In 1824, Andrew Jackson ran for president with the first semi-official campaign song, “The Hunters of Kentucky,” lauding his victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson was neither a hunter nor a Kentuckian. But what politician lets facts get in the way of a good campaign tune?
Two hundred years later, the 2024 presidential campaign is kicking into gear and candidates are once again cherry-picking the songs they’ll be using to pump up the crowd at rallies, trumpet their pick-me-messages in campaign ads and signal their coolness on TikTok — or not.
For decades, candidates on both sides of the aisle have tussled with musicians who didn’t want their music associated with them, threatening all kinds of legal action. (See: Arizona Republican gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake vs. Tom Petty’s estate.) They’ve been embarrassed. (It was “rather rude,” singer Sam Moore said, for the Obama campaign not to ask permission to use his 1966 hit “Hold On, I’m Comin’.”) Or they just really … misfired. (See: Ronald Reagan vs. Bruce Springsteen.)
Clearly, this is not a task to be taken lightly.
Stinking up the vibe with a bad campaign song probably won’t lose anyone an election. But you don’t want would-be constituents cringing any time you pick up an aux cord. Nailing the sonic selection could galvanize your base and shine up your image. With that in mind, POLITICO Magazine reached out to a host of political consultants and other campaign music experts to find out how to curate the ultimate soundtrack for campaigning in 2023 and beyond — at a time when social media rules the Internet and an ill-conceived TikTok can spread like wildfire.
So, in all seriousness…
Curb your Gen Z staffer
Delegating music choices to the youngest person on your campaign team might seem like a good idea. It’s not. Ignore the Billboard Hot 100, and pick songs you actually listen to — or at least songs that voters will believe you actually listen to. “Your first instinct might be, pick a song that’s relatable to young people or something. But that’ll just miss the mark and it’ll feel inauthentic,” says Rachel Kopilow, vice president and creative director at the campaign consultancy group Blue State.
Learn from Hillary Clinton’s mistakes. Her June 2015 playlist featured hit songs released almost exclusively within the prior five years (think Demi Lovato’s “Confident” and Gym Class Heroes’ “The Fighter”), and nobody bought that she was a legitimate fan. Esquire suggested the inclusion of Marc Anthony’s “Vivir Mi Vida” tells us “that [Clinton] has a social media staffer who took High School Spanish.”
Poor music choices are not simple aesthetic mistakes: They fuel the haters. “Accusations of dishonesty have followed Hillary Clinton for a long time. So is it surprising that this is the political lens through which detractors chose to interpret her playlist? Probably not,” says Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, creator of Trax on the Trail, a research project focused on presidential campaign music.
On the other hand, former President Barack Obama’s eclectic August 2016 playlist — featuring the likes of Chance the Rapper, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and Caetano Veloso — was the most-listened to on Spotify. Sure, he was no longer running for office, which made things a lot less fraught. But candidates should take notes. “If he wants a job curating music when this presidential gig is over,” a Spotify spokesperson told the New York Times, “We’d take him in a second.”
Align your soundtrack with your message
This is Political Campaigning 101. “A particular song is not as important as, what does that song represent relative to the overall brand?” says Bonnie Siegel, founder of PoliticalBranding Associates.
Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” was a great fit for Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 election, because Parton sings about the “working class and working people. And that’s what Elizabeth Warren talks about all the time,” says Kopilow, who worked on Warren’s campaign.
Getting it wrong can be particularly embarrassing. Remember Ronald Reagan playing Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” on the trail in ’84? That wasn’t the patriotic banger he thought it was; the song actually questions our loyalty to troops who served in Vietnam, says Jonathan Millen, a communications professor at the University of New England.
Don’t use music by artists who hate you
Earlier this year, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s use of the instrumental version of a Dr. Dre track in a promo video earned her a cease-and-desist letter by the rapper, who called her “divisive and hateful.” She clapped back: “While I appreciate the creative chord progression, I would never play your words of violence against women and police officers, and your glorification of the thug life and drugs.”
It’s not just Greene. There’s a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to “Musicians who oppose Donald Trump’s use of their music,” ranging from Elton John, to Guns N’ Roses, to Rihanna, to Springsteen. (“Born in the U.S.A.” remains a perennial favorite among politicians, apparently.) Obviously, this didn’t stop the real estate mogul from winning his first election. But candidates blasting music by artists with antithetical views is a strategy that’s “successful until it’s not,” says Jessica David of CN4, a Democratic campaign media strategy firm. “It’s not a story you want to then have to read about yourself the next day when someone with a potentially larger platform than you comes out and has something to say about it.”
