Political Machinations of Popular Music: Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, “Retro Playlists, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nostalgia, and the Elvis Candidate”

by justindburton on November 15, 2012

IASPM-US enters the political fray in the months of October and November with a series of essays titled “The (Sometimes) Political Machinations of Popular Music.” Instead of focusing our attention on the overtly political, we’d like to explore the ways in which pop music can become political or, perhaps, ways in which the political can become pop music.

Between 1840 and 1968 American presidential campaign songs typically paired newly penned lyrics with popular tunes of the day. Serving a didactic role, the songs’ verses outlined the candidates’ platforms, praised their characters, and, on occasion, derided their opponents. Consider “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” set to the minstrel tune “Little Pigs,” which praised hard-cider drinking, log cabin dweller William Henry Harrison and dismissed his competitor Martin van Buren as an out-of-touch aristocrat.


Famous 20th-century examples of this style of campaign song include “I Like Ike,” which Irving Berlin penned and set to a tune from his musical Call Me Madam in 1952 for Dwight Eisenhower, and “High Hopes,” the song Frank Sinatra recorded for his friend John F. Kennedy’s 1960 campaign.


Although only one of many contributing factors, campaign song historian Irwin Silber rightly points towards electronic media as sounding the death knell for the old tradition of campaign songwriting.[1. Irwin Silber, Songs America Voted By: With the Words and Music That Won and Lost Elections and Influenced the Democratic Process (Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1971), 18.] By the 1980s, unaltered pre-existing songs—that is, popular songs that have already circulated on record, radio, film, or television—had begun to replace candidate-specific songs like “Tippecanoe.” Democratic candidate Bill Clinton’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” for his 1992 campaign is generally considered the watershed moment for the modern pre-existing campaign song.


But the candidate did not merely strut onto the stage to the sounds of classic rock—he played it as well. Aside from George H. W. Bush and Lee Atwater’s feeble attempts to play the blues at the former’s inaugural celebration in 1988, Clinton might be the first presidential candidate to display respectable musical skills on national television.[2. Other politicians have joined in the music making at events, and a handful of musicians who took a swing at office have played at their own appearances, but Clinton was certainly the first to perform an extended solo on a non-campaign-related entertainment show.] In June of the election year, the young candidate from Arkansas donned a pair of shades and performed Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Arsenio Hall Show. That he selected an Elvis hit was no surprise. Clinton never attempted to conceal his fandom; he once referred to Elvis as “the major cultural figure of [his] childhood.”[3. Jonathan Freedland, “Hum Along with Bush; Country Music Sweeps the Campaign,” Washington Post, August 21, 1992, B1. Also see Elizabeth Kolbert, “Media; Whistle-Stops a la 1992: Arsenio, Larry and Phil,” New York Times, June 5, 1992, accessed July 27, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/1992/06/05/us/the-1992-campaign-media-whistle-stops-a-la-1992-arsenio-larry-and-phil.html.] The press frequently made connections between the two, and Clinton embraced the comparison. Observing Clinton’s demeanor at a campaign appearance, journalist Maureen Dowd writes, “He offered his trademark ‘Elvis’ look, featured heavily in his commercials, of biting his lower lip and crinkling his eyes a bit, a look meant to convey an appealing combination of decency and deviltry.”[4. Maureen Dowd, “The 1992 Campaign: Democrats; After Ordeal, Is Clinton Tempered Now, or Burned?” New York Times, February 2, 1992, Sec. 1, Pt. 1, 24, Col. 1. Clinton also appeared on The Tonight Show; in this appearance he performed “Summertime.”

Clinton’s problematic performances of raced music deserve further inquiry, especially considering Toni Morrison’s famous article in The New Yorker (penned during the impeachment hearings) that declared him, “the first black president,” and gave his saxophone playing as evidence of this identity. Clinton, Morrison writes, “displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”]

But in addition to amusing television viewers with his soulful sax-playing and energizing rally-goers with his “official” campaign theme song “Don’t Stop,” the Elvis president offered an expansive playlist of pre-existing music at his appearances on the campaign trail. Interestingly enough, as journalist Michael Specter claimed, Clinton’s life seemed to resonate with the narratives of country music, yet while 1992 incumbent George H. W. Bush embraced the genre, he did not, and instead featured a hearty playlist of classic rock (with some R&B and pop thrown in for good measure).[5. Michael Specter, “Look Who’s Humming a Hurtin’ Song. Drawing Political Values from Song Lyrics is a Tricky Business,” Globe and Mail (Canada), September 3, 1992.] The below table indicates some of the tunes Clinton included on his campaign playlist:

