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This Is What Democracy Sounds Like
Reflections on Pop Songs in the 2016 Campaign
Justin Patch (Vassar College)
The 2016 presidential election resonated to the strains of pop music. From Broadway crossover hits to contemporary girl-power pop, '60s folk, and classic rock, familiar, comfortable, and radio-friendly music dominated campaign theme songs, mixtapes, and rally playlists. Candidates crafted their musical signatures by entering and exiting the stage to pop tunes selected for their feel-good appeal, aesthetics, message, innuendo, or sing-along chorus. This phenomenon is not unusual — candidates have utilized popular music, beginning with the first presidential campaign, and campaigns constantly adapt to the new ways that popular music is disseminated and incorporated into popular culture. What is categorically different about this election is two-fold. The first is the dominance of pop music, a radio-friendly and industry-connected sub-set of the broader category of popular music. Even original songs written for presidential campaigns, like will.i.am's "Yes, We Can" and Bikini Kill's "I'm With Her" are unapologetically pop in aesthetic and their relationship to mass culture production and distribution. The second is the reception that campaign music gets, the weight attributed to it by both the press and invested citizens. Campaign music, more than ever before, is now treated as if it carries meaningful information about candidates and their potential to perform the duties of the presidency. This is driven by the proliferation of news and social media that provide outlets for expansive analysis and opinion concerning the psychology and ideology of candidates read through music. Campaign music has been released from its position as simply an appendage or accompaniment. The complex and contradictory semiotic codes of musical production, history, adaptation, and reception are now publicly debated, integrated into campaign strategy, and are a ground where political ideologies are confronted and contested.
While campaign officials have never released a statement detailing exactly why pop music is an essential element of campaign strategy, there are two compelling reasons. The first is precedent. Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign success is often coupled with his innovative use of pop music. From "Heartbreak Hotel" on The Arsenio Hall Show to using Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow)," pop music is woven into the narrative of Clinton's victory. This win was bound to spur imitators, and even Clinton's septuagenarian opponent in 1996, Republican Robert Dole, used an adaptation of Sam and Dave's "Soul Man," re-written as "Dole Man" by Sam Moore's wife. The second reason for the proliferation in pop is the expanded media and social media coverage of campaign music. With more bloggers, commentators, and opinion makers representing a diversity of ideological subcultures, a single song, like "Don't Stop" or Brooks and Dunn's "Only in America," is limited in its popular traction. More music gives the campaign a greater opportunity to be written about, talked about, and shared via digital media. It is possible that the proliferation of media and of pop music on the campaign are intimately linked.
From a host of commentary and analysis in the news, blogs, and popular social networking sites, to fan tribute videos, music occupies increasing space within campaign culture and media coverage. While pop music is socially and emotionally important, its expanding role as a validating force and partisan tool is cause for concern. Drawing homologies between campaign music and the candidate is dangerous business: it provides false cognitive shortcuts and relieves voters and media outlets from the difficult work of asking complex policy questions and deciphering complicated answers. Listening to or reading commentary about campaign music in lieu of lending a critical ear to policy is destructive and corrosive, and ultimately allows political machinery, which so often fails to work in the interest of the common good, to continue functioning as is. Utilizing pop music as a partisan tool not only corrupts the democratic process of the campaign as a public forum for competing ideas, it also violates the democratic spirit of pop music as a subjective art form disconnected from hierarchy and judgment. By listening to pop as an indicator of presidential qualification and quality, and allowing campaigns to politicize pop, we turn campaign audition into empty listening and reify the meanings of pop in ways that violate its spirit.
Pop can be put to political uses, and has been used effectively in the past. However, to best promote democratic values, pop's meanings should be passed horizontally, between citizens, not vertically, down to citizens from the culture industry. Pop as a commodity should be a tool with which the people individually and collectively craft their identities, enjoy their leisure, and aestheticize their worlds. In the dynamic digital world of the 2016 election, there were examples of citizens using pop music as part of political participation in compelling ways. These techniques are in their infancy, but hold potential to be more than univocal party propaganda. Pop can be a nuanced and creative tool to express the small political worlds of citizens and communities. Through a theoretical examination of 2016's campaign pop, I argue for the political potential of the musical commodity to be a democratic tool for the cultivation and articulation of new, complex political subjectivities. Following are analyses of example discourses about campaign pop, and three examples of pop used in unusually subjective citizen activism that point towards alternate modes of political argumentation which move horizontally rather than vertically.
