The musical choices of politicians can often result in scorn and hilarity. Journalists wait in anticipation for the announcement of a parties campaign song. The choice of a campaign song may be low down on the to-do list for a politician. But choose the right song or setlist for an inauguration, and it can do more than set the mood for the next four years.

Let’s examine each candidates campaign playlists. Trump choose to stick to familiar hits from his 2016 run. Crowd pleasers such as The Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ ensured that his rallies were pumped with energy, whilst musically poking his opponents. But as the pandemic set in and Black Lives Matter hit home, Trump refused to reach out. His unauthorised use of The Village People’s party anthem ‘YMCA’ didn’t register with the mass unemployment sweeping the country, nor reflect his regressive policies towards the LGBTQ+ community. Later in musical revenge, following Biden’s confirmation, crowds engulfed The White House blaring ‘YMCA’ on speakers. Trump’s other favourites, Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ and Laura Branigan’s ‘Gloria’, seemed tone-deaf when you read the lyrics or consider the songs’ history. Instead, Trump focused on creating an eternal ‘feel-good’ factor that would enliven his rallies and reach out to his base of white, male, middle-aged white voters. As always with Trump, it was all show and no substance.

Across the aisle, Biden adapted his setlist to reflect the changing times. Whilst he kept some hits from his run with Obama, such as Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher and Higher’, and emphasised his Scranton, Pennsylvania roots with Bruce Springsteen’s ‘My Hometown’, over the campaign the playlist evolved. Springsteen’s ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ became Biden’s finale, with the lyric, “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home”, originally a commentary on George Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina, becoming a symbol of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’ moved up the playlist, with its references to Black Lives Matter becoming more evident, “Powers keep on lyin’, While your people keep on dyin’”. Biden’s diverse playlist, with a nearly equal split of black and white artists, demonstrated Biden’s focus on reunification and equality. This can also be seen Biden’s inclusion of non-English songs, with JoJo’s Spanish version of ‘The Change’ reaching out to bilingual voters, an uncommon practice despite the US having 41 million Spanish speakers.

This focus on inclusion and unity would be reinforced when it came to Biden’s inauguration. His choice of performers including Lady Gaga, a stalwart democrat, Jennifer Lopez, from Puerto Rican parents, and Garth Brooks, who has performed at almost every inauguration since Jimmy Carter, reflected the political and cultural diversity of the nation. In particular, Lopez’s inclusion of the last lines from the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish was a unique moment, reminding audiences about The Immigrant American Dream and the lack of inclusion during the previous administration.

Brooks’ performance highlights a problem for artists: fans acceptance of artists political views. Many artists today are encouraged to be authentic, whether online or in person. This authenticity is meant to make it easier for them to connect with audiences, but there is still much debate when it comes to politics. Brooks, who said his performance was, ‘not a political statement’ but ‘a statement of unity’, has seen his approval ratings go down among Republicans since performing. His a cappella/karaoke rendition of ‘Amazing Grace’ may have missed the mark musically, especially with Covid restrictions, but more distressing his show of unity has sadly alienated his audience. Whilst this may have always been the case, social media input can be measured and has intensified the reactions. The backlash to Brooks’ has begun online and with various newspaper stories and Jackie Evancho, former America’s Got Talent finalist who performed at Trump’s inauguration, has recently spoken out on the social media hate she experienced.

It is this type of reaction that means artists often refuse to allow their songs to be used politically. Whether it be for political reasons or not wanting to enter the debate, politicians from both parties have had musicians publicly disown them. Whilst politicians can technically use a song without the artists’ permission, artists have the right to protect their ‘right of publicity’. This remains untested legally, however, the growing number of cases against politicians may create an additional hurdle for picking that perfect campaign song.

When Air Force One began its ascent with Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ blaring over the speakers, many commentators noted that this was a fitting exit for Trump. 26 miles away, Jennifer Lopez began her medley of ‘This Land Is Your Land’ and ‘America the Beautiful’ and the nation sighed in relief. Music in politics is often considered an add on. But the choice of song, performer, lyrics and language can show not only a person’s preferences but their values and world view.

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Carol Jones

Carol Jones writes 'The Good Grief Notes' column for the Oxford Blue, where she also writes about culture and women's rights. She studies DPhil Music Composition at St Catherine's and works as a freelance composer.