Trump’s entrance when he introduced his wife at the Republican National Convention a week earlier in Cleveland (Fig. 1a & ab).  Banks underscored the point in her DNC remarks: “Some of you know me from The Hunger Games, in which I play Effie Trinket, a cruel, out-of-touch reality TV star who wears insane wigs while delivering long-winded speeches to a violent dystopia. So when I tuned into Cleveland last week, I was like, ‘Uh, hey!  That’s my act!’”[vi]

Figure 1a & 1b Donald Trump RNC Entrance and Elizabeth Banks DNC Entrance

While Banks has played numerous comic and romantic roles in films such as Wet Hot American Summer, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, she has also played Laura Bush in W. and the wife of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in Love and Mercy. As it turns out, one theme that threads across both the roles she has played and her own career arc is that of transformation. She is literally a two-time winner of the MTV Movie Award for Best On-Screen Transformation (2013, 2015) for her Hunger Games work. 

Yet it is Banks’s role as producer and director of the Pitch Perfect films that most directly sets the stage for her DNC video. This role situates Banks as a powerful real world woman (an obviously more attractive association than Effie Trinket). The Pitch Perfect films focus on a barrier-breaking all-female club of collegiate a cappella singers (the Barden University Bellas) who compete in national competitions and become the “first all-female group to win a national title.” Banks’s acting role in the films is a small one; she plays a snarky smart commentator and an official who in Pitch Perfect 2 metes out punishment to the Bellas for a sexually explicit wardrobe malfunction during a White House performance. The film, however, sounds emotional chords that resonate in trial, transformation, and redemption for women in a competitive context. 

This redemption is grounded in reclaiming group harmony—stronger together, as it were, which was perhaps the most prominent slogan at the Philadelphia convention. This reclamation becomes an American triumph in the final scene, as the ethnically, culturally, and personally diverse Bellas carry the USA banner in their quest to become the first American team ever to prevail in the international competition. Throughout that competition, their trendy (yet icy) German competitors mock the all-female group; however, after experiencing both personal and musical trials and ultimately transformation, the Bellas prevail in the World Championship. They open their performance with the lyrics “Who run the world?  Girls!” from the Beyoncé song “Run the World (Girls),” a song included on Clinton’s Spotify playlist. In short, Pitch Perfect 2, with its narrative of competitive women who ultimately triumph through unity, provides a powerful metaphor for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.[vii]

Banks’ DNC video thus brings added layers to the complex image of Hillary Clinton.  Musically, the a cappella version of “Fight Song” has the same feel as an original song composed by one of the Bellas in Pitch Perfect 2, a song that represents vulnerability, aspiration, and triumph, especially since original songs are a serious violation of competitive a cappella decorum. The lyrics of “Fight Song” reflect the voice of an underdog: “Like a small boat …  like a single word … I might have only one match.”  Clinton, of course, is the antithesis of the underdog in her quest for the Democratic nomination.

The underdog role might be more plausibly attached to Clinton as a woman seeking to become the first female president of the United States. Yet, the presidential politics of gender are clearly vexing, in particular when individual identity is seen as threatening to supersede national identity.[viii] How can Hillary Clinton simultaneously play the “woman card” while avoiding that move’s political baggage?[ix]

Perhaps because of the way it stakes out an independent stance, “Fight Song” lacks the narrative embrace of the whole of the nation represented in the Brooks & Dunn anthem “Only in America,” which featured prominently in Obama’s rallies in 2008: “Sun comin’ up over New York City … Sun goin’ down on an LA freeway …  the promise of the promised land.” Even “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours,” possibly the song most closely identified with Barack Obama’s 2008 bid, is a full-throated testimonial to devotion—and as such does not herald a group fight or crusade.[x] In this context, “Fight Song” has its strongest appeal in women’s struggle for equality, but does not explicitly invite others to embrace the struggle as an American struggle. It is “my fight song,” not “our” fight song. One can directly contrast “Fight Song,” the 2016 Clinton rally anthem, with Clinton’s 2008 use of “American Girl” by Tom Petty. Literally, America came first. 

It is here where the audiovisual elements of the Banks video become transformative. The song is sung a cappella (the words “all sounds made by our voices” appear before the song begins). It is actually remarkable how effectively the percussion sounds are reproduced by human voices, which is the first turn toward a humanizing authenticity. 

It is the visual elements of video, however, that most forcefully transform the song into a more universal anthem. The vast majority of individuals featured are gorgeous young celebrity women. Men might even be seen as gently teased in the video. The actor John Michael Higgins, who plays a boorish, sexist, racist oaf named John Smith in the Pitch Perfect films, is seen trying to horn in on the singing of the song and is bumped aside by Banks (Fig. 2).[xi] Yet the cumulative effect of each taking their turn singing the lead vocal (in a cappella competition fashion, where at points each member must carry the team) is to visually turn it from “my” fight song to “our” fight song. It should also be noted that there is a “rap” inserted two-thirds of the way through the video, speaking specifically to the historical nature of Clinton’s candidacy. 

Figure 2 Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins in the DNC “Fight Song” Video

The turn toward the collective is amplified as the video reaches its climax. The frames featuring individual singers shrink to allow more and more singers to appear on the screen at the same time, until the frames begin to form a mosaic of the American flag. In Pitch Perfect 2, a similar visual approach (of individual members of the group isolated in separate frames pursuing their own agendas) is used in a scene to signify the fragmentation of the group into individual pursuits (Fig. 3). The DNC video, in contrast, emphasizes the unifying impact of the frames in the forming of the American mosaic (Fig. 4).

Figure 3 Star Power in the DNC “Fight Song” Video
Figure 4 An American Mosaic in the DNC “Fight Song” Video

Such is the power of audiovisual communication and of politics. In the day-to-day coverage of campaigns, and indeed of American politics more broadly, the candidates and elected officials receive virtually all of the attention. Yet in a democracy, the citizens hold ultimate sovereignty. By turning the focus of attention away from Hillary Clinton and toward the millions who will vote for her, the Banks video fulfills the political promise of “Fight Song” that is lacking when the song stands alone as a rally anthem. Through audiovisual turn, “my fight song” becomes “our” fight song, thereby framing Clinton’s feminist quest as a transcendent human quest. 

In Pulp Politics: How Political Advertising Tells the Stories of American Politics (Richardson 2008), I argue that campaign advertisements are able to draw upon the recognizable audiovisual conventions of popular culture to communicate messages to voters in terms with which they are already familiar. In 1988, prominent Bush-Quayle ads evoked the audiovisual conventions of horror films in their depiction of the “Nightmare on Elm Street” that would be America under a Dukakis presidency. In her DNC video, Elizabeth Banks draws upon the audiovisual conventions featured in the highest-grossing musical comedy in history to sketch out a feel-good narrative of trial, tribulation, transformation, and ultimate redemption of women in competition that helps remake Hillary Clinton’s “Fight Song” into a more universal fight song, indeed into America’s Fight Song, thus offering a powerful metaphor for the Clinton campaign.

– Glenn W. Richardson Jr.


Barnard, Christianna. “Dancing Around the Double-Bind: Gender Identity, Likability, and the Musical Rebranding of Hillary Clinton.” Trax on the Trail, November 29, 2015.

Dewberry, David R., and Jonathan Millen. “Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign Spotify Playlist.” Trax on the Trail, May 25, 2016.

Diaz, Daniella. “Hillary Clinton Releases Spotify Playlist.” CNN, June 13, 2015.

Flegenheimer, Matt. “Clinton Woos a Crowd of Skeptics: White Men. Rust Belt Tour Seeks to Make Up Ground With the Population That Likes Her Least.” New York Times, August 2, 2016, A14.

Harris, Gardiner. “President Obama’s Emotional Spotify Playlist is a Hit.” New York Times, August 14, 2016.

Kasperkevic, Jana. “Just One of the Cool Kids:  Decoding the Hillary Clinton Spotify Playlist.” The Guardian, June 13, 2015.

Richardson, Glenn W. Jr. Pulp Politics: How Political Advertising Tells the Stories of American Politics. 2nd. ed. Lanham, MD:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.

Such, Courtney. “Hillary Clinton Makes a Playlist.” RealClear Politics, June 15, 2015.

[i] I am grateful for the helpful suggestions of Jim Deaville and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and for the conversations I had with Carolyn Gardner and Colleen Fitzgerald that have helped strengthen this effort.

[ii] This essay arrived on our desks before the hate fest over “Fight Song” reached fever pitch. For more on the kerfuffle, see Alex Garofalo, “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Fight Song’ Dragged by Twitter: Why People Hate The DNC Anthem,” International Business Times, July 29, 2016,; Katie Kilkenny, “People Really, Really Hate ‘Fight Song.’ Could That Actually Hurt Clinton?” Pacific Standard, August 24, 2016,; and Hunter Walker, “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Fight Song’ Is Driving Some People Nuts,” Yahoo! News, August 24, 2016,

[iii] “Democratic National Convention – Our Fight Song,” July 26, 2016, video clip, YouTube,

[iv] Like much of the Clinton playlist, “Fight Song” embraces the notion of the candidate as a fighter. For an in-depth thematic analysis of Clinton’s Spotify playlist, see David R. Dewberry and Jonathan Millen, “Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign Spotify Playlist,” Trax on the Trail, May 25, 2016,

[v] Mrs. Clinton has the unenviable task of following Barack Obama, whose Spotify playlists are not seen as reflecting popular culture but rather shaping it. Obama’s 2016 “Summer” Spotify playlist almost immediately “… was the most listened-to on Spotify, other than those organized by the global music streaming service itself.” See Gardiner Harris, “President Obama’s Emotional Spotify Playlist Is a Hit,” New York Times, August 14, 2016,

[vi] Author’s transcription of C-SPAN video (03:06:50 minute mark). See “Democratic National Convention,” uploaded July 26, 2016, video clip, CSPAN,

[vii] The Bellas even overcome a White House “sex” scandal.

[viii] See Christianna Barnard, “Dancing Around the Double-Bind: Gender Identity, Likability, and the Musical Rebranding of Hillary Clinton,” Trax on the Trail, November 29, 2015,….

[ix] In April 2016, Clinton responded to Trump’s claim that she was playing the woman card with the following remark: “Well, if fighting for women’s health care and paid family leave and equal pay is playing the woman card, then deal me in!”

[x] In Pitch Perfect 2, the Bellas get their groove back and rediscover team harmony through the sounds of Motown. Motown grooves may have aided Clinton as well. Shortly after the convention, she embarked on a Rust Belt bus tour with vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine. Matt Flegenheimer of the New York Times reported that she “was now taking the stage to a Motown classic ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,’ sidelining a rotation of female pop stars.” See Matt Flegenheimer, “Clinton Woos a Crowd of Skeptics: White Men. Rust Belt Tour Seeks to Make Up Ground With the Population That Likes Her Least,” New York Times, August 2, 2016, A14. By late August, the Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell classic was used at the conclusion of Clinton’s own events, exactly as “Fight Song” had been during the primaries.

[xi] Comedians Stephen Colbert and John Oliver released a parody of Banks’s video that doubled-down on the notion of boorish male behavior. The comedians appear in frames in the video, including one where, interestingly enough, Oliver describes not being told he was going to appear in “this weirdly earnest a cappella song for Clinton.” See “The Late Show’s ‘Fight Song’ feat. John Oliver,” uploaded July 28, 2016, video clip, YouTube,

On the Inside Trax: Kraig Moss, A Modern Day Troubadour for Trump

September 2, 2016

Over the course of the 2016 election cycle, the press has eagerly reported on the many pop songs candidates take to the trail. Journalists sometimes criticize the candidates’ seemingly tone-deaf choices: “Tiny Dancer” for Trump….really? In other instances, the pundits of pop culture debate the legality and ethics of candidates using the songs of artists who fervently protest their usage in campaign contexts. Has Donald “Trumped” Queen once again? While such instances make exciting fodder for journalists and talk show hosts, unaltered pop songs like “Tiny Dancer” and “We are the Champions” comprise only a small part of the 2016 musical mosaic. A quick search in our Trail Trax database shows that while candidates predominantly choose well known pop songs for their live appearances, a robust DIY culture of campaign song writing exists on the internet and other unofficial spaces outside of the arena proper. Whether it be a parody of a Top-40 hit, such as “All About That Bern,” which takes Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” as its musical cue, or a newly composed song, such as Scott Isbell’s sentimental “Trumpified,” platforms such as YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify offer a veritable smorgasbord of campaign-inspired gems. When political discourse is poured into song, a nuanced and thoughtful critique of policy, platform, and the status quo sometimes emerges beyond the layers of laughter. Indeed, these songs tell us something about our candidates, but perhaps they tell us just as much about ourselves and how we come to engage with electoral process through popular culture in its infinite manifestations.

But what motivates the citizenry to engage with presidential politics through song composition? For this Inside Trax, we introduce to you Kraig Moss, a singer-songwriter who is somewhat unique in that not only has he shared his Trump-inspired music online, but he has also traveled to forty-two Trump rallies, guitar in hand, to spread his message through music.

Mr. Moss was interviewed on July 22, 2016.

*The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Trax on the Trail or Georgia College. 

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: Can you tell me a bit about yourself?

Kraig Moss: Well, my name is Kraig Moss, and you know it’s spelled with a K…[I mistakenly referred to the gentleman as “Craig” with a “C” in our initial correspondence.]

DGM: Yes, now I do (laugh). Thank you for speaking with us today.

KM: How far do you want me to go back? You know, I was born in New York, January 13, 1959. In 1990 I found myself in California as a single parent. My son was born April 7, 1989; his name was Rob J.R. Moss. I had gone out there just to make sure he knew what a father was. The state of California turned my son over to me at a very early age. He was only a year and a half old. His mother wasn’t doing such a good job, apparently. I didn’t want that [custody arrangement] to happen, I just simply wanted to be there. My hours for the work I was doing were pretty intense, so I changed my work, changed my hours, and became a single parent. I raised him out there, and in 1999, my dad came down with cancer, and I felt the need to be with him during his last days on earth, so I went back to New York and have been there ever since. My son and I lived together, and I remarried in New York. That was for five years, then the marriage didn’t work out, so we split up. My son died January 6, 2014, from a heroin overdose.

DGM: I’m so sorry…

KM: So for two years, from January 2014 to December 2015, I really hadn’t been doing much of anything. The construction company that I was running stopped taking jobs, and I started just selling equipment. I lost the drive to do just about anything, and I lost the ability to express emotion over death. I could get emotional, but not over death; people would die all around me – my friend’s kids. I just found it very difficult to express that emotion over death.

I went to a garage sale and I met a guy by the name of Julian Raven – he’s an artist, and he painted a portrait, 8 feet tall, 15 feet long. [The vinyl reproduction of the painting, shown here, is titled “Unafraid and Unashamed.”] It was a portrait of Donald Trump’s face, and an eagle reaching down, grasping an American flag fallen to the ground. It was a very intense portrait.[i] He was taking it to Iowa to show it at different venues, and he asked me to come along. I originally was supposed to go out there with him just the one time to play music, but when I flew out there, and I played music and went to a rally, I realized I had found a purpose for myself, to talk to the kids who were standing in line. At the time, Donald Trump was only selling 2500-3000-seat venues: gymnasiums, cafeterias, that kind of thing. I talked to the kids about heroin and how addictive it is. And when I saw kids nudging their friends or kicking their friend with their foot, I realized that “Hey you know what, I’m on the right trail here.” I have found something that I can do to feel good about. Supporting my candidate is all about my son, because of Donald Trump’s stance on wanting to protect our borders, to slow the flow of heroin down to a trickle coming in this country.

And as I was out there playing regular songs for those kids, I started making up songs; I made up “The Trump Train,” seeing all those people standing in line. I called it the “Trump Train.” And I started calling the people there “Trumpsters.” That phrase caught right on, and then the news media started using “Trumpsters!”

Kraig Moss sings “Trump Train

My first rally was in Urbandale, Iowa [January 15, 2016]. So in Urbandale, Iowa, here I am talking to Donald Trump during a question and answer period. First, I told him my son died a couple years ago because of heroin, and I asked him what he would do to combat the ongoing epidemic of heroin in this country. And he came from behind that podium to the front of that stage, and he said, “First, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure your son was a good boy, and I’m sure you’re a good father.” Then, he looked around the crowd, and he said “This is a good father right here.” And he said “We’re gonna protect our borders and do the very best we can on all our borders to slow down the transfer of heroin and other drugs into this country; and we also need to make rehabilitation facilities more available for the kids who find themselves in this situation.” He was very much aware of the situation, and I was very pleased to hear that. It was very nice of him to show that compassionate side of himself.[ii]

From that point on, I just kept going around playing music. I went to North and South Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, New York, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. I also got down to New Mexico and California, and a rally in Montana. And when I was in Montana, I had a sign [that read] “will play for food or gas.” People would come up and ask for my story and toss me a few bucks. I haven’t been home in five months; I’ve got people that have been picking up my mail. I was able to go to the RNC for the last four days, and it was just a great experience. I communicated with Black Lives Matter advocates, Muslim protesters, and it just proved that… you know there was an article that said,  “We were promised a riot, but we got a block party.”

DGM: Yes I did see that.  [This article, titled “We Were Promised a Riot. In Cleveland, We Got a Block Party Instead,” was published by The Washington Post on July 21, 2016.][iii]

KM: Let me tell you something: I saw an excerpt where the biker for Trump with no shirt on was doing a square dance with one of the Black Lives Matter advocates. It kind of gets you. What we kept telling people was that it’s not one rule, one law, or even one president – we have to make a difference ourselves. We have to learn to reach out and create love and peace with each other. Life is too short on this earth to be running around butchering each other in this country.

DGM: I read your page on ReverbNation. You identify as being a Christian gospel singer, but I definitely hear a bit of country, a little rock ‘n’ roll…who are your musical influences?

KM: Well, in ’69, I was ten years old and listened to music, but I think the groups I started to…I listened to Three Dog Night a lot. In the early 70s, I listened to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Duane Allman. At the same time, I’m listening to B.B. King. So as far as my influences, there you go: the Allman Brothers, Charlie Daniels, a lot of blues, Eric Clapton. They were my greatest influences—Elvis Presley, the oldies, the combination of blues and country, and then that southern rock coming into the mix. I listened to The Eagles before Joe Walsh; he kind of turned that whole band around…good songwriters like Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, a complete array… I saw B.B. King at the Rockefeller Center. I used to go to the cool jazz festival, and see performers doing good, solid blues. So, that’s my influence there, then I kind of created my own style. I guess I don’t really like playing out in clubs. I enjoy playing Christian music, because that’s my way of really reaching out to the Lord.

DGM: Labels can be confining, but do you see yourself as some sort of activist or just a patriot and a fan of Donald Trump? How do you see yourself?

KM: I have always been a patriot. I have always loved my country, but I have never voted. I was one of those people who thought, “What can my vote do?”  But then with Donald Trump, my son passing, and this whole place, New York, it’s saturated with heroin. It’s on every street corner. How is it getting in here across the border? And then, I hear Donald Trump talking about wanting to protect our border. That’s what kind of got me interested in politics. This is my first year I’m voting. Once I registered, I started trying to become a part of the local election process. I realized my vote does matter; there was the one local election where fifty to seventy-five votes was the difference. Seventy-five votes? It would take one person in a neighborhood to get seventy-five people to come and vote.

DGM: You said that you have been to forty two Trump rallies and counting. Are there other people doing something similar to what you’re doing?

KM: Not that I know of and definitely not to the extent [that] I am. The repeat people that I recognize are the vendors. They have been to fifty or sixty rallies and very few of them like Donald Trump. A lot of them can’t stand him, but he’s just such a moneymaker. They’re taking out [“Make America Great Again”] T-shirts and hats and getting $20 a piece for them and making $4000 a day.

DGM: I went to the convention in Charlotte in 2012, and I saw the same kind of thing! Just the number of vendors selling all these things…the whole process has been commercialized and commodified in such an unfathomable way…

KM: I would love to be able to sell some of my CDs more so than I have, but you know—this is not what I am about, this is what I do, this is what I did at the RNC. I sell some CDs, but I give away more than I sell. In Akron, Ohio I gave out 150 CDs!
That’s $2,250 dollars! I give them away with the hopes that people will remember my message. Inside of the CD is a photograph of my son Rob and my message. I’m an individual who agrees with most of what Donald Trump says, but not all. I am asking folks to vote for him, because he can make the changes that we need to stop drug abuse. I am not there to be a vendor. I have not found anybody that is as passionate as to give up everything. I mean, I am selling pieces of equipment to keep myself out here on the road because I just believe in Mr. Trump so much and so strongly. And if my efforts stop one person from starting on heroin, it’s worthwhile. And so, it’s already been worthwhile to me, because I know that I have touched the hearts of many people. I’ve run across probably at least a half a dozen people who have lost a child or relative to heroin within the past two or five months. 

DGM: Campaign music such as yours sort of has a shelf life. People hear and sing the songs during campaign season, but then, usually after that time, you don’t really hear people singing them or talking about them anymore. You have a lot of great songs—“Cherished Memories” is absolutely beautiful. I also like “We All Say.” Some of them are more Trump-specific than others, but all of them do have that theme. Do you worry that after the election is over it won’t be something people are so much interested in anymore? And considering how successful you’ve been on the road, does that make you think about what other kinds of music you will record once the election is over?

KM: I absolutely know that there’s a time limit on the popularity of this music. If I had my way, I would be in Nashville playing these songs and contacting radio stations to try and get them to air the songs. But I know the shelf life of this music. If you listen to my Christian music, I borrowed a lot of the melodies from my Christian albums.

DGM: So what you’re saying is that some of these songs are your Christian songs that you’ve rewritten with Trump-specific texts?

KM: Yes, all the music has been revamped with, you know, more drums or more guitar; I’ve kind of picked them up a bit so that they’re more upbeat. I couldn’t possibly have jumped in a studio and created all the music from scratch in the short amount of time that I had before I was going out on the road. It was my music that I had copyrighted previously. “Trump Train,” “Build a Wall,” and “Cherished Memories” were all written from scratch, but for the others, I used music from previously recorded songs from my Christian album and went through and rewrote the words to all the songs so that they reflected my stand behind Donald Trump. [In other words, some of Moss’s Trump songs are parodies of his earlier Christian songs.]

DGM: How do you develop your song lyrics? Do you sit down with paper and pencil, or think them up while on the road? I don’t mean to pull the veil away from your creative process, but I’m curious about how you go about creating certain texts for your new songs, if you want to share…

KM: Mostly I’ll come up with an idea and I’ll write the idea down on a piece of paper and then it might sit like that for a while. Then, I begin working on music. I get a couple of compositions together as far as melodies and whatnot.

There’s one song called “Lonely” on my Christian album. I woke up at three in the morning. This is when my son was still alive. I had to get up and write it down, and “Lonely” was written in about twenty minutes because at three in the morning it had just all come to me. The whole message of the song was “Lord, why am I so lonely? My mom and dad have passed away, my best friend gave up on life today.” And then, my son woke up and gave me a bunch of trouble because he had to get up at 6:30am in the morning and work with me and he said, “Really Pop, you’re gonna get up at three in the morning and play guitar and sing?” And I just said, “The Lord put these words and this music in my head and I had to write them down.” And he looked over my shoulder and started reading the lyrics and said, “‘My mom and dad have passed away.’ Well, I know Grandma and Grandpa have died, but ‘my best friend gave up on life today?’ Who is your best friend that gave up on life?” And I said, “I don’t know, I’m just writing this stuff down that came up in my mind.” That was August, and then in January, he was dead.

I can write songs about any subject, but in order to write words that mean something, I have to feel passionate about the subject. I’m passionate about writing songs and I’m passionate about Donald Trump, and that’s why I put a lot of faith in him in my songs, just like I do in real life. And I certainly hope he can be president to follow through with all he talks about. And I mentioned before, it’s gonna take the people…. And, you know, I just, we have to learn how to live amongst one another. We have to get things straightened out just so we’re not so angry. We’re so angry all the time. It’s unpleasant sometimes.

DGM: It is unpleasant. So much of what you see in the media is all about what goes on in official spaces. It is really great to talk to you, because for someone who is not attending these rallies, you never get a sense of what is going on outside. And that is where a different kind of creativity and artistry and passion comes out, and you really have all three, so it is terrific to talk to you.

Edited and abridged by Cannon McClain and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, with additional assistance from Teddi Strassburger

To hear more of Kraig Moss’s songs, please visit his page on ReverbNation. Also check out the Trail Trax database for live footage of Moss’s performances on the trail.

[i] For more on Julian Raven’s painting and his appearances on the trail, see

[ii] The Washington Post interviewed Moss during the Iowa leg of his Trump tour. See “Why This Grieving Father Is Singing for Trump,” Washington Post (video), January 28, 2016,

[iii] Dan Zak, “We Were Promised a Riot. In Cleveland, We Got a Block Party Instead,” Washington Post, July 21, 2016,

“This Land Is (Once Again) Your Land”: Woody Guthrie and the 2015–16 US Presidential Race

August 24, 2016

In US electoral politics since the 1980s, many candidates have (re-)branded themselves as “hip” and “cool” by utilizing hit songs from mainstream popular music. As a significant example of this trend during the 1992 US presidential election, Bill Clinton mobilized MTV culture by using classic rock, with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” serving as his campaign’s theme song. Recent scholarship has contextualized how political campaigns harness pop music’s lyric and sonic attributes to attract constituencies diverse in age, race, class, and gender (Sterne 1999; Schoening and Kasper 2012; Love 2015 and 2016; Gorzelany-Mostak 2015 and 2016).