Song Artist Date Genre
Don’t Stop Fleetwood Mac 1977 soft rock
Power to the People John Lennon 1971 rock
Revolution The Beatles 1968 rock
My Guy Mary Wells 1964 Motown
Right Here, Right Now Jesus Jones 1991 alternative rock
U Can’t Touch This MC Hammer 1990 pop rap
*various Elvis Presley c. 1956-1960 rockabilly/rock & roll
We Shall Be Free Garth Brooks 1992 country
Born in the USA Bruce Springsteen 1984 rock
Sweet Home Chicago Blues Brothers 1980 blues
Surfin’ USA Beach Boys 1963 surf rock
Lean on Me Bill Withers 1972 soul
Taking Care of Business Bachman Turner Overdrive 1974 hard rock
Good Vibrations Beach Boys 1966 surf rock
The Boy in the Bubble Paul Simon 1986 pop
Graceland Paul Simon 1986 pop
Scarlet Begonias Grateful Dead 1974 rock
Margaritaville Jimmy Buffett 1977 pop
Twist and Shout The Beatles 1963 rock & roll
All Along the Watchtower Jimmy Hendrix 1968 blues rock
O Happy Day Edwin Hawkins Singers 1967 soul/gospel

Bill Clinton’s 1992 Campaign Playlist[6. The dates included here are album release dates.]

With his performance style and professed music tastes, Clinton exuded a hip, retro sensibility, and this sensibility extended to his campaign playlist as well. Rather than relying solely on the most current hits, Clinton’s team chose songs that had achieved the height of their popularity eight to nineteen years earlier. Undoubtedly classic rock “worked” for Bill Clinton in a way that it had not for previous presidential candidates. Whereas George McGovern probably did not pass a doobie at a James Taylor concert in between Senate meetings, and Richard Nixon probably did not tap his toe to Merle Haggard while dictating policy, the public could imagine a sax-wielding Bill Clinton grooving to “Twist and Shout.” In other words, the public believed his campaign playlist, or public music, matched his private musical tastes. However, I would like to consider the Clinton-classic rock fit from another angle that might explain its success: shortly before Clinton’s campaign moved into full swing, nostalgia became increasingly visible in marketing, advertising, and entertainment media, and baby boomers and senior citizens were the targets of such media.[7. William J. Havlena and Susan L. Holak, “‘The Good Old Days’: Observations on Nostalgia and its Role in Consumer Behavior,” in Advances in Consumer Research 18, edited by Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon (Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 1991), 323-29, accessed June 15, 2012, http://www.acrwebsite.org/search/view-conference-proceedings.aspx?Id=7180.] That is to say, the success of Clinton’s music strategy may indeed be partly due to his authentic attachment to the music represented on his playlist and in his own music performances, but the public’s pre-established predilection for pastness equally contributed to its efficacy.

In 1989, journalist Jamie Beckett wrote, “[t]here’s no time like the past—if current advertising messages are any indication. More and more advertisers are using old music, dead celebrities and nostalgic images to sell everything from cars to fast food.”[8. Jamie Beckett, “Nostalgia is Newest Selling Tool,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 6, 1989, C5.] Indeed Coca-Cola’s 1990 advertising campaign exemplified the trend identified by Beckett: in order to evoke nostalgia for the early 1970s, the soft-drink giant offered the public a “new” “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” commercial, which reunited the commercial’s original multi-ethnic cast and their offspring on the same Italian hillside. Using the same tune, but with an added countermelody jauntily sung by the original cast’s progeny, the 1990 reunion commercial reminds audiences of the original’s message of peace, love, global fellowship (and sugar coma!) and affirms the continuing legacy of these values.



