Considering the Role of Music in Political Campaigns
Less than 72 hours before the Iowa caucuses began, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, the Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter, played an acoustic set at the Horizon Events Center in Clive, Iowa on Jan. 31 to garner support for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.
Vernon performed a set of eight songs including a pair of covers from the quintessential “protest” singer Bob Dylan. He opened with a solo rendition of 1964 Bob Dylan tracks “The Times They Are A-Changin” and “With God on Our Side.” Also in the setlist were some of the songwriter’s original songs, including “Blood Bank,” “Flume” and “For Emma.” Ahead of his performance, according to Ilana Kaplan from the Rolling Stone, Vernon released a statement on his support for Sanders: “I believe, unequivocally, that all people deserve support, love and the freedom to choose how to live their own lives. There are promises in our constitutional language that are being superseded by money and greed in this country.”
The crowd of 2,500 Sanders supporters erupted in applause after the statement, resembling the exuberant atmosphere of an actual concert. Yet this time, it was Sanders who was the real star. Following Vernon’s performance was Vampire Weekend, the acclaimed indie rock band from New York City, who played a set at Sanders’ Cedar Rapids, Iowa rally on Feb. 2. The band covered Thin Lizzy’s 1976 hit “The Boys are Back in Town” which was followed by some of Vampire Weekend’s own career-changing hits including “2021,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “This Life.”
This is not the first time the bands have shown their support for Sanders. During his 2016 campaign, both Vampire Weekend and Bon Iver performed concerts at rallies in Iowa and New York. This series of musical events for Sanders’ 2020 campaign again was designed to appeal to an audience composed of millenials, Latinx voters and low-wage workers — whom many identify as the future of the Democratic Party.
The live performance experience evoked a sense of hopeful unification among the supporters, especially from excited young voters who may feel excluded by electoral politics. Looking back, music has always had the power to inspire, motivate and empower a political campaign, even since the founding of our country. George Washington used a parody of “God Save the King” — “God Save Great Washington” — to effectively convey the skepticism and mockery of the British monarchy.
To comprehend such campaign songs, we need a general understanding of the historical background which has inspired and shaped their political context. Today, overtly political music is seen less often. Music in political campaigns is used to rally people in a more nuanced way through appealing to the ideology of a certain social group. Instead of creating a song from scratch solely serving a specific campaign, candidates utilize music that has already exerted great influence upon society.
Their choices of music can reflect a lot about who they are: their values, their political messages and even their personal lives. Besides that, many musicians show political inclinations in their music. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin,” which Vernon chose to incorporate into his performance, is considered one of his most iconic protest songs. It demonstrates Dylan combining the folk protest movement in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. The identities of the musicians have a great impact on who they are influencing. For example, Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay main-party presidential candidate, notably includes several LGBTQ artists such as George Michael and Shea Diamond in his campaign playlist.
The songs can also target a specific audience group since people embrace different symbolism conveyed by different styles of music and musicians. Sanders’ campaign playlist is a perfect example demonstrating how certain songs can appeal to a certain voter base. In his playlist, three songs with the word “revolution” in their titles communicate his renegade style and liberal values, which would help him win wide support from the younger voters.
More specifically, the power to unite people through concerts is unique. In front of the same stage, people with different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds are integrated into one close community. Such consolidating sensations evoked by live music can serve for political purposes.
Sanders’ Iowa rally as one recent example, we can see that rather than simply booming playlists, presidential candidates start adding elements of live performance to their campaign rallies. Sanders’ Iowa rally especially showed how music could move people politically through not only the message conveyed by the songs but also the performances themselves. The concerts help further the ideas of showing up and participating which are essential in people’s political lives; one cannot engage with live music from afar, and one cannot engage with the democratic process from a distance, either.
That night, Sanders was actually stuck in the D.C. impeachment hoopla and could not be present at the event, while his campaign was able to turn out people who do not usually show up. According to Esther Wang, who wrote in Jezebel, the crowd began chanting Bernie’s campaign slogan at one point, “Not me, us.” Politics are humanized through the melodies as compassion grows among the concert crowds.