In this era of musically “cool” political spectacles, the folk expression of one of America’s most politically active musicians, Woody Guthrie (1912–1967), has persevered. The singer-songwriter used his art and ideals to fight inequality, persecution, and bigotry amidst the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. Influenced by prairie radicalism, the Oklahoman championed the working class and spread his socialist ideology throughout US urban centers during the nascence of America’s folk revival in the 1940s (Kaufman 2011). Following a career shortened by Huntington’s disease in 1952, Guthrie’s popularity grew in the 1950s and 1960s through the efforts of his contemporaries and the subsequent generation of folk musicians, including Pete Seeger, Jack Elliott, and Bob Dylan (Cohen 2012, 2–3). Written in 1940 and first recorded in 1944, Guthrie’s celebrated “This Land Is Your Land” has become a popular fixture in US electoral politics. Contributing to the reception histories of both song and artist, this essay examines the myriad ways that “This Land Is Your Land” and Guthrie’s working-class heroism have impacted political discourse during the 2015–16 campaign cycle.

Guthrie wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a protest song to counter Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” (1938), which Guthrie hated for its sanctimonious and jingoistic themes as well as its ignorance of true working-class experiences (Kaufman 2011, 28–29).[i] “This Land Is Your Land” now exists in several versions, which evoke different interpretations. First copyrighted in 1956, the song’s complete lyrics comprise a chorus-refrain plus six verses that portray complex images of the nation—some regard its idyllic natural beauty, while others concern its deplorable class oppression. In the 1950s, schools and church organizations presented “This Land Is Your Land” in recordings and publications, but diluted the song’s message by omitting its protest lyrics and retaining only the three idyllic verses and refrain. This sanitized version became the standard patriotic anthem in the public’s consciousness, much to Guthrie’s dissatisfaction (Jackson 2002, 260–64). Continuing Guthrie’s legacy, fellow folk musician and political activist Pete Seeger (1919–2014) consistently performed “This Land Is Your Land” in its complete version with the protest verses included (with occasional variances in order and wording). However, the efforts of Seeger and other folk artists have not dethroned the song’s standardized, politically eviscerated form.

The song’s origins in protest illuminate its radically socialist intent, which sometimes coincides with and at other times contradicts its political usage. “This Land Is Your Land” served as a central theme song in the presidential campaigns of Democratic candidate Robert F. Kennedy in 1968 and Republican nominee George H.W. Bush in both 1988 and 1992. Kennedy employed the song’s entire message, which accorded with the candidate’s liberal platform of economic equality and racial reconciliation and justice (Schoening and Kasper 2012, 147–48). In contrast, in order to court moderate middle-class voters, Bush’s use of “This Land Is Your Land” focused on the song’s refrain and hook to promote a narrative of prosperity while aligning the candidate with the filtered public perception of Guthrie as a patriotic American artist. However, Bush’s narrative ignored the folk icon’s communist leanings and condemnation of the upper class and conservative ideology, thus exemplifying the possible misrepresentation of a song’s meaning through its appropriation (Schoening and Kasper 2012, 170–71, 181, and 225).

During the 2004 US presidential race, “This Land Is Your Land” affected both liberal and nonpartisan political discourse. Democratic nominee John Kerry occasionally participated in and played guitar for sing-alongs of the song, which denoted different ideologies depending on the venue. At his Midwestern campaign stops, the song functioned in its popular American anthem form to attract rural voters and eradicate Kerry’s aloof, elitist persona (Toner 2004). Yet at his July 8, 2004 celebrity fundraiser at Radio City Music Hall, the event’s anti-conservative rhetoric reinvigorated the song’s ultra-liberal interpretation in a sing-along led by John Mellencamp, Dave Matthews, John Fogerty, and Jon Bon Jovi (Crandall 2004). But the most celebrated use of Guthrie’s song during the 2004 election cycle occurred through its parody titled “This Land!”—a Flash animated video created and released online by the digital entertainment studio JibJab. This parody featured cutout animated figures of Kerry and George W. Bush singing alternate lyrics that attacked each other’s perceived flaws and utilized the new refrain “This land will surely vote for me.” Praised for its humorous, nonpartisan ridicule of the two candidates, JibJab’s video quickly became a viral hit and appeared on several major news outlets, including CNBC, Fox News, CBS’s The Early Show, and NBC Nightly News (Lohr 2004).[ii]

Figure 1 Jib Jab takes a jab at Bush and Kerry in “This Land!”

Guthrie’s leftist intentions for “This Land Is Your Land” were fully realized on January 18, 2009, in Washington D.C. at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration We Are One concert, where Seeger, alongside Bruce Springsteen and a large choir, led an audience of more than 400,000 in a rousing performance of the song.[iii] Once again, Seeger included the oft-forgotten protest lyrics, and as Mark Pedelty suggests, this seminal event provided progressive activists a “unifying sense of hope and national identity” (Pedelty 2009, 426).

Figure 2a Seeger and Springsteen lead a chorus of thousands at Obama’s 2008 inauguration
Figures 2b Seeger and Springsteen lead a chorus of thousands at Obama’s 2008 inauguration

In apparent attempts to recapture the 2009 optimism for their Democratic party, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders extensively incorporated “This Land Is Your Land” into their 2015–16 US presidential campaigns. The song not only aligned with O’Malley’s concern for working-class well-being, but it also provided him an opportunity to demonstrate his strong musical background.[iv] Proficient on guitar and vocals, O’Malley performed Guthrie’s song, among other favorites, at many of his campaign stops, and the “troubadour” candidate frequently included the song’s additional protest lyrics (see Brian Barone’s Trax article). Often inviting audience participation, O’Malley’s live performances may have recalled the 2009 We Are One concert while also providing nostalgia for his constituency by simulating group singing in the mode of the mid-twentieth-century folk revival. However, O’Malley’s efforts failed to generate enough optimism and support to propel him past the first caucus.

Sanders’s fervent working-class and socialist platform strongly corresponded to Guthrie’s ideals and music, which the candidate reified with his publicized visit to the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa in late February 2016. From his campaign launch on May 26, 2015 to his reluctant endorsement of opponent Hillary Clinton in July 2016, “This Land Is Your Land” served as a theme song for Sanders, who already had an association with the song. Collaborating with other folk artists while he was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, Sanders recorded a cover of “This Land Is Your Land” for his 1987 folk album We Shall Overcome, which features five protest songs of the Civil Rights Movement popularized by Odetta, Guthrie, and Seeger. We Shall Overcome garnered little attention before its remastering and re-release in December 2014 (Stuart 2015).

While “This Land Is Your Land” did not appear on Sanders’s campaign playlist, the song served multiple purposes on his presidential campaign trail: it appeared in videos created by artists who support the candidate and in the programs of tribute concerts and rallies, which provided launching points for interactive sing-alongs. In these live settings, musicians led the performances while Sanders faded in and out with his vocals, such as at a January 30, 2016 Iowa City rally featuring Vampire Weekend, as well as at Sanders’s March 1, 2016 Super Tuesday celebration in Essex County, Vermont with Kat Wright and the Indomitable Soul Band. Depending on the lead singers’ familiarity with the song’s little known protest lyrics, the performances occasionally presented the song in its complete form. Furthermore, the various renditions of “This Land Is Your Land” during Sanders’s campaign comprised a wide variety of musical styles, including folk, indie, hard rock, soul, and reggae. This strategy espoused cultural diversity—manifesting Guthrie’s belief in the integration of black and white working-class cultures, while countering perceptions of Guthrie that consider him to only represent the white working class (Garman 2000, 3–4 and 11–13).

Figure 3 The Washington Post compiles Sanders’ playlist on Spotify

Community singing and dancing allowed Sanders to participate in the song’s expression while hiding his limited musicality and speech-singing (or quasi-barking) vocalizations, reminiscent of his 1987 recording. But these interactive performances also typify Christopher Small’s concept of “musicking,” which challenges scholarly assumptions that music is solely an object or self-contained work. As Small suggests, musicking “is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance . . . or by dancing” (Small 1998, 9). Musicking denotes activities or rituals that create sonic and physical music scenes in which social relationships are formed: “relationships between person and person, between individual and society, between humanity and the natural world and even perhaps the supernatural world” (Small 1998, 13). And these relationships provide essential musical meaning by defining both individual and social identities (Small 1998, 41–47 and 130–34).

Translating Small’s theories to the political realm, Sanders’s sing-alongs of “This Land Is Your Land” promoted themes of community, nostalgia, and equality for middle- and lower-class America. Through musical interaction at campaign rallies and concerts, Guthrie’s anthem sonically authenticated Sanders’s socialist platform while providing his supporters the experience of physically enacting the candidate’s message. Simultaneously, the musicking rituals on both O’Malley’s and Sanders’s campaign trails helped to restore the song’s radical leftist, working-class origins. In these cases, music solidified political identities within a community of individuals who were united in their political beliefs and actions, thus illustrating how campaign music operates both as an expression of political causes as well as a cause of political expression (Street 2011, 170–73).

 “This Land Is Your Land’s” presence in the remaining US presidential race will probably subside, with both O’Malley and Sanders now out of contention. Yet, Guthrie’s leftist radicalism may still serve as an opponent to conservatism leading up to November’s election, such as it did in early 2016 when the national media pitted the folk icon’s tenets for racial and economic equality against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Folk music and Guthrie scholar Will Kaufman’s archival research determined that Fred C. Trump, Donald’s father, was Guthrie’s landlord in early 1950s Brooklyn (Kaufman 2016). As a developer of urban public housing in the postwar years, Fred Trump frequently faced accusations of profiteering and racial discrimination—the former led to a US Senate committee investigation in 1954, while the latter ultimately resulted in two civil rights cases brought against the Trump real estate empire by the US Justice Department in 1973 and 1978 (Kaufman 2016). Among the documents Kaufman discovered were Guthrie’s writings that lament “Old Man Trump’s” unethical and bigoted practices, including welcoming only white tenants, while Guthrie imagined an integrated community with “a diverse cornucopia” of races and ethnicities (Kaufman 2016). Stimulated by Kaufman’s findings, American news outlets mapped Fred Trump’s background onto Donald Trump’s campaign and used Guthrie’s ideals as a means to censure the Republican candidate’s racially-charged rhetoric.

On July 12, 2016, in hopes to unify Democrats, Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton as their party’s presidential nominee (Alcindor, Chozick, and Healy 2016). However, there is little evidence that Clinton will assimilate Sanders’s fondness for Guthrie, who is not without controversy regarding gender politics. Guthrie’s perceived sexism has blemished his legacy, as he abandoned his domestic responsibilities and exploited his female relationships while becoming “America’s favorite hobo” (Kaufman 2011, xxii). Associating herself with this perception would be counterintuitive for Clinton’s feminist platform. Moreover, Clinton’s campaign playlist strategically has signified gender diversity and feminine strength through contemporary artists, leaving little room for Guthrie’s music to affect the remaining election cycle (see Christianna Barnard’s and David Dewberry and Jonathan Millen’s Trax articles). Yet, in numerous instances that have connected Guthrie’s working-class heroism with political discourse, the 2015–16 US presidential race has demonstrated that Guthrie and his music could be politically “cool” once again.

– Michael Kennedy


Alcindor, Yamiche, Amy Chozick, and Patrick Healy. “Bernie Sanders Endorses Hillary Clinton, Hoping to Unify Democrats.” New York Times, July 12, 2016. 

Barnard, Christianna. “Dancing around the Double-bind: Gender Identity, Likability, and the Musical Rebranding of Hillary Clinton.” Trax on the Trail, November 29, 2015.

Barone, Brian. “‘I’ve Been Everywhere’: Martin O’Malley and the Many Meanings of the Guitar.” Trax on the Trail, January 8, 2016. 

Blim, Richard Daniel. “Patchwork Nation: Collage, Music, and American Identity.” PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2013.

Chokshi, Niraj. “Who Owns the Copyright to ‘This Land Is Your Land’? It May Be You and Me.” New York Times, June 17, 2016. 

Cohen, Ronald D. Woody Guthrie: Writing America’s Songs. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Crandall, Bill. “DMB, Blige Rock for Kerry.” Rolling Stone, July 9, 2004. 

Dewberry, David R., and Jonathan Millen. “Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign Spotify Playlist.” Trax on the Trail, May 25, 2016.

Garman, Bryan K. A Race of Singers: Whitman’s Working-class Hero from Guthrie to Springsteen. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Gorzelany-Mostak, Dana. “‘I’ve Got a Little List’: Spotifying Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 US Presidential Election.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015).

_____. “Keepin’ It Real (Respectable) in 2008: Barack Obama’s Music Strategy and the Formation of Presidential Identity.” Journal of the Society for American Music 10, no. 2 (2016): 113–48.

Jackson, Mark Allan. “Is This Song Your Song Anymore?: Revisioning Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’” American Music 20, no. 3 (2002): 249–76.

Kaufman, Will. Woody Guthrie, American Radical. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.

_____. “Woody Guthrie, ‘Old Man Trump,’ and a Real Estate Empire’s Racist Foundations.” The Conversation, January 21, 2016.

Lohr, Steve. “A Duet That Straddles the Political Divide.” New York Times, July 26, 2004.

Love, Joanna. “Branding a Cool Celebrity President: Popular Music, Political Advertising, and the 2012 Election.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015).

_____. “Political Pop and Commercials That Flopped: Early Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Race.” Trax on the Trail, January 14, 2016.  

Pedelty, Mark. “This Land: Seeger Performs Guthrie’s ‘Lost Verses’ at the Inaugural.” Popular Music and Society 32, no. 3 (2009): 425–31.

Schoening, Benjamin S., and Eric T. Kasper. Don’t Stop Thinking about the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2012.

Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1998.

Sterne, Jonathan. “Going Public: Rock Aesthetics in the American Political Field.” In Sound Identities: Popular Music and the Cultural Politics of Education, edited by Cameron McCarthy, Glenn Hudak, Shawn Miklaucic, and Paula Saukko, 289–315. New York: Peter Lang, 1999.

Street, John. Music and Politics. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011.

Stuart, Tessa. “The Untold Story of Bernie Sanders’s 1987 Folk Album.” Rolling Stone, December 2, 2015.

Toner, Robin. “With Guns and Butter, Kerry Woos Rural Voters.” New York Times, July 4, 2004.

Wagner, John. “Songs of ‘Revolution’ and Others That Make Bernie Sanders’s Playlist.” Washington Post, February 8, 2016.

[i] Guthrie’s original 1940 version of the song was titled “God Blessed America,” with the refrain “God blessed America for me,” which emphatically situated “God’s blessing” of the nation in the past tense while locating America’s struggles in economics and politics. When Guthrie recorded the song in 1944, he changed the title to “This Land Is Your Land” and the refrain to “This land was made for you and me,” focusing on the song’s message of equality (Jackson 2002, 249–50).

[ii] In June 2004, Ludlow Music, the publishing company that controls the rights to “This Land Is Your Land” on behalf of the Richmond Organization, threatened JibJab with a copyright lawsuit for the unauthorized use of Guthrie’s music. In response, JibJab sued Ludlow in July 2004 to obtain federal judicial confirmation that their work was protected as “fair use” and did not transgress Ludlow’s copyright. The two sides reached a settlement after JibJab’s lawyers claimed that the song’s original copyright from 1945 actually expired in 1973, which Ludlow failed to renew since it had filed its own copyright of the song in 1956 (Chokshi 2016).

[iii] For more on the We Are One concert, see Trax contributor Richard Daniel Blim’s dissertation, “The Electoral Collage: Mapping Barack Obama’s Mediated Identities in the 2008 Election,” chap. 5 in “Patchwork Nation: Collage, Music, and American Identity” (PhD diss., University of Michigan, 2013).

[iv] O’Malley’s presidential candidacy began on May 30, 2015, and it ended on February 1, 2016 after the Iowa caucus. Exemplifying his musical background, O’Malley has frequently performed guitar, banjo, and lead vocals for the Baltimore-based Celtic-rock band O’Malley’s March, which he founded in 1988.

Deconstructing the Populism: Pop Music on the Modern Campaign Trail

August 8, 2016

There is perhaps no phrase that defines the 2016 election cycle better than a return of populism. In the US, populism (broadly defined as appeal to “the people” against established powers, social structures, and hegemonic ideologies and values) bubbled to the surface in the wake of the so-called Great Recession (2007–09). The despair, fear, and frustration of citizens fomented competing populist political ideologies and brought these conflicts into the fiery cauldron of the 2016 campaign. With foreclosure, unemployment, debt, and declining prospects an existential reality, populist ideas from both the left and the right gained traction. These ideas pitted progressive populism against conservative populism in a uniquely 21st-century context of mass media and pop culture. Music from the 2008 and 2012 campaign cycles shows populist campaigning in an early form, which morphs into the pop music bombardment that characterizes the 2016 campaigns.  

Popular music participates in the essential functions of democracy, performing and pedagogizing the electorate (Bhabha, 1990), all while inventing “the people” (Morgan, 1988). For Homi Bhabha, democracy plays with time, simultaneously moving the people forward into new identities as modern citizens and backwards into roles that have constituted the identity of the nation in the past. In Edward Morgan’s lengthy analysis of democracy in the UK and the US, he artfully points out that appeals to the people always intend to create a category that is not existential. As it is seen in campaigns where politicians of different ideological leanings all claim to represent “the people,” the construct of “the people” must constantly be re-created through rhetoric, influence, media, and groups of individuals choosing to respond to the call for identification and participation. Popular music on the campaign trail participates in all three of these functions: pedagogizing the people into new identities, performing a time-honored past, and inventing a version of “the people” that includes the audience.

One obvious example is Bernie Sanders’ use of Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” in a television ad released shortly before the Iowa caucuses. The song harkens back to the 1960s, an era characterized as both “revolutionary” and as a period whose agenda remains unfinished (Mosner, 2003). In using the song in the context of the ad, Sanders’ campaign highlights rural America’s rustic glory, firmly rooted in a purified past. The song also participates in pedagogizing by highlighting what modern (meaning “young”) citizens should know about the past, particularly what elements should be transposed into the present and paired with modern sensibilities, like Sanders’ socialist stance, free university tuition, and a valorization of American manufacturing. Finally, Sanders-through-Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” attempts to define ‘the people’ who Sanders’ campaign is focused on helping—Baby Boomers who are concerned about retirement and hip, well-educated younger voters who fret about the very possibility of the American Dream.[i]

Figure 1a Bernie Sanders “America” Ad
Figure 1b Bernie Sanders “America” Ad

Listening to the music of democracy is as essential to understanding it as reading its histories. Popular music, through its familiarity and flexibility, is capable of embodying both the partisan and the nation. It temporarily resolves contradictions in the unstable formations between hegemonic and marginal groups and creates an affect that is both timeless and modern by constructing and narrating a mythical past and utopian future. Analyses of the political efficacy of music culture are acts of self-realization. They inform us of our own relationship to music and make less opaque the effects of music on our political senses. This analysis must also be included in democratic histories. Philosopher Jacques Attali states that, in modernity, music is the monologue of power, the constant annunciation of industrial capital and the culture industry (1985, 9). Listening to the forms and formations of political music in 2012 tells us the pre-history of the populism that is now pervasive in popular ideology and the 2016 campaign, and allows us to more fully comprehend music’s power and potential. When examined together, 2012 and 2016 campaign music tells us about the relationship between music, populist rhetoric, and power in our current politics. 

A complex mass of operations lies at the intersection of campaign-related usage of popular music and populism. These include attempts at creating affective links, the reinforcement of collected identities, the construction of new identities, and the maintenance of a constant contest to re-invent “the people.” At the birth of democracy, historian Edmund Morgan posits, there was a need to create a people—to define national culture, needs, and visions—in such a way that the many could be ruled by the few (1988). David Hume observes that this task is more easily accomplished than it should be, and that it is often accomplished through the manipulation of opinion, and opinion is manipulated by emotion (quoted in Morgan, 1988, 1, 13–15). In these calculations that ripple across crowds of supporters, the airwaves, and the Internet, music is often utilized as a catalyst. A close examination of the campaign music, populist policies and ideologies, and historical links between late nineteenth- and early twenty-first-century populism illuminates the cultural work that politicized popular music does (or attempts to do), situates the race of 2016 into a broader historical context, and raises questions about music’s role in future campaigns.[ii]

Contemporary popular music culture was a key component of the nascent populism of 2012 and is front and center in 2016. Competing populist policies manifested by the Tea Party on the Right and the Occupy movement on the Left paved the road leading up to the 2012 campaign. While both of these umbrella ideologies were contradictory and contained mutually distrustful factions, the breadth of populist politics and their impact on the policies, rhetoric, and cultural expressions of both sides were clearly felt. For the Romney campaign, the nativism, isolationism, rugged individualism, jingoistic nationalism, and valorization of white, working class-culture of Tea Party ideology manifested itself in Romney’s choice of Kid Rock’s “Born Free” as a campaign theme song. While the song was effective as a campaign mechanism, Romney and Kid Rock made for strange bedfellows, and the musician’s genre-jumping career was an odd shadow to critiques of Romney’s political opportunism. The every-voice-should-be-heard ideology of the Occupy movement was partially echoed in the Obama campaign’s mixtape, which also repeated some of the shortfalls of the Occupy movement.

Figure 2 Kid Rock at a Mitt Romney Rally, Royal Oak, MI (2012)

Country music was a key ground on which Romney labored to convince a nervous, vulnerable middle class and an angry working class of his conservatism, patriotism, and dedication. For Romney, Kid Rock’s “Born Free” mirrored major gaps in his campaign persona and communicated to his supporters on the level of ideology and affect. However, Kid Rock’s musical travels from gangsta rapper to nu metal icon to red meat Americana songster and country rock singer also matched Romney’s political maneuvers from moderate Republican governor who supported choice, universal healthcare, and gun control to Tea Party and 2nd Amendment-friendly candidate.

Contemporary popular music was also the plane on which Obama met a divided and disheartened electorate and appealed for another four years to finish the project of repair, restoration, recovery, and redemption. The Obama campaign largely abandoned the soundtrack of 2008, marked by Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” John Legend and’s “Yes We Can,” and Brooks and Dunn’s “Only in America.” The 27-song 2012 mixtape ran the gamut of radio-appropriate pop, containing healthy doses of Nashville country, classic soul, adult contemporary, and inspirational songs. Conspicuously missing were hip hop and electronic music, as well as tracks by Latin artists (save for Ricky Martin, who is well known among mainstream Anglo audiences) and rock artists long associated with Democratic campaigns.

2012 also signaled a new era in the political process, which 2016 continued and expanded. With the vast amounts of money spent on the creation of national campaign networks that understand and exploit locality, it is a distinct possibility that, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United”[iii] decision, a single suite of political issues may never again be accompanied by singular musical representation. With the growth of Super PACs and available information to finely target advertising, multiple ways to exploit social media, and the proliferation of news and commentary outlets, campaigns will become octopi, with multiple tentacles meant to grasp specific audiences through locally relevant or single-issue policies accompanied by multiple works of music. 2012 may have seen a final dramatic conjoining of populist policy and musical culture—a high modern attempt at crafting a singular musical-political nationalism before postmodern campaigning embraces the fragmentation of the electorate and gives up on the project of creating a singular, unified “the people.” Populism will no doubt live on in a postmodern guise that has yet to be revealed, but there is little doubt that it will be accompanied by the siren song of popular music. As we can see from a simple search in Trax on the Trail’s database, the uses of popular music in this cycle alone are extremely varied and will likely continue to be in the future.

Listening back to the Obama mixtape from 2012 with 2016’s ears, I detect a hint of the surgical execution of politics that seeps from the Clinton campaign. While political campaigns are all games of calculation, successful campaigns are able to play on spontaneity, in the guise of listening and allowing voices and narratives from the periphery to proliferate through the PA. While Obama’s oratory was able to sway voters, his musical selections from 2012 hinted at forgetting the youth, particularly urban, educated, youth of color, in favor of policies aimed at Main Street, the suburbs, Baby Boomers, and maintaining an economic system that is making enemies, particularly among young voters who came of age in the long shadow of the recession. This critical silencing came to fruition with Hillary Clinton, who struggles to connect culturally and politically with young, well-educated voters whose support will continue to be critical in a closely divided country. Many left-leaning voters identify with the platform of Bernie Sanders, who is widely perceived to be more the champion of the youth and progressives than Clinton. The politics of inclusion demand more than (musical) tokenism and may punish erasure.

