Populism and Pop Music: The Sounds of the 2020 Election

Whilst a seventy-four year-old man dancing rhythmlessly to the Village People’s YMCA became a key image of the Republican election campaign, the diverse Democrat voting pool saw a prevailing Biden bopping to Bieber and Stevie Wonder. Ben Buffery explores how music and politics converge, and whether a well-curated playlist can inspire presidential triumph.

I think it goes without saying that America’s most recent election cycle was a bit different to usual. A labyrinth of controversy and scandal as well as an all-around “what the f**k is going on here” attitude continues to envelope the news cycle as even weeks after election day Trump continues to whip up fresh reasons to hate this political hellscape we must inhabit.

It felt as if every week another artist would have to publicly address the fact Trump was using their music at his rallies and how they did not endorse him publicly, that they request he cease to do so and hey, maybe let’s get a lawyer involved too, it’s not like Trump’s a stranger to a lawsuit anyway. This did little to quell Trump and it’s this brazen attitude that drew so many of his supporters to him in the first place so it’s not like he’d back down over something as insignificant as this. Some people found Trump’s music choices a little tone deaf: many comedies writers around the globe would’ve considered having a draft dodger playing Fortunate Son at his rally a little too on the nose.

Apart from The Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want obvious attempt at trolling from the Trump campaign it doesn’t appear as if these music choices were picked with messages in mind. A quick scroll through the playlist used can tell us exactly what the intention was here. Trump wanted a party atmosphere and with his collection of Boomer Greatest Hits that’s exactly what he got. The appeal of a Trump rally was always that they are fun, they’re a great place to be, you can see this in videos of the rallies themselves. The atmosphere is electric, and all these songs are so well loved by his target demographics that playing them at his rallies just accentuates this atmosphere.

This party climate can be explained by the fact that Donald Trump is first and foremost a showman; feeding ravenously on the approval of his rabid base of supporters. A populist who has built himself up to be a leader who is “one of the people,” his undaunted narrative painted him as someone who was seizing power to give the masses what they want. And reflected in this was his choice of music at rallies, a collection of his voters favourite songs: classics from a bygone era that many of his supporters want to return to. Just see how they reacted to him wanting movies like Gone With The Wind to return to cinema screens. So ultimately it does not matter how many artists disavow his use of their music, and how many articles are written pointing out the irony of some of the lyrics. His fanbase like these tunes and if they do, so does Trump. Like any good showman, Trump plays the hits.

70% of Democrat voters asked for Medicare For All. Nobody asked for Despacito.’

In the interest of bipartisanship, it’s only fair we talk about Biden’s playlist too. Whilst the president to be’s music choices were perhaps a bit more tactical he was not without gaffes of his own. While Trump had honed in on his own rabid fanbase, doubling down on appealing to them. Biden’s music reflected a more open environment, extending a hand to as many demographics as possible. With an almost even split of black and white artists on his playlists and music that could appeal to a broader age range. Whilst nice and wholesome in theory at times that could come across as pandering. In an act that can only be described as cringe-inducing Biden danced to Bieber’s Despacito limply playing from his phone at a Florida rally, ready to kick off Hispanic awareness month. It is a situation like this that highlighted how out of touch the Democratic Party was with their voter base. 70% of voters asked for Medicare For All. Nobody asked for Despacito. A diverse playlist and recognition of all demographics is great, but without policy that benefits these demographics Biden’s music choices could come across as hollow pandering.

It’s comfortingly easy to think that now the election is over Trump can be a distant memory, but the actions of his presidency have left a stain on American politics that’ll remain for years to come. It serves us a timely reminder that policy, not pop culture make a politician. David Cameron isn’t a wanker because he pretended to like The Smiths; he’s a wanker because he ushered in an era of austerity that cost lives. Criticising a politician’s pop culture predilections creates a smokescreen for them, diverting attention and energy away from the issues that really matter. Whilst it might be possible to draw some value from analysing how each candidate ran their campaign and utilised music, it’s ultimately no substitute for actually holding them accountable for their policies policies that will radically alter the lives of millions of actual human beings.

Written by: Ben Buffery

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of Joe Biden via Facebook. Article image courtesy of 12 News via Facebook.