Trump campaign events are rich experiences — haunting if his politics scare you. But the playlist (which he apparently chooses himself) is almost endearing.
Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” mellow tunes that seem to contrast the anger and divisiveness at the core of his candidacy. Luciano Pavarotti’s version of the aria “Nessun Dorma.” Rockers like “Sympathy for the Devil” that suggest the candidate might even be capable of fun.
Make no mistake: With each note, Trump and every other candidate use music to send a message.
“In studying campaigns, there’s so much emphasis placed on the speeches they give. Even with the way a candidate is visually constructed,” said Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, a professor of music at Georgie College and State University. “I would argue that sound plays a truly significant role in how we understand candidates, and it offers insight into who they are and what they stand for.”
Music has long been a key outlet for social and political comment — the turmoil of the 1960s was a watershed moment in that regard. (In Cleveland, home to this month’s Republican National Convention, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is recognizing the musical/political intersection — from Bob Dylan to Pussy Riot — with an exhibit titled Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics.) And despite the corporatized homogeneity of so much pop music, song is still a major element of protest. Black Lives Matter, for example, has adopted Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” as an anthem. At marches like the one on Monday night in downtown Tampa, activists still sing “We Shall Overcome.”
Gorzelany-Mostak created the website Trax on the Trail, which analyzes the interplay between politics and music, everything from amateur candidate-inspired songs posted on YouTube to the carefully curated Spotify playlists of Hillary Clinton.
In New Orleans, a protest titled “Trumpet Trump Drumpf” requested that activists bring instruments to cause a cacophony at the perimeter of a Trump rally. About a month before that, the website trumpdonald.org went live, inviting visitors to blow a virtual trumpet at the candidate, humorously displacing his notorious coif. So far there’ve been nearly 134,000,000 blasts.
The irony behind many of the songs that get used in campaigns — the older ones, anyway — is that many were written to protest policies embodied by the candidates. Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was famously used during Ronald Reagan’s campaign until Springsteen asked them to stop. Despite Neil Young’s request (since rescinded) that Trump not use “Rockin’ in The Free World,” Trump continued to play it. Elton John has criticized Trump, and the Rolling Stones asked him not to use their music, but both artists’ songs have continued to feature prominently at his rallies.
Some of those songs seem particularly inappropriate.
“I mean, the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar?’ Really?” Gorzelany-Mostak said of one song in the rotation, a song that essentially fetishizes black female slaves (a song Stones frontman Mick Jagger has said he would never have written in the present day).
Unlike his Democratic counterpart, points out Gorzelany-Mostak, Trump has said he picks the tunes out himself.
“He’s making a point in saying this is authentic, this is me,” she said. “So it also becomes a way of him asserting the fact that he’s the real deal. He’s not being manufactured or puppeteered by someone else.”
There could be subtle messages in even some of the odder choices, too — the Pavarotti aria comes from an opera in which the protagonist wins over a cold and cruel love interest. Same goes for “Music of the Night” from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera.
The Clinton campaign’s musical choices appear to be the complete opposite.
Many are recent Top 40 tracks, the kind of music that plays at gas stations and big box stores, performed by polished recording artists who didn’t write them. Spotify playlists her campaign has released include tracks from the likes of Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and Arianna Grande and Katy Perry — in part for their message, but also likely in an attempt to appeal to younger female voters.
“She’s trying to use music that makes her appear more fresh, more hip, more young,” said Gorzelany-Mostak. “Some of this music does have kind of a subtle feminist-friendly message. However, it speaks in a language that doesn’t alienate female voters. So I think she’s trying to speak their language, so to speak.”
Whether that effort falls flat is another question. Clinton has long been criticized for what some see as a lack of authenticity, so playing formulaic, ubiquitous music might inadvertently play that up.
“This is sort of Top 40 music that you hear on the radio,” Gorzelany-Mostak said. “It’s piped into shopping malls, so there’s something monotonous and very generic about it, and that’s certainly a downside to it.”
Find a few of our suggested alternatives to some of the tunes used on the trail here.