In the current electoral cycle we can hear the campaigns working with popular music to accomplish a number of populist projections. As an accompaniment to Donald Trump’s nativist, protectionist, pugnacious rhetoric, his campaign music is both incredibly mundane—featuring an amalgamation of classic rock, Broadway hits, and the famous aria “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot—and plays on repeat at high decibels. His deployment of popular music, especially music that is ultimately common and in heavy rotation on the radio, in background soundtracks, and advertising, is both familiar and numbing, creating a bond between himself and his base of frustrated and disaffected conservatives who feel alienated from government and troubled by the direction they perceive the country to be moving in. His populist policies and ideologies are framed by the sounds of an American golden age of the late 1970s and 1980s, playing upon nostalgia-born affect.

The Clinton campaign uses popular music to its advantage as well. In particular, Clinton has embraced the much-maligned “woman card” since clinching the nomination. While on the trail, she released a 30-track all-female mixtape for women’s history month which included tracks by chart-topping artists such as Katy Perry, Beyoncé, Sia, Shania Twain, and Lady Gaga, as well as the tune “The Schuyler Sisters” from the Broadway smash Hamilton.[iv] Clinton’s playlists frequently target younger listeners by featuring contemporary artists who are household names or who are in rotation with younger listeners (although her recent campaign stops featured, of all things, music by John Phillip Sousa). She has generally abandoned her playlist from 2008, which included Celine Dion, Tom Petty, and Aretha Franklin, for a playlist that is much more youth and young adult pop radio-centered. Clinton’s version of musical populism focuses on the tastes of youth and early adulthood, perhaps in a nod to the young people who powered the Occupy movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders campaign.        

Figure 3 Hillary Clinton Women’s History Month Playlist (2016)

It is also worth noting an ironic switch that has occurred in the 2016 campaigns. With the successful insurgent candidacy of Donald Trump, there is increasing unease and wrangling about the GOP, particularly who and what it represents. The coalition between religious and social conservatives, Tea Party, libertarians, isolationists, imperialists, small government, Second Amendment hawks, anti-tax activists, and fiscal conservatives is fraying. More than playing identity politics, as Romney did, the GOP needs to play at the politics of coalition and inclusion. Perhaps the GOP should re-examine the politics of the mixtape that goes beyond Trump’s classic rock and Broadway-centered sounds. On the other hand, Hillary Clinton now needs to connect with young voters and working-class white men, who see no political or cultural connection to her and feel no enthusiasm for her. Clinton’s campaign needs to reach out at the level of cultural resonance and similitude that Romney attempted in 2012. Perhaps the Clinton campaign needs to find its theme not in a mixtape, but in a strong statement of solidarity with solution-based, young, anxious voters who are tired of identity politics that perform erasure and neglect intersectional and holistic solutions. The Clinton campaign needs a strong, distinct anthem through which to perform unification. But more than these, her campaign needs to do a better job of listening.

– Justin Patch

*A full version of this essay will be published in American Music 34, no. 3 (2016).


Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Manchester University Press, 1985.

Bhabha, Homi. “DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation.” In Nation and Narration, edited by Homi Bhabha, 291–322. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Morgan, Edmund S. Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America. New York: Norton, 1988.

Mosner, Richard. “Was it the End of Just a Beginning?: American Storytelling and the History of the Sixties.” In The World The 60s Made, edited by Van Gosse and Richard Mosner, 37–51. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2003.

[i] See also Paul Christiansen’s “America” ad article for Trax.

[ii] Here I am referring to populism as a formal political movement, rather than an idea, ideology, or practice, and specifically the organizing work done in the Mid-West, South and Southwest during the late 19th century. These agitations gave rise to the People’s Party, whose platform went on to influence Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, among others. Despite the party’s demise after a disastrous 1886 convention, many of its ideas were taken up in the early 20th century and the idea of populist wings of either major party began its journey into what we are now seeing. Populists’ frustrations with the end of the frontier, predatory lending, and cultural devaluation are echoed in popular anger over housing, the cost of education, and the lingering culture wars.

[iii] In the 2010 US Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, the court ruled to lift spending caps on private organizations, allowing them to contribute unlimited amounts of money to political influence groups that are formally unaligned with individual campaigns. While individuals and organizations like unions and corporations are limited in the amount of money they may give directly to campaigns, they are free to give unlimited funds to outside groups, known as Super PACs (political action committees). These super PACs can then spend money freely in attempting to influence public opinion and participate in independent campaigning. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, during the 2012 campaign cycle, Super PACs spent over $604 million ( According to the same source, over $755 million has been raised by Super PACs so far in the 2016 election cycle (

[iv] For further reading on Clinton’s engagement with Spotify, see Trax essays by Christianna Barnard and David R. Dewberry and Jonathan Millen.

Seeing Double: Presidential Parodies and the Art of the Musical

July 21, 2016

The stage is set for a political event. American flags are strewn about a platform set with two podiums, and an audience sits, rapt with anticipation, waving signs supporting the candidate. A gentleman in a clean-cut suit steps up to one podium, but instead of delivering a stump speech, he begins rapping: “How does a bastard, racist/son of a millionaire and a mogul/dropped in the middle of a race of the Republicans in tatters/a party nearly shattered/somehow become the only one that mattered?”

This unlikely scene is the beginning of HamilTrump, a sketch by the New York-based Rad Motel that parodies the opening number of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton (2015), a Broadway musical that tells the story of the titular founding father. Like most comedies, the laugh in this scene comes from the disconnect between expectations and realization. Flags and podiums usually imply serious discussions and real policy platforms, not rapping and insults. The presence of Hamilton also contributes to the comedic atmosphere, as any audience familiar with the original not only hears the actor reciting the lyrics, but holds those lyrics up against Miranda’s original opening to Hamilton: “How does a bastard orphan/son of a whore and a Scotsman/dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean/by providence, impoverished, in squalor/grow up to be a hero and scholar?” The “racist” “billionaire” Trump, Rad Motel implies, is the opposite of the scruffy but brilliant Hamilton.

Figure 1a Hamilton and HamilTrump
Figure 1b Hamilton and HamilTrump

This comic reversal is at the heart of the satirical act of parody, an art that relies on doubleness: the audience places the two texts (the original and its parody) side-by-side in their minds, with the comedy resulting from the ironic distance between the two performances, as in the case of HamilTrump original and its parody (Hutcheon, 31). Parody has a long history in electoral politics, and Rad Motel is not the only group who has found Hamilton a useful tool in 2016; a self-described “bunch of millennials who have too much free time on their hands” crowd-sourced a Google Document of an entirely new libretto for the show called Jeb! An American Disappointment, based on the Bush campaign.[i] Comedians have also turned to other musicals to comment on the presidential election: Jimmy Kimmel reunited Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick of 2001’s The Producers for a segment on his late night show. The original musical tells the story of two crooked showmen who raise a million bucks by promising all investors a 50% stake in the show, put on a $100,000 flop, and try to run off with the extra money, but the plan fails when their show becomes a hit. In Kimmel’s version, Trumped, two political consultants raise money for a terrible presidential candidate and plan to keep the extra cash when the candidate inevitably drops out. The candidate, of course, is Trump, and the consultants are left in the same lurch when his campaign unexpectedly takes off.

Figure 2a Trumped, Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Figure 2b Trumped, Jimmy Kimmel Live!
Figure 2 Trumped, Jimmy Kimmel Live!

Musicals in general make for good political parody because they also rely on a kind of doubleness, in which the story is both depicted in the action and retold through the songs. This doubled narrative allows characters to explain their thoughts and their processes to the audience, to “tell” rather than “show,” even if the characters onstage don’t necessarily need that explanation. This kind of “process” number exists as “The Ten Duel Commandments” in Hamilton, which becomes “The Ten Debate Commandments” in Jeb!. In both musicals and their parodies, this allows the author to highlight the ridiculousness of the character’s actions; what seems to be a logical sequence of events if looked at one by one appears utterly ludicrous when taken as a whole. It is no coincidence that the number from The Producers that features most prominently in Trumped is the beginning of “We Can Do It,” in which the step-by-step plan for defrauding investors is transformed into a step-by-step plan for defrauding campaign donors. Although in the parody version Lane and Broderick don’t sing, anyone familiar with the original show would hear those flourishes in the background, adding an extra touch of silliness to the proceedings. This strategy of telling rather than showing packs a lot of information in a very short amount of time, which is essential to comedy. Brevity is, after all, the soul of wit.

Furthermore, this doubled narrative structure allows characters to sing their subtext (Clum, 310). In other words, what characters sing is understood to be their true feelings, even if their actions outside the song contradict their lyrics. This works well with the idea of parody, which often makes the subtext of the original into the text of new version. (Trevor Noah’s monologues “translating” network news on the The Daily Show, making hidden biases explicit, is a good non-musical example). In musicals, that which is sung is understood to be the characters “true” feelings. This idea works well with the electoral parody, which appears to reveal a candidate’s true intentions (or at least what the author of the parody believes those intentions to be) beneath the political doublespeak. For example, in HamilTrump, the chorus comically explains the candidate’s strategy to win the Presidency: “Scamming for every vote he can get his hands on/planning for the White House see him now as he stands/at the Capitol building with a bible in hand/make America great again without a real plan.”

To return to the idea of ironic distance in parody, this works on the level of the larger concept of the musical itself. Both historical musicals like Hamilton and backstage musicals like The Producers are often retellings of the Cinderella story: the chorus girl made good in 42nd Street (1933) or Evita (1978), the unknown immigrant’s rise to power (Hamilton), or even a contentious group of colonists becoming a nation in 1776 (1969). When a form that usually glorifies the “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps” story is applied to the lives of Trump and Bush—two very rich men—hilarity ensues. It also helps to explain why the Above Average sketch “Hillary Clinton Ruins Hamilton” works. Although Above Average does not employ the same double narrative structure of the direct parodies of Hamilton, the group plays on the idea that Hillary Clinton—another very wealthy individual—is out of touch with the population that she wants to reach and that Hamilton claims to represent: those struggling to make good on the American dream.

This disjunction between form and content also comments on what types of people our culture now considers heroes. Each of the backstage and historical musicals listed above reimagines the “American Dream” to suit contemporary audiences, whether emphasizing New Deal-era cooperation in 42nd Street (Roth, 45), the class and the racial politics of the 1960s in 1776 (Harbert, 142–145, 155–162), or the melting-pot sensibility of the 21st century in Hamilton. Putting the wealthy Bush or Trump at the center of such a show points out the irony of what kinds of people our contemporary culture makes into heroes. Indeed, in Hamilton, the title character declares that “Just like [my] country/I’m young, scrappy and hungry,” emphasizing the classic vision of the American Dream. But the nation, as embodied in the milquetoast Bush of Jeb! is not “young, scrappy, and hungry,” just “excitable and jumpy,” ready to latch on to the next celebrity who comes along, no matter how unworthy.

The ironic distance in Trumped works slightly differently. Kimmel’s version of The Producers draws similarities between the devious scheme at the heart of the original show and what Kimmel sees as the disingenuous nature of Trump’s campaign. We all hope that the electoral process is populated by serious people who genuinely want to serve the nation, but Trumped portrays the political world as nothing more than theatre, a medium that depends on people pretending to be something they are not. The ironic distance isn’t between the parody and the parodied, but between the performance and how we hope the world works.

The musical styles of Hamilton and The Producers also reinforce the ironic distance. Hamilton’s innovative score mixes hip-hop, R&B, and jazz with more traditional Broadway styles. All of these styles, but particularly hip-hop, tend to be associated with the under-privileged—for example, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, which is referenced in Hamilton, or, the under-privileged made good (“Still D.R.E.” by Dr. Dre Featuring Snoop Dogg), which further emphasizes the distance between form and content. The aforementioned “The Ten Debate Commandments” is a good example of how this works on the musical level. The original song from Hamilton is based on The Notorious B.I.G.’s “The Ten Crack Commandments” (Miranda and McCarter, 95). Both Miranda’s and B.I.G.’s versions describe the rules of a dubious but sometimes glamorous illegal activity with a laid-back, confident delivery over the slow “boom-bap” beat that is associated with classic “Gangsta” hip-hop, all musical signifiers of coolness, power, and control. In Jeb! this throws into sharp relief the fictional Bush’s timidity in the debates. If Hamilton and Biggie are “Gangstas” in both the good and bad sense of the word, Bush is most certainly the opposite.

In Trumped, the closing number of the sketch (newly composed for Kimmel) also draws on musical style to make its point. The over-the-top Broadway-isms of the song—its rapid strings of internal rhymes, syncopated horn parts, and shimmering hi-hat-based percussion—combine with the showgirls and jazz hands to emphasize the theatrical qualities of Trump’s candidacy. Since theatricality is often seen as being at odds with sincerity, the musical style reinforces Rad Motel’s message that Trump is a phony candidate who entered the race for money and attention.

But, with apologies to Kimmel, electoral politics are often as much about theatre as they are about policy, as candidates try to grab the attention of the electorate in order to spread their message. The fact that we’ve seen an increase in the use of Broadway musicals both by candidates and the electorate speaks to the heightened theatricality of this particular election cycle. The most theatrical of these candidates is definitely Trump, and now that he has clinched the Republican nomination, history certainly has its eyes on him. Maybe in 200 years, we’ll see a full musical about his candidacy.

– Naomi Graber

[i] A useful comparison to HamilTrump is actress and producer Tabitha Holbert’s Sanders, which rewrites the same number to be about the political career of the eponymous Democratic candidate. But unlike HamilTrump, Holbert uses the musical to sketch the similarities between Bernie Sanders and Alexander Hamilton; according to Holbert, both Sanders and Hamilton share an unkempt and brusque style. For more 2016 Hamilton parodies, see “Donald Trump” (created by Tyler Davis) and “Ted Cruz, Loser” (created by 2KSlam Show).

Belva Lockwood for President, 1884: A Woman in a Man’s World

July 7, 2016

In fall of 2015, Trax on the Trail joined forces with Prof. Emily Abrams Ansari’s Music and Politics class at Western University in Ontario. Each student penned an essay or created a podcast that explored a specific intersection between music and presidential politics.

In January, Nikki Pasqualini offered her insight on the 2004 Vote for Change Tour, in March, Caroline Gleason-Mercier addressed the musical activity surrounding William Henry Harrison’s 1840 campaign, and in May, Gary Jackson investigated Saddam Hussein’s use of the ballad “I Will Always Love You” during Iraq’s 2002 referendum.

Today we rewind the campaign clock once again to bring you Rebecca Shaw’s essay on the music strategy of Belva Lockwood, a presidential contender who began chipping away at the glass ceiling a century before Hillary Clinton came onto the political scene. Lockwood (much like Clinton), entered the stage to a “Fight Song”…and we can thank none other than George Frideric Handel for that!


Why not nominate women for important places? Is not Victoria Empress of India? Have we not among our country-women persons of as much talent and ability? Is not history full of precedents of woman rulers?
—Belva Lockwood, 10 August 1884

Figure 1 Belva Lockwood, (c1880-1890) NY Archives, Belva Lockwood Collection, LOC 97510763

The year was 1884. National female suffrage in the United States was still thirty-six years away from fruition, and although women had been involved in electoral campaigns since the 1840s, they had yet to see their names on the ballot. Then, Belva Ann Lockwood ran for president.

The first woman to practice law in the Supreme Court and a staunch supporter of women’s rights since the 1860s, Lockwood was not delusional about her chances. Her aim was not the presidential seat; rather, by running for presidential office, she hoped to bring a fundamental constitutional issue to the forefront of national debate. As she stated in her first campaign speech in Maryland, “I cannot vote, but I can be voted for.” 

Figure 2 1884 Presidential Candidates

Lockwood’s campaign for social and political change required a delicate balancing act. Because the American government was controlled by white, male voters, a woman’s identity inevitably clashed with her national identity, which was politically defined by its male electorate. However, Lockwood’s political aspirations required her to reconcile these too seemingly opposing identities; if she were too female-centric, she would lose any hope of gaining male support—the only means by which to achieve political reform. Thus, Lockwood presented female suffrage as an inherent part of America’s political establishment, not a radical overhaul of its socio-political structure: She states, “The word ‘man,’ which occurs in the constitution, has always, when properly defined, been construed as a general term, including woman.”[i] Her campaign was not an attack against the white, American, male self; it was a recognition and fulfillment of a person’s constitutional rights, regardless of gender.

At a rally in Louisville, Kentucky, Lockwood’s use of “See the Conquering Hero” from Judas Maccabaeus by George Frederick Handel (1746) was central to the construction of her female-national identity. It simultaneously drew attention to women’s rights, combatted gender stereotypes, and reduced the radical perception of her campaign. Through the chorus’s musical language, text, and external associations, she created a world—even if it was only temporary—where female and national identities were mutually compatible, not polar opposites. 

Figure 3 “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” from Judas Maccabaeus, NY Archives SC21041
“See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!” Performed by Voces para la Paz, directed by Antonio Fauró. Auditorio Nacional de Música de Madrid, March 10, 2014

As Lockwood was a female third-party candidate who entered the playing field two months before the election, the initial public response to her bid for presidency was one of incredulity. The perceived absurdity of her campaign is evident in a 4 October newspaper report from Louisville entitled “Running Against Belva Lockwood: Joe Mulhatton Nominated for President by the Drummers.”[ii] Through his reference to Mulhatton—a famous hoaxer in America during the 1870s and 1880s—the reporter cast doubt on Lockwood’s validity as a presidential candidate.

Less than two weeks after the Mulhatton comparison, Lockwood arrived in Louisville, where she used music to help establish the sincerity of her campaign. By employing an eighteenth-century oratorio chorus rather than a more recent, popular song, Lockwood aligned herself with an established tradition instead of a passing fad. Furthermore, the chorus’s musical language was tonal and simplistic, the melody repetitive and memorable. As such, its longevity and aural simplicity served to lessen the radical appearance of her campaign; if the music was not rebellious, why should her campaign be any different?

The broad basis of her campaign and the mellowing of certain feminist issues (e.g., she removed her initial promise of equal delegation of political offices among genders and minorities) likewise created the image of a serious campaign that catered to both female and male supporters. Rather than forcing women’s rights down the throats of the nation, her speeches addressed issues that were amenable to a general populace. For instance, in Louisville she focused on the economic future of America—not female suffrage—criticizing both the Democratic support of free trade and the Republican’s endorsement of high tariffs. Her campaign sought to gain support for female suffrage by demonstrating a woman’s proficiency as a leader and politician. If America could see a woman completing the tasks of the most prestigious male job in the country, perhaps they would allow women to step outside of the kitchen.

Because newspaper reports of Lockwood’s campaign—both positive and negative—defined her primarily by her gender, rather than her political views, it was difficult for Lockwood to portray herself as the potential leader of a country. The stereotypical whimsical perception of women negated the leadership qualities required of a presidential candidate. For example, articles commonly highlighted her clothing at the beginning of an article and relegated the analysis of her political views to a few sentences at the end: “Mrs. Lockwood was attired in black silk throughout, a pair of black-rimmed eye-glasses rode upon her Grecian nose, and her dark eyes sparkled behind them. . . .”[iii] The same article noted that her supporters were mostly “middle aged virgins.”[iv] Another article stated, “Belva is no exception to other women, and women as a rule are not reasonable. They are governed by their impulses, and impulses are not safe guides in the matter of appointments to office.”[v] Caricatures, such as this one from Puck, likewise emphasized the stereotypical emotional concerns of women.[vi]

Figure 4 Puck, vol. XVL, no. 393, September 17, 1884, LOC 2011661827

The militaristic and heroic nature of “See the Conquering Hero Comes” combatted gendered stereotypes by signifying an idealized male military hero on three levels: (1) the oratorio was written to commemorate the Duke of Cumberland’s victory at the Battle of Culloden (16 April 1746); (2) the oratorio’s storyline celebrates the heroism of its title character; and (3) various arrangements of the chorus were commonly used by military marching bands. For instance, the Boston chaplain, Phineas Stowe, used the music to set his own text, “Welcome Song for Soldiers” (1865), to hail the “Heroes in our Army and Navy, on Their Return Home.” Even in its original instrumentation, the chorus’s use of brass instruments and its quadruple meter are strongly reminiscent of a military march. By implementing this chorus in Louisiana as she stepped off of the train, Lockwood situated herself as the “conquering hero.” Under the guise of a male hero of war, she could be perceived as an appropriate candidate to run for the leadership of America, a perception that was seemingly incompatible with nineteenth-century female stereotypes.

Figure 5 “Welcome Song for Soldiers,” text by Phineas Stowe

Judas Maccabaeus’s account of Jewish persecution and heroism could be compared to the discrimination against women and the subsequent retaliation of female suffragists. Mary Wollstonecraft, a well-known British suffragist, quoted a portion of the oratorio in her novel, Maria (1798), when the titular character escapes from her abusive husband: “Come, ever-smiling liberty, / And with thee bring thy jocund train.”[vii] Here, there is an interesting parallel to Lockwood’s campaign: in her political platform, she promised—among other things—to reform family law so that “the wife [would be] equal with the husband in authority and right, and an equal partner in the common business.”[viii] In Wollstonecraft’s novel, Maria turned to Handel’s oratorio when she defied the sanctimony of marriage and fled her abusive husband; Lockwood invokes this composition in her campaign to imply that such an act would be legally supported should she be elected. Furthermore, although Lockwood’s brass band arrangement was instrumental, those who knew the chorus would have also realized that, in its original setting, it would be performed primarily by women; male and female voices do not unite until the third section, after the Chorus of Youths (often sung by women) and the Chorus of Virgins. In this chorus, women play a primary, not secondary, role.

The chorus’s clearly articulated connection to the military and male heroic stereotypes reflects the challenges that Lockwood faced in her campaign. Her support of women’s rights was obvious, but her leadership qualities were less apparent to the general public, due to the gendered newspaper coverage and prevalent gender stereotypes of the time. As such, the chorus serving as her campaign soundtrack emphasizes her “masculine” virtues as much as possible.

Although Lockwood ultimately lost the election, receiving only 4149 votes, her contribution to female suffrage in America deserves remembrance and celebration. Her political campaign—amplified by her musical selection—demonstrated to America that women were essential to its national identity and fully capable of sitting in the White House—let alone voting in elections. Nonetheless, Lockwood did not live to see national female suffrage become a reality. The nineteenth amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1920, three years after her death.

To this day, Belva Lockwood remains the only woman to carry out a full campaign for American presidency; one can only hope that someday her dreams become a reality. As she stated at the age of 84:

I look to see women in the United States senate and the house of representatives. If [a woman] demonstrates that she is fitted to be president she will some day occupy the White House. It will be entirely on her own merits, however. No movement can place her there simply because she is a woman. It will come if she proves herself mentally fit for the position.[ix]

Figure 6 Campaign Card for Belva Lockwood, August 23, 1884

– Rebecca Shaw

[i] Belva A Lockwood, “The Consent of the Governed,” The Woman’s Journal, Iss. 41 (Boston, MA, United States) October 11, 1884, p. 327.

[ii] “Running Against Belva Lockwood: Joe Mulhatton Nominated for President by the Drummers, Chicago Daily Tribune, October 4, 1884, p. 3.

[iii] “A Woman Can Be President: Mrs. Lockwood Defines the Position of the Equal Righters,” New York Times, October 20, 1884, p. 5.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] “Belva’s Letter,” Chicago Daily Tribune, September 6, 1884, p. 4.

[vi] Frederic Burr Opper, “Now Let the Show Go On!” Puck 16, no. 393 (New York: Keppler & Schwarzmann, September 17, 1884), cover,

[vii] Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary, A Fiction and The Wrongs of Woman, or Maria, ed. Michelle Faubert (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2012), 262.

[viii] “Belva Lockwood’s Hopes: The Female Candidate for the Presidency of the United States,” Atlanta Constitution, September 5, 1884, p. 1.

[ix] “Belva Hippodroming: The Equal Rights Candidate Outlines Her Policy in the Opera House at Cleveland,” Boston Daily Globe, October 13, 1884.

The Use of Background Music in Political Advertising

June 19, 2016

Most of us see dozens, if not hundreds, of political ads on television (and increasingly online) each election year. The majority of these ads seem to blend together in our minds; few stand out.  Yet the creators of these ads sometimes spend days, if not weeks, making decisions about even the smallest details of the ad’s production.[i] Should a man or woman do the voiceover? What color should the background be?  Should the ad feature music, and if so, what kind?

This essay focuses in on the last question, reporting on a systematic analysis of almost 700 ads that aired during the 2012 presidential campaign. These include ads sponsored by the political parties, by the candidates’ campaigns and by interest groups. The Wesleyan Media Project, which I co-direct with Erika Franklin Fowler (Wesleyan University) and Michael Franz (Bowdoin College), codes each ad that airs in presidential, U.S. House and U.S. Senate races on a variety of factors, including the style of music employed in the ad. Coders, as a rule, are not experts in music but have a layperson’s knowledge, and thus we only ask them to categorize musical styles into a few broad genres. Coders are given five choices: no music, ominous/tense music, uplifting music, sad/sorrowful music and other. Coders who chose “other” are given the option of describing the music themselves. Each hypertext link provided in this essay gives an example of the music type.

