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The power of popular music in US elections

In the United States, there is a long tradition of using popular music to frame political events such as rallies and presidential inaugurations, turning them into cultural performances. Frank Mehring, Chair and Professor of the department for American Studies: ‘What matters is the sound of the songs.’

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first to use popular music in his campaign in 1932: Happy Days are Here Again by Leo Reisman. Since then many presidential candidates have followed his lead: Frank Sinatra’s hit High Hopes framed the campaign of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan evoked history by selecting Lee Greenwood’s country hit God Bless the USA and Bill Clinton relied on Fleetwood Mac’s Don’t Stop.

Uplifting

Presidential campaign song titles offer reductive, simple, uplifting messages, states Mehring in his analysis article The Power of Popular Music during the 2020 Presidential Campaign. ‘Songs are being selected for reasons that in most cases have nothing to do with the political background of an artist or the original intentions when they were composed’, says Mehring. ‘An example is the (mis)use of Bruce Springsteen’s song Born in the USA in Reagan’s election campaign. Reagan mistook Springsteen’s song for a patriotic celebration of American values, but the song actually offers a double-edged statement about the shortcomings of the American dream’, says Mehring. ‘But what matters is the sound of the songs. In this context music is, primarily, symbolic.’

Trump vs. Biden

In the current Trump and Biden campaign, this tradition remains intact. One of the songs that Trump repeatedly uses is the Rolling Stones’ song You Can’t Always Get What You Want. Mehring: ‘While the lyrics of the first part of the chorus claim that ‘you can’t always get what you want’, the final conclusion is more self-assertive: ‘But if you try sometimes well you might find/ You get what you need.’ For the audience this might imply that Trump will ultimately ‘get what he needs’ to realize his campaign slogan to ‘make America great again’.’

The Rolling Stones, Summerfest in Milwaukee, 2015. By Jim Pietryga - https://www.iorr.org/tour15/, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44341280

In contrast to Donald Trump, his Democratic competitor Joe Biden has refrained from large-scale rallies due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the potential dangers for the attendees. To breathe new life into his campaign, Biden used Justin Timberlake’s hit Cry Me a River over video footage in which president Trump expressed self-pitying comments about being treated in a particularly bad fashion. The caption on the video reads, ‘Over 1 million cases of COVID-19. Almost 70,000 dead. What is upsetting President Trump? Tough questions from the press. Cry me a river, Mr. President.’ Mehring: ‘Adding the sounds and lyrics of Timberlake’s hit-song to the footage of Trump inverts Trump’s original message in order to make a counterargument.’

Power

Although the power of music should not be underestimated it is not likely that musical choices will tip the scale in a certain direction in the outcome of the elections. Mehring: ‘It is difficult to point to specific songs and argue that they made a difference at the ballot. But they do affect the way voters respond to a politician’s performance.’

To read an excerpt of Frank Mehring’s full analysis, download the pdf (pdf, 190 kB). The full article ‘The Power of Popular Music during the 2020 Presidential Campaign’ appeared on Oct. 31 in the latest issue of Atlantisch Perspectief: https://www.atlcom.nl/atlantisch-perspectief/2020-nr-5/