When Music and Politics Collide

How modern politicians are ruining political music

By Aimee Terravechia

Modern American politics doesn’t usually seem to inspire much in the way of creative musical genius. Despite a polarizing primary season and ample talent state-side, nothing has come close to emulating the talent and commentary exhibited by artists of the 60s and 70s.  Our last great political revolution was accompanied by an equally impressive musical one.

The closest that recent decades have come to mirroring the symbiotic relationship between political movements and musical exploration have been the Rock the Vote campaigns of the 90s. Founded by Jeff Ayeroff, a record industry executive, the non-profit always felt a little too manufactured. The campaign often lacked the organic qualities of music that had come before. Has there been a modern equivalent to the riot that followed MC5 playing the 1968 Democratic Convention? Is there a current-day Bob Dylan who aims to reinvigorate the protest song?

It’s not fair to say that musicians aren’t capable of political commentary like they once were. In fact, modern artists seem to rarely shy away from the commentary. From Madonna to Radiohead, Macklemore to Lady Gaga, and M.I.A to the Kinks, political messages can be found in much of the music of the last three decades. What is lacking isn’t the subject matter—it’s the ability to inspire. And it isn’t that these musicians are lacking in anti-establishment cred like MC5 was at the time of their 1968 performance. In fact, many musicians in recent political cycles have called for candidates to stop using their music entirely. Sam & Dave, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Dropkick Murphys, K’Naan, Twisted Sister, Neil Young, and even ABBA have all asked candidates (Republican and Democratic alike) to stop using their music over the past two decades.

It could be argued that this relationship between politics and music is part of the problem. And yet, according to Eric Kasper, who has written a book about campaign music, politicians have been utilizing campaign songs since the founding of our country. It wasn’t until recently that politicians have looked towards popular music and rock ballads. In 1984, Ronald Regan selected “Born in the USA” (to Springsteen’s dismay) as his campaign song. This was a pivotal moment. Prior to this, campaign music associated with political candidates had been specifically composed for them, or referenced familiar melodies (think marching band music). But Regan did something different. He took music meant for the people and attempted to make it work for the candidate.

Regan started us off, but it didn’t end there.  A few years later, Clinton would use Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop.” Both Bush and Gore attempted to use “Brand New Day” by Sting during their 2000 campaigns. And now, in 2016, the majority of candidates have chosen popular songs to rally their bases. Each song has been carefully selected to represent the candidates’ brands. Hillary Clinton’s campaign even curated an entire playlist on Spotify.  The purpose of the political song has shifted. It’s no longer about the unaltered message—even if that is the artist’s intent. It’s about what you can sell with that message.

During a 1964 interview with Nat Hentoff, Bob Dylan spoke candidly about this. "Me, I don't want to … be a spokesman. From now on, I want to write from inside me…" With things as they are, the artist’s intentions are ignored in lieu of focus-group-driven selections. It no long matters if a song can inspire emotion, thought, or action—as long as it can inspire campaign contributions and votes. The manufactured nature of it (even when against the wishes of the artist) has created a climate of commercialism that clouds the purity of music as a means of political revolution.

Published January 7th, 2016

Aimee Terravechia is a writer, teacher, and grilled cheese connoisseur. She is currently working on her second novel Memes Anonymous . She has written for The Powder RoomScary Mommy, and The Cubic Lane. Her fiction has been published in Apocrypha and Abstractions. When not writing she can be found teaching college composition and creative writing, herding cats, or wrangling her toddler.