The most basic finding was that the majority of political ads in 2012 did have background music, as Table 1 shows. Only 2.6 percent did not contain background music. The music styles used were quite varied. In just over 44 percent of the ads, the music was described by coders as ominous/tense, while the music in 40.5 percent of the ads was described as uplifting. Another 21.9 percent of the ads had sad or sorrowful music. Coders classified the music in 6.7 percent of the ads as falling outside these three major categories. When asked to describe the music in these “other” categories, the most common response was “mellow” (six ads). Other ads were described as employing silly, whimsical or comical music. One notable example falling into this “other” category was the Obama campaign ad “Firms,” which featured audio of Mitt Romney singing “America the Beautiful” off key. As Romney’ sings, newspaper headlines speaking to Romney’s outsourcing of American jobs overseas flash on the screen.


As an aside, the distribution of music styles found in U.S. House and U.S. Senate races was very similar.

Table 1: Music Style in Advertising

no music 2.6%
ominous/tense 44.1%
uplifting 40.5%
sad/sorrowful 21.9%
other music 6.7%

Of course, the style of music employed in an ad varies with the tone of the ad as well. Scholars typically divide ads into three types based on their tone.[ii] Positive or promotional ads speak only of the favored candidate, negative (or attack) ads speak only of the opposition candidate, and contrast (or comparative) ads speak of both. A typical contrast ad might, for instance, describe how one candidate has raised your taxes while the opponent—the favored candidate—wants to lower your taxes. 

Table 2 shows that among positive ads, 77 percent feature uplifting music. The use of uplifting music creates positive associations with the featured candidate in the mind of voters—and more generally puts the viewer in a positive mood. “American Comeback,” which was aired by Tim Pawlenty in the Republican primary race in 2012 and features footage of the U.S. hockey team defeating the Soviet Union in 1980, is a good example of an ad that employs uplifting music.   

“American Comeback”

About 11 percent of positive ads contain ominous/tense music, such as the Romney ad titled “The Right Answer,” which talks about burgeoning federal budget deficits. Ominous music, then, does not necessarily imply that the ad is negative. Ominous music will sometimes be employed to alert the viewer to a status quo situation that needs to be fixed. Just over 6 percent of positive ads contain sad/sorrowful music. One example of such an ad is “Way of Life,” which features a coal miner, who is worried about being out of a job, endorsing Romney.

“The Right Answer”
“Way of Life”

Among negative ads, though, just 6.8 percent feature uplifting music, while the majority (54.4 percent) have a musical background that is ominous and tense. Contrast ads, as one might expect, fall in the middle, with 45.3 percent of these ads featuring uplifting music and 35.3 percent featuring ominous and tense music.

Table 2: Music Style by Ad Tone

Positive Contrast Negative
no music 1.1% 1.3% 3.0%
ominous/tense 10.7% 35.3% 54.4%
uplifting 77.0% 45.3% 6.8%
sad/sorrowful 6.2% 14.2% 28.1%
other 5.1% 3.9% 7.7%

One other characteristic coded by the Wesleyan Media Project is whether the ad contains an image of a flag. About 38 percent of ads did, and the music employed in these ads was quite a bit different from the music used in ads without a flag. Table 3 shows, for instance, that the music was described as uplifting in 53.8 percent of the ads that contained a flag but was described as such in only 31 percent of the ads without a flag. Music was also more likely to be ominous or tense in those ads without a flag than in those ads with a flag.    

The American flag, of course, is a powerful symbol for most Americans, one with the ability to create a positive emotional response. That may be especially true when it is combined with uplifting music. Candidates employing the flag must hope that the uplift it provides to the viewer will rub off onto the viewer’s perception of them. 

Table 3: Music Style by Presence of Flag

Flag No Flag
no music 2.9% 2.4%
ominous/tense 39.8% 47.4%
uplifting 53.8% 30.7%
sad/sorrowful 19.4% 23.8%
other music 5.4% 7.7%

Although viewers seldom give any attention to the background music in a political ad, it is nonetheless an important element. As I have shown here, musical styles are deployed strategically and work in conjunction with other elements of the ad, such as the ad’s tone (whether it contains attacks or not) and the use of specific images, such as the American flag.  Music can help to create a mood and can lead to specific emotional reactions on the part of viewers, which, in turn, can help to facilitate political persuasion.[1] In addition to persuading, music may also encourage people to turn out to support a favored candidate. It might be obvious that uplifting music can encourage voters to turn out and participate, but even ominous or tense music may encourage participation, as such music may alert viewers to a status quo that needs to be changed.

– Travis Ridout, Wesleyan Media Project

Ads cited:

“Stand Up to China,” Mitt Romney,

“American Comeback,” Tim Pawlenty,

“Lazy,” Rick Perry,

“Wonderful,” Barack Obama,

“Mosaic,” Barack Obama,

“Firms,” Barack Obama,

“The Right Answer,” Mitt Romney,

“Way of Life,” Mitt Romney,

[i] See Trax on the Trail’s interview with political consultant John Balduzzi.

[ii] Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Paul Waldman, and Susan Sherr, “Eliminate the negative? Categories of Analysis for Political Advertisements,” in Crowded Airwaves: Campaign Advertising in Elections, ed. James A. Thurber, Candice J. Nelson, and David A. Dulio (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), 44–64.

Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign Spotify Playlist

May 25, 2016

The playlist has become an unofficial political campaign requirement akin to kissing babies. As such, one may be inclined to dismiss it as purely political pandering. Nevertheless,we argue that its use is a legitimate contemporary campaign strategy that deserves attention.[i]

While the political playlist is an artifact of the digital age, it builds upon a practice that gained mainstream popularity in the 1980s, when home recording became affordable and widely available. Dual cassette deck stereos allowed people to select certain songs from their own taped musical collections and record them onto blank cassettes. This new compilation became known as a mixtape, and what made the mixtape so revolutionary was its ability to be shared with others.[ii]

Although the technology has advanced greatly over the past decades (from analog cassettes to digital music streaming on websites such as Spotify), the intent behind creating and sharing a personal compilation of music has largely remained the same. Whether created by a musician sharing some esoteric underground tunes in order to find like-minded souls or by a would-be romantic trying to fan the flames of love, the mixtape is more than a collection of music. It is a means to construct identity, spread a message, and build relationships. Those relationships could be platonic, professional, romantic, or even political.

Since the point of the mixtape is relational, it is important to consider the audience when looking to build common ground and a successful relationship. If two musicians exchanged mixtapes and found that they were not on the same page in terms of tastes and influences, it is unlikely that a musical partnership would form. The political relationship is no different, which brings us to Hillary Clinton’s 2015 Spotify playlist.

Hillary Clinton tweeted a link to her official campaign playlist on Spotify on June 30, 2015, the day she began actively campaigning, which suggests the importance of music to her and her team.[iii] While Clinton has since released four other playlists, her original playlist included fourteen songs:[iv]

American Authors, “Believer”

Gym Class Heroes featuring Ryan Tedder, “The Fighter”

Katy Perry, “Roar”

Ariana Grande feat. Zedd, “Break Free”

Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”

American Authors, “Best Day of My Life”

Pharrell Williams, “Happy”

Jennifer Lopez, “Let’s Get Loud”

NONONO, “Pumpin Blood”

John Legend & The Roots feat. Common and Melanie Fiona, “Wake Up Everybody”

Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

Kris Allen, “Fighters”

Jon Bon Jovi, “Beautiful Day”

Marc Anthony, “Vivir Mi Vida”

For the purpose here of Trax on the Trail, there are two main points we would like to make regarding Hillary Clinton’s playlist.

Themes and Narrative of the Playlist

The first point we would like to make is that Clinton took a different approach with respect to the thematic nature of the political playlist than previous candidates such as Barack Obama. Obama’s 2012 playlist included a number of distinct major themes, including patriotism, continuation/inertia (given he was running for reelection) and community involvement, while also hinting towards his own sociocultural identity. Whereas Obama went for breadth, Clinton preferred depth and nuance. Her playlist includes a number of themes (e.g., strong leader, fighter, survivor), which work in concert with one another to create a powerfully singular narrative. To make this point, we identified the major themes of the songs by examining the songs’ choruses, which make up the “music bite” (analogous to the sound bite of non-musical rhetoric) of the following songs. The first theme is “She is a strong leader of people…”

“The world won’t get no better

If we just let it be, na, na, na

The world won’t get no better

We gotta change it, yeah

Just you and me”

—John Legend & The Roots feat. Common and Melanie Fiona, “Wake Up Everybody”

“Say what you wanna say

And let the words fall out

Honestly I wanna see you be brave

With what you want to say

And let the words fall out

Honestly I wanna see you be brave

I just wanna see you

I just wanna see you

I just wanna see you

I wanna see you be brave”

—Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

“Let’s get loud, let’s get loud

Turn the music up to hear that sound

Let’s get loud, let’s get loud

Ain’t nobody gotta tell you

What you gotta do”

—Jennifer Lopez, “Let’s Get Loud”

“This is your heart, it’s alive

It’s pumpin’ blood

It’s your heart, it’s alive

It’s pumpin’ blood

And the whole wide world is whistling”

—NONONO, “Pumpin’ Blood”

The theme of these songs is that you and she need to change the world (“Wake Up Everybody”), and that you must be brave and speak out (“Brave”), get loud with what you say (“Let’s Get Loud”), and feel the rush as the world watches (“Pumpin’ Blood”). The next theme is “…and will fight for them/with them…”

“Give em hell, turn their heads

Gonna live life ’til we’re dead.

Give me scars, give me pain

Then they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me

There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter

Here comes the fighter

That’s what they’ll say to me, say to me, say to me,

This one’s a fighter”

—Gym Class Heroes feat. Ryan Tedder, “The Fighter”

So raise your fists and don’t forget

We were born to be fighters

We are strong, we’re survivors

They can knock you down and make you fall

But we’ll get back up, ’cause after all

We’re born to be fighters

And we’re fighting for our lives

—Kris Allen, “Fighters”

The theme here includes the powerful metaphor of fighting. The music bite of “The Fighter” foreshadows the third theme discussed below, but also couples nicely with “Fighters”: in a democracy the people and politicians have to work together and fight for what is important. The third theme is “… and is (and will continue to be) stronger than ever.”

“This is the part when I say I don’t want ya

I’m stronger than I’ve been before

This is the part when I break free

‘Cause I can’t resist it no more”

 —Ariana Grande feat. Zedd, “Break Free”

“I got the eye of the tiger, a fighter, dancing through the fire

‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar

Louder, louder than a lion

‘Cause I am a champion and you’re gonna hear me roar”

—Katy Perry, “Roar”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Stand a little taller

Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone

What doesn’t kill you makes you fighter

Footsteps even lighter

Doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone”

—Kelly Clarkson, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”

The last theme echoes with expressions of strength (importantly, all from female performers): her strength is growing and is restless against what is holding her back (“Break Free”), and she is notably able not just to speak but also to get her message out loud and clear (“Roar”), and she will only grow stronger as she faces the inevitable opposition (“Stronger”).

Taken together, these three individual themes can be combined to create a narrative for her campaign: “she is a leader of people, will fight for them/with them, and is (and will continue to be) stronger than ever.” In other words, Clinton’s playlist introduces to our understanding of political playlists the idea that songs in such a context constitute a much richer and more developed political message than any one individual song can attain. When individual songs are combined to create themes, those themes can further coalesce to form a narrative, which, if done well, can be powerful. In essence, the political mixtape becomes more than a collection of individual songs.

Furthermore, Clinton’s 2015 playlist includes one additional theme, which does not readily fit into the above narrative. Examining the music bites of “Believer,” “Best Day of My Life,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Vivir Mi Vida,” we encounter the theme of an optimistic celebration of one’s life. Clearly, it contrasts with the earlier themes, but there is value in this more positive and upbeat theme. Its hopefulness offsets the rather intense metaphors found in the major themes that constitute the narrative (i.e., blood in the heart, giving them hell, scars and fighting, and primal ferocious roars, which will continue unabated until the ultimate end).

Audience Analysis Gone Awry?

Our second major point is more critical than the first: Clinton’s playlist is far more political than personal.

Earlier, the mixtape was described as a means of relationship building, not a tool to pander to an audience. The mixtape is based on the premise that the songs were selected carefully in a good-faith effort to connect with the intended audience through personal revelation.

To better understand the dichotomy between pandering and legitimate relationship building, it might be useful to understand how one of the authors of this post (Dave) used a mixtape when he was younger:

I’m unsure if other people did what I did as a very young man, but on one occasion I made a cassette mixtape in a futile effort to impress a young lady. I did not  necessarily compile songs that I liked. Rather, I compiled songs that I hoped she would like, and then, regardless of what the songs were, I professed to love them. I thought it was a foolproof strategy. For the record, the strategy did not work.

The point here is that, in the context of Clinton’s political playlist, she is giving the intended audience what she thinks they want to hear, and this has overtaken the need to express any genuine image of her own identity. There is nothing about “her” in the playlist, and several journalists and online commenters have made this claim.[v] Certainly, the themes included in her playlist may represent who she really is—a tough fighter. However, there are no songs included from the late 1960s (when she was a young teen getting her political balance), or the 1970s (when she went from being a student who worked on Watergate to becoming First Lady of Arkansas), or from the 1980s or 1990s (when she went from First Lady of Arkansas to First Lady of the United States), to the 2000s (when she was a U.S. Senator). Although she has been in the national political spotlight since the 1990s (and state politics since the 1970s), and we may already know a great deal about her, there is still value to a wide range of songs that represent who she is as a person and a politician. Instead, the oldest song on her playlist was released in 1999, and the second oldest dates from 2010. The remaining twelve songs were published in every subsequent year, with most of the songs released in 2013 and 2014.

Now, it is possible that the 68-year-old Clinton is a fan of recent music and just wanted to reveal that through her playlist. If that is the case, she picked some of the most popular songs of the past five years. The following is a list of the songs on her playlist, the number of views each music video has had on YouTube, and the ranking of each song by Billboard, as of February 2016:

A screenshot of a cell phone

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This review illustrates that Clinton’s playlist includes some of the most critically acclaimed and popular songs from the past five years. Whereas Obama used a strategy of including a wide variety of artists that resonated with different socio-cultural audiences in 2012 (i.e., his playlist included artists representing every major U.S. demographic from a number of generations: Latino, African-American, whites, male, female, homosexual, heterosexual), Clinton’s playlist seems to aim straight for the masses—those who consume and value contemporary popular music; and it seems to do so quite well.

The only two songs that seem odd on the surface are by Kris Allen and Bon Jovi. Certainly “Fighters” and “Beautiful Day” do not compare commercially or critically to the other songs, but there is more to the performers behind these songs.

Allen has had some success in that he won the 2009 season of American Idol. He is also from Arkansas and was born and raised not too far from Little Rock, the capitol where Clinton began her political life.

Bon Jovi’s song has not had much success either, but it’s BON JOVI! While not every song of his is a huge hit, his name is widely recognizable in popular culture. Moreover, he is a longtime supporter of Clinton (both Clintons, actually) and regularly performs at Clinton fundraisers.

Thus, while Clinton’s digital age mixtape has a solid thematic basis that builds a powerful narrative, it politically panders to young audiences, who, based on the above statistics, seem to like these songs. However, young people also seem to like her Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders. In differentiating himself from Clinton during the early primaries, Sanders had said that he would govern by principles and not polls (Obama directed a similar criticism toward Clinton in the 2008 campaign). The argument is that Clinton’s policies are like her political playlist: they are based on what is popular.

We have no doubt that the themes and ideas in these songs represent who she is, but we offer the following: when making a mixtape, be it political or personal, the candidate should include songs that are important to him/her and the audience, and not just the audience (see Joanna Love’s article on Trax).

That is, it would be ideal for her to include songs from her life that show her legacy as a fighting spirit. A person’s musical tastes tell us what they believe, but they also reveal who they are—their personality. Clinton’s Spotify playlist addresses the former quite well but misses the latter.

– David R. Dewberry and Jonathan Millen

[i] David R. Dewberry and Jonathan H. Millen, “Music as Rhetoric: Music in the 2012 Presidential Campaign” in Studies of Communication in the 2012 Presidential Campaign, ed. Robert Denton (Lanham: Lexington, 2014), 175–94; and “Musical Rhetoric: Popular Music in Presidential Campaigns,” Atlantic Journal of Communication 22 (2014), 81–92.

[ii] Kenton O’Hara and Barry Brown, Consuming Music Together: Social and Collaborative Aspects of Music Consumption Technologies (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006).

[iii] “Hillary Clinton Launches Campaign with Help from Spotify, Echosmith,” Rolling Stone, June 14, 2015,    

[iv] Hillary Clinton Spotify Playlist,

[v] Jana Kasperkevic, “Just One of the Cool Kids? Decoding the Hillary Clinton Spotify Playlist,” The Guardian, June 13, 2015,

Feeling the Bern or Just Feeling Burned? Musical Parody and the Contest for the 2016 Democratic Nomination

April 17, 2016

From Renaissance parody masses to Weird Al Yankovic, milk commercials to playground taunts, musical parodies are a ubiquitous, cheeky thread of a society’s musical fabric. The pervasiveness of parody belies the cleverness of the act of parodying a recognizable song; by introducing the creative constraint of reusing pre-existing musical matter, parodies instantly grant a familiar grounding to a listener acquainted with the original tune. The melody and other musical material take on a palimpsest-like quality as they are infused with new, added layers of meaning.

Perhaps the greatest example of the inventive powers of parody came about in the American political sphere during the 2004 election with parody studio Jib-Jab’s famous reimagining of Woody Guthrie’s leftist ode “This Land Is Your Land,” entitled, “This Land!”[i] In this simple animated music video, opponents John Kerry and George W. Bush attack each other’s perceived weaknesses in an attempt to stake their claim on the future presidency. Naturally, jibes regarding class and gender abound as each performs self-aggrandized, archetypically male roles and is mocked in turn for his stupidity (in the case of Bush) or neutered, submissive femininity (in the case of Kerry).[ii]

Twelve years and three presidential elections later, it should come as little surprise that musical parody continues to be a valuable tool for proponents of this year’s presidential hopefuls. Amongst the Democratic Party in particular, parody is proving to be a fertile ground for both supporters and detractors of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders alike. In this essay, I seek to explore the ways in which musical parodies that attack and praise the Democratic hopefuls contribute to the gendered dialogue surrounding them. Additionally, I will examine the ways in which supporters use parody as a vehicle through which they can perform their own gender in relation to their chosen candidate, thereby encouraging others to join them in their support.

Hillary Clinton: Madonna/Whore or Goddess/Pinocchio

As even the most cursory of YouTube searches will reveal, Hillary Clinton has been the target of innumerable parody attack videos, both musical and otherwise, for much of YouTube’s existence. Her 2016 presidential bid has served as the inspiration for a profusion of new parodies, including but certainly not limited to a reworking of Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” entitled “HILLARY CLINTON’S NEW CAMPAIGN THEME SONG,” a sarcastic love song sung by a Bill Clinton impersonator (set to the melody of “My Girl”) and a reimagining of Mariah Carey’s Christmas pop hit entitled “All I Want for Christmas Is To Be President.” In a turn of events that does not surprise, each parody listed here directly attacks Clinton’s perceived failure to properly perform femininity (a phenomenon which I have explored elsewhere.)[iii]

Perhaps this is why, amongst the abundance of parody videos to explore, Tomonews’s “Emails, Benghazi, and Bill” stands out.[iv] This offensive and ambitious attack video created by the American branch of a Taiwanese animation and news website parodies four hit songs from a variety of genres and decades: Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (1978), Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse” (2013), Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” (1981), and Naughty By Nature’s “O.P.P” (1991). The use of such diverse musical material allows the creators to present Clinton in negative, yet diverse, gendered roles beyond the shrill tired “nagging wife” stereotype that has been used to dismiss and diminish Clinton over the course of her political career; however, in the process, the video reveals many of the sexist mechanisms at play in the discourse surrounding Clinton’s candidacy.

The video, which features CGI animation of Clinton and others, opens with a brief imagined boxing match between several 2016 presidential contenders (which, notably, Clinton wins after snatching Donald Trump’s wig), and then segues into a (presumably) remembered match between Clinton and Obama as the “I Will Survive” inspired segment begins. This portion of the medley of parodies features the most predictable gendered imagery as Gaynor’s disco classic, which details a woman’s process of recovery and empowerment after breaking up with a former lover,[v] is reimagined as Clinton’s revenge fantasies about current president Barack Obama. Her age is used for comedic effect as firemen are depicted attempting to control her flaming birthday cake, and Clinton is once more depicted as a power-hungry, neurotic housewife as she measures the drapes in the Oval Office.

The next three segments show Clinton in a far less predictable light. In a variation on the usual criticism of Clinton as a power-hungry politician, she is shown as a stand-in for Katy Perry in “Dark Horse”. This segment riffs on the depiction of Perry in the original music video, as Clinton is portrayed as the desirable, wealthy object of the male gaze, a powerful combination of Cleopatra-like sex icon and evil goddess.[vi] The line from the original song “Are you ready for, ready for / a perfect storm”[vii] is changed to “Are you ready for, ready for / Your female lord” as Clinton is shown luxuriously floating across the Nile while being worshipped by slave-like followers.[viii]

The spectacle continues in the next portion as the brief “Don’t Stop Believin’” segment (here, sung as “don’t stop deceiving”) introduces an unusual and graphic image of Clinton.[ix] The line “streetlights, people” from the original song is changed to “sheep-like people,” and as Clinton sings this line, her nose appears to grow to absurd lengths (in the style of Pinocchio), cracking through the ceiling of the Capitol Building and emerging on the other side where it sodomizes a sheep on the lawn. Intended to provoke revulsion, this image is indicative of how far the creators feel that Clinton has gone to transgress in her role as a woman. Her lies become an artificial phallus, imbued with coercive power. While obviously intended to be a crass attack on candidate, ultimately, this imagery also serves to reveal the violent phallocentrism of American politics, as nonconsensual, male-dominated sexual control is seen as a stand-in for political persuasiveness. This metaphor, while tasteless, is unfortunately fitting for a campaign that has been marked by discussions of a certain GOP frontrunner’s “hand” size and a series of slut and body-shaming exchanges made by Donald Trump and Ted Cruz regarding their wives’ perceived desirability.[x]

Despite the brazen power of this image, ultimately, the creators of the video deprive Clinton even of this backhanded acknowledgement of political control. This act of disempowerment is performed unexpectedly, since at the beginning of the “O.P.P” parody, Clinton takes on the powerful mannerisms and characteristics associated with a black male hip-hop performer. Clinton, the candidate perhaps most often mocked for being stiff and uncool, makes a laughable but intriguing hip-hop mogul. Her masculinized confidence takes center stage as she smokes an oversized cigar, leads crowds of white male politicians in call-and response-style singing and dancing, and shoots an elephant (clearly intended to represent the GOP). At the end of the segment, however, the imagined camera zooms out and up to reveal hidden marionette strings controlled by a faceless male puppeteer. The space of race and gender-bending freedom created by this satire is abruptly shut down by the suggestion that Clinton, even as an imagined, subversive icon of political power, is incapable of being anything other than a pawn in a larger, male-dominated power play.

In contrast to the profusion of musical parodies created to attack Clinton, only a handful of parodies in honor of Clinton have captured public attention. One, a brief snippet of a women’s chorus singing a song entitled “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed On Hillary,” received the scathing attention of a Fox News reporter who claimed that the chorus’s ode was a blasphemous attempt to push God out of the Democratic party.[xi] This indictment of the song may make for excellent clickbait; however, it completely ignores the fact that the original gospel song, “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Jesus,” was rewritten and popularized during the Civil Rights Movement as a freedom song entitled “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Stayed on Freedom.”[xii] This secular revision of the song largely avoided references to specific religious figures or phrases (beyond the use of the word “Hallelujah” at the end of the chorus). As such, it is likely that the song was intended to tie Clinton’s candidacy to the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement in a crowd-rallying, easy-to-learn chorus. Considering the demographics of Clinton supporters and the makeup of the chorus in conjunction with the time of the Civil Rights Movement, it is far more likely that this song was a parody atop a parody, a reworking of the civil rights rallying song, rather than an attempt to depict Clinton as having divine properties.[xiii]

Bernie across the Binary

While musical parodies created to attack a candidate are a potent way for voters to share their views on a presidential hopeful, parodies created in honor of specific candidates can often be revealing in other key ways. Bernie Sanders has largely escaped serving as the target of negative attacks thus far, a phenomenon that has been observed by political analysts and is evidenced by the fact that the musical parodies posted on YouTube regarding Sanders are largely positive tribute parodies.[xiv]

The parodies in honor of Sanders are multitudinous and diverse in their approach. As Sanders’ campaign has been marked by a flurry of millennial support, grassroots action, and widespread online activism, the number and range of these tributes is clearly part of a larger pattern reflective of the demographic of young voters that Sanders has inspired with his take-no-prisoners rhetoric and commitment to matters such as raising the minimum wage and making college education more affordable.[xv] Two tributes in particular, “All About That Bern” (a parody of Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”) and “We Will Bern You” (a Sanders-themed reimagining of Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) provide a great deal of information about the underlying tensions in the Democratic Party, the gendered traits ascribed to Sanders by his supporters, and the ways in which they are using his visibility to explore their own political and personal identities.

