Illustration of flag and music notes

The long, strange trip of pop music and politics

October 27, 2020

Research & Innovation

Associate Professor of Music Joanna Love studies popular music and how it influences a range of areas including advertising, video, and film. She also researches the use of popular music by politicians to influence voters, which has a long history in the American political landscape.

How long has music been used for political campaigning? Was it always done?

The short answer is yes. Music is a powerful tool for both communicating specific messages and uniting people. As early as 1789, a song titled “Follow Washington” was created to celebrate the coronation of the first U.S. president. From then on, songs have been written, performed, published, and recorded for many candidates. Although many have positive messages that rally support for certain candidates, others like “Turn the Rascals Out” (1892), admonish those in office. Two wonderful online public resources for learning more about music in presidential campaigns are the websites: The Living Room Candidate and Trax on the Trail.

Music is tricky since it is understood differently by each listener, and using the wrong track can potentially alienate certain constituents.
headshot of Joanna Love
Joanna Love

Associate Professor of Music

How is popular music and culture used in modern presidential campaigns? 

Presidential candidates use popular music on the campaign trail in many ways, including rallies, conventions, and commercials. In the 21st century, candidates have created public playlists and there has been a proliferation of non-official, user-generated YouTube videos that use pop music to praise or denounce certain politicians. In some cases, famous musicians have even written songs to support specific candidates or policies.

Music is used to attract voters and communicate a candidate’s values and tastes. But as I discuss in my research, choosing popular music is tricky since it is understood differently by each listener, and using the wrong track can potentially alienate certain constituents. When popular music is used, especially familiar tracks, it has the potential to overtake the political message. This is why many political commercials continue to favor the sounds of Western classical music over popular music.

Many times campaigns that use popular music choose a more generic pop-rock sound that will allow audiences to recognize it as contemporary, while still falling into the background to support the candidate’s spoken message.

How have you seen music strategically used in this year’s presidential election?

This year’s election has been unusual for many reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic. I still see a lot of spots using classical sounds. But there are a few notable and unusual ways that music and sound, or the lack thereof, has been deployed thus far. The first is a commercial that aired during the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, on which the program itself deployed countless artists and spots to encourage young people to vote. One in particular stood out: Pepsi-Cola’s “Unmute your Voice”. The commercial was created through a partnership with MTV’s long-running “Rock the Vote” campaign and engages with our current dependency on video calling culture (Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, etc.). Although Pepsi has been a long-time purveyor of popular music in its ads, this commercial is notable for its absence of music, “muting” its protagonists as they speak, and using only environmental sounds to drive home the point that the worries of the younger generations — rising college tuition costs, unemployment, and inclusive communities — will go “unheard” if they don’t vote.

Sometimes musicians object to the way their music is used in campaigns. Do they have much say in how their songs are employed in this way?

This is a complicated question. In legal terms, candidates must technically license any songs they use in a public forum, although there are some loopholes. It is also important to realize that some artists do not own exclusive rights to the songs they record, so their objections may not have any legal basis. I would say, however, in terms of preserving a candidate’s cultural capital and integrity with voters, it is in their best interests to stop using any songs to which its artists object.