Picture this. You’re sitting in your metal folding chair, the air buzzing with energy. Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” blasts from the loudspeakers: “They just use your mind and they never give you credit. It’s enough to drive you crazy if you let it.”
Elizabeth Warren walks onto the stage waving, and the crowd erupts. Some people cry. Some sing along with the song, which they might not have given a second thought to just a year or two prior, because it has now come to represent Warren.
Presidential candidates have to market themselves to relate to voters, and one of the ways they do that is through music and audio, from the soundtracks in their TV and social media spots to their walk-up songs at rallies and the curated playlists they share on apps like Spotify.
Candidates have at least one song they’re known by—ideally. The goal is to personalize their brand and show voters a more authentic side of themselves. If their music marketing efforts are successful, voters will be able to hear a certain song, or even a certain genre of music (see Bill de Blasio and ska), and think of that candidate.
“Music is a universal language that connects us all,” said Richard Smith, principal creative director at branding agency Sullivan. “It’s emotional, makes us feel good, lifts us up when we’re down or helps us vent when we want to express how we really feel but just can’t.”
Music decisions typically result in one of three outcomes for candidates: Voters make no connection between a candidate and a song, voters associate the candidate with the chosen song or the correlation between candidate and song doesn’t translate as intended. And there’s a fine line between a playlist that makes a statement and one that focuses solely on making sure personality shines through.
“Music choice is not about personal taste or simply using your latest drive-time fave,” Smith said. “What it’s really about is using something that brings your political brand to life.”
While there are still eight Democrats and two Republicans left in the race, as of publication, for simplicity’s sake, we’re breaking down the song choices of the current 2020 frontrunners: President Trump, former Vice president Joe Biden, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg.
Candidates’ rally songs are meant to represent them as a brand. A walk-up song should illustrate the candidate’s message while also sharing a little of their personality.
“In an event like a rally, the music can fire up the crowd and make it a more emotional and memorable experience,” said Mikko Matikka, marketing and content manager at global audio branding service Audiodraft. “Choosing a suitable walk-in and walk-out song is a very tangible way of introducing the candidate’s agenda because those two moments are key to how people remember the experience in the long run.”
However, when it comes to using audio, a lot of candidates struggle to carve out a unique brand. For the most part, they lean on songs that showcase their personality and since none of the candidates are working specifically with an artist to craft a song that represents them as a whole, most of the songs end up falling flat as a marketing tool.
According to branding expert Ilan Geva, “Not a single presidential candidate has a sonic mark or an audio brand label. None of them come to mind if I think of any musician or music group, be it rock, military or patriotic music or any other audio brand.”
In a race that at one point had almost 30 Democratic candidates, Geva noted, “they are trying to find their own souls, and the music didn’t find them yet.”
Trump: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones in 2016
During his first run for president, Trump used this track as his walk-up song and still uses it in 2020 as his walk-off song. It’s instantly familiar for Trump’s supporters, and it’s easy to sing along to. While fun and recognizable, it also has a bit of an aggressive message that can be seen as a pointed commentary on how liberal voters approached the 2016 election.
According to Matikka, “[The lyrics] encapsulate the initial optimism and eventual disillusion, followed by the resigned pragmatism.” It was a good fit for his 2016 campaign because “it appealed to voters with a highly pragmatic worldview.”
Trump: “God Bless the U.S.A.” by Lee Greenwood in 2020
This track is a better fit for what Trump’s supporters expect from the president and his rallies. It encompasses their values and demands, and the country genre is one that’s popular among Trump’s constituency.
“It’s optimistic and inspirational. It’s about family. It conjures up feelings that are all bout traditional and deeply felt warm American values. It gives homage and shares gratitude to the military men and women and their families,” said Joel Beckerman, founder of sonic studio Man Made Music. ” Supporters feel the Trump political movement in this song. … And most importantly, it resonates deeply with the Trump brand—both musically and lyrically.”
Biden: “We Take Care of Our Own” by Bruce Springsteen
Bruce Springsteen is another quintessential Americana artist who fits right in with all the other choices on Biden’s playlist. It’s political, with references to Hurricane Katrina and the flag, but not overly political. It was also former President Barack Obama’s 2012 walk-up song, so using it is a nod to his former boss and can be interpreted as a promise to continue Obama’s legacy.