“All About That Bern,” a parody written and performed by Victoria Elena Nones on the “Feminists for Bernie” YouTube channel, takes on comments made by Madeline Albright and Gloria Steinem regarding young women who favor Sanders over Clinton.[xvi] Sarcastically enacting the implication that she’s voting for Sanders in order to meet men, Nones vapidly giggles her way through the lyrics and dances in a lightly provocative manner akin to Trainor’s performance in the original music video.[xvii]

While the video buys into the assertion that young feminists are “boy crazy fool[s]” on a surface level, Nones’s choice to rewrite “All About That Bass” highlights a deeper struggle between an older and younger generation of feminists. Trainor’s original song was heavily criticized by feminists, as it appeared to be a body-positive anthem while, in actuality, it upheld sexist beauty standards tied to the male gaze.[xviii] Nones’s cover retains this tension, shifting the conflict from one that pits curvaceous women (and the straight men who love them) against body-positive feminists to a battle between second and third wave feminists. By casting a cutout head of Sanders as an object of infatuation throughout the music video, Nones humorously implies that her reasons for choosing Sanders over Clinton are anything but hormonally-fueled. While the parody presents itself as a tribute to Sanders, it is clearly intended to function as an exhibit in this debate, suggesting a tongue-in-cheek alternative rationale for voter allegiance in a shifting landscape of diverse feminisms.

While “All About That Bern” satirically depicts Sanders as the political incarnation of a teenage dreamboat, another parody, “We Will Bern You,” takes a radically different approach by presenting Sanders as the revolutionary figurehead of a populist uprising.[xix] In this video, the parody does not start immediately; rather, it begins with a montage of Bernie’s message and accomplishments set to an upbeat synthesized soundtrack, ultimately climaxing as Sanders himself proclaims his campaign slogan, “Feel the Bern!” As Queen’s classic “We Will Rock You” is frequently used to create hype at sporting events, this introduction serves as an adrenaline-building stand-in for a more traditional physical contest,[xx] befitting the masculinized ode to Sanders that is to follow.

While female supporters of Sanders are shown in the video, the audio component of the parody overwhelmingly features male voices, and the visual component focuses on male supporters. The overall effect of the video is primal, a demand for justice on behalf of the increasingly disenfranchised body of young male voters who came of age during the economic collapse brought on by Reaganomics. This parody succinctly captures what Michael Kimmel describes as the sense of betrayal amongst the white middle and working classes following the collapse of the social contract that ensured that “a man could rise as high as his talents and aspirations could take him.”[xxi] Kimmel argues that this collective bitterness has led an older generation of American men to band together in “the further reaches of the right wing.”[xxii] Sanders, however, provides a left-wing alternative for a younger demographic (particularly a younger male demographic), fueled by a combination of the discontent for an older generation, social progress, and youthful indignation. In this parody, rage is verbalized and organized, culminating in a militant allegiance to an unconventional Messiah, one who is comfortable enough with his masculinity to declare “I love you” to a predominantly male audience (over the queer soundtrack of Queen) while still virile enough to lead a renegade band of millennials to victory.

Ultimately, I believe that these videos, when viewed as part of a larger landscape, reveal one of the underlying social trends in this year’s contest for the Democratic presidential nomination: the tendency of comedy to reflect larger societal patterns, such as a sexism-fueled discomfort with women in positions of political power, even when that comedy is created by supposedly progressive parties. This issue has been explored elsewhere in regards to a series of fictionalized campaign posters purportedly comparing Sanders’s and Clinton’s views on popular culture.[xxiii]

That being said, musical parody does not only perpetuate comedic or dominant (and unfortunately problematic) mindsets in this year’s election. As Sanders’s campaign has been widely underrepresented in mainstream media (referred to as the Bernie Blackout by the Sanders campaign), his supporters’ active presence on social media presents a way to subvert the trend.[xxiv] Amongst those aged 18–29, social media has proven to be the most common way that voters receive election-related news. As easily as parody can be used to reinforce the status quo, it can also be used to rewrite it, etching over the surface of that which is assumed, with a vibrant new message.

– Christianna Barnard


Blow, Charles M. “A Bernie Blackout?” The New York Times 19, no. 11 (2010): 813–22. doi: 10.1007/s00787-010-0130-8.

Clement, Scott “For Hillary Clinton, Demographics Aren’t Quite Destiny.” Washington Post, February 12, 2016.

Drum, Kevin. “Why Are Millennials In Love With Bernie Sanders?” Mother Jones, February 11, 2016.

James, Robin. “All Your B/ass Are Belong to Us.” Vice, August 18, 2014.

Kimmel, Michael. “Why Is It Always a White Guy: The Roots of Modern, Violent Rage.” Salon, November 1, 2013.

Mathis-Lilley, Ben. “Donald Trump Alluded to the Size of His Penis at the Republican Debate.” Slate[xxv], March 3, 2016.

Meyer, Robinson. “This Land, JibJab’s Seminal Parody Flash Video, Turns 10,” The Atlantic, July 9, 2014,.

Rappeport, Alan. “Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright Rebuke Young Women Backing Bernie Sanders.” New York Times, February 7, 2016.

Queenan, Joe. “Was There Ever a Time When We Will Rock You Did Not Exist?” Guardian, August 16, 2007.

Sanders, Sam. “#MemeOfTheWeek: Bernie Or Hillary. Sexist Or Nah?” NPR, February 8, 2016.

Seeger, Pete, Bob Reiser, Guy Carawan, and Candie Carawan. Everybody Says Freedom. New York: Norton, 1989.

Swan, Jonathan. “Sanders Avoids Being Target of Negative Advertising.” The Hill, January 23, 2016.

Weiner, Jennifer. “Naked Lady Politics.” New York Times, March 26, 2016.


“All About That Bern (Official Video).” Uploaded by Feminists for Bernie, February 8, 2016. YouTube. Video clip.

“All I Want for Christmas is to be President (Mariah Parody).” Uploaded by Newsy News, December 18, 2014. YouTube. Video clip.

“Bernie Sanders Grassroots-Created Song: We Will Bern You! [CC].” Uploaded by captions for Bernie, December 30, 2015. YouTube. Video clip.

“Bill Clinton sings: My Girl.” Uploaded by “theronniebus,” February 8, 2016. YouTube. Video clip.

“Choir replaces ‘Jesus’ with ‘Hillary’ in gospel song.” Uploaded by “Fox News,” September 8, 2015. YouTube. Video clip.

“Emails, Benghazi, and Bill.” Uploaded by Taiwanese Animators, November 20, 2015. YouTube, Video clip.


“Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass.” Uploaded by MeghanTrainorVEVO. June 11, 2014, YouTube. Video clip.

[i] Robinson Meyer, “This Land, JibJab’s Seminal Parody Flash Video, Turns 10,” The Atlantic, July 9, 2014,

[ii] “This Land!” uploaded by JibJab, November 16, 2007, YouTube, video clip,

[iii] “HILLARY CLINTON’S NEW CAMPAIGN THEME SONG,” uploaded by IMPEACH THE SOCIALIST OBAMA, May 24, 2015, YouTube, video clip,; “Bill Clinton sings: My Girl,” uploaded by “theronniebus,” February 8, 2016, YouTube, video clip,; “All I Want for Christmas is to be President (Mariah Parody),” uploaded by Newsy News, December 18, 2014, YouTube, video clip,

[iv] “Emails, Benghazi, and Bill,” uploaded by Taiwanese Animators, November 20, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[v] Gloria Gaynor, Love Tracks, Polydor, 1778, LP.

[vi] “Katy Perry – Dark Horse (Official) ft. Juicy J,” uploaded by KatyPerryVEVO, February 20, 2014, Vevo, video clip,

[vii] “Dark Horse,” KatyPerryVEVO.

[viii] “Emails, Benghazi, and Bill,” Taiwanese Animators.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Donald Trump Alluded to the Size of His Penis at the Republican Debate,” Slate, March 3, 2016,; Jennifer Weiner, “Naked Lady Politics,” New York Times, March 26, 2016,

[xi] “Choir replaces ‘Jesus’ with ‘Hillary’ in gospel song,” uploaded by “Fox News,” September 8, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[xii] Pete Seeger, Bob Reiser, Guy Carawan, and Candie Carawan. Everybody Says Freedom (New York: Norton, 1989), 175–77.

[xiii] Scott Clement, “For Hillary Clinton, Demographics Aren’t Quite Destiny,” Washington Post, February 12, 2016,

[xiv] Jonathan Swan, “Sanders Avoids Being Target of Negative Advertising,” The Hill, January 23, 2016,

[xv] Kevin Drum, “Why Are Millennials In Love With Bernie Sanders?” Mother Jones, February 11, 2016,

[xvi] “All About That Bern (Official Video),” uploaded by Feminists for Bernie, February 8, 2016, YouTube, video clip, Alan Rappeport, “Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright Rebuke Young Women Backing Bernie Sanders,” New York Times, February 7, 2016,

[xvii] “Meghan Trainor- All About That Bass,” uploaded by MeghanTrainorVEVO, June 11, 2014, YouTube, video clip,

[xviii] Robin James, “All Your B/ass Are Belong to Us,” Vice, August 18, 2014,

[xix] “Bernie Sanders Grassroots-Created Song: We Will Bern You! [CC],” uploaded by captions for Bernie, December 30, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[xx] Joe Queenan, “Was There Ever a Time When We Will Rock You Did Not Exist?” Guardian, August 16, 2007,

[xxi] Michael Kimmel, “Why Is It Always a White Guy: The Roots of Modern, Violent Rage,” Salon, November 1, 2013,

[xxii] Kimmel, “Why Is It Always a White Guy.”

[xxiii] Sam Sanders, “#MemeOfTheWeek: Bernie Or Hillary. Sexist Or Nah?” NPR, February 8, 2016,

[xxiv] Charles M. Blow, “A Bernie Blackout?” New York Times, March 16, 2016,

On the Inside Trax: John Balduzzi, Political Consultant

March 15, 2016

In addition to bringing you the viewpoints of students and scholars, Trax on the Trail is committed to going behind the scenes to bring you insiders’ perspectives on the creative processes that bring the campaign soundscape to life. Political candidates use music throughout their campaigns to paint a picture of their priorities, patriotism, and identity, and people are taking notice. Campaign music chatter has increased in the mainstream press over the past few months, but journalists are primarily focused on rally playlists, concerts, and celebrity endorsements. In other words, they are interested in writing about songs and artists that the public knows and can identify. Thus, while Bernie Sanders’ use of the Simon and Garfunkel hit “America” in his Iowa ad of the same title received a lot of attention (see The Week, New York Magazine, Variety, the New York Times, and even a Trax contribution by Paul Christiansen), the wordless, instrumental tracks (known as “underscore”) that accompany most campaign ads receive scant mention in the news.[i]

The folks at Trax on the Trial want to bring ad music into the discussion!

Trax co-editor James Deaville addressed attack ads in the March 1st episode of the Trax on the Trail radio show, Trax research assistant Andrew Sproule offered his own musical analysis on Bernie and Hillary ads in the Trail Trax database, and we have also enlisted the help of a prominent political consultant in the hopes of getting an insider’s perspective on underscore strategy.

On February 19th, Trax creator and co-editor Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and research assistant Cannon McClain had the pleasure of speaking with John Balduzzi, president of The Balduzzi Group.

John Balduzzi’s portfolio boasts clients such as Obama Biden 2012, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Have you ever wondered what goes into making a political ad? Where does that music come from? Read on!

*The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Trax on the Trail or Georgia College.

John Balduzzi Interview Transcript

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: The Trax team has catalogued over 500 candidate videos and advertisements thus far, and we would love to gain some insight on the process of creating effective political ads. We have spent some time looking at your fabulous website, and we want to throw out some questions. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself first?

John Balduzzi: Well, I am the president and CEO of the Balduzzi Group, a political consulting firm that provides television, radio, and direct mail advertisements for Democratic candidates, progressive organizations, unions, and non-profits, but mostly Democratic candidates who are running for political office. I started the company in 2010, so we’ve been in the business for about six years now. Our clients are running for office all over the country, from small-town USA all the way up to candidates for US Congress, US Senate, and Governor; we did some work for the presidential election for President Obama, his reelection. We’ve done work in pretty much all levels of government.

DGM: Wow! When we corresponded by email, you said that you also have a background in music. Can you tell us a bit about that – you’re a saxophone player, right?

JB: Yeah, I do – it’s kind of a unique background. Music has been in my family forever. My dad was a singer, and my sister was an amazing vocalist and a flute player who started off at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam [NY] before switching to education. My brother, to this day, is still a musician, and I grew up playing a little bit of piano, and then I was a pretty good saxophone player. I started in 4th grade and went all the way through high school, won some awards, and actually auditioned and got accepted to a handful of music schools, but I ultimately decided that I didn’t have the stomach for it, and I went to college to study history and politics. So, my life choice at the time seems to have worked out well for me. Yeah, music is a huge influence in my life, and it always has been, and it’s critical for what we do, especially in the TV and radio aspects.

DGM: The ads and the materials that you have on your website are amazing; it’s really, across the board, incredible what you have there.

JB: Thank you.

DGM: So, we have a couple of questions: first, more general questions about the music, and then, a little more about the specifics. So, the first question is, in terms of the music you put in ads, we want to know if there is a specific source from which you get the music.  From what I understand, there’s some sort of clearinghouse where you buy music. But, we’re curious as to how you purchase the music – do you peruse a group of selections and then buy one, or do you have the music specifically composed for your ads?

JB: Well, it’s interesting. I think my colleagues, who probably don’t have a background in music, who have never really played an instrument before, who don’t really understand the complexities of music and putting things together, they’ll just go to a website and try to find something that fits the tone of the ad and just buy the sample. As for me, as we’re shooting the ads and as I’m writing the ads, I have a sense in my head of what I want the sound to sound like, so I’m already thinking about music while I’m writing the spot. I think most consultants just wait to choose the music; it’s probably the last thing they do. They write the ads, shoot the ads, and the last thing they do before they show it to a client is pick a piece of music. I don’t do that. The music is something that I’m thinking about throughout the entire process. So, how do we choose it? There are dozens and dozens of websites that offer sound clips, such as AudioSparx, SoundCloud, or Audio Network. You’re able to log on, and you can type in some keywords and get some samples of music. All you have to do is clip off the 20 seconds, 28 seconds, or 30 seconds that you want for the spot, and there you have it. There are some free websites out there, but I believe in paying people for their work, so we always pay for audio. I think it’s important to me to pay musicians for their time, effort, and creativity. It’s not expensive, either, so I want to make sure that folks get paid for their work.

On those websites, we’re able to go in and listen to various clips. They’re always named “Great Sunny Day” or “Dark and Dreary,” and you can kind of get a sense of the type of music in the clip – you can listen to clips and see what you’d like. The other 10% of the time, our audio engineer, who is a fantastic drummer, will compose original pieces for us to put into some of our spots.

DGM: So, how far along do you get in making the ad before you choose the music? It seems that in some of your ads, there’s a certain synchronization between what’s happening musically and what’s going on in the screen, so do you have the soundtrack playing when you make the final cut of the ad?

JB: Yes, exactly – music is usually the last thing we put into the ad. The ad is completely cut and edited, and then we drop the music in at the end.

DGM: When you’re creating an ad, do you have a theme or idea in mind for the ad, and then develop the talking points around that, or is it vice versa?                                                 

JB: Yes, it’s a sophisticated process. When we’re doing television ads for, let’s say, a congressional campaign, a lot of the data that we use to compose an ad is poll-tested; it’s polling data – there’s data behind voters saying what they care about, and we tend to write our spot around good, sound data. That’s the premise of how our TV ads are constructed. A lot of it is poll-driven; if in a particular congressional district, jobs and the economy are the top issues, well, we’re not going to talk about the environment, because people aren’t going to click with that; we’re going to talk about jobs and the economy. So, that’s how we craft our TV spots. In other areas, where maybe there isn’t any polling information, it’s just a gut feel of what we think most voters care about in the district, and that’s kind of how we construct ads when we don’t have any sort of mathematical polling data.

DGM: Is there a division of labor, in that you have some people on your team that are mainly researching, and then you have others that are more on the creative side, or are those people one and the same?

JB: Well, it’s me! It’s predominantly a two-person shop. Anthony is a partner of mine, and together, we do all of the writing and creative tasks. We do hire out to a production team that actually helps us shoot and edit the ads, but we’re writing the script and directing the shoot, and we’re very involved with the editing process as well. Anthony is the media buyer, so he decides whether people watching Scandal see the ad, whether people watching Monday night football see the ad, or whether people watching The View see the ad.

DGM: Are there certain research tools for people in your line of work that you use to gather this polling information and data, since you’re talking about not just data on the issues, but you’re talking about what television shows your target demographic watches? How do you find that information out?

JB: Yes, there is data out there that we can subscribe to, and it has given us a sense of certain demographics and who is watching which shows, and then we buy our political media appropriately.

DGM: I see, okay. Very interesting. Can you talk about some of the sample ads that you have on your website and the music that you selected for those ads? We found two of the ads to be particularly interesting—one was the Toby Shelley radio ad titled “Unpull a Trigger” for the sheriff office, and the other one was a radio ad for Paul Tonko–would you be open to telling us a little bit about how chose the music for these ads?

JB: Yeah, the Toby Shelley ad is perfect; that’s the one that I would talk about. That ad won an award a couple of years ago—it was the best political radio ad for the cycle. I think that it won because of the powerful gunshot in the music. It really hits you right in the beginning; you can’t un-pull the trigger, which is kind of an interesting concept to begin with. It’s pushing the envelope, I think, for a political ad, but we had to—the candidate for sheriff was promised a ton of support from donors and political friends, and they just really didn’t deliver. His opponent had hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we had about fifty grand for the political campaign. So we said, look, we’ve got fifty grand, probably not enough for television, but I think we could do a really strong radio ad. We only have enough money for one ad, so it has to be a good ad, and it really has to captivate people. So, that’s the hook that we came up with – I’m pulling the trigger, the gunshot. As for the music, I probably listened to fifty samples. I needed to get drivers in their cars to pay attention to the ad, since that’s when most people are going to be listening to this – they’re driving to work, they’re driving home from work, on weekends they’re going on road trips; they’re distracted, but I need them to tune in. So, we used that music; we used that hook to make sure that people stop what they’re doing and pay attention to the spot. I think that it was a pretty powerful ad; it won a bunch of awards, and I think the music had a lot to do with it.

The Paul Tonko radio ad was also very interesting. Paul Tonko is a congressman from the suburbs outside Albany, and the congressional district is pretty big; people know Albany as the capital city of New York, but the congressional district itself has some pretty folksy areas, where there are more cows than people. Paul is a very regular person; he’s a Democrat, but he really taps into the more rural parts of the district, and the music exemplifies who Paul is – Paul is kind of a folksy guy. He’s a great person – very caring, warm, and friendly, so when we were looking for music for that radio ad, that’s what I was trying to search for. I was trying to search for background music that was warm, appealing, caring, kind, and thoughtful – and I think that’s exactly what we found in that music sample, so that’s why we chose the music that we did for that ad.

DGM: We thought the same thing when we listened to it. Cannon, you said, “I feel like there’s some sheep there.”

Cannon McClain: You feel like you should be herding sheep as you’re listening to it.

DGM: I thought that it was really effective; the woodwinds gave a really nice feel to it. Paul felt very likeable from the outset just because of the music. There’s one other ad, “One Voice” [for Gina Cerilli] that I wanted to ask you about. Could you talk about the music choice that you made for that ad?

JB: Yeah, Gina is young, maybe 29 years old. She’s a first-time candidate running for a pretty high office in western Pennsylvania, and we just needed to have music in her ads that communicated moving forward, energy, and youthfulness, so that’s why we chose the music that we did.

DGM: In the ad, she appears to be very vulnerable-looking and feminine, for lack of a better word, but something about the music—the mix of the strings and the repetitious, vigorous motive—give her gravitas and a certain momentum. The music changes the whole tenor of the ad. It’s a very effective ad.

JB: Thank you. I really like the music that we chose because there’s a part where she starts to outline what she’s going to do in office, and the music is loud, inspiring, and energetic, and then it decrescendos. At that point, that’s where Gina really starts to talk about the three things she’s going to do—“good-paying jobs, protecting our seniors, and fiscal responsibility.” Once she starts that, the sound cuts down to a low level, and it draws you in a little, and that’s one of the reasons why we clipped just that section of the song. If I remember it correctly, the song that we chose is a three- or four-minute piece, and we just clipped the thirty seconds that we needed. The reason why we chose that one piece is because of that spot, because when she starts talking about the issues that matter to her, the music really comes down, and it draws you in to what she’s going to say, and when she closes the spot, the music pops up again.

DGM: It was really a terrific ad.

CM: You mentioned how you try to specifically push ads towards certain demographics of people. I know that you said you specifically try to tie in music that exemplifies the candidate. Do you ever think about the market demographic that you’re targeting when you’re picking music? Is there some sort of nuance that you’re trying to go for when you’re advertising to, for example, Sunday football?

JB: That’s a great question. We can’t change the audio for each showing of the ad; we can’t do twenty-five versions of an ad with different music in the background and then place that ad on different stations depending on the demographic, but what we can do is incorporate music or sound that is representative of the voters or audience that we’re trying to win over. It’s more of a regional question. So, for example, we’re going to be shooting some ads for a congressional candidate in North Carolina, and you can just imagine the type of music that we’ll use—bluegrass, almost country; we’re not going to choose music that will give the voter a sense of New York City, Philly, or Boston. You have to make sure that you have a sense of the geography and set the music accordingly. If it’s a rural shot, where he’s driving his pick-up truck and talking about all the great things he’s going to do for the district, you don’t want to include music that sounds like that music we put in Gina’s ad. We’re going to choose something that’s more laid-back, like bluegrass.

CM: Okay, thank you.

DGM: Do you look for a certain melodic contour or rhythmic content when choosing the music? What role does timbre play? Are there certain combinations of instruments that you think work best for an ad or certain combinations that you don’t want to use?

JB: That’s a good question. You know, I never go at it by picking instruments, except for maybe piano. If we’re, you know, doing a radio spot that’s soft and subtle, maybe just some light piano is all you need in the background. But I never go into picking music based off of, for example, “We really need trumpets here,” or “We really need woodwinds here.”

DGM: I think ads that have acoustic guitar to a certain extent convey the rural, agrarian connotations that you were talking about earlier. We actually had someone write for our site specifically about the meanings attached to the guitar and guitar players and how they operate in Martin O’Malley’s campaign performances on the instrument, so I was just curious about what role that might play.

JB: Precisely. I don’t think, “We need guitar here, or we need piano here, or we need more brass here”; it’s just, “We need this type of mood.” I’m looking for more of a mood than the actual instruments. Except, I’ll say all the time, “We need light piano here,” and that’s just kind of the feeling that you get from the piano. We’ve done some negative ads that have brash percussion music; you can just tell that it has a very heavy, dense mood, so we’ve used that, but I’ve never said, “We need that instrument or this instrument.” It’s just a mood or a feeling that I’m going for. In fact, on some of those websites that I mentioned before, you can search by feelings, like for happy music or angry music; you can actually select that way as opposed to selecting by instrument. You can search “dark and ominous,” for example, and you would get something you would hear in a trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yeah, you can search by feelings and moods.

DGM: Isn’t that how film music was created in the early days? The music was queued up by whatever the sentiment of the scene was, right?

JB: Right. When I was a little kid, in 3rd or 4th grade, we went to Disney and we took the tour of MGM. There was a part on the tour where you could create your own music for a scene in a horror film, but it gave you wacky instruments –

DGM: It’s like, “Have a Theremin, kid.”

JB: Yeah, or a cowbell, and you could make the scene seem funny. It used a nondescript scene of someone walking, and it told you it was a horror scene, but when you used the funny musical instruments, it completely changed what you were watching. And then, they went back and showed you the original, and you realized that it was supposed to be a scary scene, but we made it a funny scene because we used all the funny instruments and sounds. I’ll never forget that. You can look at some of our negative ads; sometimes in a joking manner, we’ll throw in something light and funny in a negative ad, and we laugh because you get a completely different feeling from the spot just because of the music.

DGM: Do you think you can tell us a little about the work that you did for Obama-Biden in 2012?

JB: Unfortunately, no music was involved, except for the music blaring through my headphones while I was writing a direct mail piece. We worked for an independent expenditure that was funded by a bunch of unions, and we did a lot of direct mail pieces supporting their candidates, including President Obama, up and down the east coast. We were sending out hundreds of thousands of pieces of political mail, in large cities, as north as Boston and as south as Miami, and that’s what we did for the reelection campaign.

DGM: Are you involved at all in 2016?

JB: Not yet, but I’m certain that we will be in some way, shape, or form. We’re not working for Hillary or for Bernie, but down the road, we’ll probably be involved in the race in some capacity with the unions or other political organizations that will get involved.

DGM: I’m really honored that you were willing to talk to us and take the time to give us some insight on ad music. We’ve published a couple of articles on ads, and we have somebody who’s analyzing underscores, so I thought it would be great to have some insight from somebody who actually, for a living, creates ads, since so much of the work that we do here is talking about impact rather than creative process. I think both our scholars that follow the site and the general public will be very interested to hear what you have to say about this; I know we were.

