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  • Representational Bind: Why Campaign Music Often Fails
  • Justin Patch (bio)

The musical soundscape of the 2016 campaign was fitting for a race that will live in infamy. The soundscape reflected an angry electorate; surging conservative and progressive populism; tense gender, race, ethnicity, and citizenship dynamics; and incessant pandering by the political classes. The campaigns’ musical selections also contained a share of common cultural slip-ups. From Hillary Clinton’s first playlist, which was comprised almost exclusively of hit songs from the past five years; to Donald Trump’s use of REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” and Queen’s “We Are the Champions”; to Marco Rubio admitting that his campaign received cease-and-desist orders from EDM DJs Swedish House Mafia and David Guetta, the 2016 campaign repeated cultural missteps made by previous presidential campaigns.

Alongside these moments where irony, imitation, and artifice caused dismay and disbelief were other moments of sheer triumph that connected candidates with supporters and fomented enthusiasm. It is these latter occasions that define success: when a campaign’s music creates a cultural intimacy between voters, communities, and the candidate.1 In this assemblage, voters allow the candidate to speak for them, substitute the candidate’s dreams for their own, and imagine that what is in their [End Page 418] heart is righteously shared by all. When campaigns use music successfully, it creates an affective community that allows the imagination of the candidate to place itself into the listening ear of the audience. Efficacious use of music constructs a link between candidate and audience that is emotional, meaningful, and enduring. The Trump campaign’s use of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and the Sanders campaign’s deployment of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” stand as examples of music that successfully endured through the campaign and continues to be synonymous with the candidates and their supporters (although Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider later asked Trump to stop using the song).2 “This Land Is Your Land” also comes with a caveat: the song functioned effectively for Bernie Sanders, who ran on a progressive populist platform that used rhetoric brought into common political vocabulary by the Occupy movement; however, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley, whose musicianship far exceeds that of Sanders and whose platform overlapped with that of Sanders, had dramatically less success with the song.3 While O’Malley rally attendees and political commenters appreciated his talent and taste, few outside of political enthusiasts think of O’Malley when they hear Guthrie’s paean, and musical tributes to O’Malley are few and far between.

What, then, can be made of these successes and failures, and how can the events of 2016 be used to think broadly about music and presidential campaigns? All too often, popular analyses of campaign music look at what worked and what did not as modular cases in isolation. These analyses tend to be based on outcomes—how well the music functioned as part of the campaign, what garnered favorable responses, what withstood critical analysis, or what the winning campaign’s musical strategies were—that artificially link success in the vote with musical erudition. However, there is a need to examine larger structural elements that might cause such dramatic successes and failures in order to theorize a framework for general modes of inquiry into the music of political campaigns.

One framework for analyzing campaign music can be generated from a deceptively simple concept: representation. Candidates are running to become representatives: of their party, the nation, the varied necessities of citizens, the economy, and international interests. Music is also a form of representation. When deployed in the context of a campaign, music can be used to represent many things: candidate, constituency, ideas, ideologies, histories, or affects. While these two regimes of representation—the political and the musical—have points of overlap, they also differ substantially in aim and approach. By synthesizing these two bodies of thought, a theory of musical-political representation can be built to systematically examine why musical representation can succeed but so often fails. [End Page 419]

Political Representation

In The Concept of Representation, Hannah Pitkin points...


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pp. 418-427
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