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

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

Need more debate music? Check out our Pinterest Board!

October 9, 2016

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

Need more debate music? Check out our Pinterest Board!


Terror at the Townhall

Naomi Graber

*Video unavailable

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

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

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


The Clinton-Trump Debate: A Dirty Dancing Fantasy

Eric Hung

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Aaron Manela

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

Fig 1. Mahna Mahna and the Snowths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 5, 2016

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

October 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 1 War on Errorism, Cover

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

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

Figure 2 Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1, Cover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Reba Wissner


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[x] Bands Against Bush Website,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xxviii] Eminem, “The Mosh Continues,”

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

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

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

September 20, 2016

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

Mr. Schimler was interviewed on August 15, 2016.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Title Track, “The Candidates from New York”

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

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

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

DGM: I had trouble identifying some of the tunes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For more on Stuart Schimler and American Pioneer Music, see

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

September 13, 2016

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

DNC “Fight Song” Video

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

The Official Hillary 2016 Playlist on Spotify

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Glenn W. Richardson Jr.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 2, 2016

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

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

Mr. Moss was interviewed on July 22, 2016.

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

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

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

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

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

DGM: I’m so sorry…

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

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

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

Kraig Moss sings “Trump Train

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 24, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Figure 3 The Washington Post compiles Sanders’ playlist on Spotify

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

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

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

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

– Michael Kennedy


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deconstructing the Populism: Pop Music on the Modern Campaign Trail

August 8, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Justin Patch

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing Double: Presidential Parodies and the Art of the Musical

July 21, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Naomi Graber

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

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

July 7, 2016

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Figure 2 1884 Presidential Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rebecca Shaw

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

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

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

[iv] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

The Use of Background Music in Political Advertising

June 19, 2016

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

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

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


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

Table 1: Music Style in Advertising

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

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

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

“American Comeback”

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

“The Right Answer”
“Way of Life”

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

Table 2: Music Style by Ad Tone

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

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

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

Table 3: Music Style by Presence of Flag

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

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

– Travis Ridout, Wesleyan Media Project

Ads cited:

“Stand Up to China,” Mitt Romney,

“American Comeback,” Tim Pawlenty,

“Lazy,” Rick Perry,

“Wonderful,” Barack Obama,

“Mosaic,” Barack Obama,

“Firms,” Barack Obama,

“The Right Answer,” Mitt Romney,

“Way of Life,” Mitt Romney,

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

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