Facing the Music: Presidential Playlists in the 2020 Election
Victoria Mann explores how the presidential candidates used music on the campaign trail during the 2020 election
Music has always been a powerful marketing tool, and just like in mainstream advertising, the music used during political campaigns serves to influence voters, and give them a sense of the candidate’s message. Campaign teams choose songs which they believe will appeal directly to each individual voter pool; using older songs for older voters, and chart hits to entice the youth vote. However, during an event as heated as a presidential election, these song choices can create real controversy, either due to a misstep in lyrical message, or backlash from the artists themselves. So did the candidate’s choices strike the right note with voters, or did their song selections fall flat?
In June 2020, Trump was threatened with legal action from The Rolling Stones for using their song, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, at a political rally in Oklahoma. They had previously expressed their disapproval when he played the song on multiple occasions during the 2016 presidential campaign trail, and so when the President continued to defy their wishes, they began working with BMI to bar the use of the track from political functions. Other musicians who denounced the Republican leader’s hijacking of their songs, as part of both rallies and ad campaigns, included Adele, Linkin Park, Queen and Rihanna.
After this musical controversy came another, as Trump began ending many of his rallies with Village People’s megahit ‘Y.M.C.A’. Although the band themselves were not as angered by this as some other stars, stating that under licensing laws they had no choice in the matter, their lead singer, Victor Willis, clarified that they in no way endorsed Trump, but were pleased to see that the song had re-entered the charts as a result of these rallies. Beyond a lack of endorsement from the artist, internet users were quick to point out the other controversies surrounding the song usage. Firstly, many would say that there is a strong sense of irony in the use of what is deemed a gay, disco anthem, at an event primarily attended by America’s most conservative, and in some cases homophobic, citizens. Moreover, countless Y.M.C.A locations have been shut down over the past few decades as a direct result of the gentrification of cities like New York, in which Trump himself played a role. However, the seriousness of these concerns has been largely overshadowed by the immense number of videos mocking the President’s dancing to the track, which have taken over sites like Twitter and Youtube. Although to some extent, this is still a win for Trump’s critics.
During the Democratic Primaries and the lead up to the election, President-elect Joe Biden chose to end many of his speeches with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, perhaps hoping to emulate the singer’s working-class hero status. As with some of Trump’s choices, this may be viewed as a misstep, particularly due to the central topic of immigration policy during the election, it still managed overall to convey the message that Biden was willing to stand up for anyone.
Away from the campaign trail, Biden’s marketing team truly did wonders with the use of music in his election adverts, many of which had a large impact on youth voters. One particularly popular ad, which was reposted multiple times to video platform TikTok, featured Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’ edited between clips of President Trump complaining about his treatment by the press, followed by the Biden campaign logo. Timberlake made his own political affiliation clear in October 2020 encouraging his followers to vote in an Instagram caption before stating, ‘I will be voting for @joebiden and @kamalaharris’, showing that the song’s use in the Democrat’s video was no conflict of interest for the artist.
Other stars who endorsed the use of their songs in Biden’s ads include the Beastie Boys, who broke their long-standing anti-ad stance to back their preferred candidate, along with the Black Eyed Peas and Jennifer Hudson, who recorded an entirely new version of ‘Where is the Love?’ to signal their political affiliation. Ahead of Election Day, rapper Eminem also shared the Biden campaign’s advert featuring his song ‘Lose Yourself’ to his Instagram page, with many commenters hailing the ad as one of the “best of all time”.
Whilst for the most part, artists cannot truly control the afterlife of their songs, due to licensing agreements with companies like BMI or ASCAP, and because of their label, they can still influence the reception of a campaign’s song use among their own audience, be it positive or negative. In many cases, when stars denounce song use or file a legal complaint to prevent it, they are making a powerful political statement, which for artists without US citizenship is their only way to symbolically “cast a vote” in a crucial election. Therefore, the impact of music in an election comes not only from the message of the song, or the execution of the advertisement, but from the artist’s endorsement, at a time when celebrity culture is more politicised than ever.