Also commenting on advertising, journalist Marcus Mabry claimed “[c]ompanies are so high on the past that they’ll sometimes go to almost any length to re-create it.”[9. Marcus Mabry, “Remembrance of Ads Past,” Newsweek, July 30, 1990, 42; quoted in Havlena and Holak, “The Good Old Days.”] Some companies used commercial footage that looked “old,” and others, such as the Leaf Candy Company, which produces the classic candy Good & Plenty, recycled their own old footage.[10. Mary Huhn, “Making Fresh Use of Vintage Commercials; Some Advertisers Find that Footage from Their Old Spots Can Solve Tricky Creative Problems,” Adweek, February 1, 1988.]

And this trend extended to music as well. Advertisers frequently used popular 1960s songs to sell their products: the California Raisins danced to Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It through the Grapevine;” Nike chose the Beatles’ “Revolution.”



But advertisers were not the only ones to capitalize on the nostalgia craze. Launched in 1985, The Nostalgia Channel, which offered a steady diet of classic movies, vintage TV shows, Liberace concerts, Jack LaLanne exercise programs, and “new” shows such as “Dancin’ to the Oldies,” was carried by 450 cable systems with over 8.5 million subscribers by 1990. The channel’s syndicated radio show “Flashback” featured music and interviews from the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.[11. “Nostalgia Channel Hires Program Syndicator as Exclusive Ad Sales Rep,” Associated Press, March 14, 1990.] Tapping into this trend, Steve Gottlieb produced “Television’s Greatest Hits” and “TeeVee Toons,” compilation cassettes of classic television theme songs and commercial jingles, respectively.[12. Dottie Enrico, “‘TeeVee Toons’: Advertising Kitsch as Cultural History; Maven of Television Nostalgia Puts Together An Anthology of Classic Commercial Jingles,” Adweek, July 11, 1988.]

TeeVee Toons: The Commercials (1989)

Shows such as The Wonder Years, which featured young Kevin Arnold’s upbringing in 1970s suburbia, gained a large following, and older television shows such as “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy” were successfully marketed on videocassette. Films set in the 1960s, such as “Good Morning Vietnam” (1987), “Hairspray” (1988), and “Dirty Dancing” (1987) found success at the box office.



The Wonder Years

Dirty Dancing

According to sociologist Fred Davis “[w]here nostalgia once would have focused on specific places—homes and so forth—the objects of nostalgia are increasingly celebrities of the past, of music, films, et cetera.”[1. Quoted in Randall Rothenberg, “The Media Business: Advertising; The Past Is Now the Latest Craze,” New York Times, November 29, 1989, accessed November 2, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/1989/11/29/business/the-media-business-advertising-the-past-is-now-the-latest-craze.html] In other words, people long for objects from the past rather than the places associated with them. Through the consumption of these objects, people experience feelings of safety, contentment, and belonging. But how does this translate to nostalgia for certain music? Morris Holbrook and Robert Schindler define nostalgia broadly as “a preference (general liking, positive attitude, or favorable affect) toward objects (people, places, or things) that were more common (popular, fashionable, or widely circulated) when one was younger (in early adulthood, in adolescence, in childhood, or even before birth).” According to this research on nostalgia and consumer behavior, people tend to favor the music that was popular when they were young adults, and they continue to find pleasure in this music for the rest of their lives.[13. Morris B. Holbrook and Robert M. Schindler, “Echoes of the Dear Departed Past: Some Work in Progress on Nostalgia,” in Advances in Consumer Research 18, ed. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon (Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 1991), 330–33, accessed April 4, 2012, http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/display.asp?id=7181&print=1. See also “Some Exploratory Findings on the Development of Musical Tastes,” Journal of Consumer Research 16 (June 1989): 119–24. In another article, Holbrook posits a “Nostalgia Index” as a means of measuring a subject’s proclivity for nostalgic impulses. See “Nostalgic Consumption: On the Reliability and Validity of a New Nostalgia Index” (working paper, New York: Columbia University, Graduate School of Business, 1990).] Nostalgia for adolescence and early adulthood appears to be the strongest, and furthermore, people are most highly prone to nostalgia during transitional periods in the life cycle, especially the middle age and the retirement years.[14. Havlena and Holak, “Good Old Days,” 323–29.] That is to say, Clinton’s own cohort (baby boomers), whom he targeted with his campaign tactics and self-presentation, was perceived as highly susceptible to nostalgia-laden messages.

