Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential Campaign Spotify Playlist

May 25, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

American Authors, “Believer”

Gym Class Heroes featuring Ryan Tedder, “The Fighter”

Katy Perry, “Roar”

Ariana Grande feat. Zedd, “Break Free”

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

American Authors, “Best Day of My Life”

Pharrell Williams, “Happy”

Jennifer Lopez, “Let’s Get Loud”

NONONO, “Pumpin Blood”

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

Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

Kris Allen, “Fighters”

Jon Bon Jovi, “Beautiful Day”

Marc Anthony, “Vivir Mi Vida”

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

Themes and Narrative of the Playlist

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

“The world won’t get no better

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

The world won’t get no better

We gotta change it, yeah

Just you and me”

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

“Say what you wanna say

And let the words fall out

Honestly I wanna see you be brave

With what you want to say

And let the words fall out

Honestly I wanna see you be brave

I just wanna see you

I just wanna see you

I just wanna see you

I wanna see you be brave”

—Sara Bareilles, “Brave”

“Let’s get loud, let’s get loud

Turn the music up to hear that sound

Let’s get loud, let’s get loud

Ain’t nobody gotta tell you

What you gotta do”

—Jennifer Lopez, “Let’s Get Loud”

“This is your heart, it’s alive

It’s pumpin’ blood

It’s your heart, it’s alive

It’s pumpin’ blood

And the whole wide world is whistling”

—NONONO, “Pumpin’ Blood”

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

“Give em hell, turn their heads

Gonna live life ’til we’re dead.

Give me scars, give me pain

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

There goes the fighter, there goes the fighter

Here comes the fighter

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

This one’s a fighter”

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

So raise your fists and don’t forget

We were born to be fighters

We are strong, we’re survivors

They can knock you down and make you fall

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

We’re born to be fighters

And we’re fighting for our lives

—Kris Allen, “Fighters”

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

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

I’m stronger than I’ve been before

This is the part when I break free

‘Cause I can’t resist it no more”

 —Ariana Grande feat. Zedd, “Break Free”

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

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

Louder, louder than a lion

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

—Katy Perry, “Roar”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

Stand a little taller

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

What doesn’t kill you makes you fighter

Footsteps even lighter

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

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

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

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

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

Audience Analysis Gone Awry?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– David R. Dewberry and Jonathan Millen

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

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

[iii] “Hillary Clinton Launches Campaign with Help from Spotify, Echosmith,” Rolling Stone, June 14, 2015, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/hillary-clinton-launches-campaign-with-help-from-spotify-echosmith-20150614.    

[iv] Hillary Clinton Spotify Playlist, https://play.spotify.com/user/hillaryclinton.

[v] Jana Kasperkevic, “Just One of the Cool Kids? Decoding the Hillary Clinton Spotify Playlist,” The Guardian, June 13, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/13/hillary-clinton-spotify-playlist.

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

April 17, 2016

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

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

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

Hillary Clinton: Madonna/Whore or Goddess/Pinocchio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernie across the Binary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Christianna Barnard


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“All About That Bern (Official Video).” Uploaded by Feminists for Bernie, February 8, 2016. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1VTPhrnPrw.

“All I Want for Christmas is to be President (Mariah Parody).” Uploaded by Newsy News, December 18, 2014. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ugc2GsB0fbU.

“Bernie Sanders Grassroots-Created Song: We Will Bern You! [CC].” Uploaded by captions for Bernie, December 30, 2015. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGGvunShwqg.

“Bill Clinton sings: My Girl.” Uploaded by “theronniebus,” February 8, 2016. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jy2QIAmxZ4.

“Choir replaces ‘Jesus’ with ‘Hillary’ in gospel song.” Uploaded by “Fox News,” September 8, 2015. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTfdAZ9_Mw8.

“Emails, Benghazi, and Bill.” Uploaded by Taiwanese Animators, November 20, 2015. YouTube, Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_OOrWQs33E.

“HILLARY CLINTON’S NEW CAMPAIGN THEME SONG.” Uploaded by IMPEACH THE SOCIALIST OBAMA, May 24, 2015. YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5-SjefMyFQ.

“Meghan Trainor – All About That Bass.” Uploaded by MeghanTrainorVEVO. June 11, 2014, YouTube. Video clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PCkvCPvDXk.

[i] Robinson Meyer, “This Land, JibJab’s Seminal Parody Flash Video, Turns 10,” The Atlantic, July 9, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/jibjabs-seminal-flash-parody-turns-10/374161/.

[ii] “This Land!” uploaded by JibJab, November 16, 2007, YouTube, video clip,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8Q-sRdV7SY.

[iii] “HILLARY CLINTON’S NEW CAMPAIGN THEME SONG,” uploaded by IMPEACH THE SOCIALIST OBAMA, May 24, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T5-SjefMyFQ; “Bill Clinton sings: My Girl,” uploaded by “theronniebus,” February 8, 2016, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Jy2QIAmxZ4; “All I Want for Christmas is to be President (Mariah Parody),” uploaded by Newsy News, December 18, 2014, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ugc2GsB0fbU.

[iv] “Emails, Benghazi, and Bill,” uploaded by Taiwanese Animators, November 20, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9_OOrWQs33E.

[v] Gloria Gaynor, Love Tracks, Polydor, 1778, LP.

[vi] “Katy Perry – Dark Horse (Official) ft. Juicy J,” uploaded by KatyPerryVEVO, February 20, 2014, Vevo, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KSOMA3QBU0.

[vii] “Dark Horse,” KatyPerryVEVO.

[viii] “Emails, Benghazi, and Bill,” Taiwanese Animators.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ben Mathis-Lilley, “Donald Trump Alluded to the Size of His Penis at the Republican Debate,” Slate, March 3, 2016, http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/03/03/donald_trump_penis_size_i_can_t_believe_i_m_writing_this.html; Jennifer Weiner, “Naked Lady Politics,” New York Times, March 26, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/opinion/campaign-stops/naked-lady-politics.html.

[xi] “Choir replaces ‘Jesus’ with ‘Hillary’ in gospel song,” uploaded by “Fox News,” September 8, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aTfdAZ9_Mw8.

[xii] Pete Seeger, Bob Reiser, Guy Carawan, and Candie Carawan. Everybody Says Freedom (New York: Norton, 1989), 175–77.

[xiii] Scott Clement, “For Hillary Clinton, Demographics Aren’t Quite Destiny,” Washington Post, February 12, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/02/12/for-hillary-clinton-demographics-arent-quite-destiny/.

[xiv] Jonathan Swan, “Sanders Avoids Being Target of Negative Advertising,” The Hill, January 23, 2016, http://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/266779-sanders-escapes-being-hit-by-negative-advertising.

[xv] Kevin Drum, “Why Are Millennials In Love With Bernie Sanders?” Mother Jones, February 11, 2016, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2016/02/why-are-millennials-love-bernie-sanders.

[xvi] “All About That Bern (Official Video),” uploaded by Feminists for Bernie, February 8, 2016, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1VTPhrnPrw. Alan Rappeport, “Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright Rebuke Young Women Backing Bernie Sanders,” New York Times, February 7, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/08/us/politics/gloria-steinem-madeleine-albright-hillary-clinton-bernie-sanders.html.

[xvii] “Meghan Trainor- All About That Bass,” uploaded by MeghanTrainorVEVO, June 11, 2014, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7PCkvCPvDXk.

[xviii] Robin James, “All Your B/ass Are Belong to Us,” Vice, August 18, 2014, http://noisey.vice.com/blog/all-your-bass-are-belong-to-us.

[xix] “Bernie Sanders Grassroots-Created Song: We Will Bern You! [CC],” uploaded by captions for Bernie, December 30, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGGvunShwqg.

[xx] Joe Queenan, “Was There Ever a Time When We Will Rock You Did Not Exist?” Guardian, August 16, 2007, http://www.theguardian.com/music/2007/aug/16/2.

[xxi] Michael Kimmel, “Why Is It Always a White Guy: The Roots of Modern, Violent Rage,” Salon, November 1, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/11/01/why_is_always_a_white_guy_the_roots_of_modern_violent_rage/.

[xxii] Kimmel, “Why Is It Always a White Guy.”

[xxiii] Sam Sanders, “#MemeOfTheWeek: Bernie Or Hillary. Sexist Or Nah?” NPR, February 8, 2016, http://www.npr.org/2016/02/05/465752565/-memeoftheweek-bernie-or-hillary-sexist-or-nah.

[xxiv] Charles M. Blow, “A Bernie Blackout?” New York Times, March 16, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/17/opinion/campaign-stops/a-bernie-blackout.html?_r=0.

On the Inside Trax: John Balduzzi, Political Consultant

March 15, 2016

In addition to bringing you the viewpoints of students and scholars, Trax on the Trail is committed to going behind the scenes to bring you insiders’ perspectives on the creative processes that bring the campaign soundscape to life. Political candidates use music throughout their campaigns to paint a picture of their priorities, patriotism, and identity, and people are taking notice. Campaign music chatter has increased in the mainstream press over the past few months, but journalists are primarily focused on rally playlists, concerts, and celebrity endorsements. In other words, they are interested in writing about songs and artists that the public knows and can identify. Thus, while Bernie Sanders’ use of the Simon and Garfunkel hit “America” in his Iowa ad of the same title received a lot of attention (see The Week, New York Magazine, Variety, the New York Times, and even a Trax contribution by Paul Christiansen), the wordless, instrumental tracks (known as “underscore”) that accompany most campaign ads receive scant mention in the news.[i]

The folks at Trax on the Trial want to bring ad music into the discussion!

Trax co-editor James Deaville addressed attack ads in the March 1st episode of the Trax on the Trail radio show, Trax research assistant Andrew Sproule offered his own musical analysis on Bernie and Hillary ads in the Trail Trax database, and we have also enlisted the help of a prominent political consultant in the hopes of getting an insider’s perspective on underscore strategy.

On February 19th, Trax creator and co-editor Dana Gorzelany-Mostak and research assistant Cannon McClain had the pleasure of speaking with John Balduzzi, president of The Balduzzi Group.

John Balduzzi’s portfolio boasts clients such as Obama Biden 2012, the Democratic National Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Have you ever wondered what goes into making a political ad? Where does that music come from? Read on!

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

John Balduzzi Interview Transcript

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak: The Trax team has catalogued over 500 candidate videos and advertisements thus far, and we would love to gain some insight on the process of creating effective political ads. We have spent some time looking at your fabulous website, and we want to throw out some questions. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself first?

John Balduzzi: Well, I am the president and CEO of the Balduzzi Group, a political consulting firm that provides television, radio, and direct mail advertisements for Democratic candidates, progressive organizations, unions, and non-profits, but mostly Democratic candidates who are running for political office. I started the company in 2010, so we’ve been in the business for about six years now. Our clients are running for office all over the country, from small-town USA all the way up to candidates for US Congress, US Senate, and Governor; we did some work for the presidential election for President Obama, his reelection. We’ve done work in pretty much all levels of government.

DGM: Wow! When we corresponded by email, you said that you also have a background in music. Can you tell us a bit about that – you’re a saxophone player, right?

JB: Yeah, I do – it’s kind of a unique background. Music has been in my family forever. My dad was a singer, and my sister was an amazing vocalist and a flute player who started off at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam [NY] before switching to education. My brother, to this day, is still a musician, and I grew up playing a little bit of piano, and then I was a pretty good saxophone player. I started in 4th grade and went all the way through high school, won some awards, and actually auditioned and got accepted to a handful of music schools, but I ultimately decided that I didn’t have the stomach for it, and I went to college to study history and politics. So, my life choice at the time seems to have worked out well for me. Yeah, music is a huge influence in my life, and it always has been, and it’s critical for what we do, especially in the TV and radio aspects.

DGM: The ads and the materials that you have on your website are amazing; it’s really, across the board, incredible what you have there.

JB: Thank you.

DGM: So, we have a couple of questions: first, more general questions about the music, and then, a little more about the specifics. So, the first question is, in terms of the music you put in ads, we want to know if there is a specific source from which you get the music.  From what I understand, there’s some sort of clearinghouse where you buy music. But, we’re curious as to how you purchase the music – do you peruse a group of selections and then buy one, or do you have the music specifically composed for your ads?

JB: Well, it’s interesting. I think my colleagues, who probably don’t have a background in music, who have never really played an instrument before, who don’t really understand the complexities of music and putting things together, they’ll just go to a website and try to find something that fits the tone of the ad and just buy the sample. As for me, as we’re shooting the ads and as I’m writing the ads, I have a sense in my head of what I want the sound to sound like, so I’m already thinking about music while I’m writing the spot. I think most consultants just wait to choose the music; it’s probably the last thing they do. They write the ads, shoot the ads, and the last thing they do before they show it to a client is pick a piece of music. I don’t do that. The music is something that I’m thinking about throughout the entire process. So, how do we choose it? There are dozens and dozens of websites that offer sound clips, such as AudioSparx, SoundCloud, or Audio Network. You’re able to log on, and you can type in some keywords and get some samples of music. All you have to do is clip off the 20 seconds, 28 seconds, or 30 seconds that you want for the spot, and there you have it. There are some free websites out there, but I believe in paying people for their work, so we always pay for audio. I think it’s important to me to pay musicians for their time, effort, and creativity. It’s not expensive, either, so I want to make sure that folks get paid for their work.

On those websites, we’re able to go in and listen to various clips. They’re always named “Great Sunny Day” or “Dark and Dreary,” and you can kind of get a sense of the type of music in the clip – you can listen to clips and see what you’d like. The other 10% of the time, our audio engineer, who is a fantastic drummer, will compose original pieces for us to put into some of our spots.

DGM: So, how far along do you get in making the ad before you choose the music? It seems that in some of your ads, there’s a certain synchronization between what’s happening musically and what’s going on in the screen, so do you have the soundtrack playing when you make the final cut of the ad?

JB: Yes, exactly – music is usually the last thing we put into the ad. The ad is completely cut and edited, and then we drop the music in at the end.

