In the 1997 motion picture satire Wag the Dog, the president of the United States is caught in a sex scandal during an election year. His spin doctor, a Mr. Fixit, hires a Hollywood film producer to conjure up a variety of lavish but fictitious incidents on TV in order to redirect the attention of voters from the lurid scandal. These fake scenarios, made to look real, are lavishly staged and produced, exploiting music as a central part of the artifice. The late film critic Roger Ebert said in response to the film, “It is getting harder and harder for satire to stay ahead of reality.”1 This issue, dedicated to music and the 2016 US presidential election, will show that in Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton for president we have now arrived!
The essays and pedagogical segments included in this issue provide numerous examples of how tones can function as powerful operators [End Page 413] within the political landscape, especially when, for audiences, the presidential candidate and not the music takes center stage. The ear is far less developed than the eye, so says the political musician Hanns Eisler, and in our society, we tend to privilege sight over sound, a value expressed in phrases like “seeing is believing.” That music does not dominate or that it caters to the undeveloped ear (i.e., it lies under the direct radar of most audiences) does not lessen its impact or importance in presidential politics. Instead, music’s ability to remain unobtrusive allows it to operate on a different plane and within an intricate web of interrelated texts, a dependency that immediately expands and problematizes the critical boundaries for the critic but also enlivens the study of music in such contexts. In essence, like the political commentator, whose function it is to unmask the political rhetoric and inform the public of what is at stake, so too must the music critic decode the manipulative nature of music and reveal how it functions and operates within the wider contextual ecosystem of political culture. Music’s relationship within the political complexity, whether subliminal, covert, inaudible, direct, or indirect, gives music its greatest advantage, invoking a vast network of signification, associations, and connections within and outside the context; therefore, music provides a highly rich interpretive pallet from which to draw cultural meaning. These essays elevate and celebrate the function of music, exposing in a multitude of ways how music can mean. In this context, music and the critic have never been more vital.
The flurry of musical activity surrounding Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy gave rise to a robust body of scholarly literature addressing multiple facets of the campaign soundscape—official and unofficial—from diverse disciplinary perspectives. Although 2012 did not witness the same level of musical creativity and coverage, in 2016 campaign music, especially the rally playlists of Donald Trump and the groundswell of fund-raising and awareness activities spearheaded by musicians, garnered attention in journalistic circles and provoked much chatter across social media platforms.
This activity motivated the founding of Trax on the Trail, a web-site devoted to the study of American presidential campaign music. Launched at Georgia College in December 2015, Trax on the Trail brings together an interdisciplinary team of students and academic experts from the fields of political science, musicology, sociology, history, communications, media studies, and ethnomusicology. In order to track and analyze the 2016 soundscape, research assistants at Trax on the Trail created “Trail Trax,” a MySQL database built inside the Drupal content management framework, for the purpose of cataloging campaign music. As of November 8, 2016, Trail Trax reached over eight thousand entries, creating the first attempt to establish a comprehensive record of the musical activity surrounding a single campaign. Trax on the Trail has also published [End Page 414] numerous essays, podcasts, and interviews that investigate the composition of the 2016 campaign soundscape from a variety of perspectives. A database including bibliographic entries for over thirteen hundred articles on campaign music and educational materials such as lesson plans and lecture slides make the website a valuable resource not only for journalists and scholars but also for educators...