By Richard Parfitt |

The music used by the various presidential campaigns vying for the top job at in the US have been chosen very deliberately. Since I work on music and politics, I couldn’t resist the temptation to pick them apart a little, and obviously it also demonstrates my totally transferable humanities skills (looking at you, future employers).


Let’s take New York as a case in point. Hillary Clinton emerged from the Democratic New York primary victorious, putting her in possession of an arbitrary number of delegates toward a number that apparently means she wins (who understands this bizarre system? Really?). As she arrives on stage, waving to the crowd, the more conventionally patriotic marching band music gives way to a short clip of Jay Z and Alicia Keys performing ‘Empire State of Mind’. What’s going on here? Plenty. As those of you who are more down with the kids than I will know, ‘Empire State of Mind’ is written about the city of New York itself. Clinton, unsurprisingly, choosing it to celebrate the state that had just handed her a bucket load of mandate.


But the connotations of the song go further. Clinton’s campaign could easily use the music from her own youth, but instead she chooses that of today’s young people. These songs have been appearing throughout her campaign, and for a politician twenty years older than Obama was when he entered office, they help her to appear young and in touch with younger voters. Clinton is also using a song by two prominent black performers. One claims to exchange text messages with the current President, Barack Obama, the other performed at his 2013 inauguration. In doing so, Clinton associates herself with the ethnic minority vote that has carried her through the campaign.


Her immediate opponent, Bernie Sanders, has gone for similar tactics. In Brooklyn, he emerged to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen. Here comes our political rock star, he wants us to hear. Popular band (I’m told) Vampire Weekend played before his speech to 27,000 supporters before the vote in New York. If Springsteen told us Sanders was a rock star, Vampire Weekend told us that the grey hair is purely decorative, and beneath his elderly exterior lies the mind and body of a young hipster pumped and ready for Coachella. Like Clinton, he uses the music that his campaign imagines his young supporters enjoy. Young voters are thus courted, his own age counterbalanced.


The most interesting examples come from Donald Trump. In his New York victory speech, Trump takes a leaf out of the Clinton play book and emerges to a song celebrating the city. Unlike Clinton, however, he takes an older option: Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’. This isn’t because he’s any less keen on the young, rock star image. Instead, it reflects the embarrassment that comes with musicians telling him off. When Trump used a song by Adele earlier in the campaign, she asked him to stop. Neil Young, Aerosmith, REM and The Rolling Stones have done the same. Sinatra, in his defence, may well have done the same had he been alive – the fact that he isn’t may even have contributed to the Trump team’s decision to use his song. The results of his campaign’s attempts to compose their own songs, on the other hand, are tragic beyond words (see video).



Musicians, as we know, are all left wing. None of the incredibly rich stars of popular music would ever dare vote for a right wing party. Never. John McCain had the same issues as Trump in 2008, when the Foo Fighters asked him to stop using their song ‘My Hero’. Even Phil Collins, darling of the British middle classes, denied being a Conservative supporter earlier this year. In a more unusual example, the Manic Street Preachers stopped the fascist British National Party from using their song ‘If You Tolerate This, Your Children Will Be Next’. It’s hard to know exactly what they were going for there, given that the song is about beating up fascists.


In any case, Trump may do better to leave the pop music to Clinton and Sanders. Even if their use of it is just as cynical (and it is), at least the musicians concerned are going to tell their twitter followers they voted Democrat. This election fits into a well-established trend in modern politics. Right and left want the rock star image and they want young voters. Musicians like to appear leftish. It fits the narrative whereby popular music brought the Vietnam War to an end, tore down the Berlin Wall, and toppled Margaret Thatcher. It’s reflected now in the host of parody Trump songs populating YouTube. Thus, for those on the left, popular music is easier to appropriate. The right tends to be clumsier, and gets a much less enthusiastic response from musicians.


Richard Parfitt is a Committee Member for Pubs and Publications.  You can find him on Twitter and on on