DGM: When you’re creating an ad, do you have a theme or idea in mind for the ad, and then develop the talking points around that, or is it vice versa?                                                 

JB: Yes, it’s a sophisticated process. When we’re doing television ads for, let’s say, a congressional campaign, a lot of the data that we use to compose an ad is poll-tested; it’s polling data – there’s data behind voters saying what they care about, and we tend to write our spot around good, sound data. That’s the premise of how our TV ads are constructed. A lot of it is poll-driven; if in a particular congressional district, jobs and the economy are the top issues, well, we’re not going to talk about the environment, because people aren’t going to click with that; we’re going to talk about jobs and the economy. So, that’s how we craft our TV spots. In other areas, where maybe there isn’t any polling information, it’s just a gut feel of what we think most voters care about in the district, and that’s kind of how we construct ads when we don’t have any sort of mathematical polling data.

DGM: Is there a division of labor, in that you have some people on your team that are mainly researching, and then you have others that are more on the creative side, or are those people one and the same?

JB: Well, it’s me! It’s predominantly a two-person shop. Anthony is a partner of mine, and together, we do all of the writing and creative tasks. We do hire out to a production team that actually helps us shoot and edit the ads, but we’re writing the script and directing the shoot, and we’re very involved with the editing process as well. Anthony is the media buyer, so he decides whether people watching Scandal see the ad, whether people watching Monday night football see the ad, or whether people watching The View see the ad.

DGM: Are there certain research tools for people in your line of work that you use to gather this polling information and data, since you’re talking about not just data on the issues, but you’re talking about what television shows your target demographic watches? How do you find that information out?

JB: Yes, there is data out there that we can subscribe to, and it has given us a sense of certain demographics and who is watching which shows, and then we buy our political media appropriately.

DGM: I see, okay. Very interesting. Can you talk about some of the sample ads that you have on your website and the music that you selected for those ads? We found two of the ads to be particularly interesting—one was the Toby Shelley radio ad titled “Unpull a Trigger” for the sheriff office, and the other one was a radio ad for Paul Tonko–would you be open to telling us a little bit about how chose the music for these ads?

JB: Yeah, the Toby Shelley ad is perfect; that’s the one that I would talk about. That ad won an award a couple of years ago—it was the best political radio ad for the cycle. I think that it won because of the powerful gunshot in the music. It really hits you right in the beginning; you can’t un-pull the trigger, which is kind of an interesting concept to begin with. It’s pushing the envelope, I think, for a political ad, but we had to—the candidate for sheriff was promised a ton of support from donors and political friends, and they just really didn’t deliver. His opponent had hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we had about fifty grand for the political campaign. So we said, look, we’ve got fifty grand, probably not enough for television, but I think we could do a really strong radio ad. We only have enough money for one ad, so it has to be a good ad, and it really has to captivate people. So, that’s the hook that we came up with – I’m pulling the trigger, the gunshot. As for the music, I probably listened to fifty samples. I needed to get drivers in their cars to pay attention to the ad, since that’s when most people are going to be listening to this – they’re driving to work, they’re driving home from work, on weekends they’re going on road trips; they’re distracted, but I need them to tune in. So, we used that music; we used that hook to make sure that people stop what they’re doing and pay attention to the spot. I think that it was a pretty powerful ad; it won a bunch of awards, and I think the music had a lot to do with it.

The Paul Tonko radio ad was also very interesting. Paul Tonko is a congressman from the suburbs outside Albany, and the congressional district is pretty big; people know Albany as the capital city of New York, but the congressional district itself has some pretty folksy areas, where there are more cows than people. Paul is a very regular person; he’s a Democrat, but he really taps into the more rural parts of the district, and the music exemplifies who Paul is – Paul is kind of a folksy guy. He’s a great person – very caring, warm, and friendly, so when we were looking for music for that radio ad, that’s what I was trying to search for. I was trying to search for background music that was warm, appealing, caring, kind, and thoughtful – and I think that’s exactly what we found in that music sample, so that’s why we chose the music that we did for that ad.

DGM: We thought the same thing when we listened to it. Cannon, you said, “I feel like there’s some sheep there.”

Cannon McClain: You feel like you should be herding sheep as you’re listening to it.

DGM: I thought that it was really effective; the woodwinds gave a really nice feel to it. Paul felt very likeable from the outset just because of the music. There’s one other ad, “One Voice” [for Gina Cerilli] that I wanted to ask you about. Could you talk about the music choice that you made for that ad?

JB: Yeah, Gina is young, maybe 29 years old. She’s a first-time candidate running for a pretty high office in western Pennsylvania, and we just needed to have music in her ads that communicated moving forward, energy, and youthfulness, so that’s why we chose the music that we did.

DGM: In the ad, she appears to be very vulnerable-looking and feminine, for lack of a better word, but something about the music—the mix of the strings and the repetitious, vigorous motive—give her gravitas and a certain momentum. The music changes the whole tenor of the ad. It’s a very effective ad.

JB: Thank you. I really like the music that we chose because there’s a part where she starts to outline what she’s going to do in office, and the music is loud, inspiring, and energetic, and then it decrescendos. At that point, that’s where Gina really starts to talk about the three things she’s going to do—“good-paying jobs, protecting our seniors, and fiscal responsibility.” Once she starts that, the sound cuts down to a low level, and it draws you in a little, and that’s one of the reasons why we clipped just that section of the song. If I remember it correctly, the song that we chose is a three- or four-minute piece, and we just clipped the thirty seconds that we needed. The reason why we chose that one piece is because of that spot, because when she starts talking about the issues that matter to her, the music really comes down, and it draws you in to what she’s going to say, and when she closes the spot, the music pops up again.

DGM: It was really a terrific ad.

CM: You mentioned how you try to specifically push ads towards certain demographics of people. I know that you said you specifically try to tie in music that exemplifies the candidate. Do you ever think about the market demographic that you’re targeting when you’re picking music? Is there some sort of nuance that you’re trying to go for when you’re advertising to, for example, Sunday football?

JB: That’s a great question. We can’t change the audio for each showing of the ad; we can’t do twenty-five versions of an ad with different music in the background and then place that ad on different stations depending on the demographic, but what we can do is incorporate music or sound that is representative of the voters or audience that we’re trying to win over. It’s more of a regional question. So, for example, we’re going to be shooting some ads for a congressional candidate in North Carolina, and you can just imagine the type of music that we’ll use—bluegrass, almost country; we’re not going to choose music that will give the voter a sense of New York City, Philly, or Boston. You have to make sure that you have a sense of the geography and set the music accordingly. If it’s a rural shot, where he’s driving his pick-up truck and talking about all the great things he’s going to do for the district, you don’t want to include music that sounds like that music we put in Gina’s ad. We’re going to choose something that’s more laid-back, like bluegrass.

CM: Okay, thank you.

DGM: Do you look for a certain melodic contour or rhythmic content when choosing the music? What role does timbre play? Are there certain combinations of instruments that you think work best for an ad or certain combinations that you don’t want to use?

JB: That’s a good question. You know, I never go at it by picking instruments, except for maybe piano. If we’re, you know, doing a radio spot that’s soft and subtle, maybe just some light piano is all you need in the background. But I never go into picking music based off of, for example, “We really need trumpets here,” or “We really need woodwinds here.”

DGM: I think ads that have acoustic guitar to a certain extent convey the rural, agrarian connotations that you were talking about earlier. We actually had someone write for our site specifically about the meanings attached to the guitar and guitar players and how they operate in Martin O’Malley’s campaign performances on the instrument, so I was just curious about what role that might play.

JB: Precisely. I don’t think, “We need guitar here, or we need piano here, or we need more brass here”; it’s just, “We need this type of mood.” I’m looking for more of a mood than the actual instruments. Except, I’ll say all the time, “We need light piano here,” and that’s just kind of the feeling that you get from the piano. We’ve done some negative ads that have brash percussion music; you can just tell that it has a very heavy, dense mood, so we’ve used that, but I’ve never said, “We need that instrument or this instrument.” It’s just a mood or a feeling that I’m going for. In fact, on some of those websites that I mentioned before, you can search by feelings, like for happy music or angry music; you can actually select that way as opposed to selecting by instrument. You can search “dark and ominous,” for example, and you would get something you would hear in a trailer for A Nightmare on Elm Street. Yeah, you can search by feelings and moods.

DGM: Isn’t that how film music was created in the early days? The music was queued up by whatever the sentiment of the scene was, right?

JB: Right. When I was a little kid, in 3rd or 4th grade, we went to Disney and we took the tour of MGM. There was a part on the tour where you could create your own music for a scene in a horror film, but it gave you wacky instruments –

DGM: It’s like, “Have a Theremin, kid.”

JB: Yeah, or a cowbell, and you could make the scene seem funny. It used a nondescript scene of someone walking, and it told you it was a horror scene, but when you used the funny musical instruments, it completely changed what you were watching. And then, they went back and showed you the original, and you realized that it was supposed to be a scary scene, but we made it a funny scene because we used all the funny instruments and sounds. I’ll never forget that. You can look at some of our negative ads; sometimes in a joking manner, we’ll throw in something light and funny in a negative ad, and we laugh because you get a completely different feeling from the spot just because of the music.

DGM: Do you think you can tell us a little about the work that you did for Obama-Biden in 2012?

JB: Unfortunately, no music was involved, except for the music blaring through my headphones while I was writing a direct mail piece. We worked for an independent expenditure that was funded by a bunch of unions, and we did a lot of direct mail pieces supporting their candidates, including President Obama, up and down the east coast. We were sending out hundreds of thousands of pieces of political mail, in large cities, as north as Boston and as south as Miami, and that’s what we did for the reelection campaign.

DGM: Are you involved at all in 2016?

JB: Not yet, but I’m certain that we will be in some way, shape, or form. We’re not working for Hillary or for Bernie, but down the road, we’ll probably be involved in the race in some capacity with the unions or other political organizations that will get involved.

DGM: I’m really honored that you were willing to talk to us and take the time to give us some insight on ad music. We’ve published a couple of articles on ads, and we have somebody who’s analyzing underscores, so I thought it would be great to have some insight from somebody who actually, for a living, creates ads, since so much of the work that we do here is talking about impact rather than creative process. I think both our scholars that follow the site and the general public will be very interested to hear what you have to say about this; I know we were.

JB: Thank you, guys; it was fun.

DGM: Thank you again for chatting with us.

Would you like to read more about music in 2016 campaign ads? Check out research assistant Andrew Sproule’s analyses of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ads:

Hillary Clinton

Katy Perry Joins Hillary’s Iowa JJ Dinner Rally

Equal | Hillary Clinton

Mindy | Hillary Clinton

Cheryl | Hillary Clinton

Alexis | Hilary Clinton

Sara | Hillary Clinton

The Same

I Support Hillary Because Hillary Supports Me



Get Ahead | Hillary Clinton


Veterans Day | Hillary Clinton

A Message to SEIU Members


Bernie Sanders




Passing on a Healthy and Habitable Mother Earth

Bernie Tells the Truth About Social Security

Real Change

Real Change – Version 2

30 Years of Speeches

Rigged Economy

Bernie Sanders at the CBS News Democratic Debate

Rock | Bernie Sanders

Effective | Bernie Sanders

Stand Together | Bernie Sanders

People Power

(Transcript abridged and edited by Cannon McClain, Teddi Strassburger, and Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.)

[i] For more on newly composed songs in political ads, see the Trax article by Joanna Love. And for another perspective on music in political ads, see Justin Patch’s essay posted at The Avid Listener.

Staging the Nation

March 31, 2016

On 13 January 2016, approximately 12,000 people gathered in the Pensacola Bay Center in Pensacola, Florida for a two hour rally in support of Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump. At an event that included the Gun Girls for Trump leading the pledge of allegiance, speeches from local Trump supporters, and an hour-long speech by the man himself, one two-and-half minute segment caught the nation’s attention: a performance by the group USA Freedom Kids of “Freedom’s Call,” a version of George M. Cohan’s “Over There,” rewritten by the group’s manager (and father of one of the performers) Jeff Popick. The performance has drawn strong reactions from both sides of the political spectrum. One commenter on the Conservative news site Breitbart.com under the alias “sgstandard” called the performance “uplifting, patriotic and inspiring,” while “Media Mole,” writing for the Liberal UK publication NewStatesman said the number was “an unsettling and horrifying spectacle.”

“Over There,” has a fascinating history, one that says a great deal about Trump’s campaign. Cohan is a Broadway legend, a writer/director/producer/singer/dancer/actor whose red-white-and-blue-drenched patriotic spectacles played to thousands in the first quarter of the twentieth century (Fig. 1). These spectacles gave us patriotic staples such as “The Yankee Doodle Boy” and “You’re a Grand Ol’ Flag” (these clips are from a colorized version of Yankee Doodle Dandy, a 1942 biopic starring James Cagney as Cohan.) As Raymond Knapp has observed, Broadway musicals are “an enacted demonstration of Americanism, and often take on a formative, defining role in the construction of a collective sense of ‘America’” (103). Political rallies can serve a similar purpose, with candidates using these events to define and construct a collective sense of nation through a mix of spectacle, participation, and policy. In this light, the appearance of “Over There” at a Trump rally can be considered as an “enacted demonstration” of the kind of America the candidate hopes to create. The song’s marching rhythms and bugle-call chorus along with its unequivocally pro-America and pro-War messages (in both the 1917 and 2016 versions) point to an America in which patriotism is paramount and a strong military presence defines the country’s role on the national stage. There is also something highly nostalgic about Trump’s campaign. His slogan, “Make America Great Again” (emphasis added), implies the need to return to the policies that made America great historically, but which present leaders have abandoned. Even if the audience did not recognize the tune, the song itself—its simple rhythms, clear harmonies, and easily singable melody—sounds old-fashioned and is reminiscent of other Cohan songs attached to Broadway shows, even though “Over There” was not written for a specific show. Generally speaking, Broadway carries the connotation of nostalgia (Rugg, 45ff).

But what kind of America does Trump want to bring back? Again, “Over There” is telling. Cohan wrote “Over There” in 1917 as part of the effort to unite the country behind President Woodrow Wilson’s entry into World War I (McCabe, 137–138). The song was so influential during World War II that the Office of War Information searched for a similar song to inspire the public to support that war (Smith, 3). But the sunny patriotism and catchy tune of “Over There” also provided the soundtrack for an outbreak of anti-foreign sentiment that boiled over into violence on several occasions between 1917 and 1919. Trump’s campaign has a similarly aggressive undercurrent that has earned the candidate much criticism. In other ways, however, the appearance of “Over There” at a Trump rally is historically incongruous, particularly in light of Trump’s anti-immigration platform. The Irish Cohan was only third-generation American (McCabe, 3).

