Music: the subtle persuader—Trax blazes new trail during 2020 presidential election

Music: the subtle persuader—Trax blazes new trail during 2020 presidential election

Trax logo.
Trax logo.
P icking the right presidential candidate can be tricky in the best of times. Just in time for early voting this month, however, comes something everyone can get behind: music.

Georgia College’s updated and improved Trax on the Trail website is a serious study of the science of music and political strategy. Songs on the campaign trail often evoke nostalgia, even lightheartedness. They boost a candidate or poke fun, halt indecisiveness and influence voters.

Music can also bring people together during a divisive period in history.

“The work we do at Trax is really important in the sense it combines something that people are often hesitant to talk about, like politics, with something everyone has an opinion about, which is music,” said Haley Strassburger, a senior music education major from Atlanta and research assistant at Trax.

By focusing on music candidates use and how it impacts the political soundscape, we’re able to simplify the complexity of politics and make it more approachable.
– Strassburger

Senior music education majors Haley Strassburger and Sarah Griffin talk with Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak. Strassburger and Griffin are research assistants at Trax.
Senior music education majors Haley Strassburger and Sarah Griffin talk with Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak. Strassburger and Griffin are research assistants at Trax.

Since its inception in 2015, Trax on the Trail has been used by journalists nationwide and become an educational tool in classrooms. During the 2016 presidential election, the website got more than 5,000 unique visits per month. 

Dr. Gorzelany-Mostak.
Dr. Gorzelany-Mostak.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are curious about ways music is used for political gain. So much happens between a candidate’s campaign launch and election day. Trax is a “central hub” where scholars and the public can discuss evolving soundscapes and ways songs are employed, said Trax founder and assistant professor of music, Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak.

The Trax database catalogues more than 8,000 songs from the 2016 and 2020 campaign trails. There are podcast interviews with music and political experts, as well. The bipartisan team of musicologists, political scientists, educators and Georgia College students are constantly updating information.

Trax’s new design features mapping and timeline functions that provide faster, more-fluid engagement with data. The site delivers up-to-the-minute coverage and essays on relevant topics. One by E. Douglas Bomberger delves into “unsettled times” much like our own. Events preceding the 1920 election “parallel closely” to 2020 with “a global pandemic, an increase in racial and ethnic injustice” and a president who contracted the Spanish flu virus.

Like then, songs still pique the interest of marginalized voters and reveal strategic shifts in campaigns. Melodies have been known to soothe tension. Slow tempos produce a calming effect. Patriotic songs prompt optimism. Lively beats encourage action. 

Image of sheet music. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian)
Image of sheet music. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian)
Since the early days of campaigns, toe-tapping tunes have been associated with presidential candidates. Examples include “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” “Lincoln and Liberty,” “Get on the Raft with Taft,” “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge” “Row, Row, Row With Roosevelt” and “I like Ike.” Modern candidates like Lyndon B. Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter sustained the trend. 

President Donald Trump continues his use of country songs that helped propel him to victory in 2016. Like Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s—Trump uses Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” Former Vice President Joe Biden leans heavily on music President Barack Obama used—rhythm and blues from the 1960s and ‘70s.  During the recent Democratic National Convention, Biden repeatedly used “My City in Ruins” from Bruce Springsteen’s “Rise Up” album. 

There are humorous parodies like “I Think My Dog’s a Democrat” and “Big Bad Don” to keep politics from getting too serious.

People come to our site because they find themselves entertained, annoyed or intrigued by music they hear on the trail. But we hope, as they read our essays and listen to our podcasts, the takeaway will be something more.
– Gorzelany-Mostak

“Musical sounds communicate ideas and values, even in the absence of lyrics,” Gorzelany-Mostak said. “We feel it is of vital importance for the public to develop a critical ear and become attuned to the ways political candidates can harness sound as a tool of persuasion.”

COVID has complicated the situation. Songs are still broadcast in commercials, on Twitter and YouTube. But live music performances and fundraising concerts are missing. Presidential candidates are holding fewer campaign rallies, if any at all. This has forced candidates to adopt different musical tactics, Gorzelany-Mostak said. 

Image from Trax website.
Image from Trax website.
Senior music education major Sarah Griffin of Warthen, Georgia, documents these cultural shifts. Griffin said she’s “surprised by the sheer quantities of data we’re finding.” Since last fall, Internet traffic on the presidential election has doubled. About 150 different songs and music clips were used at the Democrat convention alone.

“On a societal level,” Griffin said, “the work we do at Trax is important because there are very few, if any, online research projects that explore the dynamic relationship between music and politics.”

Griffin and Strassburger helped design the new website. As research assistants, they maintain the Trax database and log music used by political candidates. This involves spreadsheets that detail the performer, song, event and context. Students conduct interviews with composers, musicians and writers about the current political climate. They post on social media, organize workshops for educators and create promotional materials. 

It’s incredibly important for us, as consumers to recognize the relationship between music videos, news, social media and socially-charged events like elections and politics.
– Strassburger
Trax has moved them beyond playing instruments in their major to understanding why certain songs are chosen and what music reveals about campaigns. Their work reinforces the importance of being open-minded and critically analyzing what they read and observe. 

The students say they’ve become more inquisitive, politically-aware and engaged through Trax.

“It’s incredibly important for us, as consumers,” Strassburger said, “to recognize the relationship between music videos, news, social media and socially-charged events like elections and politics.”