From creating original works to setting new lyrics to popular tunes, to simply employing popular songs of today and yesteryear, music on the presidential campaign trail has undergone many changes throughout history.
Tracking those choices is a website founded locally by Georgia College assistant professor of music Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak. Trax on the Trail (www.traxonthetrail.com) got off the ground in December 2015, just in time to follow then-candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in their quests to become America’s leader. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic drastically changing the campaign landscape, Trax on the Trail is once again seeing an increase in online traffic in the lead-up to the 2020 election.
“Basically the goal of Trax on the Trail is to build more critical awareness about how sound and music communicate during campaign season,” Gorzelany-Mostak said. “The project started at Georgia College, but we actually have collaborators all over the U.S. and Canada. Of course here at Georgia College, student research assistants play an integral role in collecting and analyzing the data that we track. We scour the internet and social media to look for instances where music is heard on the trail, then we catalog them in a database that we developed as part of our website.”
Trax also goes further than that database as essays and podcasts are also featured on the site, giving critical analysis into why songs are chosen and whether or not they hit the mark. Additionally, Trax on the Trail has classroom materials high school educators might find useful in starting discussions in their government or U.S. History classrooms. Gorzelany-Mostak said her website is useful not just to the general public and teachers, but also to researchers and journalists covering candidates on the campaign trail.
“Even from my early days as a master’s student, I was just very interested in intersections between music and politics more broadly,” the Trax on the Trail founder said. “I had noticed there was a good amount of research done on the older campaign songs. A little bit before the 1980s and ‘90s going forward, you begin to see candidates using unaltered popular songs in their campaigns.”
The early days of campaign music saw campaign workers put new lyrics to familiar tunes like “Yankee Doodle” or “Auld Lang Syne.” Supporters would attend candidates’ events and be given booklets, called songsters, with the changed lyrics so they could sing along. Now campaigns take well-known songs, political or not, and blast them at rallies. President Trump’s use of Lee Greenwood’s patriotic hit “God Bless the USA” jumps to Gorzelany-Mostak’s mind along with Bill Clinton’s use of “Don’t Stop” by Fleetwood Mac in the ‘90s among others.
The 2020 presidential campaigns are of course very different due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. There’s still work that can be done by Trax on the Trail though.
“[The pandemic] changed the kind of data that we’re finding,” Gorzelany-Mostak explained. “Obviously it’s difficult for candidates to carry out live events like rallies or fundraising concerts. President Trump still has been doing some live rallies, but you can’t have the large-scale events you could’ve had before COVID happened. Really what we’ve been discovering is that candidates and also artists that want to support candidates have found new strategies for sharing their music online.”
The GC assistant music professor pointed to the hashtag “TeamJoeSings” seen on social media where artists perform online in support of the Democratic candidate.
“The music isn’t necessarily political, but they are doing it as part of a get out and vote campaign in support of Joe Biden,” said Gorzelany-Mostak. “You still have a lot of artists out there that want to lend their support to a candidate, so they’ve found a virtual means of doing so.”
So can music play a role in swaying voters to one side or the other? The Trax on the Trail founder does not believe so.
“I think there’s a lot of ways people engage with politics,” she said. “Music becomes one way people get involved in activism and in causes. It doesn’t necessarily translate to them voting differently, but it becomes a whole part of campaign season. You can’t really reduce it down to voting behavior, but I think it’s part of how people engage in politics. For that reason, I think it’s worthy of study.”
Think about going to a Major League Baseball game or some other big sporting event. Teams do all kinds of promotions and games when there’s a break in play to keep fans engaged. Fans do not attend simply because of those extra activities, but they do become a part of the overall gameday experience and, if positive, they can play a part in future ticket sales. That’s sort of the role music plays on the campaign trail.
Gorzelany-Mostak said candidates have a thin line to walk when it comes to effective music selection.
“They need to strike a balance between choosing music that has some sort of authentic connection with the candidate that also speaks to the constituencies that they are trying to address. If it falls too far on one side, then that falls flat and the people aren’t engaged by it. Obviously, you want to avoid people criticizing you too much.”
While music may not play a deciding role in who will win the presidency, candidates will be singing decidedly different tunes once all the votes are counted.