Figure 1: H. I. Brock, “Tin Pan Alley is Always in Tune,” New York Times, 6 June 1943, p. SM14.

“Over There” was popular at a number of World War I rallies and benefits, performed by stars ranging from the popular singer Nora Bayes to the opera star Enrico Caruso, and even occasionally, Cohan himself. These rallies presaged Trump’s modern political events: they were often held in theatres or stadiums, with a mix of speakers (often veterans) and performers, and strewn with flags and banners. For example, the Trump rally that included the USA Freedom Kids’ performance also had speeches by a local member of the National Rifle Association and three veterans. Furthermore, speakers at both World War I and Trump rallies have harsh words for America’s enemies. Just as Trump promised in Pensacola to take a hard line negotiating with Iran, China, and Mexico, one-time gubernatorial candidate Job E. Hedges told the crowd at a Saratoga, NY World War I benefit, “There can be no place for Germany at the peace table,” decrying the state of “German-Kultur” as “an overestimate of the of the mind at the expense of the soul,” and even claiming that “Germany has no soul.”[i] That evening also featured a performance of “Over There,” in this case by Caruso.

But more than the rallies themselves, Trump’s forceful rhetoric and calls for vigilance on the home front echo the national climate between 1917 and 1919. Both Trump supporters and over-enthusiastic citizens during World War I resorted to violence against perceived enemies in the name of patriotism. Numerous incidents have broken out at Trump’s events, and the candidate has faced criticism for his response. He declined to condemn supporters who attacked a homeless Latino man in August, merely saying “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again.” Popick’s lyrics “come on boys, take ‘em down!” seem to tacitly encourage this attitude. At the same Pensacola rally, Trump condemned the neighbors of the San Bernardino shooters for not speaking up sooner, blaming political correctness for their failure to report suspicious behavior and thus echoing politicians during World War I who asked Americans to remain alert to foreign agents or ideas that may have insinuated themselves into American culture (Capozzola, 1360). But many went beyond vigilance to vigilantism in the name of patriotism. On 12 July 1917 in Bisbee, Arizona, a local vigilance society deported striking miners and their families to New Mexico at gunpoint on the grounds that their demands for better working conditions were unpatriotically damaging the war effort (bullets required copper) (Capozzola, 1365–66). Some vigilance societies even went so far as to lynch German-Americans (Jones, 50). Like Popick’s lyrics, Cohan’s text to “Over There” could be read as encouraging this; the opening line “Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun” was intended as a call for enlistment, but could just as easily be understood as a general call for all Americans to participate.

But the anti-foreigner sentiment of Trump’s campaigns also clashes with “Over There.” George M. Cohan was a proud third-generation Irish-American, who openly celebrated his immigrant background. Cohan got his professional start performing in his father’s Irish novelty act called “Jerry Cohan’s Irish Hibernia” (Cohan, 14), and along with his patriotic numbers, wrote songs like “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” and “Harrigan,” making no secret of his heritage (Jones, 22). In 1921, he even hosted a fundraiser given by the American Committee for Relief in Ireland, helping to raise $57,000 for the cause of Irish freedom,[ii] hoping that Ireland would break free of Great Britain’s government just as America had 150 years earlier.

While Cohan vocally proclaimed his Irishness and his Americanness on Broadway stages around the turn of the century, making it clear that he found no contradiction between the two, a massive debate over immigration was raging in the larger culture. Anti-immigration activists of the era shared many of the same concerns as today’s Trump supporters. Not only were they worried about the influx of labor and the subsequent wage stagnation, but broader concerns about the future of the nation also percolated beneath the surface. When Trump said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” he echoed stereotypes from earlier times that were applied to the Irish—that they were mostly criminals who preyed on unsuspecting Americans. For example, in 1876, the cover of Harper’s Weekly depicted a stereotypical pugnacious looking Irish-man weighed on a scale against a Jim Crow-like African American with the two sides equally balanced—not a compliment at the time (Fig. 2). Although by Cohan’s time, the “Celtic” race, as the Irish were called at the turn of the century, was preferable to other Eastern European races in anti-immigration circles, the so-called NINA restriction (“No Irish Need Apply”) in job advertisements still appeared occasionally during the late 1910s (Fried 3–4). More strikingly, some activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries even proposed limiting immigration based on religion, believing “Papist” (Catholic) Celts were not fit to participate in American democracy because they were beholden to Rome (Jacobson 69–70). Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigrants (and former candidate Ben Carson’s claim that Islam is “inconsistent” with the Constitution) looks very similar in some respects.

Figure 2: “The Ignorant Vote—Honors Are Easy,” Harper’s Weekly, 9 December 1876

If musical theater—whether on a Broadway stage or a political rally—is an “enacted demonstration of Americanism,” then the appearance of a version of “Over There” at a Trump rally appropriately demonstrates the kind of America that Trump is proposing. In both Trump’s America and the America of World War I, patriotism is the greatest national virtue, and citizens must always be alert to the danger of foreign threats. However, there is a certain irony in the performance of “Over There” at a Trump rally given that, had policies similar to Trump’s been in place in the 19th century, Cohan’s grandparents would never have come to America, and “Over There” would never have been written.

– Naomi Graber


Capozzola, Christopher. “The Only Badge Needed is Your Patriotic Fervor: Vigilance, Coercion, and the Law in World War I America.” Journal of American History 88, no. 4 (2002): 1354–1382.

Cohan, George M. Twenty Years on Broadway and the Years It Took to Get There: The True Story of a Trouper’s Life from the Cradle to the “Closed Shop.” New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1925.

Fried, Rebecca A. “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs.” Journal of Social History (2015): available online at http://jsh.oxfordjournals.org.proxy-remote.galib.uga.edu/content/early/2015/07/03/jsh.shv066.full.pdf+html.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye. Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Jones, John Bush. Our Musicals, Ourselves: A Social History of American Musical Theater. Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2003. Kindle Edition.

McCabe, John. George M. Cohan: The Man Who Owned Broadway. Garden City, NJ: Doubleday, 1973.

Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Rugg, Rebecca Ann. “What it Used to Be: Nostalgia and the State of the Broadway Musical.” Theater 32 no. 2 (2002): 44–55.

[i] “4,302,000 Raised at Big Loan Concert,” New York Times, 1 October 1918, p. 11.

[ii] “Stage Stars Raise $57,000 for Irish,” New York Times, 4 April 1921, p. 2.

The Trump Bump 2016: User-generated Campaign Music about Donald Trump and His Political Opponents

February 20, 2016

On 16 June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Since then, Trump has received “more nightly [i.e., televisual] news attention than all the Democratic campaigns combined,” and unquestionably more online attention than any other Republican candidate.[i] Trump’s pronouncements—especially his proclamations concerning Muslims and Hispanic immigrants—have generated controversy around the world and have fed “the megaphone of the ratings-hungry cable media that replays his every utterance.”[ii] As of the time of writing—mid-February 2016—the next presidential election is still more than ten months away and the forthcoming Republican Convention more than seven months away. Nevertheless, Trump’s candidacy has already inspired many musical offerings from the citizenry (see the Trail Trax database). These posts, whether “for” or “against” the man also known as “The Donald,” represent responses to his nativist and populist right-wing political positions.

In late 2015, I published an article in which I outlined theoretical and practical approaches to musical-political YouTube content (user-generated campaign music) by people not directly involved with individual presidential candidates and their campaigns.[iii] Instead of repeating what I have already written about these approaches, I want to present a few observations on what I call the “Trump Bump,” based on the current state of the presidential race. Whether these observations will continue to be relevant in the future is anyone’s guess. As Jeff Greenfield has argued, front-runners (like Trump) always seem to stumble—the question is, can they recover?[iv] Trump may eventually win the presidency, or he may drop out of the race before his party has an opportunity to nominate him as its candidate. On the one hand, Trump might be remembered metaphorically as little more than a crack in the pavement on the American political highway, a “Trump Bump.” Perhaps, on the other hand, he will be embraced or shunned as an axle-breaking pothole on our nation’s presidential freeway.

Before I begin, however, one caution: the term “music video” is usually defined in terms of, or at least has long been associated with, the MTV (Music Television) cable network.[v] In certain respects 21st-century Internet posts do not meet the accepted definition of music videos as “short film[s] paid [for] by the music industry to be shown by TV channels.”[vi] YouTube videos, including user-generated campaign music videos, are prepared, preserved, and distributed in digital rather than analog or “filmic” format and are often created and disseminated without hope of financial gain; such material is not intended for commercial television. For these reasons I prefer the term “posts” to “music videos” when discussing the user-generated music associated with the American political process.[vii]

Such editing of video material had already established itself in the 1970s, as the practice of “vidding,” before the advent of MTV and digital technologies.[viii] Originally associated with fan editing of footage from analog media, vidding came to serve as a vehicle of digital mediation for public commentary on favorite films, despised politicians, and everything in between. The fan-editor may take existing footage or create new images, but as we shall see (and hear), the added music is crucial. And, as recently argued by Laura Filardo-Llamas (2015), the combination of a political text, music, and visuals creates the optimal “mental space” for the most effective communication of a political message.

By the end of 2015, Trump had not yet been honored with as many online user-generated musical posts as were Romney and Obama during the 2012 presidential race. However, a few interesting items have already come to light. Last September, for example, Kenny Lee posted a pro-Trump, country-western song entitled “The Trump Card” and illustrated it with little more than a title, performance credits, and, in this case, Trump’s motto: “It’s Time to Make America Great Again.”[ix] The song’s lyrics mention corruption, illegal immigration, CNN, and the Devil in support of its assertion that America has “already gone to hell.” “What’s the country gone to hell coming to?” is Lee’s catch phrase, appearing throughout the song and concluding most of the verses. The overall sound? Nashville. The opening makes clear the stylistic base, even before the voice enters: the sounds of the banjo and slide guitar, the thrum of twangy guitar, and the emphatic chord progression conspire to spell out country, and then, Lee enters with the stylistically unmistakable sounds of “an untrained voice in nasal style.”[x] “The Trump Card” follows a standard verse-chorus path, eschewing images of the candidate until the very end.[xi]

“The Trump Card”

To date, only a few more than 5,000 Internet users have viewed “The Trump Card.” The more popular post, “The Trump Song,” has reached 52,000 hits.[xii] Published by Richland Station and written by Ronnie Mcdowell, James Ducker and Stacy Hogan, “The Trump Song” is saturated with the catchphrase, “I wanna be like the Donald Trump.” The song, a combination of pop-rock vocals and disco rhythmic backup takes its inspiration from “Uptown Funk,” Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s 2015 chart topper. Illustrated with lyrics projected over a background image of the American flag, the song’s words emphasize Trump’s wealth (“my own jet plane”) and fame (“my picture on the cover of Time”), as well as his branding motto, “make American great again.”

“The Trump Song”

Anti-Trump posts have garnered significantly more attention than pro-Trump offerings, such as those mentioned above. The “Barack Obama Rap Song Dissing Donald Trump,” for instance, has been viewed almost 90,000 times.[xiii] In this mashup, an Obama impersonator, who also appeared in several Obama 2012 YouTube posts, ridicules Trump’s hair, racism, and wealth. The song opens with real-life footage of Trump proclaiming Obama “perhaps the worst president in the history of our country”; the impersonator replies with observations such as “I’m convinced that this man is just straight insane,” “You [Trump] gonna make me go buy you a new toupee,” and “You can’t just diss Mexicans and take that back.” Two African-American men, one of them wearing a baseball cap, dance behind the post’s faux-Obama and occasionally upstage him even as we continue to hear the impersonator dismiss Trump’s candidacy.

“Barack Obama Rap Song Dissing Donald Trump”

Even more popular, with almost two million hits to date, is “Trump: A ‘Stitches Parody’” posted by “Rucka Rucka Ali” and introduced with a disclaimer stating that it is not intended for children, and that “All celebrity/brand similarities [contained in it] are coincidental or parodic.”[xiv] This parody of the popular 2015 Shawn Mendes song features a lengthy series of digitally manipulated stills, including images of Trump dressed in Batman and Superman costumes and a shot of the White House bearing the word “Trump” in enormous gold letters on its roof. The singer takes on an almost cartoonish voice in order to reinforce the absurdity of the altered images. The musical background for these images takes the Mendes original and literally reproduces the minimal accompaniment. Faithfully follows Mendes’ melody but with new words, the parody occurs in the voice, the closeness to the musical model enhancing audience pleasure in the world of parody (Kaempfer and Swanson 2004: 66). Occasionally in the song, the real Trump appears in action, speaking at one of the Republican debates. We never get to hear his voice, however. Instead, “I bought at least a couple wives [sic],” “I’ll sell America to myself,” and “I’ll make these Chinese dogs my bitches, I’m the filthy richest” are samples of the lyrics Rucka more or less plausibly inserts into Trump’s virtual mouth. This is one of many videos that imbues Trump with an air of hip hop bravado.

“Trump: A Stitches Parody”

In comparison, the very few support songs to date for Hillary Clinton as Democratic Party candidate have almost entirely eschewed explicit sex and exciting or exotic surroundings. “Chelsea’s Mom,” a take-off on “Stacy’s Mom” (created by Fountains of Wayne and released in 2003), is one example of what many viewers might describe as “Liberal gentleness.”[xv] Written and played by Well-Strung, an all-male string quartet that specializes in instrumental as well as vocal covers of familiar numbers, “Chelsea’s Mom” is far less emphatic than the pro-Trump videos mentioned above, and the post’s lyrics are less explicitly political as well. Well-Strung’s online performance suggests the commodified MTV-style videos of the 1980s and early 1990s, insofar as most of its three and a half minutes are devoted to a real-time performance that takes place in appropriate surroundings: Clinton’s imagined campaign headquarters.

