Why Politicians Can’t Use Pop Songs

Whatever you think of the man, it’s fair to say that John McCain has not been able to catch a break in this election. I’m not talking about the self-inflicted wounds, but about all the things over which he genuinely had no control, like the economy tanking, a hurricane hitting New Orleans on the first day of the Republican convention, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki agreeing with Obama’s pullout plan. The campaign has been a sort of running joke of failure for McCain, and one of the best was how musicians kept objecting to his campaigns’ use of particular songs. Heart, Bon Jovi, the Foo Fighters, Survivor, John Mellencamp, and half of Van Halen were among the musicians who objected, and the campaign has largely given in to their terroristy demands. This would seem to be another strategic (tactical?) blunder, but the results of a study done by my partner Rachel Arnold and me suggests, rather, that politicians aren’t just uninformed about music–they don’t care about music. And as long as that’s true, these sort of musical gaffes are going to continue.

For the study, we took a survey of future political professionals, quizzing them on basic musical knowledge (very basic questions like “What band was fronted by Freddie Mercury?”, which 29% answered correctly, and “Name all four members of the Beatles,” which only 58% got right) and asking them to rate the importance of music. The average score on the knowledge quiz was 40% correct. Those who did well on the quiz actually expressed embarrassment at having even a basic level of musical knowledge. Overall, the respondents rated music as “somewhat important,” but there was a clear correlation between thinking music is important and scoring well on the musical knowledge quiz–those who rated music “very important” got an average score of 53% right, thirteen points above the average. (Though still, you know, not very good.)

The people who took our survey clearly didn’t see too much of a problem with their lack of musical knowledge (though, being nerds, they got huffy when it was demonstrated that they didn’t know something–even if they didn’t care about it). And sure, not caring or knowing about music isn’t a big deal if you see it just as entertainment. But it’s also a form of communication. The usual way people interpret pop songs in politics is by looking at the lyrics literally to find something that contradicts the candidate’s message or image. We weren’t interested in this so much. We were more interested in the associational cues a song triggers. Play a Toby Keith song and you’re signaling to people with a particular set of political and cultural values that you’re on their side; play Bob Dylan and you get an (almost) entirely different group of people. The great thing about this form of communication is that it’s subtle. Dylan may be a big red blinking culture war sign, sure, but what about music that most political commentators simply haven’t heard of? Throw on some Al B. Sure and the whole Quiet Storm crowd will get the message; put on a little Widespread Panic (I know, I know) and a different segment of the population will go nuts. Putting on a camo jacket and going hunting is a clumsy and transparent way to try and send this sort of targeted cultural message. With the right song, however, you send a line to a particular group of people who will be very excited to be noticed, and will be far more likely to support a candidate they feel “gets them.” In other words, meaning is being left on the table, and that seems like the last thing you’d want to do in politics.

There was a lingering question with the continuous stream of objections to McCain’s use of pop songs: Were the objections legally valid? Your Idolawyer thought there was a legal case for the objection, but I tend to agree with Slate’s analysis that as long as the politicians had a performance license, they were golden. It’s interesting, then, that the McCain campaign did largely stop using the songs once the artists complained. This suggests that while political professionals may think that music is silly and unimportant, they recognize the power of musical allegiances–so while they might think that Bon Jovi is stupid, they know that pissing off Bon Jovi’s fans is a bad idea. That’s true, but it misses the opportunity for a more positive meaning to emerge. The idea that pop music is a frivolous enterprise is not a rational belief, but simply another component of taste. Political folks happen to have a taste that rejects pop culture. But what may happen in this election is that pop culture is going to reject them.

Yesterday’s Gone: The Use of Pop Songs in Presidential Campaigns [EMP]