Studying the same old song and dance of candidates

Illustration by Frank Neufeld

This year, Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari and her students are hitting the campaign trail.

Ansari, along with students from her Music and Politics class, are working with Trax on the Trail, a campaign music website dedicated to American presidential campaign music and how it forms a candidate’s identity, to create a series of podcasts that explore the intersection of music and presidential politics. The podcasts will appear as the site’s Throwback Thursday’s feature.

On the show, the students will cover a wide spectrum of topics – from recent U.S. and Canadian elections, to early 19th-century contests, to Saddam Hussein’s musical high notes during his more than two decades as President of Iraq.

Ansari sees value in her students delving into the world of music and politics, and seeing the ever-increasing emphasis modern-day candidates place on picking that ‘perfect song’ to represent their political aspirations.

“The two can influence each other in interesting ways,” she said. “In election campaigns, music can be a very powerful tool of persuasion. So many people have an emotional connection to certain music. It’s very easy – and politicians have been doing it for centuries – to use music to create patriotic feelings. In many ways, it’s subconscious. But in the last few decades, politicians and their teams have become really quite savvy thinking about music as something of a branding tool.”

Third-year music student Nikki Pasqualini took a trip back to 2004 to look at the John Kerry-Bruce Springsteen connection. In her podcast, Vote for Change: John Kerry Will Not Surrender, Pasqualini found there is definitely more of a relationship between music and politics than some may think – and even more than even she realized.

“Music can be used in many ways to attract the attention of a certain demographic with the use of campaign songs,” she said. “Music, and specific song choices, can also be used to convey a specific message, ideology or convey a persona. I think smart politicians and campaigns have recognized the power of music and the many ways it reaches people and have learned how to use it to their advantage. Music really has the power to touch people in many ways, stirring up many complex emotions, and having that power can lead to swaying opinions and voters.”

Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari, along with her Music and Politics class, partnered with Trax on the Trail, an interactive campaign music website, to create a series of podcasts that explore the intersection of music and presidential politics.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsDon Wright Faculty of Music professor Emily Abrams Ansari, along with her Music and Politics class, partnered with Trax on the Trail, an interactive campaign music website, to create a series of podcasts that explore the intersection of music and presidential politics.

Pasqualini found Kerry’s failed U.S. Presidential campaign chose to target young and first-time voters and looked to Springsteen to fit that niche. She said having a popular culture icon, who agrees with the ideals of a campaign, can grab the attention of many voters who may have not been interested otherwise. She added there were definitely surprises along the way, including how vocal Springsteen, and other artists, were about their support of Kerry’s campaign.

“The Vote for Change concert tour, which I had actually previously never heard of, was officially nonpartisan, but targeted swing states and featured artists such as Springsteen, REM, John Mellencamp, James Taylor and others who were not afraid to say how much they hoped people would vote for Kerry,” Pasqualini said. “This strategy was great and also turned out to be very effective. However the young voters just did not prove to be the winning margin the Kerry campaign needed.”

There were also times when election campaigns can get it horribly wrong. Take the 1984 re-election campaign of Ronald Reagan, who thought it would be a great idea to use Springsteen’s hit Born in the U.S.A. – without reading the lyrics first.

“He thought it was this huge patriotic anthem,” Ansari said. “He didn’t realize, because he didn’t listen to the song, that the song is this anti-government rant about Vietnam.”

On the flip side, Ansari noted Barack Obama’s stronger use of Stevie Wonder’s Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours at campaign rallies – to the point of having Wonder sing in person at a handful of events.

With the current U.S. presidential election in full swing, Pasqualini is paying close attention to the music as the candidate campaign stops increase, wondering the intention behind a particular song choice, and the message it’s trying to convey.

“I’ve been following the Trax on the Trail project and it’s been very interesting to see what they post. I think the use of music can be so effective and I wonder if these campaigns are using that to their advantage or not,” she said.

Several podcasts from Ansari’s class have been already been released on the Trax on the Trail website, traxonthetrail.com, with more to come in coming weeks and months.

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ON THE TRAIL

Trax on the Trail, traxonthetrail.com/, is a website where scholars, educators, journalists, students and the general public can learn about American presidential campaign music and gain insight into how sound participates in forming candidate identity.

Its interdisciplinary team includes academic experts from the fields of political science, musicology, sociology, history, communications and ethnomusicology, as well as industry professionals and students. The site will follow the 2016 presidential campaign as it unfolds and post original scholarship that addresses the creative use of music and sound on the campaign trail.