“The song is simultaneously progressive, driving, relentless, yet timeless and reminds people what we may have lost along the way,” Beckerman said. “It’s a battle cry to reconnect with the values of America where we help people in need and move forward together.”
While a good song to walk out to, Beckerman noted, “this song seems like it would be more appropriate for Sen. Sanders.”
Warren: “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton
Parton’s hit is an upbeat feminist anthem, which is certainly fitting, especially for a woman so rooted in her own history of climbing the ranks and overcoming hardships to get where she is today. However, Matikka pointed out, Warren could have made a stronger, more actionable choice as “the song merely points out there’s an inequality problem but doesn’t really take the next step in inspiring change.”
Beckerman echoed that sentiment, saying, “All in all, I’m not sure it does much for the senator’s brand as a disrupter on the side of the American worker.”
On top of that, Parton has been vocal about not being on board with Warren using the track at her rallies. In a statement to the Associated Press, Parton’s manager said, “We did not approve the request, and we do not approve requests like this of [a] political nature.”
Sanders: “America” by Simon and Garfunkel in 2016
Sanders went the patriotic route in 2016 with his walk-up song, which is a bit counterproductive to his campaign that promised to shake up the status quo and fight against the system. Ultimately, the song didn’t feel tied to the brand Sanders was perpetuating.
“It’s dissonant with his brand. His brand is that he’s a fighter,” Beckerman said. “[It’s] certainly an important message for Bernie Sanders but not his core message.”
Sanders: “Power to the People” by John Lennon in 2020
This is much more of a Sanders anthem. It’s uplifting, rebellious and timeless. It drives home his message that change is needed now, which the lyrics reinforce, literally stating that the time for change has come.
“You can’t get much more political with a song choice like this, as its title alone could be a party slogan and mindset,” Matikka said.
Buttigieg: “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco
Buttigieg is the youngest top contender in the race currently, and attaching Panic! At the Disco to his rally feels like an attempt to remind voters of that. He also sometimes uses Batchelor’s “Never Giving Up,” a remix of “High Hopes,” which gives him points for consistency. (There’s also a dance the team does to keep their energy and spirits up.)
However, that’s about as positive as it gets for Buttigieg’s song choice. The song, which is about never giving up on trying to get a girl’s attention, feels like a total miss. “The lyrics to the song don’t seem like they have anything to do with his supporters. … [It’s] about personal ambition, which makes it more about himself,” Beckerman said. “It’s utterly perplexing. It indirectly sends the message that the candidate is style over substance.”
“It sounds like one of the interns took a favorite song because it sounded cool, young and upbeat,” Beckerman added.
Klobuchar: “The Bullpen” by Dessa
Though rising a bit later in popularity following the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, Klobuchar has emerged as a legitimate contender for the Democratic nomination. Her walk-up song, Dessa’s “The Bullpen,” is a track Matikka says is a “culmination” of “confidence and hope, but also at times some tenderness and yearning for a better future.”
Creating a playlist is the modern-day equivalent of the campaign jingle. In an episode of The New York Times’ podcast The Daily, politics reporter Astead Herndon noted that John F. Kennedy used a jingle tied to his slogan. “These campaigns were having jingles not just to literally have the voters remember their names, but they would have stories in them to evoke a certain emotion that would track with the kind of message that the campaign was trying to send.”
Obama loved to share lists of his favorite books, movies, songs and more, and was therefore instrumental in the uptick in candidates creating playlists. During his 2012 reelection bid, Obama shared a 29-song playlist, created in part by staff and volunteers, that featured tunes like Aretha Franklin’s “The Weight” and Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait.” He went beyond songs with political tie-ins and those focused on his mission and showed some of his own personality and the culture he was tapped into. (How else would you know your president was a fan of Wilco or Janelle Monáe?) After that, having a playlist became a necessity for all candidates.
With the 2020 election looming, each candidate leaned into this now-necessary trend.
Trump rallies are more entertainment than they are political events at this point, with supporters showing up hours beforehand to get a good spot. The musical choices are therefore loud and intended to bolster spirits and energy. Beckerman called it a “mish-mosh of music” that “doesn’t seem to be in sync with the Trump brand.” His playlist includes multiple songs from the Village People, Tina Turner, Elton John and Queen.
