‘‘All art is propaganda.’’- George Orwell
We live at a time when pop stars pretend to be politicians; whilst politicians feel the need to act like pop stars. Such is the farcical age we find ourselves in. And such is the cultural predicament to have given rise to Donald Trump.
Throughout the 2016 US presidential election, there was much talk about which celebrities were supporting which candidate, and, more frequently, which celebrities had been the latest to denounce Trump. Come January and the topic emerged once more, as Trump struggled to find anyone who was willing to perform at his inauguration ceremony.
I am not entirely sure how this topic was supposed to inform us. As usual, however, the press was able to salvage a story out of something that seemed superficially trivial, and my inclination is that this obsession with pop stars and their feelings towards politics says more about us- the electorate- than it does about those seeking our vote. What’s more, for all that musicians expressed their discontent with Trump’s questionable use of their music during his election campaign; it was, as a matter of fact, their music that figured as an overriding factor in his rise to the White House. Is it possible that perhaps it wasn’t Russian hacking, Hilary’s emails or Trump’s controversial remarks that gave him the edge over his rival, but something much more subtle and insidious than that, namely, pop music?
‘Trump’s appropriation of music for his political agenda should hardly come as a surprise. Music has always accompanied American politics ever since the beginning of the democracy itself.’
The world of marketing has long been aware of the benefits pop music can bring when it comes to influencing consumers, and it appears as though Donald Trump took note for his own campaign. Besides, if his bid for the presidency can be regarded as anything, it could well be regarded as the world’s greatest marketing campaign. After all, it got an arguably unqualified man the most important job in the world, and popular music was integral in reinforcing his populist message to ‘make America great again.’
Trump’s appropriation of music for his political agenda should hardly come as a surprise, however. You may recall the excitement caused by Obama’s iPod playlist back in 2008, but music and the political campaign has a much deeper relationship in American history than this. Music has always accompanied American politics ever since the beginning of the democracy itself. When George Washington became the first American to take the oath of office in 1789, a myriad of songs emerged celebrating their new leader, helping to form a sense of national pride and unity. Of these was the somewhat ironic ‘God save George Washington,’ sung to the melody of ‘God save the Queen,’ the national anthem of the recently overthrown British monarchy. Furthermore, from the 1840’s onwards specific campaign songs would be written to rally up support for a candidate. In 1932, ‘Happy days are here again’ famously became Franklin D. Roosevelts signature tune against the backdrop of the great depression, and, later, the repeal of prohibition for which the pun ‘Happy days are beer again’ was wittily attributed.
In its modern, mass mediated form, however, the campaign song can be traced back to John F. Kennedy’s bid for president in 1960, when buddy Frank Sinatra revamped his hit ‘High Hopes’ in support of the young candidate. This also marked the first political endorsement by a true megastar- a trope which has continued through to this day. Yet this is an aspect in which Donald Trump has differed. Rather than gaining support from high profile stars throughout his campaign; instead, Trump received an influx of anti-endorsements, but it appears this only fed directly into his ‘anti-establishment’ persona.
So why exactly has music played such an omnipresent role in campaign history? And perhaps more importantly, how did Trump’s appropriation of music play into his hands? One answer may suggest that music simply adds to the grand show of political campaigning, particularly in our hyperbolic digital age. But such a conclusion is insufficient. In fact, when employed effectively music can actually be used as a powerful extension of campaign rhetoric, sharing a function similar to that of a national anthem. As regards a political campaign, furthermore, music may be used to reinforce a message and facilitate a candidate’s media persona. By using music already established in popular culture, specific songs also appeal to listeners on a personal level. Unlike language, meaning in music is conveyed not through words but emotionally, and this leaves open the opportunity for listeners to create subjective meaning according to an internalised response to the sounds they hear. Typically, listeners internalise music according to their own emotional needs.
This makes for a strong tool for politicians as they seek to capitalise on music’s unifying qualities, hoping to induce a feeling of kinship between supporters as they share in adulation for a candidate who represents their common ideals. Trump was well aware how his rousing song choices were going down at rallies, and it has been suggested that he was solely responsible for picking his own playlists. Among his favourite artists Trump has revealed The Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Queen, Elton John, and, errm, Twisted Sister. It is unfortunate for Trump, then, that amongst many others most of these artists expressed distaste for his use of their music. Twisted Sisters’ ‘We’re not gonna take it’ began, for obvious reasons, as something of an anthem at the start of his campaign trail, until lead singer Dee Snider felt the need to stop this after some of Trumps controversial remarks. Trump’s playlists reveal more than just a fetish for English rock bands and 80’s hair metal, however. Of the many songs played at Trump rallies, a majority fall under the generic banner of what can be conceived as classic rock, a genre typically associated with white masculinity. Furthermore, it is a style that is often claimed to be more ‘authentic’ than the electronic and digital music that dominates the mainstream today. Trump, therefore, tapped into the cultural nostalgia that came to define his campaign, choosing music from an era that would resonate with his core voters- an era when even the music was truly great.
‘At a time when politics is consumed in the mass and digital media, identification and connection with a candidate becomes more important than policy or fact. In this modern age, essentially, all politics is populist.’
Hilary Clinton, on the other hand, proved to be much less adept at exploiting the powers of music. Even a faithful army of pop stars wasn’t enough to salvage her poor public image, and her regular deployment of singing troops throughout the campaign only seemed to highlight her flaws. At a time when ‘elites’ are bearing the brunt of public resentment, Clinton didn’t do much to distance herself from the showbiz elite. Moreover, her signature campaign soundtrack, Rachel Platten’s ‘Fight Song,’ not only left her vulnerable to critics, but directly exposed her Achilles heel.
If indeed campaign songs are essential to the overall branding of a candidate, then this song was definitely unhelpful in marketing Clinton to a sceptical electorate. ‘Fight Song’ may be a track about overcoming struggle, but it actually communicates a feeling of emotional defeat- hardly a message you want to convey as a presidential nominee. Compare, for instance, with Trumps boastful use of Queens ‘We are the Champions,’ a song he played at rallies even as he lagged behind in the poles. Whilst Clinton was defining herself through a song that claimed ‘everybody’s worried about me’ and ‘wrecking balls are inside my brain,’ Trump had a playlist that connected with his voters and enhanced his ‘outsider’ image.
‘When employed effectively music can be used as a powerful extension of campaign rhetoric. Furthermore, music may be used to reinforce a message and facilitate a candidate’s media persona.’
At a time when politics is consumed in the mass and digital media, identification and connection with a candidate becomes more important than policy or fact. In this modern age, essentially, all politics is populist. Pop music, a cultural artefact used by individuals to signify their identity, is therefore a key way in which politicians can reach out to voters. Barack Obamas use of Hip Hop and Soul in his successful 2008 campaign demonstrated this, but his media savvy approach to campaigning always left open the opportunity for someone from the right to replicate this. As a popular TV showman, Trump ‘entertained’ his way to the White House, and his long list of patriotic rock songs supplemented his nationalistic campaign. With Trump’s victory, politics has truly passed over into the realm of showbiz. But this has been coming for some time. The next four years will unravel like a reality TV show- brought to us directly through our televisions, laptops and smartphones, and in it we are all participants acting out our social roles.
I remember sitting at an inconspicuous Massachusetts bar a few weeks after the vote. ‘People just don’t get it,’ blurted out the stranger sat next to me. He laughed ironically as he scrolled through his unending Facebook feed, clogged up with posts from the lefty media. ‘It was all about the show,’ he implored, ‘we wanted the show!’ Four months down the line and with a new occupant in the white house, to use a phrase from one of Trumps own favourite bands- now the show must go on.