JB: Thank you, guys; it was fun.

DGM: Thank you again for chatting with us.

Would you like to read more about music in 2016 campaign ads? Check out research assistant Andrew Sproule’s analyses of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ads:

Hillary Clinton

Katy Perry Joins Hillary’s Iowa JJ Dinner Rally

Equal | Hillary Clinton

Mindy | Hillary Clinton

Cheryl | Hillary Clinton

Alexis | Hilary Clinton

Sara | Hillary Clinton

The Same

I Support Hillary Because Hillary Supports Me



Get Ahead | Hillary Clinton


Veterans Day | Hillary Clinton

A Message to SEIU Members


Bernie Sanders




Passing on a Healthy and Habitable Mother Earth

Bernie Tells the Truth About Social Security

Real Change

Real Change – Version 2

30 Years of Speeches

Rigged Economy

Bernie Sanders at the CBS News Democratic Debate

Rock | Bernie Sanders

Effective | Bernie Sanders

Stand Together | Bernie Sanders

People Power

(Transcript abridged and edited by Cannon McClain, Teddi Strassburger, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.)

[i] For more on newly composed songs in political ads, see the Trax article by Joanna Love. And for another perspective on music in political ads, see Justin Patch’s essay posted at The Avid Listener.

Staging the Nation

March 31, 2016

On 13 January 2016, approximately 12,000 people gathered in the Pensacola Bay Center in Pensacola, Florida for a two hour rally in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. At an event that included the Gun Girls for Trump leading the pledge of allegiance, speeches from local Trump supporters, and an hour-long speech by the man himself, one two-and-half minute segment caught the nation’s attention: a performance by the group USA Freedom Kids of “Freedom’s Call,” a version of George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” rewritten by the group’s manager (and father of one of the performers) Jeff Popick. The performance has drawn strong reactions from both sides of the political spectrum. One commenter on the Conservative news site under the alias “sgstandard” called the performance “uplifting, patriotic and inspiring,” while “Media Mole,” writing for the Liberal UK publication NewStatesman said the number was “an unsettling and horrifying spectacle.”

“Over There,” has a fascinating history, one that says a great deal about Trump’s campaign. Cohan is a Broadway legend, a writer/director/producer/singer/dancer/actor whose red-white-and-blue-drenched patriotic spectacles played to thousands in the first quarter of the twentieth century (Fig. 1). These spectacles gave us patriotic staples such as “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag” (these clips are from a colorized version of Yankee Doodle Dandy, a 1942 biopic starring James Cagney as Cohan.) As Raymond Knapp has observed, Broadway musicals are “an enacted demonstration of Americanism, and often take on a formative, defining role in the construction of a collective sense of ‘America’” (103). Political rallies can serve a similar purpose, with candidates using these events to define and construct a collective sense of nation through a mix of spectacle, participation, and policy. In this light, the appearance of “Over There” at a Trump rally can be considered as an “enacted demonstration” of the kind of America the candidate hopes to create. The song’s marching rhythms and bugle-call chorus along with its unequivocally pro-America and pro-War messages (in both the 1917 and 2016 versions) point to an America in which patriotism is paramount and a strong military presence defines the country’s role on the national stage. There is also something highly nostalgic about Trump’s campaign. His slogan, “Make America Great Again” (emphasis added), implies the need to return to the policies that made America great historically, but which present leaders have abandoned. Even if the audience did not recognize the tune, the song itself—its simple rhythms, clear harmonies, and easily singable melody—sounds old-fashioned and is reminiscent of other Cohan songs attached to Broadway shows, even though “Over There” was not written for a specific show. Generally speaking, Broadway carries the connotation of nostalgia (Rugg, 45ff).

But what kind of America does Trump want to bring back? Again, “Over There” is telling. Cohan wrote “Over There” in 1917 as part of the effort to unite the country behind President Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War I (McCabe, 137–138). The song was so influential during World War II that the Office of War Information searched for a similar song to inspire the public to support that war (Smith, 3). But the sunny patriotism and catchy tune of “Over There” also provided the soundtrack for an outbreak of anti-foreign sentiment that boiled over into violence on several occasions between 1917 and 1919. Trump’s campaign has a similarly aggressive undercurrent that has earned the candidate much criticism. In other ways, however, the appearance of “Over There” at a Trump rally is historically incongruous, particularly in light of Trump’s anti-immigration platform. The Irish Cohan was only third-generation American (McCabe, 3).

Figure 1: H. I. Brock, “Tin Pan Alley is Always in Tune,” New York Times, 6 June 1943, p. SM14.

“Over There” was popular at a number of World War I rallies and benefits, performed by stars ranging from the popular singer Nora Bayes to the opera star Enrico Caruso, and even occasionally, Cohan himself. These rallies presaged Trump’s modern political events: they were often held in theatres or stadiums, with a mix of speakers (often veterans) and performers, and strewn with flags and banners. For example, the Trump rally that included the USA Freedom Kids’ performance also had speeches by a local member of the National Rifle Association and three veterans. Furthermore, speakers at both World War I and Trump rallies have harsh words for America’s enemies. Just as Trump promised in Pensacola to take a hard line negotiating with Iran, China, and Mexico, one-time gubernatorial candidate Job E. Hedges told the crowd at a Saratoga, NY World War I benefit, “There can be no place for Germany at the peace table,” decrying the state of “German-Kultur” as “an overestimate of the of the mind at the expense of the soul,” and even claiming that “Germany has no soul.”[i] That evening also featured a performance of “Over There,” in this case by Caruso.

But more than the rallies themselves, Trump’s forceful rhetoric and calls for vigilance on the home front echo the national climate between 1917 and 1919. Both Trump supporters and over-enthusiastic citizens during World War I resorted to violence against perceived enemies in the name of patriotism. Numerous incidents have broken out at Trump’s events, and the candidate has faced criticism for his response. He declined to condemn supporters who attacked a homeless Latino man in August, merely saying “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.” Popick’s lyrics “come on boys, take ‘em down!” seem to tacitly encourage this attitude. At the same Pensacola rally, Trump condemned the neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters for not speaking up sooner, blaming political correctness for their failure to report suspicious behavior and thus echoing politicians during World War I who asked Americans to remain alert to foreign agents or ideas that may have insinuated themselves into American culture (Capozzola, 1360). But many went beyond vigilance to vigilantism in the name of patriotism. On 12 July 1917 in Bisbee, Arizona, a local vigilance society deported striking miners and their families to New Mexico at gunpoint on the grounds that their demands for better working conditions were unpatriotically damaging the war effort (bullets required copper) (Capozzola, 1365–66). Some vigilance societies even went so far as to lynch German-Americans (Jones, 50). Like Popick’s lyrics, Cohan’s text to “Over There” could be read as encouraging this; the opening line “Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun” was intended as a call for enlistment, but could just as easily be understood as a general call for all Americans to participate.

But the anti-foreigner sentiment of Trump’s campaigns also clashes with “Over There.” George M. Cohan was a proud third-generation Irish-American, who openly celebrated his immigrant background. Cohan got his professional start performing in his father’s Irish novelty act called “Jerry Cohan’s Irish Hibernia” (Cohan, 14), and along with his patriotic numbers, wrote songs like “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” and “Harrigan,” making no secret of his heritage (Jones, 22). In 1921, he even hosted a fundraiser given by the American Committee for Relief in Ireland, helping to raise $57,000 for the cause of Irish freedom,[ii] hoping that Ireland would break free of Great Britain’s government just as America had 150 years earlier.

While Cohan vocally proclaimed his Irishness and his Americanness on Broadway stages around the turn of the century, making it clear that he found no contradiction between the two, a massive debate over immigration was raging in the larger culture. Anti-immigration activists of the era shared many of the same concerns as today’s Trump supporters. Not only were they worried about the influx of labor and the subsequent wage stagnation, but broader concerns about the future of the nation also percolated beneath the surface. When Trump said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he echoed stereotypes from earlier times that were applied to the Irish—that they were mostly criminals who preyed on unsuspecting Americans. For example, in 1876, the cover of Harper’s Weekly depicted a stereotypical pugnacious looking Irish-man weighed on a scale against a Jim Crow-like African American with the two sides equally balanced—not a compliment at the time (Fig. 2). Although by Cohan’s time, the “Celtic” race, as the Irish were called at the turn of the century, was preferable to other Eastern European races in anti-immigration circles, the so-called NINA restriction (“No Irish Need Apply”) in job advertisements still appeared occasionally during the late 1910s (Fried 3–4). More strikingly, some activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries even proposed limiting immigration based on religion, believing “Papist” (Catholic) Celts were not fit to participate in American democracy because they were beholden to Rome (Jacobson 69–70). Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants (and former candidate Ben Carson’s claim that Islam is “inconsistent” with the Constitution) looks very similar in some respects.

Figure 2: “The Ignorant Vote—Honors Are Easy,” Harper’s Weekly, 9 December 1876

If musical theater—whether on a Broadway stage or a political rally—is an “enacted demonstration of Americanism,” then the appearance of a version of “Over There” at a Trump rally appropriately demonstrates the kind of America that Trump is proposing. In both Trump’s America and the America of World War I, patriotism is the greatest national virtue, and citizens must always be alert to the danger of foreign threats. However, there is a certain irony in the performance of “Over There” at a Trump rally given that, had policies similar to Trump’s been in place in the 19th century, Cohan’s grandparents would never have come to America, and “Over There” would never have been written.

– Naomi Graber


Capozzola, Christopher. “The Only Badge Needed is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America.” Journal of American History 88, no. 4 (2002): 1354–1382.

Cohan, George M. Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There: The True Story of a Trouper’s Life from the Cradle to the “Closed Shop.” New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1925.

Fried, Rebecca A. “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs.” Journal of Social History (2015): available online at

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Jones, John Bush. Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of American Musical Theater. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003. Kindle Edition.

McCabe, John. George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1973.

Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Rugg, Rebecca Ann. “What it Used to Be: Nostalgia and the State of the Broadway Musical.” Theater 32 no. 2 (2002): 44–55.

[i] “4,302,000 Raised at Big Loan Concert,” New York Times, 1 October 1918, p. 11.

[ii] “Stage Stars Raise $57,000 for Irish,” New York Times, 4 April 1921, p. 2.

The Trump Bump 2016: User-generated Campaign Music about Donald Trump and His Political Opponents

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]

“The Trump Card”

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.”

“The Trump Song”

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.

“Barack Obama Rap Song Dissing Donald Trump”

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.

“Trump: A Stitches Parody”

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”

“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]

“Set It on Fire”

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.

– Michael Saffle

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).

[iii] Michael Saffle, “User-generated Campaign Music and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election,” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (Summer 2015).

[iv] Jeff Greenfield, “How to Tell the Difference Between a Real Front-Runner and a Fake One,” Politico, October 12, 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).

[ix] “The Trump Card Campaign Song for Donald Trump by Kenny Lee,” uploaded by Kenny Lee, September 11, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[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 and “The Trump Card” appears to be his only foray into political song.

[xii] “The Trump Song,” uploaded by Ronnie McDowell, September 18, 2015, [written by Ronnie McDowell, James Ducker, and Stacy Hogan] YouTube, video clip,

[xiii] “Barack Obama Rap Song Dissing Donald Trump,” uploaded by Brian bIg beats,” October 12, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[xiv] “Trump,” uploaded by Weares Rucka, November 18, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[xv] “WELL-STRUNG Chelsea’s Mom,” uploaded by Well-Strung, June 25, 2015, YouTube, video clip, Ginger Gibson, “Election 2016: “Chelsea’s Mom” is Hillary Clinton’s Fan Love Song,” International Business Times, June 25, 2015.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] See Joanne Cronth Bamberger, “Six Reasons ‘Shake It Off’ Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song,” The Broad Side, n.d. accessed January 2, 2016.

[xviii] “Hillary Clinton Email Scandal Song,” uploaded by Funnin Gunnin, March 15, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[xix] Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer, “In Iowa, Ted Cruz Savors Lead Role,” New York Times,  January 6, 2016. Of course ratings change daily, even hourly.

[xx] “We Are Watchmen – Set it on Fire (Lyric Video),” uploaded by We Are Watchmen, May 27, 2015, video clip, YouTube,

[xxi] See the Watchmen’s home page at 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.”

[xxii] “Stand with Hillary Music Video,” uploaded by BottledVideo, February 5, 2015, YouTube, video clip,

[xxiii] Christine Rousselle, “Stand with Hillary Releases Awesomely Bad Country Song Video,” Town Hall, December 4, 2014.

[xxiv] “Stand with Hillary Music Video” user comments. See note 23 above.

Musical Yearning in Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Primary Ad “America”

February 2, 2016

As I was writing this in late January 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was soaring in the polls in early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire. As this piece goes “to press,” it cannot escape mention that Sanders has now achieved at the Iowa caucuses what for his campaign means a victory: by in effect tying Hillary Clinton, he has virtually the same number of delegates as he looks ahead to New Hampshire. And February in New Hampshire promises to be warm indeed for the democratic socialist. Harnessing progressives’ yearning for a more equitable and compassionate society, Sanders is giving the Clinton campaign fits. Republican strategists seem torn between welcoming Sanders as a too-idealistic candidate who could be easily beaten and fearing that he may be riding a juggernaut of social change that will not be stopped.

A striking Internet ad for the Sanders campaign seems to be inspiring many voters. It is among the most shared political ads on social media and has garnered millions of YouTube views in its first week. It presents images of rural and small town America—spinning wind turbines, Main Street, tugboats docked along the riverbank, farmers feeding livestock, as well as scenes from a coffee shop and family scenes that could be anywhere. These are interspersed with sequences of Sanders on the campaign trail talking with individual voters and speaking to large crowds. The ad has a specific locale: Iowa. This is not surprising given how closely Iowa is associated with agricultural imagery; “America” situates itself in middle America, “God’s country,” “heartland America.” Sanders appears comfortable in this milieu, smiling and welcoming supporters.

Bernie Sanders’ America Ad (2016)

Together with sound effects of crowd roars at irregular intervals, “America” uses as its soundtrack the beginning and ending of the eponymous song by the folk rock duo Simon and Garfunkel. From the 1968 album Bookends, the song was originally written four years earlier while Paul Simon was hitchhiking across the U.S. with his then-girlfriend Kathy Chitty.  In Paul Simon: A Life, Marc Eliot writes that the song “creates a cinematic vista that tells of the singer’s search for a literal and physical America that seems to have disappeared, along with the country’s beauty and ideals” (95). If that was true for people in 1968, it is just as true today for voters who feel that the America that they learned about in school does not exist.

Like “Nixon Now,” a prominent 1972 TV spot of a self-confident incumbent, “America” makes no claims of grandiose accomplishments—there is nothing to fact check. Instead this is an atmospheric ad intended to capture the idealistic spirit currently animating his volunteers. Unlike the 2008 McCain campaign’s unauthorized use of “Johnny B. Goode” at campaign appearances, a use to which Chuck Berry strenuously objected, as have other artists whose songs have been appropriated for political campaigns, Sanders’s campaign was given permission by both artists to use the song with their good wishes (Garfunkel 2016).

Commentators, such as Susan Page of U.S.A. Today, have compared Sanders’s “America” to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Prouder, Stronger, Better” (otherwise known as “Morning in America”) ad (citied in Rehm 2016). They see both as creating a euphoric mood, appealing through pathos and ethos as opposed to logos and eschewing any kind of attack on opponents. There are clear parallels. Such a comparison is a bit too facile, though: “Morning in America” is just substantially more polished and well-produced (Christiansen, forthcoming) and employed its own original orchestral music written expressly for that campaign. Nevertheless, the Sanders ad similarly stirs emotions. It does so cumulatively: with Sanders greeting gradually increasing crowds, the ad ends with stadiums filled with adoring fans. “America” does not need to explain Sanders’s ideology or policies—it just revels in the candidate’s growing popularity.

Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America Ad (1984)

While the ad visually constructs an Iowan utopia, the original message of the song runs counter to this vision; in other words, Sanders misreads a song that is about disillusionment and unease, rather than unfettered optimism. The visual images the candidate puts forth here, combined with the omission of some of the song’s less cheerful lyrics, keeps the focus on Sanders’ overarching message. Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is in effect the soundtrack for the unvarnished optimism of his supporters. Hope and change deferred by ultra-pragmatic policies of the Obama administration are sought by supporters of Sanders, who is perceived by progressives as either quasi-messianic in the best case or quixotic in the worst case.

The lyric “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” originally refers of course to Simon and his girlfriend. As a political ad song, “Let us be lovers” speaks to another love: philia or agape, love for our fellow man. “Marry our fortunes together” conveys the sense that we must care for others and we must forge our collective future together. The lyric “They’ve all come to look for America” seems to suggest that poor and working-class Americans are searching for the ideal of America that has been eclipsed by corporate greed and political (i.e. Washington) cronyism. The appeal is thus primarily to class, although some prominent minority faces appear through the mostly white crowds.

At a point thirty-seven seconds into the sixty-second ad—which is incidentally the golden mean—we see a huge crowd with Sanders at the podium in front of a body of water and with a prominent American flag in the background just as the word AMERICA is superimposed over the scene, coinciding with the same song lyric. After the arrival on AMERICA, there is a dénouement that leads to Sanders’s disclaimer. Not quite as slickly produced as “Morning in America,” “America” is nevertheless well-conceived and brilliantly executed. Whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination or ultimately the general election, I suspect Sanders will be remembered in association with this spot.     

A folk-style song connotes a communal musical experience in which the audience feels connected to the performer in the struggle for a more inclusive and fairer society. The 6/8 meter lends the carefree melody a gentle lilt, while the falling diatonic bass line propels the song forward. The acoustic guitar and drum kit and the humming and close harmonies musically convey unpretentiousness and calm contentedness. Voices harmonizing together can also be interpreted as a musical representation of people working together for common cause.

On the other hand, could the use of the acoustic guitar and voice itself be a symbol of violent social upheaval? Guitars were ever-present during anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. Most of the artists we think of in relation to social justice, the environmental cause, women’s rights, and a host of other social movements played guitar and sang, such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Sam Cooke. And the message on Woody Guthrie’s guitar was, after all, “This machine kills fascists.” But as Brian Barone reminds us, “[W]hile it is clear that the acoustic guitar stands in opposition to the modern, industrial, technological cast of the electric guitar, it is less clear what the political implications of that opposition might be. Such an opposition might proceed equally well on conservative grounds of traditionalism, ruralism, and individualism as it would on progressive grounds of anti-corporatism, communitarianism, and cosmopolitanism” (2016).

The visual sphere supports the aural. More specifically, editing matches the music. Cuts are rhythmically synchronized with the emphasized lyrics. Thus the editing contributes to the overall musicality of the ad. Further, some of the images might have broader implications. The spinning wind turbines could imply interest in pursuing energy independence and environmental consciousness. The word “Marry” is heard at the same time as we see two young women who could be friends or sisters but also could be partners who are now in 2016 legally allowed to marry. The message would be that the campaign is welcoming to LGBTQ people. Later in the ad we see blinking patchworks of small-amount donors (average contribution to his campaign is $27). This illustrates Sanders’s commitment to accepting small donations from average citizens. Voters with these values will find resonance in the song’s lyrics.  

Because the verses are too specific and unrelated to Sanders’s message (e.g., a suspected spy in gabardine with a “bowtie camera”), most of the verses and the bridge are not heard in the ad. In fact, it only uses the first two lines of the first verse and then jumps to the middle of the final stanza on “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,” with “They’ve all come to look for America” repeating until the end. The splice is done so well that it is virtually unnoticeable. Only those listening closely to the lyrics would hear the inconsistency.

Although the images are of Iowa and the song’s lyrics are about America writ large, the singers themselves conjure up for many listeners New York City. Both Simon and Garfunkel are firmly rooted in the city, living and working there throughout their music, producing, and acting careers. So in addition to appealing to several generations of voters, from Sanders’s own cohort through Generations X and Y to Millennials, the music also has wide geographical appeal. Place matters. Indeed, some boomers might remember the duo’s participation in a fundraising concert for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern at Madison Square Garden during the 1972 election.

Furthermore, nostalgia plays a huge role in how “America” is heard by viewers across the country. The song was among those performed at the legendary free Concert in Central Park, which took place on September 19, 1982. This concert was attended by an estimated 500,000 people, and could mark a nostalgic moment for a generation that came to age in the early 1980s. So music in this ad could arouse nostalgic feelings in Boomers as well as members of Generation X, in those who attended the original concert as well as those who subsequently bought the live album. Notable cover versions by later artists such as Yes, David Bowie, and Josh Groban would help to bridge the nostalgia gap. Tapping into a different nostalgic vein, Donald J. Trump talks about “making America great again.” His slogan’s implicit premise is that the country is not great as it once was. Sanders holds the same premise, and that is why we hear “They all came to look for America.” The difference lies in the radically divergent visions of a utopian America and the means to get there.

Ever since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, candidates have had to include in campaign-sponsored ads a message of the candidate self-identifying and saying that he or she approves of the ad (this is referred to as the “Stand By Your Ad” provision). Campaigns can choose to put the disclaimer either at the beginning or the end, and the choice is sometimes made strategically. That is the case here. Sanders’s voice can at times come across as a bit unpolished, so instead he speaks at the end along with a smiling picture of himself at a podium with sleeves rolled up, as if ready to go to work. Excitement carries through his somewhat bland pronouncement. The disclaimer’s placement at the end serves to offer Sanders as the ideal guide to help them “look for America.”

Playing to voters’ fears is unfortunately often devastatingly effective (Killmeier and Christiansen, 2011). But appealing to their hopes can be a winning strategy and is so rare these days that it attracts attention. So well-known has the ad become that it has been written about in the New York Times, more than once, and Stephen Colbert taped a segment in which he “assigned” various Simon and Garfunkel tunes to specific Democratic and Republican candidates. The only reason a political ad gains so much attention is that is strikes a sympathetic chord with voters who want the real world to bend toward their own vision of an ideal world. With wealth inequality in the United States at alarming levels—the top 0.1% of our richest citizens having a net worth equal to the bottom 90%—many people desperately seek political leaders who are willing to respond to this most pressing of domestic issues. This yearning is what is portrayed musically with Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”

– Paul Christiansen


Barone, Brian. “‘I’ve Been Everywhere’: Martin O’Malley and the Many Meanings of the Guitar.” Trax on the Trail, January 7, 2016. 

Christiansen, Paul. “‘It’s Morning Again in America’: How the Tuesday Team Revolutionized the Use of Music in Political Ads.” Music and Politics 10, no. 1 (Winter 2016), forthcoming.

Corasaniti, Nick. “Bernie Sanders and Fans Embrace Tune of ‘America’ in Ad Free of Attacks.” New York Times, January 23, 2016. 

_____. “Bernie Sanders, and Simon and Garfunkel, Put Focus on Voters.” New York Times, January 21, 2016. 

Diane Rehm Show, The. “Friday News Roundup – Domestic.” [Susan Page filling in for Rehm] January 22, 2016.

Eliot, Marc. Paul Simon: A Life. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010.

Garfunkel, Art. “Art Garfunkel on Sanders Ad Using ‘America.’” [Interview with Michael Smerconish] CNN, January 23, 2016. 

Holub, Christian. “Stephen Colbert Assigns Simon & Garfunkel Songs to Presidential Candidates.” Entertainment Weekly, January 27, 2016. 

Kasper, Eric T., and Benjamin S. Schoening. “The Unwelcome Use of Musical Artists and Their Songs by Presidential Candidates.” Trax on the Trail, December 18, 2015.

Killmeier, Matthew, and Paul Christiansen. “Wolves at the Door: Musical Persuasion in a 2004 Bush-Cheney Campaign Ad.” MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research 50 (2011): 157–77. 

Monaghan, Angela. “US Wealth Inequality—Top 0.1% Worth as Much as the Bottom 90%.” Guardian, November 13, 2014. 

Political Pop and Commercials that Flopped: Early Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Race

January 14, 2016

During the past two presidential elections, Barack Obama targeted key voters along the campaign trail by deploying pop culture tropes, especially the sights and sounds of popular music (Gorzelany-Mostak, Love, Deaville, and Saffle 2015). Campaign strategists for the 2016 presidential hopefuls have worked hard to emulate Obama’s success and once more to “capture the cool” by using pop music, celebrities, and social media to boost each candidate’s visibility. But as indicated by the sheer volume of negative press circulating around the musical choices made thus far (including Neil Young’s request for Donald Trump to stop using “Rockin’ in the Free World”), it is obvious that these candidates simply do not demonstrate the same type of pop cultural cachet as their predecessor. Political strategists and their marketing teams have therefore struggled to musically define this new group of politicians and successfully attract new supporters.

Advertising campaigns for two candidates in particular have received substantial public attention for their failure to gain positive responses from their respective parties. A little more than a year ago, a super PAC commercial titled “Stand with Hillary” attempted to create momentum for Clinton’s forthcoming announcement of her intent to run for president. Political strategist, Daniel Chavez, designed it to look and sound more like a country music video than a political spot. Viewers found it so puzzling that many questioned whether or not it was a joke. More recently, the campaign for Dr. Ben Carson, a front-running Republican candidate, released a rap-styled radio commercial bearing the title “Freedom.” The juxtaposition of Carson’s musings on American values with an endorsement by a lesser-known political rapper, Aspiring Mogul, left audiences unconvinced about the credibility of Carson’s hip hop affinities.

