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, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34261215

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.

<iframe allow=”accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture” allowfullscreen=”” frameborder=”0″ height=”315″ src=”https://www.youtube.com/embed/SdACjhKQ67M” width=”560″></iframe>
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 cc-blankenship@wiu.edu and stan.renard@utsa.edu.

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

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