In selecting music from the 1960s and 1970s, Clinton almost guaranteed the public’s response to his playlist would be positive, as first-order nostalgia tends to filter information and leave the consumer, or in this case, the voter, with the impression that things in the past were better than they actually were. In other words, the social turmoil of the 1960s can now be recast as the halcyon days of youth.[17. Ibid.] Although it is difficult to pinpoint whether the nostalgia trend in advertising was in response to, or the initiating factor in, the nostalgia craze, there is no question that the increasing use of music to sell products has depleted rock of its political and subcultural connotations to a certain extent. As Ken McLeod has shown, rock music became the standard soundtrack of sporting events during the 1990s. Similarly, Fabian Holt, in reference to world events during this time, claims rock music became a discourse appropriated for the articulation of public memory at events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.[18. Ken McLeod, We Are the Champions: The Politics of Sports and Popular Music (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2011). McLeod notes how mainstream sports organizations use music to connect with an audience, or to diversify their fan base (e.g., the NBA and hip hop connection). Fabian Holt, Genre in Popular Music (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 1. See also Don Cusic, “NASCAR and Country Music,” Studies in Popular Culture 21, no. 1 (1998), 31-40. Liz Clarke, “Fast-Track Politicking: Candidates Gear Their Messages toward NASCAR Dads.” Washington Post National Weekly Edition, April 11, 2003, 6.] Although one can argue that the reproduction of rock music in these various commercial contexts has diminished its countercultural capital and depleted its aura, this trajectory has only increased its symbolic capital for candidates such as Bill Clinton. As music that evokes the safety and security of an idealized past, signifies the satisfaction of consuming familiar objects, and recalls events that engender American pride and patriotism in the collective social memory, a retro classic rock playlist can be a winning playlist.

In 2008 Barack Obama adopted a strategy similar to Clinton’s in 1992: although U2 and Bruce Springsteen loomed large, Obama’s (partially) retro playlist, which offered a hefty helping of 1960s and 1970s Motown and Soul, was met with similar praise. Whereas Clinton’s music strategy primarily targeted baby boomers, the Obama playlist’s love-themed ’60s and ’70s R&B songs with their axiological connotations of people coming together, narratives of overcoming, and representation of female empowerment tapped into the “women loving Obama” phenomenon, but also allowed the candidate to reinforce the connection between his candidacy and the Civil Rights Movement. (Pundits generally agreed that Obama needed to win over both women and black voters in order to defeat his primary rival Hillary Clinton.) And also like former-president Bill Clinton, the self-proclaimed “old school guy” Obama’s private music tastes (in this case, his iPod playlist) matched his “public” campaign playlist.[19. “I’m old school, so generally, generally, I’m more of a jazz guy, a Miles Davis, a John Coltrane guy, more of a Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder kind of guy . . . but having said that, I’m current enough that on my iPod I’ve got a little bit of Jay-Z. I’ve got a little Beyoncé.” See Barack Obama interview, Hot 97, New York, June 27, 2007. This interview is cited in Peter Hamby, “Barack Obama Gets Name-Dropped in Hip-Hop,” CNN, August 17, 2007, accessed March 12, 2012. http://www.cnn.com/2007/POLITICS/08/17/obama.hip.hop/index.html.

In 2008, Obama’s list of personal favorites included “I’m On Fire” (Springsteen), “Think” (Aretha Franklin), “City of Blinding Lights” (U2), and “Yes We Can” (will.i.am), four songs also used on the campaign trail. The candidate also included Kanye West’s “Touch the Sky,” which uses a sample from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” another song on his campaign playlist. See “White House DJ Battle,” Blender, August 12, 2008. Several magazines, news outlets, and blogs, including Seventeen and NPR, discussed the contents of the 2008 candidates’ lists.]