“Chelsea’s Mom”

“Chelsea’s Mom” includes “images of Clinton tossing her hair and smiling at the camera” as the lyrics proclaim that “she’s all we want and we’ve waited for so long” and “From sea to shining sea, she’ll fight for liberty.”[xvi] However, even muted suggestions that Clinton is “sexy” may prove inappropriate on behalf of a candidate often associated with health-care and minority issues. Intriguingly, at least one YouTube user believes that Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” represents Clinton more effectively.[xvii] Swift’s quiet beauty and spectacular success might indeed serve, albeit tentatively, as metaphors for Hillary’s hoped-for 2016 victory. Anti-Clinton posts, among them a “Hillary Clinton Email Scandal Song” (which has received fewer than 8,200 hits), are also “gentle” in style, preferring voice and acoustic instruments lightly scored and moderate in tempo.[xviii] In this particular homemade post, a fixed camera is used to document Red Review singing and accompanying himself on the piano in a real or simulated sound studio. The singer parodies Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” setting lyrics that present the known facts about the email scandal and emphasizing the phrase “scandal in the wind” in the chorus section.

Ted Cruz, another Republican contender and apparently the leading candidate in at least one primary race, has also attracted online musical attention.[xix]Set It on Fire,” the self-proclaimed “first Rap Song of The 2016 Presidential Election,” is one of a comparatively small number of stylistically alternative support songs posted to date.[xx] We Are Watchmen, the group that created “Set It on Fire,” projects a conservative political doctrine similar to Trump’s, but in a hip hop musical style. Here are samples of their lyrics: “Make DC listen, shut off the dead news / The lame stream media feeding us the fed stew / Collectivism everyone’s a victim like the Reds do / And for our next president we’re all in for Ted Cruz.” These and other words, superimposed over a red, white, blue, and black background, constitute almost all of the images employed in “Set It on Fire.” References to religion are missing, even though the We Are Watchmen home page foregrounds their Christian messages to America.[xxi]

“Set It on Fire”

What will happen with online campaign music videos in the future is anyone’s guess. Certainly Clinton will inspire better user-generated musical material than “Stand with Hillary,” a country-western ballad produced and written in part by Miguel Orozco, a 2008 Obama supporter and a member of the Stand with Hillary PAC (see the Trax on the Trail essay by Joanna Love for a detailed analysis of this video).[xxii] Accompanied by “various throwback pictures of the Clinton family interspersed with images of blue-collar, working-class rural America,” “Stand with Hillary” has found few supporters.[xxiii] One blogger commented that the “nice thing about [“Stand with Hillary”] is it made us laugh twice. The first time we laughed was when we first heard the song. The second time we laughed was when we thought about how much this cost to produce and how quickly it disappeared.”[xxiv] In fact, the original post garnered fewer than 1,400 hits. But Trump’s supporters may have to do better too.

– Michael Saffle

I would like to thank Virginia Tech, especially the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, for support toward the completion of this article.

[i] Brian Skelter and Ken Olshansky, “How Much does Donald Trump Dominate TV News Coverage? This Much.” CNN Money, December 6, 2015.

[ii] Victor Williams, “Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and a Disrupted Electoral College: High Unfavorable Ratings, Multi-Candidate General Election Ballots, and Pursuing the ‘Art of the Deal’ with Free-Agent Electors in December 2016,” Syracuse Law and Civic Engagement Forum 3 (2015).

[iii] Michael Saffle, “User-generated Campaign Music and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election,” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (Summer 2015).

[iv] Jeff Greenfield, “How to Tell the Difference Between a Real Front-Runner and a Fake One,” Politico, October 12, 2015.

[v] As Diane Railton and Paul Watson argue, “the music video becomes conflated, and confused, with the context of its distribution.” Railton and Watson, Music Video and the Politics of Representation (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), 44.

[vi] Gianna Sibilla, “‘It’s the End of Music Videos As We Know Them (But We Feel Fine): Death and Resurrection of Music Videos in the YouTube Age,’” in Rewind, Play, Fast Forward: The Past, Present, and Future of the Music Video, ed. Henry Keaor and Thorsten Wübbena (Bielefeld: transcript, 2010), 225.

[vii] See Saffle, “User-generated Campaign Music,” concluding remarks. Some posts mimic the visual rhetoric that is commonly deployed in music videos.

[viii] See Katharina Freund, “‘Veni, Vivi, Vids! Audiences, Gender, and Community in Fan Vidding” (PhD diss., University of Wollongong, 2011).

[ix] “The Trump Card Campaign Song for Donald Trump by Kenny Lee,” uploaded by Kenny Lee, September 11, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kW5ZzpdKOQA.

[x] Richard A. Peterson, “The Dialectic of Hard-Core and Soft-Shell Country Music,” in Reading Country Music: Steel Guitars, Opry Stars, and Honky-tonk Bars, ed. Cecelia Tichi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998), 244.

[xi] Lee, a relative new comer to YouTube, has his own channels that post his songs, which can be accessed for comparison at https://www.youtube.com/user/MrKenny1220 and https://www.youtube.com/user/1220mrkenny. “The Trump Card” appears to be his only foray into political song.

[xii] “The Trump Song,” uploaded by Ronnie McDowell, September 18, 2015, [written by Ronnie McDowell, James Ducker, and Stacy Hogan] YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dIWkifAMiLI.

[xiii] “Barack Obama Rap Song Dissing Donald Trump,” uploaded by Brian bIg beats,” October 12, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hmVduUaQukw.

[xiv] “Trump,” uploaded by Weares Rucka, November 18, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tu1otiBLPko.

[xv] “WELL-STRUNG Chelsea’s Mom,” uploaded by Well-Strung, June 25, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrEmQk3u88U. Ginger Gibson, “Election 2016: “Chelsea’s Mom” is Hillary Clinton’s Fan Love Song,” International Business Times, June 25, 2015.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] See Joanne Cronth Bamberger, “Six Reasons ‘Shake It Off’ Should Be Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Theme Song,” The Broad Side, n.d. accessed January 2, 2016.

[xviii] “Hillary Clinton Email Scandal Song,” uploaded by Funnin Gunnin, March 15, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uR4ivVy6gz0.

[xix] Jonathan Martin and Matt Flegenheimer, “In Iowa, Ted Cruz Savors Lead Role,” New York Times,  January 6, 2016. Of course ratings change daily, even hourly.

[xx] “We Are Watchmen – Set it on Fire (Lyric Video),” uploaded by We Are Watchmen, May 27, 2015, video clip, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IWTzcOgKTLo.

[xxi] See the Watchmen’s home page at http://wearewatchmen.org. This page presents an imaginary Newsweek cover that alludes to an actual Newsweek article written by Jon Meacham. The Watchmen  title their article “The Decline and Fall of Christian America,” whereas Meacham’s original was titled “The End of Christian America.”

[xxii] “Stand with Hillary Music Video,” uploaded by BottledVideo, February 5, 2015, YouTube, video clip, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xJJoJWY1VFM.

[xxiii] Christine Rousselle, “Stand with Hillary Releases Awesomely Bad Country Song Video,” Town Hall, December 4, 2014.

[xxiv] “Stand with Hillary Music Video” user comments. See note 23 above.

Musical Yearning in Bernie Sanders’s Presidential Primary Ad “America”

February 2, 2016

As I was writing this in late January 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was soaring in the polls in early primary states Iowa and New Hampshire. As this piece goes “to press,” it cannot escape mention that Sanders has now achieved at the Iowa caucuses what for his campaign means a victory: by in effect tying Hillary Clinton, he has virtually the same number of delegates as he looks ahead to New Hampshire. And February in New Hampshire promises to be warm indeed for the democratic socialist. Harnessing progressives’ yearning for a more equitable and compassionate society, Sanders is giving the Clinton campaign fits. Republican strategists seem torn between welcoming Sanders as a too-idealistic candidate who could be easily beaten and fearing that he may be riding a juggernaut of social change that will not be stopped.

A striking Internet ad for the Sanders campaign seems to be inspiring many voters. It is among the most shared political ads on social media and has garnered millions of YouTube views in its first week. It presents images of rural and small town America—spinning wind turbines, Main Street, tugboats docked along the riverbank, farmers feeding livestock, as well as scenes from a coffee shop and family scenes that could be anywhere. These are interspersed with sequences of Sanders on the campaign trail talking with individual voters and speaking to large crowds. The ad has a specific locale: Iowa. This is not surprising given how closely Iowa is associated with agricultural imagery; “America” situates itself in middle America, “God’s country,” “heartland America.” Sanders appears comfortable in this milieu, smiling and welcoming supporters.

Bernie Sanders’ America Ad (2016)

Together with sound effects of crowd roars at irregular intervals, “America” uses as its soundtrack the beginning and ending of the eponymous song by the folk rock duo Simon and Garfunkel. From the 1968 album Bookends, the song was originally written four years earlier while Paul Simon was hitchhiking across the U.S. with his then-girlfriend Kathy Chitty.  In Paul Simon: A Life, Marc Eliot writes that the song “creates a cinematic vista that tells of the singer’s search for a literal and physical America that seems to have disappeared, along with the country’s beauty and ideals” (95). If that was true for people in 1968, it is just as true today for voters who feel that the America that they learned about in school does not exist.

Like “Nixon Now,” a prominent 1972 TV spot of a self-confident incumbent, “America” makes no claims of grandiose accomplishments—there is nothing to fact check. Instead this is an atmospheric ad intended to capture the idealistic spirit currently animating his volunteers. Unlike the 2008 McCain campaign’s unauthorized use of “Johnny B. Goode” at campaign appearances, a use to which Chuck Berry strenuously objected, as have other artists whose songs have been appropriated for political campaigns, Sanders’s campaign was given permission by both artists to use the song with their good wishes (Garfunkel 2016).

Commentators, such as Susan Page of U.S.A. Today, have compared Sanders’s “America” to Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “Prouder, Stronger, Better” (otherwise known as “Morning in America”) ad (citied in Rehm 2016). They see both as creating a euphoric mood, appealing through pathos and ethos as opposed to logos and eschewing any kind of attack on opponents. There are clear parallels. Such a comparison is a bit too facile, though: “Morning in America” is just substantially more polished and well-produced (Christiansen, forthcoming) and employed its own original orchestral music written expressly for that campaign. Nevertheless, the Sanders ad similarly stirs emotions. It does so cumulatively: with Sanders greeting gradually increasing crowds, the ad ends with stadiums filled with adoring fans. “America” does not need to explain Sanders’s ideology or policies—it just revels in the candidate’s growing popularity.

Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America Ad (1984)

While the ad visually constructs an Iowan utopia, the original message of the song runs counter to this vision; in other words, Sanders misreads a song that is about disillusionment and unease, rather than unfettered optimism. The visual images the candidate puts forth here, combined with the omission of some of the song’s less cheerful lyrics, keeps the focus on Sanders’ overarching message. Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” is in effect the soundtrack for the unvarnished optimism of his supporters. Hope and change deferred by ultra-pragmatic policies of the Obama administration are sought by supporters of Sanders, who is perceived by progressives as either quasi-messianic in the best case or quixotic in the worst case.

The lyric “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together” originally refers of course to Simon and his girlfriend. As a political ad song, “Let us be lovers” speaks to another love: philia or agape, love for our fellow man. “Marry our fortunes together” conveys the sense that we must care for others and we must forge our collective future together. The lyric “They’ve all come to look for America” seems to suggest that poor and working-class Americans are searching for the ideal of America that has been eclipsed by corporate greed and political (i.e. Washington) cronyism. The appeal is thus primarily to class, although some prominent minority faces appear through the mostly white crowds.

At a point thirty-seven seconds into the sixty-second ad—which is incidentally the golden mean—we see a huge crowd with Sanders at the podium in front of a body of water and with a prominent American flag in the background just as the word AMERICA is superimposed over the scene, coinciding with the same song lyric. After the arrival on AMERICA, there is a dénouement that leads to Sanders’s disclaimer. Not quite as slickly produced as “Morning in America,” “America” is nevertheless well-conceived and brilliantly executed. Whether or not he wins the Democratic nomination or ultimately the general election, I suspect Sanders will be remembered in association with this spot.     

A folk-style song connotes a communal musical experience in which the audience feels connected to the performer in the struggle for a more inclusive and fairer society. The 6/8 meter lends the carefree melody a gentle lilt, while the falling diatonic bass line propels the song forward. The acoustic guitar and drum kit and the humming and close harmonies musically convey unpretentiousness and calm contentedness. Voices harmonizing together can also be interpreted as a musical representation of people working together for common cause.

On the other hand, could the use of the acoustic guitar and voice itself be a symbol of violent social upheaval? Guitars were ever-present during anti-war and civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s. Most of the artists we think of in relation to social justice, the environmental cause, women’s rights, and a host of other social movements played guitar and sang, such as Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, and Sam Cooke. And the message on Woody Guthrie’s guitar was, after all, “This machine kills fascists.” But as Brian Barone reminds us, “[W]hile it is clear that the acoustic guitar stands in opposition to the modern, industrial, technological cast of the electric guitar, it is less clear what the political implications of that opposition might be. Such an opposition might proceed equally well on conservative grounds of traditionalism, ruralism, and individualism as it would on progressive grounds of anti-corporatism, communitarianism, and cosmopolitanism” (2016).

The visual sphere supports the aural. More specifically, editing matches the music. Cuts are rhythmically synchronized with the emphasized lyrics. Thus the editing contributes to the overall musicality of the ad. Further, some of the images might have broader implications. The spinning wind turbines could imply interest in pursuing energy independence and environmental consciousness. The word “Marry” is heard at the same time as we see two young women who could be friends or sisters but also could be partners who are now in 2016 legally allowed to marry. The message would be that the campaign is welcoming to LGBTQ people. Later in the ad we see blinking patchworks of small-amount donors (average contribution to his campaign is $27). This illustrates Sanders’s commitment to accepting small donations from average citizens. Voters with these values will find resonance in the song’s lyrics.  

Because the verses are too specific and unrelated to Sanders’s message (e.g., a suspected spy in gabardine with a “bowtie camera”), most of the verses and the bridge are not heard in the ad. In fact, it only uses the first two lines of the first verse and then jumps to the middle of the final stanza on “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike,” with “They’ve all come to look for America” repeating until the end. The splice is done so well that it is virtually unnoticeable. Only those listening closely to the lyrics would hear the inconsistency.