Popular Music and Democracy
This chapter examines pop music, as opposed to the broader and more encompassing category of popular music. But before proceeding any further, it is necessary to define terms and craft an argument for the democratic potential of pop. In this chapter, I am defining pop music as music conceived of, written, produced, and disseminated as a commodity: craft rather than art. Pop is oriented towards participation in commercial mass media, and engages with the celebrity system, which subsumes the persona and image of the artist into marketing and reception of the song. This is a sub-set of the wider genre(s) of popular music, which connote music of working class communities, lowbrow or vulgar music, music that is or is modeled on forms of folk and vernacular music, or music that has a clear relationship to mass media and marketing. Popular culture is broadly defined by Stuart Hall as culture which is cultivated by marginal classes. These groups do not have full and unfettered access to hegemonic culture and do not have a direct hand in altering hegemonic cultural practices. It is on these cultural margins (not exclusively demographic or geographic margins) where the popular classes re-work pieces of hegemonic and marginal culture to suit their own needs and desires. In de-industrializing cities DJs took funk records and old recording equipment and fashioned hiphop, disco, house, and dance hall; denizens of de-industrial fallout also sped up the blues and rock and roll to create heavy metal; in Appalachia, rural communities took well-worn forms of Anglo balladry and added new lyrics, instruments, and narratives to reflect local hardships and joys, planting the seeds of Americana, country, and American folk music; at the southern border, Chicano and Mexican farmers added the accordion to guitar and bajo sexto and set border ballads to polkas and waltzes learned from German and Czech immigrants to form conjunto. These are a few of the many examples of excluded and marginal communities creating local culture out of the available intellectual, creative, and material resources.
Pop is a subsequent phase in popular culture's constant processes of creation, appropriation, and hybridity. Part of the process of hegemonic culture's constant renewal is the appropriation and incorporation of marginal (popular) culture. As we can see from the above examples, each of the forms that were once a communally held and locally specific musical practice have become regionalized, if not nationalized and globalized. In this process local forms are often changed to adapt to hegemonic tastes, desires, and limitations, although new forms also exert their own transformative force on hegemonic culture, as disco, hip-hop, metal, conjunto, and country all attest to. As popular music forms are either adapted or appropriated, they are disconnected from their original social relationships and become commodities — cultural products and/or cultural practices that are consumed in a market economy.
Pop music is descended from popular cultural practices, but is a commodity. The music is meant not only to generate profit for its performers, producers, marketers, and distributors, but the music itself is just one part of a larger system of celebrity and commodity marketing. Most of the artists represented on 2016 playlists (with the exception of First Love and, perhaps Woody Guthrie) are professional, and participate in a marketplace for their music, image, and brand. The music they perform is already a mixture of styles, genres, and genealogies, tailored for unapologetic mass appeal, not necessarily for its intended meaning, or to have an effect beyond being popular.
What makes pop music unique, and separates it from the large umbrella of popular music, is that it is a pure commodity. But it is as a commodity that it has democratic potential. Pop music, following Adorno's critique of the culture industry, is flawed for several reasons. First, pop is flawed because of the transcendence and objective value attributed to it — either externally or by marketers. Second, pop is repetitive and standardized, marking it as pre-digested, and seeking standard, predictable, universal responses, something antithetical to individualistic, liberal society. As art music strains towards the transcendent or radical, it does so by rejecting substitution, by making each individual piece a necessity, down to the smallest section, fragment, or note. For Adorno, this represents the height of liberal society, where difference is not just existential, but essential to the whole, and individuality is respected. For Adorno, pop music's techniques of infinite substitution, lowest common denominator composition, feigned profundity, and mindless repetition relegate it to the status of mass-produced emptiness, providing entertainment, escapism, and false consciousness. By requiring nothing of the listener, and encouraging distracted and background listening, pop music actively detracts from the revolutionary or transcendent potential of serious music — turning that into a commodity as well and reducing music to exchange value.
