The Politics of Pop

Music's Influence on Campaign 2016

It was the last day of the 2016 Democratic National Convention. Convention-goers had been on their feet for four days, celebrating, dancing and supporting their Party. Then, the moment everybody had been waiting for: Balloons rained down, people cheered and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” blared across the cavernous convention floor. Hillary Clinton had just become the first female presidential nominee for a major political party in U.S. history.

Just weeks before, in early July, the Republican National Convention got off to a much rockier start. The Trump campaign was bogged down with issues long-familiar to conservative campaign staffers - young and influential musicians wanted nothing to do with them. This was then exacerbated by Trump very publicly boasting about the number of celebrity endorsements he would be receiving.

The DNC rolled out the red carpet with A-list artists like Lenny Kravitz, Snoop Dogg and Lady Gaga performing throughout the week. Katy Perry, a longtime supporter of Clinton, was given the place of honor and performed on Thursday night shortly before Clinton’s acceptance speech. Perry’s performance helped set the stage for one of the most important political moments in history.

This election cycle has seen a historic rise in diverse artistic voices, thanks in large part to a precedent set during President Obama’s two national campaigns. Musical reactions have run the gamut from user-generated amatuer videos to officially funded and promoted campaign anthems. The most extraordinary part of this new wave of involvement is that it comes overwhelmingly from the traditionally marginalized and unheard.

Music and politics have always been related. From Plato’s comments on the power of music in relation to states to our Founding Fathers using songs to rally support to NWA’s “Fuck tha Police,” music is inherently political.

With the presidential election in full swing, the symbiotic relationship between politics and music is making noise in 2016. Music is carefully curated at campaign rallies, copyright issues spring up in response and politically charged reaction songs get thousands if not millions of hits on YouTube.

"Say What You Wanna Say"

Campaign Strategy

Before Trump’s nomination fractured the Republican Party, the RNC nominated Party darling, Mitt Romney, to duke it out against Barack Obama. John Legittino stood at the helm of this powerful campaign ship as Romney’s 2012 Director of Production and shares the strategies behind music selection for the campaign trail.

In interviews with political and music experts, and over 40 people on the USC campus, people answered a resounding “No” to the question, “Would knowing your favorite musician endorses a particular candidate influence how you vote?” However, Legittino argues that “Most people don’t realize how subliminally affected they are by the power of pop culture on what they like and who they like.”

Most people don’t realize how subliminally affected they are by the power of pop culture on what they like and who they like.

— John Legittino

Not many know exactly what the job of president entails so people look to those they admire and trust to give them signals. When it comes to music icon endorsements, Democrats have Republicans beat and Clinton’s camp is capitalizing on the disparity.

Legittino said, “I can tell you this from having done the Romney campaign, it’s very difficult to get someone who’s popular in the music or entertainment industry to come out and actively support a Republican because nationally, it’s just not cool to be a Republican right now.”

Considering one of the biggest critiques against Romney during the exit polls was that he was stiff and out of touch with the average American, Legittino contends that having some big artists backing Romney could have made a notable difference on the election outcome.

A simple breakdown of musician endorsements during the RNC and DNC further drives this point home. Viewers saw live performances from Katy Perry, Alicia Keys and Fergie at the DNC.

Meanwhile, Trump had to settle for musicians who haven’t been relevant in decades to perform at the RNC, namely Lynyrd Skynyrd, Martina McBride and Rick Springfield. Even then, Rick Springfield made sure to disassociate himself from the Republican Party as much as possible by wearing a shirt that read “Not an Endorsement“ at a performance for the Party.

What the Experts Say

John Legittino

Romney’s Director of Production

A lot of money and energy go into selecting rally music. According to a  Rolling Stone article, Clinton plays the same lineup of 13 songs, including Katy Perry’s “Roar,” Jennifer Lopez’s “Let’s Get Loud” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger” at her campaign stops. This is not uncommon. Campaign strategists will often vet and compile a list of songs for rallies to reinforce tone and messaging, and perhaps more importantly, avoid gaffes.