These two commercials perfectly highlight the difficulties that marketers face when using popular music for political causes. In what follows, I briefly outline the main lessons that these spots can teach us (and campaign strategists) about the nuance required for mobilizing pop music to support party agendas. I also reference the precedents for using pop music as set by national brand advertising and offer brief readings of each spot to illuminate reasons why contemporary audiences found these commercials neither musically appealing nor politically persuasive.

Lesson 1: Music Should Match the Candidate

Discussions about the increased prevalence of popular music in national brand advertising often revolve around the perceived “suitability” of the musical track to accurately represent the brand and its product (Klein 2009, 79–81). Many audiences believe that the “values” of the advertised item should align with the ideals of the musicians, songs, and genres chosen to represent it. Public commentary about the (mis)use of country idioms in “Stand with Hillary” as well as the unconvincing employment of hip hop tropes in Carson’s “Freedom” confirm that the “suitability” of musical choices is equally (if not more) vital for political spots as for corporate ads. As the advertised “product,” each candidate’s political values should have obviously aligned with the chosen musical genre for the commercial so that the track could support (and not distract from) the party’s messages. It seemed, however, that instead of matching the music to each candidate, marketers tried to match it to the perceived tastes of the target audiences, who in both cases did not represent the candidate’s core supporters.  

Ben Carson’s “Freedom” Radio Ad

Ben Carson’s campaign created a hip hop-themed commercial that hinged on the belief that the genre’s tropes provided the “language” best understood by young African American voters. Carson’s team admitted that if he won the party nomination, he would need support from at least 20% of the African American population to beat Clinton. However, Carson’s attempt to “speak” hip hop proved unsuccessful for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that he had publically criticized the genre for “destroying” African American communities and values. Audiences were therefore skeptical about the authenticity of the spot and its intentions. 

Despite its poor reception, Carson’s commercial offered listeners a direct (albeit misguided) musical marketing strategy that enacted a clear purpose. The same cannot be said for the Stand with Hillary super PAC (whose commercial was neither endorsed by Clinton nor her campaign). According to the Washington Post, the pro-Clinton group responsible for the spot intended to reach Latinos (a growing sector of potential voters) and “working families.” In fact, the song’s creator, Miguel Orozco, had become known for writing songs that appealed to Latino voters during Obama’s first campaign. Curiously, there are no Latin musical tropes present anywhere in “Stand with Hillary.” It instead features stereotypical country idioms that pair with the onscreen images to narrowly define the target audience as white, male, and rural. Had “Stand with Hillary” functioned like a traditional political spot, its message may have stood on its own. But its music video design forced audiences to make their own connections between Clinton and the spot’s often incongruent messages about her family life and the call for “guys” to “smash” the “glass ceiling.” Combined with images of the commercial’s blue-collar, male country singer (who apparently wishes to remain anonymous), these signifiers implied that the spot was specifically aimed at working-class, white family men. “Stand with Hillary” therefore proved peculiar not only in its format, but also in its neglect to directly appellate the Latino demographic that the super PAC claimed to seek out. It also oddly neglected to speak to women, the very demographic on which Clinton’s campaign was projected to rely. And despite the short time that Clinton claimed to work on her Arkansas drawl during her husband’s governorship, the spot’s music and images conflicted with her own history as a white-collar worker, accomplished politician, and city dweller. It is no wonder then that these clashing signifiers prompted a flurry of social media commentary. Among the many Tweets that questioned the spot’s sincerity, one Twitter user wrote: “my favorite kind of parody is when extreme earnestness and mockery are indistinguishable.”

“Stand with Hillary” PAC Commercial

Lesson 2: Bad Music Kills the Buzz

Lesson two confirms that when audiences are dissatisfied with a commercial’s musical track—especially when it is the vehicle for relaying the branding message—it can actually render the product—or in this case, the candidate—less appealing. Corporate advertisers have known for decades that there is such a thing as bad press, and when pop music mishaps occur, they become bad for business. Similarly, poor musical choices on the campaign trail have embarrassed politicians for decades as top musicians have demanded that candidates remove hit songs from their playlists (see the Trax article by Kasper and Schoening).

In order to avoid the potential bad publicity caused by using pre-existing songs, political strategists have gravitated towards creating new tunes that attempt to evoke the styles of contemporary music—a well-worn practice for national brand advertising (Taylor 2012). A fairly recent and successful example of this was a 2008 music video endorsing Barack Obama that featured his campaign slogan, “Yes We Can.” The video essentially functioned as a political commercial: it featured acoustic guitar harmonies that supported and other young celebrities singing along with a recording of Obama’s speech at a New Hampshire primary rally. By transforming Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan into a repeated melodic hook and pairing it with specially-composed tunes sung over his motivational phrases, strategists made his platform singable and therefore more memorable. The song’s mashup of musical tropes also worked well in its homage to 1960s political folk-rock and emulation of contemporary rhythm and blues. The perceived originality and authenticity of the track attracted a host of influential celebrity performers, who in turn made the video alluring to potential voters.

“Yes We Can” Music Video (2008)

Ben Carson’s 2015 “Freedom” spot follows a similar format, but unlike “Yes We Can,” it is more obvious in its status as a commercial—specifically in its straightforward endorsement of the candidate by Aspiring Mogul. In its design to replicate a hip hop track, “Freedom” is paced by a syncopated flute loop and a chanted hook (“Vote-Vote”) that repeats in every bar. Mogul performs short, rapped phrases that frame the spot: “Vote and Support Ben Car-son, for the next president, would be awe-some.” Listeners criticized Mogul’s flow as “low” quality, because his phrases lacked the smooth delivery, clever word choices, and rhyme schemes typical of rap music. In addition to the absence of nuance or subtlety from Mogul’s rap and the commanding hook, the track lacks the production quality that audiences expected from a well-crafted hip hop track. The spot attempts to emulate Obama’s “Yes We Can” by featuring sound bytes of Carson waxing poetic about America’s greatness, the price of freedom, and fighting for future generations. But it fails to be musically persuasive as Carson’s gentle vocal timbre and generalized reflections prove ill-matched to Mogul’s assertive style and the repetitive hook. Accordingly, listeners found that Carson’s lines sounded “somber” against the upbeat track—an incongruity that ultimately undermined the motivational intentions of his speech.

“Stand with Hillary” suffers from similar musical deficiencies. It opens with sparse acoustic strumming and sliding guitar phrases that accompany images of the overtly masculine posturing of an unknown actor (or perhaps, an aspiring musical star). He dons the hat, boots, jeans, and guitar stereotypical for solo country music performers. In his attempt to emulate the story-telling ballade style of country hits, the singer croons nebulous phrases about “a defining moment” and “hindsight” followed by a verse asking men to break the proverbial glass ceiling. This leads into the chorus where he reflects on Clinton’s womanhood and familial roles by comparing her to his own wife and daughter. Visually, images of Clinton and her family are interspersed with the “cowboy’s” recollections of “the women in his life.” We also witness performance footage and a brief clip showing the singer’s wife rescuing him when his truck runs out of gas. By showing the “cowboy” jump onto the back of his wife’s motorcycle, the spot likens Clinton’s potential future leadership to the tasks that women perform everyday.

Needless to say, such a message proved troubling to her core base of female voters. Viewers complained about the overly complimentary (and I would add, pointedly-gendered) accolades that paint Clinton as a “great lady” insofar as she is a “mother,” a “daughter,” and “a loving wife.” Notably, the gender dynamic in the lyrics and visuals seems to infer that even hard-working cowboys need assistance, and that as caretakers, women have always been around to help. The video also proved musically unconvincing as viewers were annoyed by the singer’s clichéd and constricted vocal scooping and “twang-through-the-nose” delivery. Reading more like a love song than a political endorsement, the track left voters with few positive takeaways. One exasperated viewer proclaimed: “I’d rather chug bleach than listen to an awful country song released by the Stand With Hillary PAC.”

Corporate marketers have historically favored using popular music tropes due to the familiarity they bring to commercials (Taylor 2012). But as Lesson Two makes clear, the problem with counting on viewers’ familiarity is just that: when audiences know how “good” music in a given genre and style should sound, they quickly recognize when a track fails to meet expectations. So when “Stand with Hillary” fell short of Thomas Rhett’s hits and “Freedom” sounded neither like Kendrick Lamar nor particularly old school (as was its intent), voters noticed. In fact, both tracks were explicitly dubbed “awful” and Carson’s commercial even earned the moniker “hate-listen” of the day.

Lesson 3: Audiences Resent Musical Pandering and Essentialism

Twenty-first century audiences are media savvy. It is not surprising, then, that they quickly deciphered the true agendas of both commercials: “Freedom” used hip hop tropes to amplify Carson’s “African American credibility,” while the conservative country clichés in “Stand with Hillary” sought to remind working families (and specifically white males) of Clinton’s “gender credibility.” Critics therefore strongly expressed their resentment towards these attempts at musical pandering and essentialism. In a piece that surveys the history of hip hop’s resistance to Republican politics, Issie Lapowsky condemns Carson’s commercial for these traits, concluding that it “comes across as pure condescension.” This journalist and others who spoke out expressed their disgust for the fact that Carson’s campaign had ignored the historical relevance, nuance, and artistry of hip hop culture and criticized its assumption that a spot vaguely reminiscent of the genre might lure young African American voters to its camp and make the candidate appear relevant to them.

I would add that the perceived insincerity of the commercial also stems from its avoidance of discussing Carson’s political platform. In fact, “Freedom” offers no specific information at all, leaving audiences to guess why he would be the best choice for office. “Freedom” thus proved as politically de-motivating as it was musically obtuse.

“Stand with Hillary” was equally offensive, although I would point out that it is mostly demeaning to the candidate herself. As a type of political “reference letter,” this commercial reminds me of a set of guidelines currently circulating on social media that outlines the dos and don’ts of writing recommendations for women. The spot noticeably breaks every rule listed for avoiding gender bias: not only is Clinton’s voice muted in favor of the “cowboy’s” presentation of her familial duties, but the gendered words used to describe her, specifically “caring” and “hardworking,” speak only to her potential and ignore her long list of political accomplishments. Indeed, like the Carson spot, it does not mention any of her political policies or experiences. According to the commercial, the only “job” worth acknowledging is the support she gave to her husband and daughter. As an obvious attempt to bolster Clinton’s “likeability” (a theme unpacked in a previous Trax post), the spot’s puzzling agenda, annoying musical track, misogynistic undertones, and political pandering unintentionally left audiences cringing.


While it may be difficult to understand how anyone might think that these commercials and their gawky musical pairings were a good idea, it is important to realize that neither national brand nor political advertisers have figured out a winning formula for placing popular music tracks in commercials. Large corporate brands have spent billions experimenting with the principles of “sonic branding” (Powers 2010). And unless a song is performed by a hit artist who endorses a particular candidate, political marketers have been generally less enthusiastic about employing pop music in commercials—largely due to the high costs that musical gaffes could have for presidential hopefuls. Looking forward to the remaining months in the 2016 campaign, there is no doubt that popular music will continue to play a major role in marketing endeavors. It will be interesting to see if and how the remaining candidates can find their musical stride.

– Joanna Love


Barnard, Christianna. “Dancing Around the Double-Bind: Gender Identity, Likability, and the Musical Rebranding of Hillary Clinton.” Trax on the Trail, November 29, 2015.

Bradley, Laura. “This Cowboy Dude Really Wants You to Stand with Hillary.” Slate, December 4, 2014.

Deaville, James. “The Sound of Media Spectacle: Music at Party Conventions.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015).

Faircloth, Kelly. “Oh My God, This Song for Hillary Clinton is Beyond Awful.” Jezebel, December 4, 2014. 

Faulders, Katherine. “Listen to Ben Carson’s New Rap Ad Aimed at African-American Voters.” ABC News, November 5, 2015. 

“Fox and Friends Stoops to Attacking Hilary Clinton over Her 2016 Spotify Playlist.” Media Matters for America, June 16, 2015. 

Gold, Matea. “As Hillary Clinton Ponders 2016, Clinton-themed Super PACs Seek a Piece of the Action.” Washington Post, December 4, 2014. 

Gorzelany-Mostak, Dana. “‘I’ve Got a Little List’: Spotifying Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015). 

Horowitz, Jason. “Hillary Clinton Aims to Capture the Cool.” New York Times, May 22, 2015. 

Kasper, Eric T. and Benjamin S. Schoening. “The Unwelcome Use of Musical Artists and Their Songs by Presidential Candidates.” Trax on the Trail, December 18, 2015.

Klein, Bethany. As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009.

Kreig, Gregory J. “What is a Super PAC? A Short History.” ABC News, August 9, 2012.

Lapowsky, Issie. “Twitter Reacts to the Ben Carson Rap That Shouldn’t Exist.” Wired, November 2015. 

Larson, Leslie. “Ben Carson Blasts Hip-Hop for Hurting African-American Communities.” Business Insider, April 6, 2015. 

Love, Joanna. “Branding a Cool Celebrity President: Advertising with Popular Music in the 2012 Election.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015).

Millard, Drew. “Ben Carson’s Rap Radio Ad Is an Embarrassment for Everyone.” Vice, November 5, 2015. 

Moss, Marissa R. “Hear ‘Stand with Hillary,’ a Countrified Bid for Clinton in 2016.” Rolling Stone, December 4, 2014.

“New Celeb-Filled Music Video for Obama.” ABC News, n.d.

Oh, Inae. “Ben Carson’s Rap Ad Is Here to Ruin Your Day.” Mother Jones, November 5, 2015.

Ortiz, Eric. “Stop Rockin’: Neil Young Blasts Donald Trump for Using Classic Song Without Clearance.” NBC News, June 16, 2015. 

“Pepsi Cancels Madonna Ad.” New York Times, April 5, 1989.

Powers, Devon. “Strange Powers: The Branded Sensorium and the Intrigue of Musical Sound.” In Blowing up the Brand: Critical Perspectives on Promotional Culture, edited by Melissa Aronczyk and Devon Powers, 285–306. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Rousselle, Christine. “Stand with Hilary Releases Awesomely Bad Country Song Video.”, December 4, 2014.

Saffle, Michael. “User-Generated Campaign Music and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015).

Taylor, Timothy. The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

The University of Arizona, Commission on the Status of Women. “Avoiding Gender Bias in Reference Writing.”

Whitesell, Samuel. “Campaign Music and Fair Use: What are the Rules?” Law Street, October 25, 2015.

“Yes We Can Obama Song by” February 2, 2008. Video clip. YouTube.

“I’ve Been Everywhere:” Martin O’Malley and the Many Meanings of the Guitar

January 8, 2016

Is America ready for a troubadour president? It is a question Democrats have to ask themselves as they decide on their party’s nominee for the 2016 election. For though Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish president (who is also an avowed democratic socialist), and Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president (who is also a former first lady), surely Martin O’Malley would be the first president likely to keep a guitar in the Oval Office. At least, that is, if his penchant for breaking into song on the campaign trail is any indication.      

As you can see by selecting O’Malley’s name in the “Candidate” field of the Trax on the Trail database, guitar playing and singing have been a highlight of the former Maryland governor’s campaign appearances. Though, as I would like to argue, not always to clear or effective ends. The day before formally announcing his candidacy in May 2015, for instance, O’Malley posted a video of himself plucking out the melody to “Hail to the Chief” on Facebook. Despite the fact that he is a seasoned player, somehow O’Malley had been given a guitar with a fretboard adorned with smiley-face stickers. In the opening of the video, the camera awkwardly pans across these markers meant to remind a beginner of the fingerings for three—maybe four—basic chord shapes. Needless to say, not the slickest bit of political theater. The shot accidentally evokes un-presidential incompetence and unseriousness. But the pitfalls I want to suggest most bedevil O’Malley’s music strategy are of a different order. They concern the contradictory and overlapping social meanings of the guitar and the discordant political implications of the kinds of music O’Malley has most often played and sung on the trail. Combined, these qualities muddle the force and clarity of O’Malley’s troubadourism as political messaging; they prevent his songs from being the kind of unambiguous and floodlit symbols that work best in national politics.

Martin O’Malley Plucks “Hail to the Chief”

Before listening to O’Malley in particular, a brief survey of music making by other national politicians—and the work that music has done for their politics and personas—is in order. In his time as president, Barack Obama has raised his rich baritone on a few occasions. Most solemnly, last summer he led a Charleston, South Carolina congregation in “Amazing Grace” while eulogizing State Senator Clementa Pinckney and the eight others murdered in a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In happier times, he used the opening line of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to woo voters during the 2012 election: “I-I-I’m so in love with you.” Notably, in both cases the President signaled his solidarity with black Americans by invoking styles of music—gospel and soul—intimately and clearly linked to black musicians and communities; he proved the power of what musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg has called “the rhetoric of genre,” both when a congregation needed solace and when he needed votes.

More broadly, the history of presidential music making stretches back a bit further, in the television era, at least to Richard Nixon. The 1972 campaign film “Nixon The Man” features clips of the President accompanying a chorus of “Happy Birthday” at the piano in celebration of Duke Ellington. What better way to signal a politician’s essential good-naturedness, his fundamental domestic normalcy than a spin at the piano, that instrument-cum-living-room-furniture?

But of course the watershed moment in presidential musical performance belongs to Bill Clinton. From behind a pair of dark sunglasses, the then-Arkansas governor loosed a stream of rhythm and blues licks from his saxophone during a 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. As with Nixon’s late-night TV gig, the performance was meant on the one hand to humanize Clinton as a candidate. But on the other hand, and in part like Obama’s singing, it leaned on the racialized codes that govern American musical styles and genres to burnish Clinton’s image. By copping the look and sound of a rhythm and blues cat, Clinton staked a claim to the authority and cool that always accrue to a white American man who can display competency in cultural forms associated with African Americans (as, for example, Waksman 1999 argued).

And non-presidential figures have taken their turns, too. Separate attention this election season is due to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’s 1987 folk-spoken-word album, for instance. During her cabinet tenure, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attracted the attention of the New York Times for her interest in piano chamber music. A scene from the comedy series 30 Rock illustrates how Rice’s musicianship worked for her public image. In it, she vanquishes the fictional NBC executive played by Alec Baldwin in a sort of classical music cutting contest. The joke plays on several levels: like Rice, the real-life Baldwin is a classical music aficionado, lending his voice to the pre-show announcements of the New York Philharmonic. But the humor also stems from the reversal of gendered expectations of Baldwin’s alpha-male character—a guy like him shouldn’t lose to a lady, and definitely shouldn’t play the flute. The flip-side of this dynamic explains what her well-known pianistic proficiency offered (the real-life) Rice’s political persona: her technical skill at the keyboard and comfort navigating the classical canon helped kneecap sexist or racist doubts about an African-American woman’s ability to lead in the technocratic and elite world of geopolitics.

These rhetorically effective examples of political music making share a particular characteristic: they all rely on signifiers that are unambiguous and unitary in meaning for a large cross-section of Americans. Classical music and gospel suggest rather stable identifications; the piano and the saxophone reliably evoke the upright in the family room or a smoky nightclub, respectively. The semiotic waters Martin O’Malley has been attempting to navigate with his music making, however, are a bit more treacherous.

His instrument of choice, the guitar, has amassed a web of messy and confused social meanings. Whom the instrument “belongs to” and what it means has been contested from early on. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, the guitar’s social meanings had so proliferated that it was associated simultaneously with both the highest and lowest rungs of society. In the theater, from commedia dell’arte to Spanish entremeses, guitars were connected to outsiders and outcasts: racial, ethnic, and religious “others” of all sorts, blind beggars, various species of miscreants and ne’er do wells (Locke 2015, Wilbourne 2010, Russell 1995). Meanwhile, it was also seen as a refined, galant instrument and was favored by the aristocracy. The guitarist Francesco Corbetta, for instance, made his living by shuttling between European courts as a hybrid diplomat-performer-courtier. Louis IX and Charles II both played the instrument; María Luísa of Savoy, the first Bourbon Queen of Spain, acquired the great Santiago de Murcia as her personal maestro de guitarra in 1702.

Like its slipperiness on the class spectrum, the guitar’s gender associations have also been flexible. The first “guitar hero” we know by name, the fifteenth-century Ferrarese musician Pietrobono, was a man, but as we’ve just seen, certainly by the time of María Luísa many women were avid guitarists, too (Lockwood 1975). In the nineteenth century it was likewise popular among both men and women of the bourgeoisie, and the father and daughter pair of Mauro and Emilia Giuliani each had successful careers as traveling virtuosi. If the instrument in the American twentieth and twenty-first centuries has mostly been associated with masculinity, that is only to forget the guitar heroism of figures like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jennifer Batten, or (my generation’s most interesting player) St. Vincent. Even the gendered meaning of the guitar’s physical form isn’t clear: while the curves of the traditional shape suggest an alliance with the feminine, the electric instrument, especially in those kinds of music colorfully dubbed “cock rock,” has been taken as a phallic extension of the male ego (Walser 1992, Waksman 1999).

Globally, the guitar has been probably the most well-traveled of all instruments, both transmitting musics from its cradle in Europe and the U.S. and learning to fit in wherever it goes; it has been as happy to meld into preexisting styles as it has been to serve as a midwife to new hybrids. From its role in Tehran’s indie rock scene or Japan’s rockabilly subculture, to palm-wine music on Africa’s west coast or Ethio-jazz on Africa’s east coast, the guitar is constantly picking up new meanings, vocabularies, and associations (Bennett and Dawe 2001, Coelho 2003).

Of course, not all of this history is likely to be on the mind of any given American voter as she listens to Martin O’Malley strum and sing. But even in American popular music alone the range of people, styles, communities, places, movements, corporations, and subcultures that have put the instrument to good use make it hard to say that picking up a guitar and playing it has any one clear meaning for an American. Is it an instrument of transgression or tradition? The North or the South? The sacred or the profane? Black or white? Male or female? The future or the past? The only answer is “all of the above.”

Perhaps, then, a rhetorical strategy that embraces the guitar’s fundamental pluralism, hoisting it overhead like Lady Liberty’s torch as a symbol of American values, would be a brilliant musical campaign move. Though I have no real idea how any plucking politician might do that without being an outrageously versatile musician. In any case, that hasn’t been O’Malley’s tack. He has stuck exclusively to accompanying his own singing with an acoustic guitar. At first blush, that specificity might seem to resolve the problem of the guitar’s overdetermined social meaning. But, while it is clear that the acoustic guitar stands in opposition to the modern, industrial, technological cast of the electric guitar, it is less clear what the political implications of that opposition might be. Such an opposition might proceed equally well on conservative grounds of traditionalism, ruralism, and individualism as it would on progressive grounds of anti-corporatism, communitarianism, and cosmopolitanism. So the acoustic guitar might be an emblem of conservatism, progressivism, or neither.

And as it turns out, O’Malley’s two most frequently performed songs on the campaign trail, Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” bear out this ambivalence (again, see the Trax database). The first is a staple of the country repertoire, which, as the Dixie Chicks learned the hard way after criticizing George W. Bush, remains a bastion of American conservatism. Meanwhile the second is an anthem of folk-revival leftism—O’Malley even restores the verses Guthrie omitted when he first released the song for fear of arousing the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy. And so we are back to the original quandary: what does O’Malley mean by all this? Just whose vote is trying to court?

Martin O’Malley Sings “I’ve Been Everywhere” (October 24, 2015)
Martin O’Malley Sings “This Land is Your Land” (July 8, 2015)

At the end of the day, the answer is probably just that Martin O’Malley really likes to play the guitar and sing songs he enjoys. There is something endearing about that. And though surely a candidate like O’Malley receives better political advice than this guitar player’s two cents, I can’t escape the conclusion that it would be strategic to put his guitar back in its case until he has the spare time to start gigging with his band again. At the very least, O’Malley might consider focusing his campaign repertoire only on songs with unambiguous and relevant political commitments, as he recently did with Guthrie’s pro-migrant tune “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” Though even that wouldn’t avoid the political ambiguities of guitar playing in general, nor the even bigger problem that we guitar players have earned for ourselves: a reputation as untrustworthy rapscallions. From the fourteenth-century case of a guitarist named Perrin Rouet—who was prosecuted for smashing his instrument over the head of a someone named Moriset—on down to Keith Richards, we are rightly apprehended as a suspicious bunch (Wright 1977, 15). After all, look at what rock stars can do to a hotel room—it’s certainly not very presidential.

– Brian Barone


Bennett, Andy, and Kevin Dawe, eds. Guitar Cultures. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2001.

Coelho, Victor, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kallberg, Jeffrey. “The Rhetoric of Genre: Chopin’s Nocturne in G Minor.” 19th-Century Music 11, no. 3 (1988): 238–61.

Locke, Ralph P. Music and the Exotic: From the Renaissance to Mozart. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Lockwood, Lewis. “Pietrobono and the Instrumental Tradition at Ferrara in the Fifteenth Century.” Rivista Italiano di Musicologia 10 (1975): 115–33.

