Presidential candidates use music to differentiate themselves

Hunter Gierhart

As the 2016 presidential race rages on, the remaining candidates are doing everything they can to win over voters, turning playlists into political strategies.

While Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders compete for the nomination, a stark distinction appears between their campaign’s music choices.

At his rally in Austin on Saturday, democratic candidate Bernie Sanders utilized The Trammps 1976 standard, “Disco Inferno,” which features the notorious line “Burn baby, burn,” — a play on Sander’s campaign catchphrase, “Feel the Bern.” Other choices included Willie Nelson’s 1980 classic “On the Road Again” and a live performance of Woody Guthrie’s folk song “This Land Is Your Land.”

Government and history freshman Max Pearce, attended Sanders’ rally last week. He said the performances from local musicians and the rally playlist made the event an
enjoyable experience.

“It served to remind us of the numerous injustices in America and why we were at the rally in the first place,” Pearce said. “The music did go a long way towards provoking an emotional response towards the movement.”

In comparison, Hillary Clinton’s official Spotify playlist, released last year, doesn’t contain a single folk track or anything before 1999. Of the 13-track playlist, 12 of the songs are from this decade, with the sole exception being Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 hit “Let’s Get Loud.”

The song the Clinton campaign has gravitated to the most, however, has been Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” The song has been used for her rallies on the campaign trail, notably after her Feb. 1 victory speech in Iowa.

Government graduate student Bryan Milward, who attended a Clinton rally last Monday, said he thinks that her campaign hasn’t done as good of a job of utilizing music as her husband President Bill Clinton did in 1992.

“President Clinton had a signature soundtrack with Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,’ and that set the tone for his campaign,” Milward said. “Hillary is trying to reinforce her message with ‘Fight Song,’ but she needs a stronger song to do so.”

While Sanders utilizes older hits, Clinton’s music is noticeably younger, a difference that is amplified by Clinton’s noticeable lack of millennial support.

Assistant government professor Bethany Albertson said while music choices are important, they’re not dominating factors in swaying voters. 

“It’s easy to put together some songs; I don’t think candidates do it thinking this is how they’re going to win voters,” she said. “That being said, I think that when it’s done really well, music can help convey a message or set a tone for a campaign.”

She said Donald Trump is using his music selections to distance himself from the establishment. Utilizing songs like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” Trump emphasizes his political positions.

“His rallies are the anti-political rally,” Albertson said. “It’s also his way of saying ‘I’m going to be a normal candidate, I’m not going to listen to political consultants who tell me what kind of music is acceptable, and if you’re offended that’s your problem.’”

The rest of the Republican candidates however, have been playing it safe, Albertson says. Drop-out candidates Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie both utilized Adele’s nine-week No. 1 single “Hello” for parody videos. Adele songs were a popular choice amongst the GOP until Adele pulled the plug on their usage after footage circulated of “Skyfall” and “Rolling In The Deep” being used at Donald Trump campaign events. 

“A lot of the musical choices are very vanilla, they’re designed to not offend anyone,” Albertson said. “On the other hand, we have really political music that’s meant to challenge us, and that’s not anywhere on [this year’s] campaign trail.”