Although the images are of Iowa and the song’s lyrics are about America writ large, the singers themselves conjure up for many listeners New York City. Both Simon and Garfunkel are firmly rooted in the city, living and working there throughout their music, producing, and acting careers. So in addition to appealing to several generations of voters, from Sanders’s own cohort through Generations X and Y to Millennials, the music also has wide geographical appeal. Place matters. Indeed, some boomers might remember the duo’s participation in a fundraising concert for Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern at Madison Square Garden during the 1972 election.

Furthermore, nostalgia plays a huge role in how “America” is heard by viewers across the country. The song was among those performed at the legendary free Concert in Central Park, which took place on September 19, 1982. This concert was attended by an estimated 500,000 people, and could mark a nostalgic moment for a generation that came to age in the early 1980s. So music in this ad could arouse nostalgic feelings in Boomers as well as members of Generation X, in those who attended the original concert as well as those who subsequently bought the live album. Notable cover versions by later artists such as Yes, David Bowie, and Josh Groban would help to bridge the nostalgia gap. Tapping into a different nostalgic vein, Donald J. Trump talks about “making America great again.” His slogan’s implicit premise is that the country is not great as it once was. Sanders holds the same premise, and that is why we hear “They all came to look for America.” The difference lies in the radically divergent visions of a utopian America and the means to get there.

Ever since the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, candidates have had to include in campaign-sponsored ads a message of the candidate self-identifying and saying that he or she approves of the ad (this is referred to as the “Stand By Your Ad” provision). Campaigns can choose to put the disclaimer either at the beginning or the end, and the choice is sometimes made strategically. That is the case here. Sanders’s voice can at times come across as a bit unpolished, so instead he speaks at the end along with a smiling picture of himself at a podium with sleeves rolled up, as if ready to go to work. Excitement carries through his somewhat bland pronouncement. The disclaimer’s placement at the end serves to offer Sanders as the ideal guide to help them “look for America.”

Playing to voters’ fears is unfortunately often devastatingly effective (Killmeier and Christiansen, 2011). But appealing to their hopes can be a winning strategy and is so rare these days that it attracts attention. So well-known has the ad become that it has been written about in the New York Times, more than once, and Stephen Colbert taped a segment in which he “assigned” various Simon and Garfunkel tunes to specific Democratic and Republican candidates. The only reason a political ad gains so much attention is that is strikes a sympathetic chord with voters who want the real world to bend toward their own vision of an ideal world. With wealth inequality in the United States at alarming levels—the top 0.1% of our richest citizens having a net worth equal to the bottom 90%—many people desperately seek political leaders who are willing to respond to this most pressing of domestic issues. This yearning is what is portrayed musically with Simon and Garfunkel’s “America.”

– Paul Christiansen


Barone, Brian. “‘I’ve Been Everywhere’: Martin O’Malley and the Many Meanings of the Guitar.” Trax on the Trail, January 7, 2016. 

Christiansen, Paul. “‘It’s Morning Again in America’: How the Tuesday Team Revolutionized the Use of Music in Political Ads.” Music and Politics 10, no. 1 (Winter 2016), forthcoming.

Corasaniti, Nick. “Bernie Sanders and Fans Embrace Tune of ‘America’ in Ad Free of Attacks.” New York Times, January 23, 2016. 

_____. “Bernie Sanders, and Simon and Garfunkel, Put Focus on Voters.” New York Times, January 21, 2016. 

Diane Rehm Show, The. “Friday News Roundup – Domestic.” [Susan Page filling in for Rehm] January 22, 2016. http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2016-01-22/friday-news-roundup-domestic

Eliot, Marc. Paul Simon: A Life. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010.

Garfunkel, Art. “Art Garfunkel on Sanders Ad Using ‘America.’” [Interview with Michael Smerconish] CNN, January 23, 2016. 

Holub, Christian. “Stephen Colbert Assigns Simon & Garfunkel Songs to Presidential Candidates.” Entertainment Weekly, January 27, 2016. 

Kasper, Eric T., and Benjamin S. Schoening. “The Unwelcome Use of Musical Artists and Their Songs by Presidential Candidates.” Trax on the Trail, December 18, 2015.

Killmeier, Matthew, and Paul Christiansen. “Wolves at the Door: Musical Persuasion in a 2004 Bush-Cheney Campaign Ad.” MedieKultur: Journal of Media and Communication Research 50 (2011): 157–77. 

Monaghan, Angela. “US Wealth Inequality—Top 0.1% Worth as Much as the Bottom 90%.” Guardian, November 13, 2014. 

Political Pop and Commercials that Flopped: Early Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Race

January 14, 2016

During the past two presidential elections, Barack Obama targeted key voters along the campaign trail by deploying pop culture tropes, especially the sights and sounds of popular music (Gorzelany-Mostak, Love, Deaville, and Saffle 2015). Campaign strategists for the 2016 presidential hopefuls have worked hard to emulate Obama’s success and once more to “capture the cool” by using pop music, celebrities, and social media to boost each candidate’s visibility. But as indicated by the sheer volume of negative press circulating around the musical choices made thus far (including Neil Young’s request for Donald Trump to stop using “Rockin’ in the Free World”), it is obvious that these candidates simply do not demonstrate the same type of pop cultural cachet as their predecessor. Political strategists and their marketing teams have therefore struggled to musically define this new group of politicians and successfully attract new supporters.

Advertising campaigns for two candidates in particular have received substantial public attention for their failure to gain positive responses from their respective parties. A little more than a year ago, a super PAC commercial titled “Stand with Hillary” attempted to create momentum for Clinton’s forthcoming announcement of her intent to run for president. Political strategist, Daniel Chavez, designed it to look and sound more like a country music video than a political spot. Viewers found it so puzzling that many questioned whether or not it was a joke. More recently, the campaign for Dr. Ben Carson, a front-running Republican candidate, released a rap-styled radio commercial bearing the title “Freedom.” The juxtaposition of Carson’s musings on American values with an endorsement by a lesser-known political rapper, Aspiring Mogul, left audiences unconvinced about the credibility of Carson’s hip hop affinities.

These two commercials perfectly highlight the difficulties that marketers face when using popular music for political causes. In what follows, I briefly outline the main lessons that these spots can teach us (and campaign strategists) about the nuance required for mobilizing pop music to support party agendas. I also reference the precedents for using pop music as set by national brand advertising and offer brief readings of each spot to illuminate reasons why contemporary audiences found these commercials neither musically appealing nor politically persuasive.

Lesson 1: Music Should Match the Candidate

Discussions about the increased prevalence of popular music in national brand advertising often revolve around the perceived “suitability” of the musical track to accurately represent the brand and its product (Klein 2009, 79–81). Many audiences believe that the “values” of the advertised item should align with the ideals of the musicians, songs, and genres chosen to represent it. Public commentary about the (mis)use of country idioms in “Stand with Hillary” as well as the unconvincing employment of hip hop tropes in Carson’s “Freedom” confirm that the “suitability” of musical choices is equally (if not more) vital for political spots as for corporate ads. As the advertised “product,” each candidate’s political values should have obviously aligned with the chosen musical genre for the commercial so that the track could support (and not distract from) the party’s messages. It seemed, however, that instead of matching the music to each candidate, marketers tried to match it to the perceived tastes of the target audiences, who in both cases did not represent the candidate’s core supporters.  

Ben Carson’s “Freedom” Radio Ad

Ben Carson’s campaign created a hip hop-themed commercial that hinged on the belief that the genre’s tropes provided the “language” best understood by young African American voters. Carson’s team admitted that if he won the party nomination, he would need support from at least 20% of the African American population to beat Clinton. However, Carson’s attempt to “speak” hip hop proved unsuccessful for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that he had publically criticized the genre for “destroying” African American communities and values. Audiences were therefore skeptical about the authenticity of the spot and its intentions. 

Despite its poor reception, Carson’s commercial offered listeners a direct (albeit misguided) musical marketing strategy that enacted a clear purpose. The same cannot be said for the Stand with Hillary super PAC (whose commercial was neither endorsed by Clinton nor her campaign). According to the Washington Post, the pro-Clinton group responsible for the spot intended to reach Latinos (a growing sector of potential voters) and “working families.” In fact, the song’s creator, Miguel Orozco, had become known for writing songs that appealed to Latino voters during Obama’s first campaign. Curiously, there are no Latin musical tropes present anywhere in “Stand with Hillary.” It instead features stereotypical country idioms that pair with the onscreen images to narrowly define the target audience as white, male, and rural. Had “Stand with Hillary” functioned like a traditional political spot, its message may have stood on its own. But its music video design forced audiences to make their own connections between Clinton and the spot’s often incongruent messages about her family life and the call for “guys” to “smash” the “glass ceiling.” Combined with images of the commercial’s blue-collar, male country singer (who apparently wishes to remain anonymous), these signifiers implied that the spot was specifically aimed at working-class, white family men. “Stand with Hillary” therefore proved peculiar not only in its format, but also in its neglect to directly appellate the Latino demographic that the super PAC claimed to seek out. It also oddly neglected to speak to women, the very demographic on which Clinton’s campaign was projected to rely. And despite the short time that Clinton claimed to work on her Arkansas drawl during her husband’s governorship, the spot’s music and images conflicted with her own history as a white-collar worker, accomplished politician, and city dweller. It is no wonder then that these clashing signifiers prompted a flurry of social media commentary. Among the many Tweets that questioned the spot’s sincerity, one Twitter user wrote: “my favorite kind of parody is when extreme earnestness and mockery are indistinguishable.”

“Stand with Hillary” PAC Commercial

Lesson 2: Bad Music Kills the Buzz

Lesson two confirms that when audiences are dissatisfied with a commercial’s musical track—especially when it is the vehicle for relaying the branding message—it can actually render the product—or in this case, the candidate—less appealing. Corporate advertisers have known for decades that there is such a thing as bad press, and when pop music mishaps occur, they become bad for business. Similarly, poor musical choices on the campaign trail have embarrassed politicians for decades as top musicians have demanded that candidates remove hit songs from their playlists (see the Trax article by Kasper and Schoening).

In order to avoid the potential bad publicity caused by using pre-existing songs, political strategists have gravitated towards creating new tunes that attempt to evoke the styles of contemporary music—a well-worn practice for national brand advertising (Taylor 2012). A fairly recent and successful example of this was a 2008 music video endorsing Barack Obama that featured his campaign slogan, “Yes We Can.” The video essentially functioned as a political commercial: it featured acoustic guitar harmonies that supported will.i.am and other young celebrities singing along with a recording of Obama’s speech at a New Hampshire primary rally. By transforming Obama’s “Yes We Can” slogan into a repeated melodic hook and pairing it with specially-composed tunes sung over his motivational phrases, strategists made his platform singable and therefore more memorable. The song’s mashup of musical tropes also worked well in its homage to 1960s political folk-rock and emulation of contemporary rhythm and blues. The perceived originality and authenticity of the track attracted a host of influential celebrity performers, who in turn made the video alluring to potential voters.

“Yes We Can” Music Video (2008)

Ben Carson’s 2015 “Freedom” spot follows a similar format, but unlike “Yes We Can,” it is more obvious in its status as a commercial—specifically in its straightforward endorsement of the candidate by Aspiring Mogul. In its design to replicate a hip hop track, “Freedom” is paced by a syncopated flute loop and a chanted hook (“Vote-Vote”) that repeats in every bar. Mogul performs short, rapped phrases that frame the spot: “Vote and Support Ben Car-son, for the next president, would be awe-some.” Listeners criticized Mogul’s flow as “low” quality, because his phrases lacked the smooth delivery, clever word choices, and rhyme schemes typical of rap music. In addition to the absence of nuance or subtlety from Mogul’s rap and the commanding hook, the track lacks the production quality that audiences expected from a well-crafted hip hop track. The spot attempts to emulate Obama’s “Yes We Can” by featuring sound bytes of Carson waxing poetic about America’s greatness, the price of freedom, and fighting for future generations. But it fails to be musically persuasive as Carson’s gentle vocal timbre and generalized reflections prove ill-matched to Mogul’s assertive style and the repetitive hook. Accordingly, listeners found that Carson’s lines sounded “somber” against the upbeat track—an incongruity that ultimately undermined the motivational intentions of his speech.

“Stand with Hillary” suffers from similar musical deficiencies. It opens with sparse acoustic strumming and sliding guitar phrases that accompany images of the overtly masculine posturing of an unknown actor (or perhaps, an aspiring musical star). He dons the hat, boots, jeans, and guitar stereotypical for solo country music performers. In his attempt to emulate the story-telling ballade style of country hits, the singer croons nebulous phrases about “a defining moment” and “hindsight” followed by a verse asking men to break the proverbial glass ceiling. This leads into the chorus where he reflects on Clinton’s womanhood and familial roles by comparing her to his own wife and daughter. Visually, images of Clinton and her family are interspersed with the “cowboy’s” recollections of “the women in his life.” We also witness performance footage and a brief clip showing the singer’s wife rescuing him when his truck runs out of gas. By showing the “cowboy” jump onto the back of his wife’s motorcycle, the spot likens Clinton’s potential future leadership to the tasks that women perform everyday.

Needless to say, such a message proved troubling to her core base of female voters. Viewers complained about the overly complimentary (and I would add, pointedly-gendered) accolades that paint Clinton as a “great lady” insofar as she is a “mother,” a “daughter,” and “a loving wife.” Notably, the gender dynamic in the lyrics and visuals seems to infer that even hard-working cowboys need assistance, and that as caretakers, women have always been around to help. The video also proved musically unconvincing as viewers were annoyed by the singer’s clichéd and constricted vocal scooping and “twang-through-the-nose” delivery. Reading more like a love song than a political endorsement, the track left voters with few positive takeaways. One exasperated viewer proclaimed: “I’d rather chug bleach than listen to an awful country song released by the Stand With Hillary PAC.”

Corporate marketers have historically favored using popular music tropes due to the familiarity they bring to commercials (Taylor 2012). But as Lesson Two makes clear, the problem with counting on viewers’ familiarity is just that: when audiences know how “good” music in a given genre and style should sound, they quickly recognize when a track fails to meet expectations. So when “Stand with Hillary” fell short of Thomas Rhett’s hits and “Freedom” sounded neither like Kendrick Lamar nor particularly old school (as was its intent), voters noticed. In fact, both tracks were explicitly dubbed “awful” and Carson’s commercial even earned the moniker “hate-listen” of the day.

