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