What do Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s election campaign songs tell us about them?
The Democratic candidate went with David Bowie and the soul greats; the President with REM and The Village People. Let’s try and make sense of this
Look in the cold, bewildered eyes of any politician when a song begins and you’ll see the same panicked incomprehension that a hamster might have watching Donnie Darko or Boris Johnson had listening to a sensible epidemiologist six weeks ago. Music speaks a language they cannot comprehend: emotion. Having trained themselves since childhood to have the empathy of a Predator, their dehumanised brains are scrambled by sounds containing any traces of affection, desire, sympathy or sadness. To them, the collected works of Rufus Wainwright sound like a large vehicle reversing into a canning factory.
It’s why they all dance like they’re grinning their way though a serious stroke; the sound that Mumford & Sons make in their heads is pure, excruciating white noise but they think it looks good to the youth vote to pretend to endure it. And when asked what music they like, they recognise the positive PR in pretending to have heard of The Arctic Fires rather than admit that the only recordings they truly enjoy start with the comforting electronic tones of military hardware transactions completing and end in an epic crescendo of exploding schools.
Major elections, such as the total collapse of democracy that this week promises to visit on America, and the accompanying rallies expose just how clueless politics can be when it comes to music. There is no Springsteen anthem it can’t misinterpret, no protest singer it can’t misappropriate, no disco classic it can’t gyrate like a gurning sex pest to. Trying to get a central message across in your choice of campaign songs, crowd-rouser or walk-off music has been a laughably see-through endeavour ever since Tony Blair rocked out to ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ then just carried on with all the Thatcherism. But elections song are often a sonic flashlight straight to the bottom of a candidate’s dark and cynical soul.
For this week’s US farrago, the music on show has only helped make the musically minded voter’s choice all the starker. Joe Biden, a man whose youth was likely spent jiving along at the heppest Scott Joplin gigs of the 1880s and who’s probably still trying to work out how to play his new-fangled wax cylinder of ‘The Battle Hymn Of The Republic’, has chosen songs designed to reflect his dependability, inclusiveness and stout all-American virtues. Around half of the tracks played at his rallies have been by artists of colour: he generally enters to the noble sentiments of the Staple Singers’ ‘We The People’ and has thrown in inspiring and optimistic tracks such as ‘Reach Out (I’ll Be There)’ by The Four Tops, Bill Withers’ ‘Lovely Day’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’, even though it contains the politician-baiting line “Powers keep on lyin’ / While your people keep on dyin’”. A sly dig, perhaps, at Trump’s catastrophic covidiocy?
It’s uncertain what message he’s trying to get across with Diana Ross’s ‘I’m Coming Out’ and, true to form, he misinterprets Bruce Springsteen’s ‘We Take Care Of Our Own’ as a family values sort of tune – it’s actually about politicians looking after themselves, although that, too, works as a canny dig at Trump. Chuck in a couple of stirring pop monsters in Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and Lady Gaga’s ‘The Edge Of Glory’ and you’d come away whistling Joe’s praises as a reliable, progressive patriot liable to make America groove again.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, seems to have been using his rally songs to surreptitiously tell American voter that he’s a miserable, insane gay Satanist. I mean, which potential President in the middle of a devastating pandemic tries to re-ignite the passion in his dwindling support base with REM’s ‘Everybody Hurts’? What’s he trying to tell us by pumping out Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ (“I remember when I lost my mind… Maybe I’m crazy”)? How might ‘Losing My Religion’ have played in the Christian American heartland when Trump used it in January, let alone The Stones‘ ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, a song in which Beelzebub himself literally boasts about helping kill Jesus and siding with the Nazis? And as much as Survivor’s ‘Eye Of The Tiger’, Tina Turner’s ‘The Best’ and Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ are clear attempts to project the image of a strong, invincible winner, is he really the only man alive deaf to the cod-pieced subtext of The Village People’s ‘Macho Man’?
Admittedly his options have been limited by the likes of REM, Neil Young, Adele, Aerosmith, Pharrell, Rihanna, Guns ‘N Roses and Phil Collins fighting back against him using any of their music – The Rolling Stones even tried to sue him over his use of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ as regular walk-off music, as if openly admitting that his promises are mere snake oil. There were also rumours that his playlist compiler has been trying to sabotage his campaign and humiliate him by making him fist-bump along to ‘YMCA’. But even when he goes for the rich Republican pickings of deceased artists who can’t complain, he invariably trips head-first over his own monumental dumb. Witness him arriving onstage in Duluth, Minnesota, shortly after the waiting crowd had been treated to the line: “They’re out to get you, better leave while you can… Just beat it”.
Trump’s 2020 musical aesthetic reflects the moron we know him as: bullish, boorish, ego-pumped and playing to the proud but mindless machismo of rootin’, tootin’, Rocky-lovin’ and integration-shunnin’ middle America. And, crucially, it proves that, when you cut through the bluster and bravado and get down to the details, he just doesn’t listen.