Although Fred Davis uses the word “objects,” in the case of music, Leon Botstein’s metaphor of the transaction is perhaps more fitting when considering retro music in the context of campaigning.[20. Leon Botstein, “Memory and Nostalgia as Music-Historical Categories,” Musical Quarterly 84, no. 4 (2000): 532.] As the baby-boomer electorate actively engages with Clinton’s music, which they also consider their music, at live events, they renew their belonging to a certain group, and they reaffirm their collective identity by way of their shared nostalgic experience.[21. Fred Davis, Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia (New York: Free Press, 1979), 101.] Perhaps the feel-good music also masks the underlying politics, capitalist initiatives, and corporate greed that underpin both campaigns and the events cited by Holt. Or, one can argue that the ubiquitous presence of music as a marketing tool in these realms “naturalizes” the power relations that enable their existence.[22. This is not to say that the practice of using pre-existing music (be it a year old or twenty-years old) hasn’t had its detractors. In 1990 Tolga Kashif lamented: “Nothing is sacred. Marvin Gaye has been reduced to stripping in launderettes and Bizet to selling upmarket cars while Carl Orff scores the louts double with aftershave and lager.” See Ronnie Paris and Tolga Kashif, “Head to Head: Ronnie Paris Speaks Out in Favour of Using Existing Music in Ads While Tolga Kashif Believes That This Approach Limits Creativity,” Campaign, July 13, 1990; George H.W. Bush labeled Clinton “the karaoke kid” who will sing any tune that will get him elected. See Freedland, “Hum Along with Bush,” B1.]

To conclude, lets turn back to the 21stcentury and the most recent election cycle. In February 2012, Obama released his campaign playlist on the cloud-based, music-streaming site Spotify, which proclaims itself as the “all the music, all the time” digital music service, and extended an invitation to the Tumblr community to make their own playlist recommendations.[23. Using a computer, phone, or mobile device, Spotify members can stream millions of songs from any location and create their own playlists. Additionally, the site offers mobile iPhone and Android applications that allow users to sync playlists to multiple devices, and users can also purchase their playlists in MP3 format and sync them to their iPods. Integration with Facebook and Twitter allows Spotify users to share their playlists with other users as well. If Spotify users listen to a song, the song information and a link appear on their Facebook news-feeds; then, their friends can see what they are listening to and access the music themselves through Spotify’s cloud-based player. Users can also post tracks on their friends’ social networks. See Trevor Essmeier, “Spotify: Pioneers in Cloud Technology,” Fresh Consulting, accessed July 19, 2012, http://freshconsulting.com/spotify-pioneers-in-cloud-technology/; and Spotify, accessed July 17, 2012, http://www.spotify.com/int/about/what/.]

2012 Campaign Playlist – Barack Obama (Spotify)[24. User information has been shaded in these two images. These screen shots were taken on August 10, 2012. Both lists have been modified since then.]

2012 Supporter Picks – Barack Obama (Spotify)

With Spotify, the candidate allows his or her complete playlist to become a part of (or even to structure) the listener’s private sonic world. But at the same time, the listener/voter can play a part in creating the composition of Obama’s public soundscape by offering up his/her own suggestions for the Supporter Picks playlist, the content of which the candidate subsequently used during campaign events. (They can also tailor their own Obama playlists and share them with others through social media sites.) Although Obama’s expansive and dynamic Spotify playlist, with groups such as AgesandAges, Noah and the Whale, and Florence + the Machine may not “work” in live contexts, the candidate’s use of Spotify surely shows an awareness of how individuals and groups interact with music in online communities and the symbolic value music exchange holds for consumers who fashion online identities through their demonstration of cultural competence in music. And, awareness of this practice affirms the candidate’s own cultural competence as well as reinforces his standing as the “first internet president.” In an environment bombarded by multimedia contexts where exchanges are increasingly tied to screens, perhaps music’s value lies less in its ability to construct the candidate and establish his connection to a certain community (as was the case with the nostalgic playlists of Clinton in 1992 and Obama in 2008) and more in its potential value as an object of symbolic exchange between candidates and voters.

Dana Gorzelany-Mostak recently defended her dissertation, titled Pre-existing Popular Music in United States Presidential Campaigns, 1972-2012, and will graduate from McGill University in February 2013. She received the Mark Tucker Award from the Society for American Music and the Peter Narvaez Memorial Award from the International Association for the Study of Popular Music-Canada for her work on the intersection of politics and music in the 2008 campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Her research interests include music and U.S. presidential politics, celebrity culture, the film musical, Bruce Springsteen, and music culture post-9/11. Dr. Gorzelany-Mostak is currently on the faculty of Dickinson College in Carlisle Pennsylvania where she directs the college choir and teaches a seminar on Opera and Popular Culture.

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