For example, Legittino revealed that Romney’s camp was considering using the Alabama song, “I’m in a Hurry.” However, the song didn’t make it onto the final list because the line right after the chorus title continues “…and don’t know why.” The lyrics directly contradict with the image of a “decisive, unabashed leader” that Romney’s camp aimed to establish.

With walk-on songs from the soundtracks of “Air Force One” and “Rudy,” Trump’s camp also understands the importance of setting tones. Both pieces have inspirational melodies. When Trump walks out to these songs, the former communicates that the businessman is powerful and ready to get down to business while the latter, called “Tryout,” is about overcoming odds.

Music is such a fixture in political campaigns that even Trump, who prides himself on being anti-establishment and throwing every rule book out the window, is bowing down to the ironclad strategies of rally music selection.

"You Can't Always Get What You Want"

What the Experts Say

Lisa Cooper-Vest

Music Professor at USC

Todd Brabec

Entertainment Lawyer and Adjunct Professor at USC

Music and politics go together like wine and cheese. They’re both fine on their own, though often better together. However, not all musical alliances stem from such a meeting of the minds or blending of desire. Savvy campaign strategists choose songs to reach specifically targeted audiences, and occasionally, use them without permission.

Trump is a flagrant abuser of playing music at his conventions without prior permission.  Just ask Adele, Queen, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

This breach of copyright law is a thorn in the side of music publishers, record companies, songwriters and recording artists. Even though using songs without permission is copyright infringement, candidates still manage to get away with doing so because they aren’t using the songs to make money.

Since candidates aren’t using the musical compositions to sell products or competing with the same audience for record sales, the copyright offenders usually get by with nothing more than a slap on the wrist. Lawyers will send a cease-and-desist letter threatening to sue if they continue using the music in their campaigns. Candidates always comply.

“In the political arena, I know of no case that has actually been pursued because most candidates give it up immediately, “ said Todd Brabec, entertainment attorney and adjunct professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music. “It’s over and done and forgotten, and everybody goes on to something else.”

Historically, once campaigns stop using the music in question, lawyers will recommend the artists and candidates to move on and avoid drawing more attention to the situation. Conversely, music publicists see this association as an opportunity to generate attention for their artists.

“If it was a political party that they supported it might be looked at as an honor. ‘Oh, my God, I can’t even believe they know my music,’ ” said Hip Hop Publicist CEO, DeeDee Branch. However, if it’s a candidate an artist doesn’t support, publicists can release a statement denouncing any affiliation with the politician, stirring extra attention for their artist’s brand.

As long as presidential elections exist, artists and politicians will continue to engage in a delicate dance.

"You're Gonna Hear Me Roar"

Artist Endorsement

Ask pop culture academics and they’ll tell you that the most valuable part of a musician endorsement – or any celebrity endorsement for that matter – is mobilization.

Simon Morrison, a professor of music history at Princeton University calls it “mobilizing the masses,” and believes that the musical elements of presidential campaigns can have a surprising effect on a targeted demographic of people.

Campaign staffers will tell you the same thing. Legittino recalls the importance of obtaining a public endorsement and performance agreement from local hero, Kid Rock, the night before an important campaign stop in Michigan. And while the endorsement didn’t help the campaign win the election, Legittino recalls it seeming to have an effect on a number of people who initially viewed Romney as “stiff and unrelatable.”

Katy Perry’s heavy involvement in the Clinton campaign can be seen as an effort to preemptively address similar concerns that the former Secretary of State is too serious and unapproachable. The campaign hopes that the starlet’s involvement will have a more noticeable effect on voter mobilization come November, especially among the demographic her team has worked so hard to target – young millennials of color.

An important and often overlooked fact about Clinton’s highly curated live musician lineup is that it’s comprised of mostly young, fierce, empowered women. While Morrison calls the music used by the Clinton campaign “Swedish sanitized pop,” the message is still meaningful, even if it’s not complex enough for everyone’s taste.

The overall goal of having top 40 pop artists like Alicia Keys, Demi Lovato and Jennifer Lopez publicly speak or perform live at campaign events is millennial mobilization. However, it’s still significant that most of these artists are women, and many of them are women of color.