Lesson 3: Audiences Resent Musical Pandering and Essentialism

Twenty-first century audiences are media savvy. It is not surprising, then, that they quickly deciphered the true agendas of both commercials: “Freedom” used hip hop tropes to amplify Carson’s “African American credibility,” while the conservative country clichés in “Stand with Hillary” sought to remind working families (and specifically white males) of Clinton’s “gender credibility.” Critics therefore strongly expressed their resentment towards these attempts at musical pandering and essentialism. In a piece that surveys the history of hip hop’s resistance to Republican politics, Issie Lapowsky condemns Carson’s commercial for these traits, concluding that it “comes across as pure condescension.” This journalist and others who spoke out expressed their disgust for the fact that Carson’s campaign had ignored the historical relevance, nuance, and artistry of hip hop culture and criticized its assumption that a spot vaguely reminiscent of the genre might lure young African American voters to its camp and make the candidate appear relevant to them.

I would add that the perceived insincerity of the commercial also stems from its avoidance of discussing Carson’s political platform. In fact, “Freedom” offers no specific information at all, leaving audiences to guess why he would be the best choice for office. “Freedom” thus proved as politically de-motivating as it was musically obtuse.

“Stand with Hillary” was equally offensive, although I would point out that it is mostly demeaning to the candidate herself. As a type of political “reference letter,” this commercial reminds me of a set of guidelines currently circulating on social media that outlines the dos and don’ts of writing recommendations for women. The spot noticeably breaks every rule listed for avoiding gender bias: not only is Clinton’s voice muted in favor of the “cowboy’s” presentation of her familial duties, but the gendered words used to describe her, specifically “caring” and “hardworking,” speak only to her potential and ignore her long list of political accomplishments. Indeed, like the Carson spot, it does not mention any of her political policies or experiences. According to the commercial, the only “job” worth acknowledging is the support she gave to her husband and daughter. As an obvious attempt to bolster Clinton’s “likeability” (a theme unpacked in a previous Trax post), the spot’s puzzling agenda, annoying musical track, misogynistic undertones, and political pandering unintentionally left audiences cringing.


While it may be difficult to understand how anyone might think that these commercials and their gawky musical pairings were a good idea, it is important to realize that neither national brand nor political advertisers have figured out a winning formula for placing popular music tracks in commercials. Large corporate brands have spent billions experimenting with the principles of “sonic branding” (Powers 2010). And unless a song is performed by a hit artist who endorses a particular candidate, political marketers have been generally less enthusiastic about employing pop music in commercials—largely due to the high costs that musical gaffes could have for presidential hopefuls. Looking forward to the remaining months in the 2016 campaign, there is no doubt that popular music will continue to play a major role in marketing endeavors. It will be interesting to see if and how the remaining candidates can find their musical stride.

– Joanna Love


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

Bradley, Laura. “This Cowboy Dude Really Wants You to Stand with Hillary.” Slate, December 4, 2014.

Deaville, James. “The Sound of Media Spectacle: Music at Party Conventions.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015).

Faircloth, Kelly. “Oh My God, This Song for Hillary Clinton is Beyond Awful.” Jezebel, December 4, 2014. 

Faulders, Katherine. “Listen to Ben Carson’s New Rap Ad Aimed at African-American Voters.” ABC News, November 5, 2015. 

“Fox and Friends Stoops to Attacking Hilary Clinton over Her 2016 Spotify Playlist.” Media Matters for America, June 16, 2015. 

Gold, Matea. “As Hillary Clinton Ponders 2016, Clinton-themed Super PACs Seek a Piece of the Action.” Washington Post, December 4, 2014. 

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

Horowitz, Jason. “Hillary Clinton Aims to Capture the Cool.” New York Times, May 22, 2015. 

Kasper, Eric T. and Benjamin S. Schoening. “The Unwelcome Use of Musical Artists and Their Songs by Presidential Candidates.” Trax on the Trail, December 18, 2015.

Klein, Bethany. As Heard on TV: Popular Music in Advertising. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2009.

Kreig, Gregory J. “What is a Super PAC? A Short History.” ABC News, August 9, 2012.

Lapowsky, Issie. “Twitter Reacts to the Ben Carson Rap That Shouldn’t Exist.” Wired, November 2015. 

Larson, Leslie. “Ben Carson Blasts Hip-Hop for Hurting African-American Communities.” Business Insider, April 6, 2015. 

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

Millard, Drew. “Ben Carson’s Rap Radio Ad Is an Embarrassment for Everyone.” Vice, November 5, 2015. 

Moss, Marissa R. “Hear ‘Stand with Hillary,’ a Countrified Bid for Clinton in 2016.” Rolling Stone, December 4, 2014.

“New Celeb-Filled Music Video for Obama.” ABC News, n.d.

Oh, Inae. “Ben Carson’s Rap Ad Is Here to Ruin Your Day.” Mother Jones, November 5, 2015.

Ortiz, Eric. “Stop Rockin’: Neil Young Blasts Donald Trump for Using Classic Song Without Clearance.” NBC News, June 16, 2015. 

“Pepsi Cancels Madonna Ad.” New York Times, April 5, 1989.

Powers, Devon. “Strange Powers: The Branded Sensorium and the Intrigue of Musical Sound.” In Blowing up the Brand: Critical Perspectives on Promotional Culture, edited by Melissa Aronczyk and Devon Powers, 285–306. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2010.

Rousselle, Christine. “Stand with Hilary Releases Awesomely Bad Country Song Video.” Townhall.com, December 4, 2014.

Saffle, Michael. “User-Generated Campaign Music and the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.” Music & Politics 9, no. 2 (2015).

Taylor, Timothy. The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

The University of Arizona, Commission on the Status of Women. “Avoiding Gender Bias in Reference Writing.” https://feministphilosophers.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/arizona.jpg.

Whitesell, Samuel. “Campaign Music and Fair Use: What are the Rules?” Law Street, October 25, 2015.

“Yes We Can Obama Song by will.i.am.” February 2, 2008. Video clip. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2fZHou18Cdk.

“I’ve Been Everywhere:” Martin O’Malley and the Many Meanings of the Guitar

January 8, 2016

Is America ready for a troubadour president? It is a question Democrats have to ask themselves as they decide on their party’s nominee for the 2016 election. For though Bernie Sanders would be the first Jewish president (who is also an avowed democratic socialist), and Hillary Clinton would be the first woman president (who is also a former first lady), surely Martin O’Malley would be the first president likely to keep a guitar in the Oval Office. At least, that is, if his penchant for breaking into song on the campaign trail is any indication.      

As you can see by selecting O’Malley’s name in the “Candidate” field of the Trax on the Trail database, guitar playing and singing have been a highlight of the former Maryland governor’s campaign appearances. Though, as I would like to argue, not always to clear or effective ends. The day before formally announcing his candidacy in May 2015, for instance, O’Malley posted a video of himself plucking out the melody to “Hail to the Chief” on Facebook. Despite the fact that he is a seasoned player, somehow O’Malley had been given a guitar with a fretboard adorned with smiley-face stickers. In the opening of the video, the camera awkwardly pans across these markers meant to remind a beginner of the fingerings for three—maybe four—basic chord shapes. Needless to say, not the slickest bit of political theater. The shot accidentally evokes un-presidential incompetence and unseriousness. But the pitfalls I want to suggest most bedevil O’Malley’s music strategy are of a different order. They concern the contradictory and overlapping social meanings of the guitar and the discordant political implications of the kinds of music O’Malley has most often played and sung on the trail. Combined, these qualities muddle the force and clarity of O’Malley’s troubadourism as political messaging; they prevent his songs from being the kind of unambiguous and floodlit symbols that work best in national politics.

Martin O’Malley Plucks “Hail to the Chief”

Before listening to O’Malley in particular, a brief survey of music making by other national politicians—and the work that music has done for their politics and personas—is in order. In his time as president, Barack Obama has raised his rich baritone on a few occasions. Most solemnly, last summer he led a Charleston, South Carolina congregation in “Amazing Grace” while eulogizing State Senator Clementa Pinckney and the eight others murdered in a shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. In happier times, he used the opening line of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” to woo voters during the 2012 election: “I-I-I’m so in love with you.” Notably, in both cases the President signaled his solidarity with black Americans by invoking styles of music—gospel and soul—intimately and clearly linked to black musicians and communities; he proved the power of what musicologist Jeffrey Kallberg has called “the rhetoric of genre,” both when a congregation needed solace and when he needed votes.

More broadly, the history of presidential music making stretches back a bit further, in the television era, at least to Richard Nixon. The 1972 campaign film “Nixon The Man” features clips of the President accompanying a chorus of “Happy Birthday” at the piano in celebration of Duke Ellington. What better way to signal a politician’s essential good-naturedness, his fundamental domestic normalcy than a spin at the piano, that instrument-cum-living-room-furniture?

But of course the watershed moment in presidential musical performance belongs to Bill Clinton. From behind a pair of dark sunglasses, the then-Arkansas governor loosed a stream of rhythm and blues licks from his saxophone during a 1992 appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show. As with Nixon’s late-night TV gig, the performance was meant on the one hand to humanize Clinton as a candidate. But on the other hand, and in part like Obama’s singing, it leaned on the racialized codes that govern American musical styles and genres to burnish Clinton’s image. By copping the look and sound of a rhythm and blues cat, Clinton staked a claim to the authority and cool that always accrue to a white American man who can display competency in cultural forms associated with African Americans (as, for example, Waksman 1999 argued).

And non-presidential figures have taken their turns, too. Separate attention this election season is due to Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’s 1987 folk-spoken-word album, for instance. During her cabinet tenure, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice attracted the attention of the New York Times for her interest in piano chamber music. A scene from the comedy series 30 Rock illustrates how Rice’s musicianship worked for her public image. In it, she vanquishes the fictional NBC executive played by Alec Baldwin in a sort of classical music cutting contest. The joke plays on several levels: like Rice, the real-life Baldwin is a classical music aficionado, lending his voice to the pre-show announcements of the New York Philharmonic. But the humor also stems from the reversal of gendered expectations of Baldwin’s alpha-male character—a guy like him shouldn’t lose to a lady, and definitely shouldn’t play the flute. The flip-side of this dynamic explains what her well-known pianistic proficiency offered (the real-life) Rice’s political persona: her technical skill at the keyboard and comfort navigating the classical canon helped kneecap sexist or racist doubts about an African-American woman’s ability to lead in the technocratic and elite world of geopolitics.

These rhetorically effective examples of political music making share a particular characteristic: they all rely on signifiers that are unambiguous and unitary in meaning for a large cross-section of Americans. Classical music and gospel suggest rather stable identifications; the piano and the saxophone reliably evoke the upright in the family room or a smoky nightclub, respectively. The semiotic waters Martin O’Malley has been attempting to navigate with his music making, however, are a bit more treacherous.

His instrument of choice, the guitar, has amassed a web of messy and confused social meanings. Whom the instrument “belongs to” and what it means has been contested from early on. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, the guitar’s social meanings had so proliferated that it was associated simultaneously with both the highest and lowest rungs of society. In the theater, from commedia dell’arte to Spanish entremeses, guitars were connected to outsiders and outcasts: racial, ethnic, and religious “others” of all sorts, blind beggars, various species of miscreants and ne’er do wells (Locke 2015, Wilbourne 2010, Russell 1995). Meanwhile, it was also seen as a refined, galant instrument and was favored by the aristocracy. The guitarist Francesco Corbetta, for instance, made his living by shuttling between European courts as a hybrid diplomat-performer-courtier. Louis IX and Charles II both played the instrument; María Luísa of Savoy, the first Bourbon Queen of Spain, acquired the great Santiago de Murcia as her personal maestro de guitarra in 1702.

Like its slipperiness on the class spectrum, the guitar’s gender associations have also been flexible. The first “guitar hero” we know by name, the fifteenth-century Ferrarese musician Pietrobono, was a man, but as we’ve just seen, certainly by the time of María Luísa many women were avid guitarists, too (Lockwood 1975). In the nineteenth century it was likewise popular among both men and women of the bourgeoisie, and the father and daughter pair of Mauro and Emilia Giuliani each had successful careers as traveling virtuosi. If the instrument in the American twentieth and twenty-first centuries has mostly been associated with masculinity, that is only to forget the guitar heroism of figures like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jennifer Batten, or (my generation’s most interesting player) St. Vincent. Even the gendered meaning of the guitar’s physical form isn’t clear: while the curves of the traditional shape suggest an alliance with the feminine, the electric instrument, especially in those kinds of music colorfully dubbed “cock rock,” has been taken as a phallic extension of the male ego (Walser 1992, Waksman 1999).

Globally, the guitar has been probably the most well-traveled of all instruments, both transmitting musics from its cradle in Europe and the U.S. and learning to fit in wherever it goes; it has been as happy to meld into preexisting styles as it has been to serve as a midwife to new hybrids. From its role in Tehran’s indie rock scene or Japan’s rockabilly subculture, to palm-wine music on Africa’s west coast or Ethio-jazz on Africa’s east coast, the guitar is constantly picking up new meanings, vocabularies, and associations (Bennett and Dawe 2001, Coelho 2003).

Of course, not all of this history is likely to be on the mind of any given American voter as she listens to Martin O’Malley strum and sing. But even in American popular music alone the range of people, styles, communities, places, movements, corporations, and subcultures that have put the instrument to good use make it hard to say that picking up a guitar and playing it has any one clear meaning for an American. Is it an instrument of transgression or tradition? The North or the South? The sacred or the profane? Black or white? Male or female? The future or the past? The only answer is “all of the above.”

Perhaps, then, a rhetorical strategy that embraces the guitar’s fundamental pluralism, hoisting it overhead like Lady Liberty’s torch as a symbol of American values, would be a brilliant musical campaign move. Though I have no real idea how any plucking politician might do that without being an outrageously versatile musician. In any case, that hasn’t been O’Malley’s tack. He has stuck exclusively to accompanying his own singing with an acoustic guitar. At first blush, that specificity might seem to resolve the problem of the guitar’s overdetermined social meaning. But, while it is clear that the acoustic guitar stands in opposition to the modern, industrial, technological cast of the electric guitar, it is less clear what the political implications of that opposition might be. Such an opposition might proceed equally well on conservative grounds of traditionalism, ruralism, and individualism as it would on progressive grounds of anti-corporatism, communitarianism, and cosmopolitanism. So the acoustic guitar might be an emblem of conservatism, progressivism, or neither.

