Jampaign is a monthly column in which Mandy Freebairn explores where music and politics collide in unique ways. This month, she discusses how Hillary Clinton’s campaign playlist could win or cost her votes.
Two weeks ago, on the final day of the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton emerged onstage to the chorus of Rachel Platten’s chart-topping “Fight Song”. It’s a song that Clinton has used frequently at campaign events, and it’s not hard to see why. In addition to being almost annoyingly catchy, “Fight Song” is a girl power anthem about hard work and dedication, a politician’s dream track: powerful in content but mild in implication. Platten herself is also a perfect canvas for Clinton to slap her sticker on. Hardworking, charitable, no sign of scandal or skeletons. It just works. Clinton has also recruited big-ticket pop stars like Katy Perry to extend her image. Perry performed “Rise” and “Roar” at the DNC and has been public in her support of Clinton. While these icons clearly highlight Clinton’s connection to female empowerment, her campaign music may be going underutilized as the election draws closer.
Much is made of campaign music. Politicians are notorious for misunderstanding the lyrics of songs they choose and angering the artists they co-opt for their campaigns. In short, the music a candidate chooses for their campaign is often a mishandled and underutilized opportunity. It may seem trivial, but some, including Fortune’s Kathryn Cramer Brownell, have argued that music in campaigns is what won JFK the Democratic nomination in 1960. I’ve written before about the power of music as an easy point of relation between politicians and voters (Brownell calls it “a common language for voters across the country to express support”), and relatability is exactly what the Clinton campaign needs right now.
As Donald Trump continues to prove that he can not only push the envelope but rip it to shreds and stomp on it without losing a vote, Hillary Clinton is tasked with appealing to the one group of voters he has an inexplicable vice grip on: older white men. Unfortunately for Hillary, her choice of campaign music might be doing more harm than good in that department. According to a study of Spotify listener demographics, as individuals age past their 20s, their preference for pop music tends to decrease. What’s more, men tend to stop listening to pop music “sooner and to larger degree … than women.” While a barrage of celebrities singing a capella might be great fodder for DNC publicity, it probably won’t help Clinton reach the voters she’s trying to win over.
This is not to say that Clinton should adjust her campaign music to fit the preferences of white men. No, white men have been the center of the political process for far too long. Perhaps she should trade in the pop songs, however, for something that seems more authentic to her character. Apart from Trump supporters, Clinton’s campaign also needs the support of Berniecrats who are now leaning towards a Jill Stein vote. These voters overwhelmingly see Hillary as a duplicitous politician with an artificial image. This is where the pop music falls short. A slew of female-fronted pseudo-empowering pop songs is both too on-the-nose and generic to sound authentic.
Though there is an undoubtedly empowering message in songs like “Fight Song” and “Roar”, that message is often diluted by the obvious artifice of the pop music industry. The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg argues that the emotionally charged girl-power pop songs express the sentiments that Clinton’s politician status prevents her from doing herself. The concept that music can express opinions beyond what a politician can reasonably say gets at the core of why music is a valuable tool. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, music dissolves the lines that are so often drawn between people in the political sphere and appeals to something more innate in all of us.
Contrary to what Rosenberg says, however, Clinton’s Top 40 fight songs might be the wrong vehicle to express these feelings. Sure, the songs have plenty of mass appeal, but that is because they were engineered that way. By using them, she risks people viewing her campaign in the same way: formulated to elicit a pleasurable response, especially through repeated exposure. Needless to say, this is the exact opposite of the message Clinton wants to send.
From what she’s said, Hillary has a fairly different taste in music. She cites The Doors and the Rolling Stones as favorites from her youth. They may not be the underground garage rock we all secretly hoped for, but these are unquestionably great bands, none of which sounds focus-grouped. Using music like this at campaign events would be an easy way for Clinton to show some depth of character to unconvinced voters and add nuance to what is currently a very predictable playlist. Added bonus: No one loves the Stones more than aging white men.
The ironic truth is that Hillary Clinton’s true taste in music (that is, as true as she’s willing to admit) aligns fairly well with the voters she is attempting to sway. Another study showed that the average 64-year-old (Clinton is 68) tends to listen to “a mix of currently popular artists along with a number of artists from years gone by.” Clinton, with her love of Katy Perry and Mick Jagger, is no exception to this. Without changing, then, she can already relate to the voters she so desperately wants to sway.
Campaign music is certainly not the most important part of a candidate’s platform. In an ideal world, voters would look at the concrete plans of each candidate and vote according to the plan that best aligned with their views and interests. But this is not an ideal world, and sometimes the allegiance of a voter really can depend on something as seemingly arbitrary as song choice. But perhaps the music is not so arbitrary. After all, it can send an unspoken message, connect to individuals, and humanize candidates. When used correctly, campaign music could be the bolster to Hillary Clinton’s message that she needs to lock down this election.