Usher, Michael Bolton, Sheryl Crow, Cyndi Lauper, and other musicians sing "Don't Use Our Song" to shame candidates who misuse their music.

The physical presence and vocal endorsement of a musical artist can have a surprising impact, especially on young and impressionable voters who are looking to alternate sources for information and news. Branch sees this all the time and said that “a lot of young people are not keeping up with the news, they’re not watching the debates” and instead “are listening for what their favorite artists stand for.”

The Sanders campaign capitalized on this phenomenon last November, mobilizing an unprecedented number of millennials. Even rapper Killer Mike came out and enthusiastically endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination. While the campaign was eventually forced to cede the nomination to Clinton, a disappointed and vocal group of young Sanders supporters speaks to some element of success on the “Washington outsider’s” end.

Meanwhile, Trump’s meager sprinkling of musician endorsements speaks more to a general distaste for Republican politics among musical elites than any sort of cohesive campaign strategy on behalf of the party. The RNC was widely considered a failure and with live performances from outdated country artists such as Martina McBride and Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Trump campaign looks to be investing its efforts elsewhere.

"Let's Get Loud"

Reaction Music

"Fuck Donald Trump” is a refrain and rallying cry against the bigotry spewed by the controversial candidate from the song of the same name by rappers YG and Nipsey Hussle.

The two gangsta rappers were so angered by Trump’s racist rhetoric that they made a song in protest, calling for a union of black and brown people to stand up to the verbal attacks made against both of these communities.

What the Experts Say

Chris Cafero

Creator of Clinton Reaction Video

Simon Morrison

Music Professor at Princeton University

It’s songs like these that show how music can spark conversation and serve as outlets for the traditionally marginalized. “Our hip-hop artists are our political commentators. Something happens in our community and we are pushed to creatively paint pictures that provoke thought and appeals to what’s happening," said Branch.

This election cycle and its candidates have lent golden material to reaction songs. But rather than A-list artists, this type of music comes from more grassroots beginnings and is mostly created by local artists in the form of user-generated videos.

For example, young Baltimore rappers Dooley, Tlow and Lor Roger made "Choppa in a Trunk 4 Donald Trump" in response to Trump’s anti-immigrant sentiments. Using hip-hop as a platform to voice their opinions, these young artists have taken full advantage of a genre that’s historically political to participate and contribute to the current political discourse.

Positive reaction music exists as well. The Mexican-American Norteño group, “Grupo La Meta,” used a traditional Mexican genre to make a pro-Bernie corrido called “El Quemazon” (The Burn a.k.a The Bern). Corridos are narrative songs in Spanish that flourished during the Mexican Revolution and often depict tales of heroes and adventures. In the case of “El Quemazon,” Bernie Sanders is portrayed as a Robin Hood-like hero fighting against the wealthy on behalf of the poor.

Both rap and corridos lend themselves to storytelling and protest. “We’re seeing people who wouldn’t necessarily have the means of production to create that kind of protest. And with viral media, they can gain a powerful voice especially within the sub communities in which they are living, working, speaking and singing,” said musicologist and professor at USC’s Thornton School of Music, Lisa Cooper-Vest.

In analyzing the relationship between music and politics, New York-based actor, writer and comedian, Chris Cafero, reminds us of a powerful truth. The ability to criticize our leaders is “what sets us apart as Americans, that we're allowed to do that because there are just many places where you can't.” Cafero’s musical parody of Clinton stands as the ultimate testament.

Music puts an exclamation mark on every stage of a presidential election. For President Obama, his historic victory was capped off with Beyonce’s moving and momentous rendition of “At Last” at his first inauguration ball. Whether this year’s election season ends in Hillary Clinton making history or Donald Trump breaking the future, the scene is sure to be set to the soundtrack of another unforgettable musical moment.

Rally Music


Reaction Music

Chris Cafero's viral parody pokes fun at voter apathy for Hillary Clinton.

Juve Quintana's "Corrido" establishes Bernie Sanders as a folk hero among the marginalized.

YG and Nipsey Hussle responds to Donald Trump's policies through hip-hop music.