Georgia College researchers track strategic shifts in campaign music
Music plays a subtle role in forming public opinion about presidential candidates. It gets marginally attentive voters interested in politics and reveals strategic shifts in campaigns.
These are some results of research being done through a unique website – Trax on the Trail – created last winter by Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, assistant professor of music. Used regularly by journalists nationwide, Trax has also morphed into an educational tool for teaching media literacy – with scholars Skyping into college classrooms and collaborating on digital lesson plans with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.
“It’s wound up being more successful than I would ever have imagined. I had no way of anticipating that it would get as big as it’s become,” Gorzelany-Mostak said.
As the U.S. election season races to a climax – with presidential candidates spending millions of dollars to present visual and written images – Trax examines how sound shapes candidate identity.
Two changes noted by researchers: Democrat Hillary Clinton has softened her “women empowerment” image by sidelining Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and moving to classic pop songs like 1967’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell – while Republican Donald Trump has added traditionally conservative country music like Lee Greenwood’s 1984 “God Bless the USA” to his repertoire. In that way, Gorzelany-Mostak said Trump is “channeling” Ronald Reagan, who used the song when running for re-election in 1984.
Trump mostly sticks with songs that show his defiance and stand against the system, like Twisted Sisters’ “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” she said. Whereas, Clinton has begun to use the 1960 - ‘70s civil-rights era music Barack Obama chose in 2008. At the Democratic National Convention, Clinton aligned herself with earlier progressivism by choosing a Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel song used in George McGovern’s 1972 campaign, “Bridge over Troubled Water.”
“I think when we listen to music, we’re not just hearing the song in the moment, but we hear in our minds all the moments throughout history where we heard that song and what was going on in our lives. And I think that creates a very powerful, positive association for a lot of people,” Gorzelany-Mostak said.
“It’s sort of operating on a subconscious level,” she added. “People don’t know their attitudes and their behaviors are being shaped in that way. But they are, to a certain extent, by music.”
In the early 19th-century, lyrics about politicians were paired with well-known tunes like “Yankee Doodle.” Things began to change with Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, which featured pop music, such as 1977’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” by Fleetwood Mac.
With arrival of the Internet, peer-to-peer music sharing began, she said. The amount of campaign music increased, and people started creating their own spoofs about politicians like a recent duet on YouTube, where Trump and Clinton appear to be singing Bill Medley’s and Jennifer Warnes’ “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from 1987.
Music allows anyone to voice an opinion. Although not strictly factual, Gorzelany-Mostak said the expression of discontentment in music can be authentic.
“Marginally attentive voters are not reading the Huffington Post politics section, but they do get a lot of their political information through social media. It’s another way of getting information,” she said.
Students watch C-SPAN and YouTube to catalogue campaign songs into a single database. They check playlists on Spotify and pick up songs from news outlets that mention what’s playing as a candidate enters the stage. The website collects into one forum essays on campaign music from a variety of experts, including Trax co-editor Dr. James Deaville, professor of music at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.
“Student labor makes up a good percentage of the work that is done on the site. What’s great about being here at Georgia College is they put a lot of value on faculty/student research,” Gorzelany-Mostak said. “We have students involved in pretty much all aspects of the site and its production.”
Trax has enabled senior Victoriana Lord of Dublin to apply what she’s learning in class to real-world practice. A management information systems major, Lord helped design the website and logo. Since then, she’s
helped maintain digital content – uploading, editing and keeping track of entries to make sure they’re up-to-date, relevant and accurate. She gives radio interviews, talks at events and takes photos – all things she never thought would be part of the job description.
These skills will help her next semester, as she begins interviewing for jobs. Trax taught Lord respect for ideas and opinions unlike her own, she said.
“This is absolutely the first job I’ve had where this was something that integrated directly elements of what I’m learning in the classroom with a job opportunity,” Lord said. “I think that integration really helped me be comfortable in the job but also to understand challenges that are in the job are fixable, and I can rise to meet those challenges.”
Seeing Gorzelany-Mostak achieve her dream inspires Lord, who said “I think it’s really wonderful for her to see that this tiny idea she had has developed into something that’s not so tiny at all. It’s a very far-reaching project.”
Recent mass communications graduate Aly “Sam” Campbell of Milledgeville is the social media coordinator for Trax. Gorzelany-Mostak credits much of the project’s success to Campbell’s efforts. She writes press releases, tracks media coverage, posts information on social media and writes introductory portions for monthly podcasts on WRGC 88.3. This experience gave Campbell more confidence in her work and an analytical approach to political campaigns.
“I thought the project was really interesting and unique,” said Campbell, who’s been involved with Trax since its inception in December 2015. Working with Gorzelany-Mostak was also a plus: “She is one of the most intelligent, kind and encouraging women I have ever met.”
Early next month, Gorzelany-Mostak and students will present their work at the American Musicological Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. The professor also gives talks for the American Democracy Project on campus. Trax has been cited in the Boston Herald, The Guardian, Slate, Elite Daily, Inverse and Pacific Standard.
The website may rev-up again for the 2020 presidential election – but Gorzelany-Mostak expects excitement to subside until then.
“Let’s just say, I’m not going to be very popular come Nov. 9,” she said.