Rockin' in the free world

May 6, 2016

News, Voices

Presidential candidates and music have been linked since Alexander Reinagle wrote “Chorus” to honor George Washington’s inauguration. Recent candidates and their allies have increasingly turned to contemporary pop music, a trend that’s caught the ear and interest of UR musicologist and assistant professor Joanna Love.
Interview by Matthew Dewald

How did you start paying attention to the intersection of political advertising and pop music?
It stems from my work on music in advertising. That’s been my focus since my dissertation and even in my master’s thesis. Once I got down the path of music in advertising, I stayed with it because it’s a very rich field. It’s something that hasn’t been fleshed out very much in musicology.

Can a candidate’s playlist really tell us that much?
I think that they want it to. They want it to give insight into who they are as people. This is part of our reality TV culture. Who’s the real person, right? What do you do in your private time? It’s supposed to tell us about their values, ideologies, and agendas.

But you point out in some of your research how easy it is for candidates and their allies to make missteps.
If it doesn’t seem like a candidate will listen to a particular kind of music, they probably shouldn’t associate themselves with it. In one piece, I write about a hip-hop song that was created for a Ben Carson radio ad and a country music video created for Hillary Clinton.

With the Carson ad, the flow of the lyrics just doesn’t work. Not only are the lyrics bad, but the music is not rhythmically complex in the way that hip-hop songs are. It just falls flat in a lot of ways.

I would be a horrible candidate. As a musicologist, I know too much.

And the Clinton country song?
Its video has the basic signifiers of country music: a guy with his guitar, his boots, and his hat. He’s got some twang. It uses storytelling in a way that country music usually does, but the topic just doesn’t work. We’re supposed to be taking her seriously for a job, but he’s singing about her as a wife and mother. Many country songs are about love, so in some ways it comes across as a love song, but a lot of commentators found it really confusing as a political ad.

So the problem was that the ads weren’t good fits for the candidates?
It’s important to match the candidate instead of trying to match the population. People aren’t stupid, and they don’t like to be pigeonholed or tokenized. There’s nothing that suggests that Clinton’s a country music fan, so why would you choose that?

With Ben Carson, not only is his hip-hop ad hard to grasp as a piece of music, but he had made a comment — and who knows if it was taken out of context — that hip-hop has hurt African-American communities.

Authenticity is important, but there’s some really obvious pandering that happens.

You’re running for office. What’s on your personal playlist?
Oh my gosh. I would be a horrible candidate. I would have to think so hard about it. As a musicologist, I know too much.

I’m thinking through songs that would be fun — like “Billie Jean,” right? But that’s about paternity. Do I really want a song about paternity on my playlist?

I do a lot of work on Madonna. Her performances are viewed as controversial in various ways by some audiences and scholars, but at home, yes I’m going to turn that on and dance to it.

It’s not easy for any candidate.
The thing I always want my students to understand about music is that there are centuries of cultural codes embedded in it. The sounds themselves, the pitches that are used, the textures, the production quality, who’s listening, who’s creating, who’s composing — all of those play into so many cultural codes. It’s never simple.