Adorno's critique has flaws that have been extensively deconstructed in cultural studies, notably by the Birmingham School. One serious oversight is that Adorno's critique universalizes the listener and their responses. Adorno assumes a semiotic chain referred to in media and communication studies as the transmission model. This model postulates that the message from the source travels through the medium and to the receiver whole. As Stuart Hall points out, products and commodities of mass culture are often re-worked locally to fit the signifying practices of consumers rather than the ideologies and intentions of producers. Re-signifying practices are an essential part of this process, especially for pop music. Pop music is an empty signifier, one that is easily augmented, altered, and distorted by the whims of listeners. Even the simplest ditties, as we see from "To Anacreon in Heaven," a (relatively) bawdy British drinking song, turned U.S. national anthem, which Igor Stravinsky was nearly banned from Boston for re-orchestrating, and became a Jimi Hendrix subversive classic, can be endowed with contrasting, complex meanings that pique distinct emotions and associations. Modern pop, particularly remix culture, further challenges the fragile universalism of Adorno's critiques, and places pop back into the unmoored space of postmodern ambiguity, contingency, and dynamism.
It is the openness of pop's interpretations that gives it meaning. Contrary to Adorno's assertion that understanding music has been eclipsed by exchange value and that equivalence has replaced meaning, the idea that pop music is made to be an open signifier, in no way renders it meaningless. As an open signifier, pop allows listeners and consumers to attribute an infinite number of meanings to each song — even changing over time as the listener, their identities, and their social situations morph. Pop's democratic potential lies in an almost Kantian ability to be open to individual judgement. Pop eludes universal condemnation just as easily as it does universal accolades. Part of the joy of pop music is that it is a judgement-free pleasure, relieved of the burdens of value, taste, and legitimacy. It should be music to unapologetically satisfy the needs of postmodern individuals and communities, ad hoc or deep-rooted. One song should hold the potential to dance, weep, swoon, romance, or repel, depending solely on the listener and the moment of audition. Pop, as a commodity that the buyer controls, should be polysemic, polyvocal, polyvalent, and resistant to narrativization from above. Unfortunately, this ethos, which leads to broad appeal and listeners in diverse and divergent communities, is what leads political campaigns to attempt to capture lightning in a bottle by using pop music's expansive appeal to pique voter emotions.
In a mass-mediated age where more music is accessible for less money (allowing for differential levels of access), Adorno's exchange-value, transmission model analysis is inappropriate for understanding modern consumption of pop music. Conceptualizing music as infinitely interpretable opens a space to hear pop differently, as having moredemocratic potential than "serious" or expressly partisan political music. It also points to a corollary question about why we give up our freedom to judge pop music subjectively and allow politicians — leaders among peers — to control and determine the meaning of pop, removing it from flexible local and individual control.
Media Commentary and Musical Meaning
Without pursuing exhaustive detail, the 2016 campaign was a pop-filled affair. Pop music comprised official campaign mixtapes, the playlists that filled time while audiences waited at rallies, the music that played candidates on and off stage at events, and the music used in broadcast and online advertisements. Every candidate but one entered and exited rallies to a pop song early on in their campaigns. While the songs used by candidates changed, for aesthetic, strategic, or legal reasons, nearly all the candidates kept their musical selection squarely in the pop vein, save for Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley who used Woody Guthrie's protest-song-turned-patriotic-jingle "This Land Is Your Land." The songs used on the trail, songs that ended up associated with candidates, adopted for fan tribute videos, and written about by journalists and critics, were songs like Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take It," Katy Perry's "Roar," Simon and Garfunkel's "America," Diplo's "It's a Revolution," REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)," and Rachel Patten's "Fight Song." And all of these after candidates who used Metallica's "Enter Sandman," Zac Brown Band's "Homegrown," and Rascal Flatts's "Life Is a Highway" dropped out. A scan of the commentary on campaign music highlights the role of pop and radio-friendly songs throughout the 2016 contest.
In the virtual world, partisans picked this up, using pop music to create new ads and tribute videos, political satire, and mudslinging videos. Even late-night comedy caught the trend, taking opportunities to lampoon both the use of pop music and the candidates' presentation of it. In short, pop music was meaningful to the 2016 candidates, as well as to members of the public, journalists, and professional entertainers.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "You Shook Me All Campaign Long"
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