Russell, Craig. Santiago de Murcia’s Códice Saldívar No. 4: A Treasury of Secular Guitar Music from Baroque Mexico. 2 vols. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Walser, Robert. “Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity.” Popular Music 11, no. 3 (1992): 263–308.

Wilbourne, Emily. “Lo Schiavetto (1612): Travestied Sound, Ethnic Performance, and the Eloquence of the Body.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63, no. 1 (2010): 1–43.

Wright, Laurence. “The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity.” The Galpin Society Journal 30 (1977): 8–42.

The Unwelcome Use of Musical Artists and Their Songs by Presidential Candidates

December 18, 2015

In contemporary presidential campaigns in the United States, candidates routinely use popular music in ways that cause musical artists to respond negatively. Indeed, every four years, we now expect that at least some presidential candidates will become embroiled in controversy after a musician complains about their music being used illegally or inappropriately. If you have the feeling that this is a more recent phenomenon that did not always plague presidential campaigns, then you are correct.

Music has played a role in the pageantry of election campaigns since the days of George Washington, and for most of this time, candidates have avoided controversy and legal entanglements over their use of music due to several factors. First, politicians often had unique songs written for them. Second, candidates took advantage of the slow development of U.S. copyright law, which allowed them to borrow and appropriate musical material well into the nineteenth century. Finally, politicians sought out popular artists and composers to use their works at campaign events or, even better, to have the artists themselves perform their own music or variations of those works during the campaign.   

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century candidates typically set their newly penned, campaign-specific texts to preexisting tunes, many of which were associated with multiple sets of lyrics. For example, one of the best-known early campaign songs, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” was sung to “Little Pigs,” a popular nineteenth-century song (Johnson 1884). In 1860, “Lincoln and Liberty” was set to the tune of “Rosin’ the Beau,” an old Irish drinking song (Schimler 2013; Silverman 2002). Since copyright law protected creative property considerably less than it does today, musical controversies did not arise as a result of such appropriations. Indeed, Congress did not include music publication under copyright protection until 1831, and those provisions exempted publications by foreign composers. Many of the popular tunes circulating in the United States were of British and Irish origins and, as such, were exempt from copyright protection. Musical performance was not protected by copyright law until 1897, and protection against unapproved playing of musical recordings did not take effect until 1972 (U.S. Copyright Office n.d.; Crawford 2001).

In many instances throughout American history, candidates avoided copyright pitfalls by using music created by their supporters, but this trend began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing upon the successful use of popular music by social movements—including the civil rights, the feminist, and the Vietnam War protest movements (Hurst 2008)—presidential campaigns began capitalizing on star appeal and catchy, well-known lyrics by gradually beginning to use unaltered, preexisting popular music on a more regular basis. Well-known examples include Ronald Reagan’s utilization of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” in 1984 and Bill Clinton’s adoption of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” in 1992 (Safire 2008; Perlstein 2008).

Changing technology facilitated the use of preexisting popular music at rallies, and this practice is now commonplace. In 2012, incumbent Barack Obama used Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” and challenger Mitt Romney chose Kid Rock’s, “Born Free” (Caulfield 2012; Montgomery 2012).[i] In the current election, Katy Perry’s “Roar” has become somewhat of a battle cry for Democratic contender Hillary Clinton. While pop songs are standard fare, candidates, on occasion, have made some rather strange choices: Donald Trump has used Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” a standard from the classical crossover canon, while fellow Republican contender Marco Rubio adopted “Something New” by house music duo Axwell /\ Ingrosso early in his campaign, but stopped after receiving a cease-and-desist from the artists (Thomas and Lucey 2015; Roberts and Jacobs 2015; Walker 2015). At a December event at Furman University the candidate made the following statement: “Electronic dance music — I’m a fan of. We just can’t play it ‘cause none of the DJ guys — they all send us letters, ‘Don’t play my music. I’m Swedish. I don’t care about American politics’” (Jaffe 2015).

With the wholesale employment of preexisting popular music in presidential politics in the 1980s and 1990s, the issue of allegedly illegal use of songs came to the forefront.[ii] Indeed, several candidates in recent years—including George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama—have come under fire for indulging in this practice (Schoening and Kasper 2012; Rolling Stone 2015).[iii] Some of these cases have been settled with cease-and-desist orders, others through public objections in the media by the copyright holders, and, on fewer occasions, through lawsuits (Jones 2009).[iv] In the great majority of instances, the action has resulted in withdrawal of the song from the candidate’s campaign playlist, which has generally satisfied the complainant against the campaign. In addition to potential copyright infringement cases, complaints have arisen because candidates may have secured permission from a copyright holder who is not the musical artist, but the performer objects, claiming, among other things, an improper implied endorsement.

One of the first documented cases of alleged copyright infringement by a campaign occurred in 1996 with the band Chicago halfheartedly objecting to Bill Clinton’s use of its song “Beginnings.” It appears that Clinton secured rights from the publisher to play the song at the Democratic National Convention and even had the endorsement of some of the band members. However, the song’s composer, Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm, did not support Clinton. According to one source, Lamm stated, “I am not endorsing Bill Clinton. There are probably candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring that I’m more aligned with, like Ralph Nader, but when I step into the [voting booth], it’s my informed, private decision” (M. Newman 1996). The press generated by the dispute probably did not harm the Clinton candidacy, but it did bring to the forefront the issue of implied endorsements and ownership of artistic property.

A much more dramatic reaction from an artist occurred during the 2008 election with Sarah Palin, when the GOP selected the 1977 song “Barracuda” by the rock band Heart for her intro at the Republican National Convention. The song was chosen for its title and lyrics as the Alaska Governor had earned the nickname “Sarah Barracuda” while playing high school basketball. After the song was played at the convention, lead singer Ann Wilson and guitarist Nancy Wilson claimed that the McCain-Palin campaign had not sought consent from them, Universal Music Publishing, or Sony BMG (Bertelsmann Music Group). As the Wilson sisters remarked, “The Republican campaign did not ask for permission to use the song, nor would they have been granted that permission.” McCain-Palin campaign officials countered with the following statement: “Prior to using “Barracuda” at any events, we paid for and obtained all necessary licenses.” This prompted Heart to offer a response of their own: “We have asked the Republican campaign publicly not to use our music. We hope our wishes will be honored.” When the song was played again at the same convention, the Wilson sisters issued the following statement: “Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women…We ask that our song, ‘Barracuda,’ no longer be used to promote her image.” The McCain-Palin campaign apparently had obtained copyright permission to use the song because its public performance was licensed under a blanket fee paid to ASCAP by the hosting Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, although this did not fully resolve the band’s issue of an unwanted implied endorsement (Michaels 2008; Goodman 2008).[v]

During the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney received some negative press for playing the song “Wavin’ Flag” by singer K’Naan at a rally he held the night he won the Florida Republican primary. According to a Romney campaign spokesperson, the song was used under a blanket license that the campaign had obtained. K’Naan, however, was upset, stating “I have not been asked for permission by Mitt Romney’s campaign for the use of my song. If I had been asked, I would certainly not have granted it.” In fact, the artist went on further to supply his own endorsement by stating, “I would happily grant the Obama campaign use of my song without prejudice.” While still claiming they did not violate copyright law, the Romney campaign decided to stop playing it within days, claiming the following: “The song was used through our regular blanket license, but we respect K’Naan’s statement and will not use his music again” (Paine 2012; “K’Naan” 2012). Ultimately, the campaign opted to respect the artist’s wishes, averting any unwelcome attention through a lawsuit.

A final example occurred in the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump joined the Republican Party’s presidential field, entering his kick-off rally to the song “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young. Young’s management soon released the following statement in response: “Donald Trump was not authorized to use ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ in his presidential candidacy announcement…Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America.” Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, challenged Young’s assertion, stating, “We’ve done everything legal and by the book…The Trump campaign for President wrote two checks, which were cashed, and signed two contracts: One was with ASCAP and the other was with BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.]. We have two legally binding contracts in place that allow us to go to their repertoire of music and use those [tracks] legally” (Chappell 2015; J. Newman 2015).

Indeed, in addition to potential copyright law violations, a presidential campaign needs to be careful not to play music in a way that improperly implies a musical artist is endorsing the candidate. This issue of implied endorsement presents a relatively new problem for campaigns. It is often the songwriter and/or performer of the song who hold(s) its copyright. However, sometimes a person or entity other than the performer is the copyright holder, and the singer only performed the song. To complicate matters further, copyright holders generally belong to ASCAP, BMI, or other organizations that collect fees for the songs in their respective catalogues. “By law, ASCAP [and other such agencies are] required to grant a license to any business, including political campaign organizations, that requests it, provided all paperwork is in order” (J. Newman 2015).

This presents a quandary for modern campaigns and a challenge for songwriters. A campaign may think it is fully within its legal rights to use a song by securing a blanket license from the proper entity, but a musician can publicly announce that they never would have given permission if they had been asked. In fact, ASCAP warns political hopefuls of this potential issue as part of a website resource entitled “Using Music in Political Campaigns: What You Should Know.” In this document, ASCAP explains,

If an artist does not want his or her music to be associated with the campaign, he or she may be able to take legal action even if the campaign has the appropriate copyright licenses. While the campaign would be in compliance with copyright law for playing the music, it could potentially be in violation of other laws…As a general rule, a campaign should be aware that, in most cases, the more closely a song is tied to the “image” or message of the campaign, the more likely it is that the recording artist or songwriter of the song could object to the song’s usage in the campaign (ASCAP n.d.).

In such cases, candidates may have eliminated the legal battle over copyright but still might face negative publicity or a suit for improper implied endorsement. The relevant federal statute here is the Lanham Act, which enforces trademark protections and prohibits false advertising. For instance, when Donald Trump used Aerosmith’s song “Dream On” at campaign events in the fall of 2015, the band’s front man Steven Tyler objected (even though Trump had invited Tyler to the first Republican presidential debate and Tyler himself is a Republican). However, Tyler was not raising a direct copyright issue here; instead the letter to Trump’s campaign from Tyler’s lawyer specifically referred to the Lanham Act, indicating the lawyer’s opinion that Trump was falsely making the public think that Tyler and the band endorsed Trump for president (Sisario 2015). Actions like this may cause some voters to think that these are examples of dishonest politicians trying to ignore the law. Obviously, this can have a negative effect on a candidate’s image.

How do candidates avoid these issues? 

First, candidates and their campaign managers can select songs by artists who represent them and their political ideas. By playing songs by artists who are more likely to support a candidate’s ideology, there is less likelihood that the artists will claim an improper implied endorsement.

Another strategy would be to approach the artist directly and secure permission to use the song. By doing this, a candidate can ensure the artist’s cooperation and, possibly, secure an actual endorsement. Further, a candidate may also be able to engage an artist to perform at a campaign event as a way to bring out a larger crowd to hear the message.

Overall, one of a presidential candidate’s main purposes behind using songs is to reinforce the campaign’s message(s), by creating congruity between lyrics and campaign rhetoric. However, campaigns have trended toward the use of popular music over the past few decades as a way to both a) take advantage of a song’s popularity, and b) to associate the candidate(s) with a popular celebrity artist. It is much easier for a campaign to gain traction with the voting public by using music that has already made its way into the mainstream pop scene, as opposed to commissioning original songs and trying to make them popular during the course of the campaign cycle. 

In the end, music has a powerful effect on people, which explains why presidential candidates want to use it to help promote their messages.[vi] Whether it is copyright infringement or improper implied endorsement, these ostensibly illegal actions, and the possible negative publicity or lawsuits that may follow, risk distorting those messages. As a result, campaigns would be well-advised to make sure that their use of music falls within the law.

– Eric T. Kasper and Benjamin S. Schoening


ASCAP. “Using Music in Political Campaigns: What You Should Know.” ASCAP, November 26, 2015.

Caulfield, Keith. “Bruce Springsteen Gets Obama Bump, Song Sales Rise 409%.” Billboard, September 12, 2012.

Chappell, Bill. “Neil Young Is Displeased that Donald Trump Was ‘Rockin’ In The Free World.’” NPR, June 17, 2015.

Crawford, Richard. An Introduction to America’s Music. New York: Norton, 2001.

Goodman, Dean. “Rock Group Heart Says ‘Barracuda’ Use Is Fishy.” Reuters, September 8, 2008.

Huffington Post. “K’Naan: Mitt Romney Did Not Have Permission to Use ‘Wavin’ Flag.’” February 1, 2012.

Hurst, Craig W. “Twentieth-Century American Folk Music and the Popularization of Protest.” In Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics through Popular Culture, edited by Joseph J. Foy, 217–32. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Jaffe, Alex. “Marco Rubio Courts College Voters in South Carolina, Gets Cease-and-Desist Letters.” NBC News, December 12, 2015.

Johnson, Helen Kendrick. “The Meaning of Song.” In The North American Review, Vol. CXXXVIII, edited by Allan Thorndike Rice. New York: n.p., 1884.

Jones, Ashby. “John McCain, Jackson Browne, Bury the Hatchet Over Use of Song.” Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2009.

Michaels, Sean. “Sarah Palin’s Heart-less Use of Soft Rock.” The Guardian, September 8, 2008.

Montgomery, James. “Mitt Romney ‘Free’ to Use Kid Rock’s Song.” MTV News, October 12, 2012.

Newman, Jason. “Trump Campaign: We’ll Stop using Neil Young’s Music.” Rolling Stone, June 17, 2015.

Newman, Melinda. “Presidential Musical Race Heats Up: Genesis Boxed Set Postponed One Year.” Billboard, September 28, 1996.

Paine, Jake. “Mitt Romney’s Camp Agrees To Stop Using K’Naan’s ‘Wavin’ Flag.’”, February 3, 2012.

Perlstein, Rick. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. New York: Scribner, 2008.

Roberts, Dan, and Ben Jacobs. “After Gaffes and Flip-Flops, Republicans Ask: Who Can Stop Trump?” The Guardian, November 28, 2015.

Rolling Stone. “Stop Using My Song: 34 Artists Who Fought Politicians Over Their Music.” July 8, 2015.

Safire, William. Safire’s Political Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Schimler, Stuart. “Campaign Music.” In Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped Our Culture, vol. 1, edited by Jacqueline Edmondson, 177–78. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2013.

Schoening, Benjamin S., and Eric T. Kasper. Don’t Stop Thinking About the Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012.

Silverman, Jerry. Of Thee I Sing: Lyrics and Music for America’s Most Patriotic Songs. New York: Citadel Press, 2002.

Sisario, Ben. “In Choreographed Campaigns, Candidates Stumble over Choice of Music.” New York Times, October 12, 2015.

Thomas, Ken, and Catherine Lucey. “Katy Perry Joins Bill and Hillary Clinton at Iowa Campaign Rally.” Huffington Post, October 24, 2015.

U.S. Copyright Office. “A Brief History.” U.S Copyright Office, accessed November 24, 2015.

Walker, Hunter. “Swedish House Musicians Ask Marco Rubio to Stop Using Their Song.” Business Insider, April 14, 2015.

[i] Barack Obama’s 2012 Spotify playlist can be accessed at; Mitt Romney’s playlist can be accessed at

[ii] This development coincided with a general rise of litigation over ownership of intellectual property.

[iii] See, e.g., George H. W. Bush’s use of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in 1988, George W. Bush’s use of Sting’s “Brand New Day” in 2000, Barack Obama’s use of Sam and Dave’s “Hold on, I’m Comin’” in 2008, and John McCain’s use of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in 2008.

[iv] See, e.g., Jackson Browne’s lawsuit against John McCain and the Republican Party for using his song “Running on Empty” in 2008. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money in 2009.

[v] ASCAP is the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. It is the firm that collects royalties on behalf of composers and copyright owners.

[vi] One need only look to books such as Musicopheia by late Oliver Sacks, This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin, or Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain to get a glimpse of the power that music has to influence and affect people and why candidates would want to utilize this asset in their campaigns.

Dancing Around the Double-Bind: Gender Identity, Likability, and the Musical Rebranding of Hillary Clinton

November 29, 2015

From the New York Times to Saturday Night Live, media surrounding Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign has centered around that ever-elusive (yet seemingly critical) trait: likability. The former First Lady and Secretary of State has endured a long history of criticism due to her perceived elitism and aura of inaccessibility (Leibovich 2015). Naturally, this poses a unique challenge for Clinton in her bid for the presidency. How does a figure with such a potent public persona reshape her image in time for election season?

Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s campaign team has already instituted a series of tactics for dealing with this very issue. Whether by locating Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn— arguably the hipster capital of the east coast—or by racking up a formidable number of celebrity endorsements, her team’s early attempts have been widespread and diverse in nature. In a throwback to a tactic used by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the last presidential election cycle, Clinton’s campaign team has released a series of Spotify playlists on her public Spotify account. As Dana Gorzelany-Mostak demonstrates in her research on campaign 2012, candidate playlists can “act as a form of social currency, a type of information or ‘buzz’ about a candidate’s brand that citizens can share as a part of their daily lives” (Gorzelany-Mostak 2015). Clinton’s most recent playlist, entitled Girl Power (released on September 24, 2015), showcases a variety of woman-fronted anthems that traverse genres and decades in their exaltation of female resilience.

Hillary Clinton’s Girl Power Playlist

From the bucolic twang of the Dixie Chicks to the sexy pop-feminism of Beyoncé, the diverse femininities represented in this playlist share a common factor in their mass appeal and accessibility. While this playlist is merely one tool in her team’s arsenal, it is a fascinating example of the underlying gendered dialogue that surrounds Clinton’s quest for likability. In this essay, I seek to unpack the ways in which Clinton’s gendered persona has both been shaped and damaged by the catch-22 of sexist expectations for women in politics. Then, I engage with the Clinton campaign’s “Girl Power” playlist, exploring some of the potentialities and ramifications of using other women’s displays of power as a stand-in for Clinton’s contested political presence.

In order to contextualize this playlist, we must first examine the ways in which dialogues surrounding Clinton have been shaped by her perceived failure to perform femininity. From some of her earliest high-profile political appearances, detractors have derided Clinton for her unfeminine, “careerist” ambitions (Burden and Mughan 1999, 238).  In their survey of media coverage related to Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Joseph Uscinski and Lilly Goren state that Clinton “endured a long history of criticism because in the minds of many, she embodies not only a stereotypical (and negative) representation of second wave feminism, partly due to her unconventional approach to the role of first lady, but also because she represents female progress in general” (Uscinski and Goren 2011, 884–85). Whether it be another jab aimed at her pantsuits or the media’s tendency to refer to Clinton by her first name significantly more often than her male counterparts, conversations surrounding the candidate reveal the ways in which the media has quietly shaped public perceptions of Clinton in a way that delegitimizes her political authority (892).

As such, the male-dominated field of national politics, and in particular, the office of president, has presented a double-bind for Clinton throughout her political campaign: appear more feminine and potentially be perceived as weak, ineffective, or intellectually inferior, or adopt traits associated with male dominance and be depicted as shrill or harpy-like (Duerst-Lahti 2006, 22). In her analysis of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Kathryn Kish Sklar argues that Clinton upheld the “masculine mystique” of the presidency by emasculating her primary opponent, Barack Obama, and supporting a hardline approach to military force. Ultimately, however, this machismo approach distanced Clinton from potential female supporters (Sklar 2008, 321).

How then do we begin to interpret Clinton’s “Girl Power” playlist, a Technicolor celebration of feminine strength? First, we need to situate Hillary Clinton in the labyrinthine, multidimensional world of gender. Here, I invoke the wisdom of gender theorist (and self-proclaimed gender outlaw) Kate Bornstein. Bornstein uses the image of a many-sided pyramid to explain the infinite number of gendered identities that exist, with each side representing a trait that entails a certain level of power (or lack thereof). Atop the pyramid is “The Perfect Identity,” or the identity that confers the greatest amount of power upon the holder in a given society or situation. As Bornstein explains, “At the top we’d have the Perfect Gender and the Perfect Race, and the Perfect Class. So, the culturally-agreed upon standards of perfection just might all converge into one identity that’s got the bulk of the power in the world, and that identity relies on its granted perfection from each of the classifications that support it” (Bornstein 2013, 90).

In light of this relationship between power and identity, it is understandable that Clinton has tended towards the adoption of a “masculine mystique” in her bid for the presidency, considering that the presidency is arguably the closest position to a visible manifestation of the Perfect Identity within the American political sphere. Unfortunately for Clinton, her unconvincing performance of femininity coupled with her masculine rhetoric place her in a precarious position: the feared realm between the poles of the gender binary. As Bornstein later explains, this grey area of gender triggers fear in the masses as it represents the uncertainty of the unknown (132), hardly an enviable position for a politician vying for the most selective occupation in the country.

Here is where Clinton’s “Girl Power” playlist can be seen as serving two interconnected functions: first, it legitimizes her identity as that of “a real woman” (Bornstein, 9). The songs on the playlist all feature female artists, either as soloists or as part of female-fronted acts. All fourteen songs on the playlist celebrate resilience, and the vast majority of the selections are high-energy power anthems that frame this topic in an explicitly female context. The few songs that are on the slower side (including Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” Martina McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls,” and Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman”) maintain the inspirational theme while lowering the nearly frenetic energy of the rest of the mix.

Clinton’s team tactfully chose artists that would represent her well. Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” appears first on the list, which is surely not a coincidence considering that “the face of contemporary feminism” (Loren 2011)—Queen Bey herself—was one of the first A-List celebrities to endorse Clinton’s 2016 bid (Schwarz 2015). A more traditional selection on the list, the Dixie Chicks’ “Ready to Run” initially seems out of place, but upon closer inspection, its dual functions become evident. The titular phrase “ready to run” gains a new meaning in the context of a political campaign. Furthermore, the Dixie Chicks have a history of rebelling against the conservative leanings of the country music world thanks to lead singer Natalie Maines’s highly publicized criticism of then-president George Bush’s stance on the War in Iraq in 2003 (Thompson 2015). Clinton also has a history with the song—during her 2008 campaign, she included “Ready to Run” on the ballot for her “Choose Our Campaign Song” contest, which was launched on YouTube. By selecting such diverse artists with remarkably similar messages, the implicit message of the playlist becomes clear: Clinton is, in effect, the messiah of empowered women everywhere, capable of rallying forces regardless of location, taste, or lifestyle.

This diversity within the musical selections illustrates the second function of the playlist: the lowering of Clinton’s class designation on the Identity pyramid. While it may seem counterintuitive for Clinton to seek the appearance of a lower class status, her high class status clearly plays a role in her “unrelatable” persona (Leibovich 2015). When viewed from the perspective of genre, one of the only uniting factors in the playlist is that all of the music is mass produced and mass marketed. Color lines are clearly crossed, as genres with strongly racialized connotations, such as R&B and country, appear side-by-side. The playlist is intentionally diverse, perhaps too diverse to be met with approval by most listeners beyond those with the most eclectic palates. It seems to exhibit the same sort of nonspecific positivity for which she was derided in the media (Kasperkevic 2015; Diaz 2015). Despite the sheer number of female identities presented, none seem like a suitable fit for Clinton herself. Rather, she seems conspicuously absent from a playlist touting her name. To view the extent of the role that gender plays in Clinton’s campaign entirely from the vantage point of this particular playlist would be both premature and shortsighted. There is certainly more probing to be done into Clinton’s other musical choices, media appearances, and relentless attempts at reshaping a firmly formed political persona. Nevertheless, this playlist indicates the extent to which Clinton and her campaign team are performing gendered acrobatics to court the female (and feminist) vote. In contrast to Whitney Houston’s bold croon on her playlist, Hillary Clinton is not every woman. And if she wishes to ward off any future Onion articles or SNL skits, perhaps it is time for her to stop trying to market herself as such.

– Christianna Barnard


Bornstein, Kate. My New Gender Workbook. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Diaz, Daniella. “Hillary Clinton Campaign Releases Spotify Playlist.” CNN, June 13, 2015.

Duerst-Lahti, Georgia. “Presidential Elections: Gendered Space and the Case of 2004,” in Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics, edited by Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox, 22–29. New York: NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gorzelany-Mostak, Dana. “‘I’ve Got a Little List’: Spotifying Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.” Music & Politics 10, no. 2 (2015).    

Kasperkevic, Jana. “Just One of the Cool Kids? Decoding the Hillary Clinton Spotify Playlist.” The Guardian, June 13, 2015. 

Leibovich, Mark. “Hillary’s Eternal Quest for Relatability.” New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2015.

Loren, Arielle. “Is Beyoncé the Face of Contemporary Feminism?” Clutch, May 20, 2011.

Schwarz, Hunter. “Hillary Clinton’s Got Beyoncé. And That’s Important.” Washington Post, May 14, 2015.

Sklar, Kathryn Kish. “A Women’s History Report Card on Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Presidential Primary Campaign, 2008.” Feminist Studies 34, nos. 1 & 2 (2008): 315–22.

Thompson, Gayle. “12 Years Ago: Natalie Maines Makes Controversial Comments About President George W. Bush.” The Boot, March 10, 2015. 

Uscinski, Joseph E., and Lilly J. Goren. “What’s in a Name? Coverage of Senator Hillary Clinton During the 2008 Democratic Primary.” Political Research Quarterly 64, no. 4 (2011): 884–96.