TikTok is your playground
The life cycle on social media content is shorter than the classic TV ad that plays for weeks, so there’s an opportunity to take risks and show voters your fun (?) side. “Play up trends and be a little more cheeky, a little more fun, a little more sassy,” David says. When he was running for Congress, Democrat Maxwell Frost — the first Gen Zer to make it to the House — took to TikTok to post a video of himself jamming to salsa during a Pride parade.
You can (almost) never go wrong with a positive, popular hook
Think catchy melodies, toe-tapping rhythms, snappy lyrics, all wrapped-up in a “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” message. Tina Turner’s “The Best”; Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop”; Queen’s “We Are The Champions”; D:Ream’s “Things Can Only Get Better” … you get the idea. And let’s not forget that perennial political campaign fav: Kool & the Gang’s 1980 hit, “Celebration.” These are songs that you can’t get out of your head … even if you want to.
Be aware of deep fakes
In 2020, Trump tweeted a video of Biden playing N.W.A.’s “F*** Tha Police” at an event. As it turns out, the video was a fake: Biden had actually played Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito.” Manipulated media like this will continue to surface through 2024 as user-generated misinformation proliferates. It should go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Candidates, vet your musical sources.
Read between the lines
Watch out for ironic messaging. “It might not be quite the message you want to convey,” says John Street, politics professor at the University of East Anglia in England. Case in point: “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” used as George H. W. Bush’s campaign song, features the lines, ‘The landlord say your rent is late/He may have to litigate/Don’t worry, be happy.’ Given the Bush family’s affluence, “it’s pretty disconnected and tone deaf to be telling folks that can’t pay the rent not to worry about it,” Millen says. (Singer Bobby McFerrin protested Bush’s use of the song, and stopped performing it to drive the point home.)
Save yourself the drama and listen to a song all the way through. (And you might want to consult with a lyrics annotator, like Genius.) At first blush, Beyoncé’s “AMERICA HAS A PROBLEM” sounds like a political track — perfect for a candidate offering themself as a solution — but the artist actually is comparing her fabulousness to the addictiveness of cocaine. (Fans accused Beyoncé of trolling them with a fake political title.)
Tailor music to context
Use celebratory music for celebratory moments, and use serious music to accompany serious messages, advises Siegel. At rallies, candidates should look to create a “vibe” that will “warm the hearts and minds — mostly the hearts — of the people in the room, so that whatever you say, they’re going to love you,” Street says.
Picking music for video is harder: An ad might volley from somber to upbeat as the video narrates a candidate’s humble beginnings before switching gears to their positive-impact policies, and “you need a song that can travel that tone,” Kopilow says.
One good example is a 2020 Democratic get-out-the-vote ad from Eric Swalwell’s Remedy PAC, using Taylor Swift’s “Only The Young” as a backing track. As Swift sings, “They aren’t gonna help us/Too busy helping themselves,” unflattering footage from the time of the Trump presidency — such as Melania Trump sporting her infamous “I really Don’t Care, Do U?” jacket — plays. Then, as the positive chorus — “Only the young/can run” — kicks in, stirring images of young people protesting and dancing in the streets flash on screen.
Tap into the tastes of your target constituencies
“I think the ideal campaign song or playlist should not only authentically represent the candidate’s history, tastes, values, vision, but it also needs to speak to the tastes and interests of the candidate’s core constituency,” Gorzelany-Mostak says. Biden, for example, often uses Springsteen to demonstrate his regular Joe bonafides with the blue-collar set.
“You want to attract Southern voters? One of the obvious routes is to play country music,” Street says. Note: this might not work for all crowds below the Mason-Dixon line. Some might prefer the Southern fried rap of Outkast’s “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad”) to, say, Toby Keith’s country-western anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).”
Pick a song you don’t mind listening to. Again and again and again.
Avoid broken record territory at all costs. According to Kopilow, “picking a song that doesn’t drive you crazy if you hear it over and over is honestly just as important as picking a song that’s good.”
Personally, we’d be thrilled if we never had to listen to Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration” ever again.
But wait! There’s more. Make sure you check out our campaign song playlist:
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