As they fight to be elected — or keep their seats of power — politicians this year are finding vastly different receptions to their musical strategies.
That’s often been the case, as candidates and incumbents tap the celebrity endorsements and zeitgeist that music can confer a political campaign. Songs help define the tone — think Bill Clinton’s frequent use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” since 1993 — but they also subtly link the artist to the politician, whether the song was personally approved by the artist or not.
“Music is essential to my political career,” said Democrat John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor and Denver mayor who’s battling Republican incumbent Cory Gardner for a U.S. Senate seat. “It can serve as a bit of a cue, almost like branding or the halo effect, where you transfer the positive feeling you have for an artist onto that candidate.”
The extreme polarization of American politics in recent years has led to thicker, more visible lines between artists and candidates whose ideologies are at odds. The same song can have vastly different meanings depending on who’s using it (and why).
President Donald Trump and some conservative politicians have repeatedly used artists’ songs against their “permission,” even as many of those songs were licensed for public use and therefore out of artists’ control. Folk-rocker Neil Young, lately a Telluride resident, decried Trump’s use of his song “Rockin’ in the Free World” when Trump announced his presidential campaign five years ago.
“Legally, he has the right to,” Young wrote on his website in 2018. “However, it goes against my wishes.”
On the opposite side, Democrats and liberal candidates have often assembled fundraisers featuring a “We Are the World”-style basket of feel-good, grassroots clippings, as with Hickenlooper’s Sept. 30 virtual event, “Hick-a-palooza.”
The fundraiser booked performances from platinum-selling, Grammy-winning names such as Willie Nelson, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Dave Matthews, along with longtime Hick friends and Colorado artists Welsey Shultz (The Lumineers), Ryan Tedder (OneRepublic) and Nathaniel Rateliff (The Night Sweats), among many others.
“I’ve been in Denver for 10 years,” said Schlutz, whose group found international fame in the Mile High City after decamping from New York, just before he played a Bruce Springsteen cover for the livestream. “(Hickenlooper) has supported us since day one and been to a number of our shows, and we’ve appreciated that. But we also just appreciate his willingness to listen to real people and not just show fealty toward the president or (another) leader.”
Between sets in the 90-minute YouTube livestream, Hickenlooper plucked his best aw-shucks notes on his banjo, clad in a Western shirt and seated on an idyllic front porch, while urging more donations. The event raised just under $219,000, according to a campaign spokesman.
Gardner, who’s trailing Hickenlooper in every available poll, does not appear to have much use for music in his campaign. In fact, the Non Violins Marching Band — a professional group of violinists experiencing unemployment — played a musical demonstration outside Gardner’s office over the summer, according to Westword, while urging Gardner to support legislation that helps out-of-work artists.
Gardner’s representatives did not respond to phone and email interview requests for this article.
When Joe Biden last week announced a partnership with the Beastie Boys for his presidential campaign (they’re lending their rarely-licensed song “Sabotage” to a new TV ad), the goal was not to sway people who are long entrenched in their views. Younger voters, including those just old enough to cast a ballot, are the target for these marketing tactics, politicians and academics say.
“It doesn’t matter for people paying a ton of attention, or for political junkies,” Hickenlooper said. “But it does for folks who are incidentally exposed to political information, or with less experienced or attentive voters.”
Hickenlooper has taken the stage to introduce festivals (see past Underground Music Showcases), supported the local music scene, and occasionally sat in with touring bands — as when Old Crow Medicine Show has headlined Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Their hit song, “Wagon Wheel,” has become something of a theme for his campaign, Hickenlooper said. But he’s careful not to lean too heavily on any one aspect of musical endorsement.
“It’s a bit of a risk when you’re sending that out to more experienced or thoughtful voters,” Hickenlooper said. “They might be annoyed that you’re even involving music. Like, ‘This is so condescending. How dare they think this would work on me!’ But since social media allows for micro-targeting — like groups of 500 people — you worry a lot less about somebody seeing an ad that you don’t want them to see.”
If Hickenlooper had not proven himself a music diehard in years past, the marketing also could sound painfully tone-deaf and inauthentic, said Deborah Fairchild, president of Nashville-based VEVA Sound, which verifies copyrights and archives projects for clients in the music industry.
“He’s used the power of his office to brand himself,” she said. “And conservative politicians, Trump especially, seem to know that using songs from (liberal artists) like The Rolling Stones will get more attention than if they get someone’s personal approval.”
Rihanna, Elton John, Pharrell Williams, Axl Rose, Adele, R.E.M., and the estates of Tom Petty and Prince have all complained of Trump’s use of their music, according to The New York Times, though Trump “has often responded to their complaints with defiance.”
“I think he is just extending a big middle finger to musical artists to say, ‘You can’t stop me,’ ” Lawrence Y. Iser, a lawyer who has handled several prominent lawsuits over political campaigns’ use of copyrighted songs, told The Times.
This counter-programming, as it’s been called, has the potential to not only subconsciously sway certain voters in one direction or the other, said Dannagal Young, an associate professor of political science at the University of Delaware. It also injects divisiveness into the entertainment and music worlds, as artists are forced to go public with their politics and potentially lose fans over it (see Ice Cube’s recent defense of his talks with the Trump campaign — and social media’s uproar over it).
“It’s very lopsided,” said Young, who wrote the 2019 book “Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear and Laughter in the United States.” “It just doesn’t happen on the other side. I can’t even imagine a world in which a socially or culturally conservative country-music star would find their music being used by, for example, a Democratic Socialist.”
Studies have shown that liberal and conservative mindsets differ in fundamental ways, from risk-aversion to fear at new ideas (both higher for conservative-reporting citizens, according to the studies). The same experimental impulses that drive creativity tend to show up more in liberal politicians, which may help explain the love affair between many artists, entertainers and Democrats over the years — or “liberal Hollywood,” as many conservatives criticize it.
“My work runs the risk of being too psychologically deterministic,” Young said. “But liking the same band really is a shared identity among people who have never met. And in Colorado, there’s a lot of wanderlust among the non-native folks, so in a way they self-selected themselves to be there. In my research, that reveals a high appreciation for novelty and unpredictability.”
As a result, Young said, the feedback loop of adventurous people doing adventurous things while supporting other adventurous people continues. That’s what has helped keep Colorado fiscally conservative while moving it in culturally liberal and libertarian directions, such as 2014’s recreational legalization of cannabis. And it’s part of why Hickenlooper appears to have the explicit approval of Colorado’s artistic scene, musicians and all.
But even without endorsements or protests against misappropriated songs — and not even mentioning Kanye West’s presidential campaign (which is probably for the best) — music still plays an outsized, personally meaningful role for many politicians. Some of them, like Hickenlooper, just happen to be more vocal about it.
“It helps me relax and think about difficult problems. It brings me together with people I wouldn’t otherwise know. I was lucky, you see,” he said. “I had a life outside of politics into my late 40s. Once you’re in, it’s hard to maintain other interests. But when you’re stuck in the rigid, rational, intellectual process of solving policy problems, sometimes you hear a really great song and your mind just starts working in a different way.”
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