- The Unconventional Music of the Democratic and Republican National Conventions of 2016
Political observers concur that the quadrennial national conventions of the two political parties in the United States no longer serve a deliberative function, despite appearances to the contrary.1 However, as a recent study establishes, “conventions . . . represent focal events that have the capacity to perform central civic functions.”2 One could also argue that as fully scripted and staged extravaganzas, the conventions motivate the base, rally the stalwarts who will carry the party message, and promote the candidate for the next three months. This applies of course according to “conventional” wisdom, which dictates that national party conventions are supposed to ratify a platform and select a nominee, affirm party identity, and celebrate collective unity through a four-day spectacle of sight and sound that builds to the climax with the nominee’s acceptance speech at the end of the last day.3 Conventions also market the party and brand the candidate for the public, who typically observe the proceedings by consuming an audiovisual media product that summarizes and critiques the day’s events.4 And through it all, the candidate is supposed to graciously serve as the focal point for the enthusiasm of the hall and television audiences. [End Page 446]
However, 2016 was anything but a typical year for the conventions and, indeed, for the presidential election cycle. Both leading candidates entered their convention with challenges from within their own party that threatened to disrupt the harmony that tradition mandates. Both Clinton and Trump managed to secure the nomination and close the proceedings with an ostensibly unifying musical spectacle that could have come from the pen of Andrew Lloyd Webber, a spectacle that drew media attention to the songs chosen for the climactic “balloon drop.”5 Nevertheless, music had already been hard at work throughout the conventions, doing that which best befits its function, in other words, disappearing—for all but the stand-alone musical numbers—yet accompanying the onstage activities and reinforcing the underlying ethos of the events. And it was through the staging and framing of musical performances that the parties revealed their identities in this idiosyncratic year for the national conventions.
Staging the Sounds of Spectacle in 2016
Not unlike the experience of Richard Wagner’s four-day Der Ring des Nibelungen performance, the musicodramatic spectacle of the convention should uplift and overwhelm the participants, who may travel great distances to attend, again calling to mind the pilgrimage to Bayreuth.6 Music has been traditionally mobilized at the conventions to help create and foster an élan among delegates, to bolster unity on the convention floor, and to fill in gaps in the stage action. As commentator Sean O’Neal observed, “Political parties have long understood music’s power to create a feeling of unity in large, fractious crowds and fill the gaps between speeches, so that no one can actually talk or think about what they just heard.”7 Thus the choice of music and performers for a given convention is quite important, since they set the tone and maintain the flow of the proceedings.
On the surface, the music at the two conventions—at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland for the Republicans and the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia for the Democrats—seemed to follow predictable paths: the Republicans rehired the rock band of G. E. Smith, while the Democrats featured live pop artists and a stage band, this time directed by Rickey Minor (former musical director for Jay Leno’s The Tonight Show). Also according to custom, the live music for the conventions alternated with short recorded tracks to accompany speakers entering or exiting the stage (walk-ons and walk-offs) or extended recordings of songs by original artists for climactic moments in the proceedings. The repertoire choices and modes of delivery at the two conventions, however, significantly diverged from prior practices and clearly distinguished the Republicans and Democrats. [End Page 447]
The music presented at the RNC contained virtually no live performances other than those by Smith and his band, a major departure from the previous convention stage of 2012, which featured an impressive roster...