And as it turns out, O’Malley’s two most frequently performed songs on the campaign trail, Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” bear out this ambivalence (again, see the Trax database). The first is a staple of the country repertoire, which, as the Dixie Chicks learned the hard way after criticizing George W. Bush, remains a bastion of American conservatism. Meanwhile the second is an anthem of folk-revival leftism—O’Malley even restores the verses Guthrie omitted when he first released the song for fear of arousing the ire of Senator Joseph McCarthy. And so we are back to the original quandary: what does O’Malley mean by all this? Just whose vote is trying to court?

Martin O’Malley Sings “I’ve Been Everywhere” (October 24, 2015)
Martin O’Malley Sings “This Land is Your Land” (July 8, 2015)

At the end of the day, the answer is probably just that Martin O’Malley really likes to play the guitar and sing songs he enjoys. There is something endearing about that. And though surely a candidate like O’Malley receives better political advice than this guitar player’s two cents, I can’t escape the conclusion that it would be strategic to put his guitar back in its case until he has the spare time to start gigging with his band again. At the very least, O’Malley might consider focusing his campaign repertoire only on songs with unambiguous and relevant political commitments, as he recently did with Guthrie’s pro-migrant tune “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos).” Though even that wouldn’t avoid the political ambiguities of guitar playing in general, nor the even bigger problem that we guitar players have earned for ourselves: a reputation as untrustworthy rapscallions. From the fourteenth-century case of a guitarist named Perrin Rouet—who was prosecuted for smashing his instrument over the head of a someone named Moriset—on down to Keith Richards, we are rightly apprehended as a suspicious bunch (Wright 1977, 15). After all, look at what rock stars can do to a hotel room—it’s certainly not very presidential.

– Brian Barone


Bennett, Andy, and Kevin Dawe, eds. Guitar Cultures. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2001.

Coelho, Victor, ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Guitar. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Kallberg, Jeffrey. “The Rhetoric of Genre: Chopin’s Nocturne in G Minor.” 19th-Century Music 11, no. 3 (1988): 238–61.

Locke, Ralph P. Music and the Exotic: From the Renaissance to Mozart. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Lockwood, Lewis. “Pietrobono and the Instrumental Tradition at Ferrara in the Fifteenth Century.” Rivista Italiano di Musicologia 10 (1975): 115–33.

Russell, Craig. Santiago de Murcia’s Códice Saldívar No. 4: A Treasury of Secular Guitar Music from Baroque Mexico. 2 vols. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Waksman, Steve. Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Walser, Robert. “Eruptions: Heavy Metal Appropriations of Classical Virtuosity.” Popular Music 11, no. 3 (1992): 263–308.

Wilbourne, Emily. “Lo Schiavetto (1612): Travestied Sound, Ethnic Performance, and the Eloquence of the Body.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63, no. 1 (2010): 1–43.

Wright, Laurence. “The Medieval Gittern and Citole: A Case of Mistaken Identity.” The Galpin Society Journal 30 (1977): 8–42.

The Unwelcome Use of Musical Artists and Their Songs by Presidential Candidates

December 18, 2015

In contemporary presidential campaigns in the United States, candidates routinely use popular music in ways that cause musical artists to respond negatively. Indeed, every four years, we now expect that at least some presidential candidates will become embroiled in controversy after a musician complains about their music being used illegally or inappropriately. If you have the feeling that this is a more recent phenomenon that did not always plague presidential campaigns, then you are correct.

Music has played a role in the pageantry of election campaigns since the days of George Washington, and for most of this time, candidates have avoided controversy and legal entanglements over their use of music due to several factors. First, politicians often had unique songs written for them. Second, candidates took advantage of the slow development of U.S. copyright law, which allowed them to borrow and appropriate musical material well into the nineteenth century. Finally, politicians sought out popular artists and composers to use their works at campaign events or, even better, to have the artists themselves perform their own music or variations of those works during the campaign.   

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century candidates typically set their newly penned, campaign-specific texts to preexisting tunes, many of which were associated with multiple sets of lyrics. For example, one of the best-known early campaign songs, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” was sung to “Little Pigs,” a popular nineteenth-century song (Johnson 1884). In 1860, “Lincoln and Liberty” was set to the tune of “Rosin’ the Beau,” an old Irish drinking song (Schimler 2013; Silverman 2002). Since copyright law protected creative property considerably less than it does today, musical controversies did not arise as a result of such appropriations. Indeed, Congress did not include music publication under copyright protection until 1831, and those provisions exempted publications by foreign composers. Many of the popular tunes circulating in the United States were of British and Irish origins and, as such, were exempt from copyright protection. Musical performance was not protected by copyright law until 1897, and protection against unapproved playing of musical recordings did not take effect until 1972 (U.S. Copyright Office n.d.; Crawford 2001).

In many instances throughout American history, candidates avoided copyright pitfalls by using music created by their supporters, but this trend began to decline in the 1960s and 1970s. Drawing upon the successful use of popular music by social movements—including the civil rights, the feminist, and the Vietnam War protest movements (Hurst 2008)—presidential campaigns began capitalizing on star appeal and catchy, well-known lyrics by gradually beginning to use unaltered, preexisting popular music on a more regular basis. Well-known examples include Ronald Reagan’s utilization of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” in 1984 and Bill Clinton’s adoption of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” in 1992 (Safire 2008; Perlstein 2008).

Changing technology facilitated the use of preexisting popular music at rallies, and this practice is now commonplace. In 2012, incumbent Barack Obama used Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own” and challenger Mitt Romney chose Kid Rock’s, “Born Free” (Caulfield 2012; Montgomery 2012).[i] In the current election, Katy Perry’s “Roar” has become somewhat of a battle cry for Democratic contender Hillary Clinton. While pop songs are standard fare, candidates, on occasion, have made some rather strange choices: Donald Trump has used Puccini’s “Nessun dorma,” a standard from the classical crossover canon, while fellow Republican contender Marco Rubio adopted “Something New” by house music duo Axwell /\ Ingrosso early in his campaign, but stopped after receiving a cease-and-desist from the artists (Thomas and Lucey 2015; Roberts and Jacobs 2015; Walker 2015). At a December event at Furman University the candidate made the following statement: “Electronic dance music — I’m a fan of. We just can’t play it ‘cause none of the DJ guys — they all send us letters, ‘Don’t play my music. I’m Swedish. I don’t care about American politics’” (Jaffe 2015).

With the wholesale employment of preexisting popular music in presidential politics in the 1980s and 1990s, the issue of allegedly illegal use of songs came to the forefront.[ii] Indeed, several candidates in recent years—including George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Barack Obama—have come under fire for indulging in this practice (Schoening and Kasper 2012; Rolling Stone 2015).[iii] Some of these cases have been settled with cease-and-desist orders, others through public objections in the media by the copyright holders, and, on fewer occasions, through lawsuits (Jones 2009).[iv] In the great majority of instances, the action has resulted in withdrawal of the song from the candidate’s campaign playlist, which has generally satisfied the complainant against the campaign. In addition to potential copyright infringement cases, complaints have arisen because candidates may have secured permission from a copyright holder who is not the musical artist, but the performer objects, claiming, among other things, an improper implied endorsement.

One of the first documented cases of alleged copyright infringement by a campaign occurred in 1996 with the band Chicago halfheartedly objecting to Bill Clinton’s use of its song “Beginnings.” It appears that Clinton secured rights from the publisher to play the song at the Democratic National Convention and even had the endorsement of some of the band members. However, the song’s composer, Chicago keyboardist Robert Lamm, did not support Clinton. According to one source, Lamm stated, “I am not endorsing Bill Clinton. There are probably candidates who have thrown their hats in the ring that I’m more aligned with, like Ralph Nader, but when I step into the [voting booth], it’s my informed, private decision” (M. Newman 1996). The press generated by the dispute probably did not harm the Clinton candidacy, but it did bring to the forefront the issue of implied endorsements and ownership of artistic property.

A much more dramatic reaction from an artist occurred during the 2008 election with Sarah Palin, when the GOP selected the 1977 song “Barracuda” by the rock band Heart for her intro at the Republican National Convention. The song was chosen for its title and lyrics as the Alaska Governor had earned the nickname “Sarah Barracuda” while playing high school basketball. After the song was played at the convention, lead singer Ann Wilson and guitarist Nancy Wilson claimed that the McCain-Palin campaign had not sought consent from them, Universal Music Publishing, or Sony BMG (Bertelsmann Music Group). As the Wilson sisters remarked, “The Republican campaign did not ask for permission to use the song, nor would they have been granted that permission.” McCain-Palin campaign officials countered with the following statement: “Prior to using “Barracuda” at any events, we paid for and obtained all necessary licenses.” This prompted Heart to offer a response of their own: “We have asked the Republican campaign publicly not to use our music. We hope our wishes will be honored.” When the song was played again at the same convention, the Wilson sisters issued the following statement: “Sarah Palin’s views and values in NO WAY represent us as American women…We ask that our song, ‘Barracuda,’ no longer be used to promote her image.” The McCain-Palin campaign apparently had obtained copyright permission to use the song because its public performance was licensed under a blanket fee paid to ASCAP by the hosting Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, although this did not fully resolve the band’s issue of an unwanted implied endorsement (Michaels 2008; Goodman 2008).[v]

During the 2012 Republican primaries, Mitt Romney received some negative press for playing the song “Wavin’ Flag” by singer K’Naan at a rally he held the night he won the Florida Republican primary. According to a Romney campaign spokesperson, the song was used under a blanket license that the campaign had obtained. K’Naan, however, was upset, stating “I have not been asked for permission by Mitt Romney’s campaign for the use of my song. If I had been asked, I would certainly not have granted it.” In fact, the artist went on further to supply his own endorsement by stating, “I would happily grant the Obama campaign use of my song without prejudice.” While still claiming they did not violate copyright law, the Romney campaign decided to stop playing it within days, claiming the following: “The song was used through our regular blanket license, but we respect K’Naan’s statement and will not use his music again” (Paine 2012; “K’Naan” 2012). Ultimately, the campaign opted to respect the artist’s wishes, averting any unwelcome attention through a lawsuit.

A final example occurred in the summer of 2015 when Donald Trump joined the Republican Party’s presidential field, entering his kick-off rally to the song “Rockin’ in the Free World” by Neil Young. Young’s management soon released the following statement in response: “Donald Trump was not authorized to use ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’ in his presidential candidacy announcement…Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Bernie Sanders for President of the United States of America.” Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, challenged Young’s assertion, stating, “We’ve done everything legal and by the book…The Trump campaign for President wrote two checks, which were cashed, and signed two contracts: One was with ASCAP and the other was with BMI [Broadcast Music, Inc.]. We have two legally binding contracts in place that allow us to go to their repertoire of music and use those [tracks] legally” (Chappell 2015; J. Newman 2015).

Indeed, in addition to potential copyright law violations, a presidential campaign needs to be careful not to play music in a way that improperly implies a musical artist is endorsing the candidate. This issue of implied endorsement presents a relatively new problem for campaigns. It is often the songwriter and/or performer of the song who hold(s) its copyright. However, sometimes a person or entity other than the performer is the copyright holder, and the singer only performed the song. To complicate matters further, copyright holders generally belong to ASCAP, BMI, or other organizations that collect fees for the songs in their respective catalogues. “By law, ASCAP [and other such agencies are] required to grant a license to any business, including political campaign organizations, that requests it, provided all paperwork is in order” (J. Newman 2015).

This presents a quandary for modern campaigns and a challenge for songwriters. A campaign may think it is fully within its legal rights to use a song by securing a blanket license from the proper entity, but a musician can publicly announce that they never would have given permission if they had been asked. In fact, ASCAP warns political hopefuls of this potential issue as part of a website resource entitled “Using Music in Political Campaigns: What You Should Know.” In this document, ASCAP explains,

If an artist does not want his or her music to be associated with the campaign, he or she may be able to take legal action even if the campaign has the appropriate copyright licenses. While the campaign would be in compliance with copyright law for playing the music, it could potentially be in violation of other laws…As a general rule, a campaign should be aware that, in most cases, the more closely a song is tied to the “image” or message of the campaign, the more likely it is that the recording artist or songwriter of the song could object to the song’s usage in the campaign (ASCAP n.d.).

In such cases, candidates may have eliminated the legal battle over copyright but still might face negative publicity or a suit for improper implied endorsement. The relevant federal statute here is the Lanham Act, which enforces trademark protections and prohibits false advertising. For instance, when Donald Trump used Aerosmith’s song “Dream On” at campaign events in the fall of 2015, the band’s front man Steven Tyler objected (even though Trump had invited Tyler to the first Republican presidential debate and Tyler himself is a Republican). However, Tyler was not raising a direct copyright issue here; instead the letter to Trump’s campaign from Tyler’s lawyer specifically referred to the Lanham Act, indicating the lawyer’s opinion that Trump was falsely making the public think that Tyler and the band endorsed Trump for president (Sisario 2015). Actions like this may cause some voters to think that these are examples of dishonest politicians trying to ignore the law. Obviously, this can have a negative effect on a candidate’s image.

How do candidates avoid these issues? 

First, candidates and their campaign managers can select songs by artists who represent them and their political ideas. By playing songs by artists who are more likely to support a candidate’s ideology, there is less likelihood that the artists will claim an improper implied endorsement.

Another strategy would be to approach the artist directly and secure permission to use the song. By doing this, a candidate can ensure the artist’s cooperation and, possibly, secure an actual endorsement. Further, a candidate may also be able to engage an artist to perform at a campaign event as a way to bring out a larger crowd to hear the message.

Overall, one of a presidential candidate’s main purposes behind using songs is to reinforce the campaign’s message(s), by creating congruity between lyrics and campaign rhetoric. However, campaigns have trended toward the use of popular music over the past few decades as a way to both a) take advantage of a song’s popularity, and b) to associate the candidate(s) with a popular celebrity artist. It is much easier for a campaign to gain traction with the voting public by using music that has already made its way into the mainstream pop scene, as opposed to commissioning original songs and trying to make them popular during the course of the campaign cycle. 