Matikka noted that most of the songs have something in common, though. “A vast majority of the songs sport a confident and self-assured mood,” he said.
Matikka added, “Judging by the overall themes and messages of his playlist, he comes across as unwilling to change his political stance and ways anytime soon.”
Biden has a mix of contemporary and modern artists in his playlist—Diana Ross, Lady Gaga, The 1975, David Bowie, Dierks Bentley—in an effort to reach voters who are familiar with his politics as well as younger voters who are still on the fence. Matikka noted that the “playlist features quite contrasting sounds.”
“Most of the songs in Mr. Biden’s playlist sound like montage music,” he said. “They evoke a feeling of celebrating the grind, small victories during it, and people coming together.”
Warren’s playlist comprises artists that mostly peaked in the 1990s and earlier like Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. Beckerman noted that while it’s an “appropriate playlist of optimistic songs,” Warren may be leaning too heavily on a feminist message, which could isolate some voters. “There’s a smattering of female artists and songs that seem off-message and off-brand for her,” he said, and songs that feel a bit heavy-handed, like “I’m Every Woman.”
Sanders has a largely male-driven playlist that reinforces his radical brand of politics, with tracks like “Revolution” by Flogging Molly, “Power to the People” by John Lennon and “Make a Change” by Buckwheat Zydeco. Sanders’ playlist is almost exclusively songs that debuted in between ’60s and ’80s.
“The songs market Sanders as an advocate of strong moral code in politics,” Matikka said. “Since folk and folk rock have been the go-to genre for the rebel souls before, it’s easy to associate his political audio brand with these styles of music and their cultural connotations.”
Buttigieg created his Buttijams Spotify playlist features a mix of tunes, from political favorites like “This Land Is Your Land” by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings to the more modern numbers like “Dog Days Are Over” by Florence and the Machine. He chose songs that emphasized his relative youth and the change he’s hoping to inspire, “clearly aiming to be youthful to highlight his message and brand,” Beckerman said. However, Beckerman pointed to the lack of diversity among the artists Buttigieg chose, “which is out of step with what he says his focus is [of] pitching a cultural broader tent.”
Klobuchar created a Spotify playlist with a heavy dose of female artists—in fact, as Refinery29 reported, more than half are female artists, outpacing any of the other candidates left in the race. And unlike the other candidates, Klobuchar created the playlist entirely by herself, according to the report.
Matikka sees a lot of confidence and sentimentality in Klobuchar’s playlist. “It’s worth mentioning that these feature role-model female artists from different generations, such as Janelle Monáe, Lady Gaga and Joan Jett. This is a cool and concrete way to advocate female leadership,” he said.
Matikka continued, “There’s a warm and organic tone [to the songs in the playlist], which makes the candidate come across as someone who is approachable and humane.”
TV and social
Candidates also need to consider their audio strategy when it comes to television and social spots. One of the biggest differences between a rally song and the music in a campaign ad is that the latter needs to underscore a message without lyrics, offering a backdrop for the candidate to talk about key issues and build their brand. According to Beckerman, “The best ads actually score those messages moment to moment—like a movie score—to heighten emotion in the story they are looking to tell to the audience. Songs [with lyrics] can’t effectively underscore these types of messages.”
According to Jennifer Lees-Marshment, associate professor at the University of Auckland and political marketing expert, it’s about choosing the right sounds to emphasize the message. “It comes down to sound—what sounds will resonate—[for example], the sound of children playing in a school ground, laughing or even crying if you are trying to generate or build on fear,” she said.
“Different tactics may be used: loud, vibrant sounds to attract attention, different moods, such as positive and upbeat for ‘Morning in America’-type ads showing vision and hope, and more mellow, sad tones for when playing on fears and concerns,” Lees-Marshment added.
Candidates also have less time to relay a message in an ad and need to find audio that works well with a shorter message. On top of that, “syncing visual effects, transitions and hooks with music and making sure the tempo of the visuals fits the music’s speed also helps the viewers memorize the ad more intuitively,” Matikka said, adding, “Using audio branding techniques like consistent brand themes, melodies or an audio logo in all touchpoints helps to bring the experiences of going to a rally and watching an ad closer together.”