In the end, music has a powerful effect on people, which explains why presidential candidates want to use it to help promote their messages.[vi] Whether it is copyright infringement or improper implied endorsement, these ostensibly illegal actions, and the possible negative publicity or lawsuits that may follow, risk distorting those messages. As a result, campaigns would be well-advised to make sure that their use of music falls within the law.

– Eric T. Kasper and Benjamin S. Schoening


ASCAP. “Using Music in Political Campaigns: What You Should Know.” ASCAP, November 26, 2015.

Caulfield, Keith. “Bruce Springsteen Gets Obama Bump, Song Sales Rise 409%.” Billboard, September 12, 2012.

Chappell, Bill. “Neil Young Is Displeased that Donald Trump Was ‘Rockin’ In The Free World.’” NPR, June 17, 2015.

Crawford, Richard. An Introduction to America’s Music. New York: Norton, 2001.

Goodman, Dean. “Rock Group Heart Says ‘Barracuda’ Use Is Fishy.” Reuters, September 8, 2008.

Huffington Post. “K’Naan: Mitt Romney Did Not Have Permission to Use ‘Wavin’ Flag.’” February 1, 2012.

Hurst, Craig W. “Twentieth-Century American Folk Music and the Popularization of Protest.” In Homer Simpson Goes to Washington: American Politics through Popular Culture, edited by Joseph J. Foy, 217–32. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2008.

Jaffe, Alex. “Marco Rubio Courts College Voters in South Carolina, Gets Cease-and-Desist Letters.” NBC News, December 12, 2015.

Johnson, Helen Kendrick. “The Meaning of Song.” In The North American Review, Vol. CXXXVIII, edited by Allan Thorndike Rice. New York: n.p., 1884.

Jones, Ashby. “John McCain, Jackson Browne, Bury the Hatchet Over Use of Song.” Wall Street Journal, July 21, 2009.

Michaels, Sean. “Sarah Palin’s Heart-less Use of Soft Rock.” The Guardian, September 8, 2008.

Montgomery, James. “Mitt Romney ‘Free’ to Use Kid Rock’s Song.” MTV News, October 12, 2012.

Newman, Jason. “Trump Campaign: We’ll Stop using Neil Young’s Music.” Rolling Stone, June 17, 2015.

Newman, Melinda. “Presidential Musical Race Heats Up: Genesis Boxed Set Postponed One Year.” Billboard, September 28, 1996.

Paine, Jake. “Mitt Romney’s Camp Agrees To Stop Using K’Naan’s ‘Wavin’ Flag.’” Hiphopdx.com, February 3, 2012.

Perlstein, Rick. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. New York: Scribner, 2008.

Roberts, Dan, and Ben Jacobs. “After Gaffes and Flip-Flops, Republicans Ask: Who Can Stop Trump?” The Guardian, November 28, 2015.

Rolling Stone. “Stop Using My Song: 34 Artists Who Fought Politicians Over Their Music.” July 8, 2015.

Safire, William. Safire’s Political Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Schimler, Stuart. “Campaign Music.” In Music in American Life: An Encyclopedia of the Songs, Styles, Stars, and Stories that Shaped Our Culture, vol. 1, edited by Jacqueline Edmondson, 177–78. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2013.

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

Silverman, Jerry. Of Thee I Sing: Lyrics and Music for America’s Most Patriotic Songs. New York: Citadel Press, 2002.

Sisario, Ben. “In Choreographed Campaigns, Candidates Stumble over Choice of Music.” New York Times, October 12, 2015.

Thomas, Ken, and Catherine Lucey. “Katy Perry Joins Bill and Hillary Clinton at Iowa Campaign Rally.” Huffington Post, October 24, 2015.

U.S. Copyright Office. “A Brief History.” U.S Copyright Office, accessed November 24, 2015.

Walker, Hunter. “Swedish House Musicians Ask Marco Rubio to Stop Using Their Song.” Business Insider, April 14, 2015.

[i] Barack Obama’s 2012 Spotify playlist can be accessed at https://play.spotify.com/user/barackobama/playlist/6J9kgSvipjimfDLYTsCOAv; Mitt Romney’s playlist can be accessed at https://play.spotify.com/user/mittromney/playlist/5QrwBrWOXSWWdWilN98BPS.

[ii] This development coincided with a general rise of litigation over ownership of intellectual property.

[iii] See, e.g., George H. W. Bush’s use of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in 1988, George W. Bush’s use of Sting’s “Brand New Day” in 2000, Barack Obama’s use of Sam and Dave’s “Hold on, I’m Comin’” in 2008, and John McCain’s use of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in 2008.

[iv] See, e.g., Jackson Browne’s lawsuit against John McCain and the Republican Party for using his song “Running on Empty” in 2008. The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum of money in 2009.

[v] ASCAP is the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. It is the firm that collects royalties on behalf of composers and copyright owners.

[vi] One need only look to books such as Musicopheia by late Oliver Sacks, This Is Your Brain On Music by Daniel J. Levitin, or Music, The Brain, and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination by Robert Jourdain to get a glimpse of the power that music has to influence and affect people and why candidates would want to utilize this asset in their campaigns.

Dancing Around the Double-Bind: Gender Identity, Likability, and the Musical Rebranding of Hillary Clinton

November 29, 2015

From the New York Times to Saturday Night Live, media surrounding Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign has centered around that ever-elusive (yet seemingly critical) trait: likability. The former First Lady and Secretary of State has endured a long history of criticism due to her perceived elitism and aura of inaccessibility (Leibovich 2015). Naturally, this poses a unique challenge for Clinton in her bid for the presidency. How does a figure with such a potent public persona reshape her image in time for election season?

Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s campaign team has already instituted a series of tactics for dealing with this very issue. Whether by locating Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn— arguably the hipster capital of the east coast—or by racking up a formidable number of celebrity endorsements, her team’s early attempts have been widespread and diverse in nature. In a throwback to a tactic used by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the last presidential election cycle, Clinton’s campaign team has released a series of Spotify playlists on her public Spotify account. As Dana Gorzelany-Mostak demonstrates in her research on campaign 2012, candidate playlists can “act as a form of social currency, a type of information or ‘buzz’ about a candidate’s brand that citizens can share as a part of their daily lives” (Gorzelany-Mostak 2015). Clinton’s most recent playlist, entitled Girl Power (released on September 24, 2015), showcases a variety of woman-fronted anthems that traverse genres and decades in their exaltation of female resilience.

Hillary Clinton’s Girl Power Playlist

From the bucolic twang of the Dixie Chicks to the sexy pop-feminism of Beyoncé, the diverse femininities represented in this playlist share a common factor in their mass appeal and accessibility. While this playlist is merely one tool in her team’s arsenal, it is a fascinating example of the underlying gendered dialogue that surrounds Clinton’s quest for likability. In this essay, I seek to unpack the ways in which Clinton’s gendered persona has both been shaped and damaged by the catch-22 of sexist expectations for women in politics. Then, I engage with the Clinton campaign’s “Girl Power” playlist, exploring some of the potentialities and ramifications of using other women’s displays of power as a stand-in for Clinton’s contested political presence.

In order to contextualize this playlist, we must first examine the ways in which dialogues surrounding Clinton have been shaped by her perceived failure to perform femininity. From some of her earliest high-profile political appearances, detractors have derided Clinton for her unfeminine, “careerist” ambitions (Burden and Mughan 1999, 238).  In their survey of media coverage related to Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Joseph Uscinski and Lilly Goren state that Clinton “endured a long history of criticism because in the minds of many, she embodies not only a stereotypical (and negative) representation of second wave feminism, partly due to her unconventional approach to the role of first lady, but also because she represents female progress in general” (Uscinski and Goren 2011, 884–85). Whether it be another jab aimed at her pantsuits or the media’s tendency to refer to Clinton by her first name significantly more often than her male counterparts, conversations surrounding the candidate reveal the ways in which the media has quietly shaped public perceptions of Clinton in a way that delegitimizes her political authority (892).

As such, the male-dominated field of national politics, and in particular, the office of president, has presented a double-bind for Clinton throughout her political campaign: appear more feminine and potentially be perceived as weak, ineffective, or intellectually inferior, or adopt traits associated with male dominance and be depicted as shrill or harpy-like (Duerst-Lahti 2006, 22). In her analysis of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Kathryn Kish Sklar argues that Clinton upheld the “masculine mystique” of the presidency by emasculating her primary opponent, Barack Obama, and supporting a hardline approach to military force. Ultimately, however, this machismo approach distanced Clinton from potential female supporters (Sklar 2008, 321).

How then do we begin to interpret Clinton’s “Girl Power” playlist, a Technicolor celebration of feminine strength? First, we need to situate Hillary Clinton in the labyrinthine, multidimensional world of gender. Here, I invoke the wisdom of gender theorist (and self-proclaimed gender outlaw) Kate Bornstein. Bornstein uses the image of a many-sided pyramid to explain the infinite number of gendered identities that exist, with each side representing a trait that entails a certain level of power (or lack thereof). Atop the pyramid is “The Perfect Identity,” or the identity that confers the greatest amount of power upon the holder in a given society or situation. As Bornstein explains, “At the top we’d have the Perfect Gender and the Perfect Race, and the Perfect Class. So, the culturally-agreed upon standards of perfection just might all converge into one identity that’s got the bulk of the power in the world, and that identity relies on its granted perfection from each of the classifications that support it” (Bornstein 2013, 90).

In light of this relationship between power and identity, it is understandable that Clinton has tended towards the adoption of a “masculine mystique” in her bid for the presidency, considering that the presidency is arguably the closest position to a visible manifestation of the Perfect Identity within the American political sphere. Unfortunately for Clinton, her unconvincing performance of femininity coupled with her masculine rhetoric place her in a precarious position: the feared realm between the poles of the gender binary. As Bornstein later explains, this grey area of gender triggers fear in the masses as it represents the uncertainty of the unknown (132), hardly an enviable position for a politician vying for the most selective occupation in the country.

Here is where Clinton’s “Girl Power” playlist can be seen as serving two interconnected functions: first, it legitimizes her identity as that of “a real woman” (Bornstein, 9). The songs on the playlist all feature female artists, either as soloists or as part of female-fronted acts. All fourteen songs on the playlist celebrate resilience, and the vast majority of the selections are high-energy power anthems that frame this topic in an explicitly female context. The few songs that are on the slower side (including Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” Martina McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls,” and Alicia Keys’ “Superwoman”) maintain the inspirational theme while lowering the nearly frenetic energy of the rest of the mix.

Clinton’s team tactfully chose artists that would represent her well. Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” appears first on the list, which is surely not a coincidence considering that “the face of contemporary feminism” (Loren 2011)—Queen Bey herself—was one of the first A-List celebrities to endorse Clinton’s 2016 bid (Schwarz 2015). A more traditional selection on the list, the Dixie Chicks’ “Ready to Run” initially seems out of place, but upon closer inspection, its dual functions become evident. The titular phrase “ready to run” gains a new meaning in the context of a political campaign. Furthermore, the Dixie Chicks have a history of rebelling against the conservative leanings of the country music world thanks to lead singer Natalie Maines’s highly publicized criticism of then-president George Bush’s stance on the War in Iraq in 2003 (Thompson 2015). Clinton also has a history with the song—during her 2008 campaign, she included “Ready to Run” on the ballot for her “Choose Our Campaign Song” contest, which was launched on YouTube. By selecting such diverse artists with remarkably similar messages, the implicit message of the playlist becomes clear: Clinton is, in effect, the messiah of empowered women everywhere, capable of rallying forces regardless of location, taste, or lifestyle.

This diversity within the musical selections illustrates the second function of the playlist: the lowering of Clinton’s class designation on the Identity pyramid. While it may seem counterintuitive for Clinton to seek the appearance of a lower class status, her high class status clearly plays a role in her “unrelatable” persona (Leibovich 2015). When viewed from the perspective of genre, one of the only uniting factors in the playlist is that all of the music is mass produced and mass marketed. Color lines are clearly crossed, as genres with strongly racialized connotations, such as R&B and country, appear side-by-side. The playlist is intentionally diverse, perhaps too diverse to be met with approval by most listeners beyond those with the most eclectic palates. It seems to exhibit the same sort of nonspecific positivity for which she was derided in the media (Kasperkevic 2015; Diaz 2015). Despite the sheer number of female identities presented, none seem like a suitable fit for Clinton herself. Rather, she seems conspicuously absent from a playlist touting her name. To view the extent of the role that gender plays in Clinton’s campaign entirely from the vantage point of this particular playlist would be both premature and shortsighted. There is certainly more probing to be done into Clinton’s other musical choices, media appearances, and relentless attempts at reshaping a firmly formed political persona. Nevertheless, this playlist indicates the extent to which Clinton and her campaign team are performing gendered acrobatics to court the female (and feminist) vote. In contrast to Whitney Houston’s bold croon on her playlist, Hillary Clinton is not every woman. And if she wishes to ward off any future Onion articles or SNL skits, perhaps it is time for her to stop trying to market herself as such.

– Christianna Barnard


Bornstein, Kate. My New Gender Workbook. New York: Routledge, 2013.

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

Duerst-Lahti, Georgia. “Presidential Elections: Gendered Space and the Case of 2004,” in Gender and Elections: Shaping the Future of American Politics, edited by Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox, 22–29. New York: NY: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Gorzelany-Mostak, Dana. “‘I’ve Got a Little List’: Spotifying Mitt Romney and Barack Obama in the 2012 U.S. Presidential Election.” Music & Politics 10, no. 2 (2015).    

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

Leibovich, Mark. “Hillary’s Eternal Quest for Relatability.” New York Times Magazine, March 20, 2015.

Loren, Arielle. “Is Beyoncé the Face of Contemporary Feminism?” Clutch, May 20, 2011.

Schwarz, Hunter. “Hillary Clinton’s Got Beyoncé. And That’s Important.” Washington Post, May 14, 2015.https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2015/05/14/hillary-clintons-got-beyonce-and-thats-important/.

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