Is music being used as a political tool?

In an age when music is being used to encourage people to buy cars, perfume and chocolate, this paper explores how music is being used to ‘buy’, or, at the very least, influence our vote in political elections through emotional manipulation, using case studies from both sides of the Atlantic. This study reviews the current theoretical knowledge of music and emotional manipulation in listeners and how, by association, it affects the identity of the broadcaster. After reviewing the election campaigns of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama – and their use and choice of music through political campaign songs, Spotify playlists or Desert Island Discs appearances – it is concluded that they are thoughtfully designed to induce emotional manipulation and/or to construct an identity for political gain in their respective election campaigns.



The music and literature of a country cannot be altered without major political changes. (Plato op.cit. Clynes, 1982, p.388)

It may appear that politics and music are distant fields of study, yet the two often intertwine and have done since as early as in the time of Plato; sometimes explicitly and sometimes rather more subtly. Music is an increasingly common, and significant, factor in political campaigns in the United States of America (USA) and the United Kingdom (UK). In the twenty-first century, music plays a vital part in election campaigns although one may not be completely aware of it, as its insidious inclusion in campaigns renders it subliminal. The United States and the United Kingdom currently lead the way in using music as a political tool, for better and/or for worse.

The considered, intentionally political, use of music has increasingly crept into the politics of the twenty-first century. The present author is eager to understand the reasoning and the effectiveness of such an aural tool, as well as its impact on elections, politicians and on our culture as a whole. This dissertation will explore the UK and the USA, as these are two of the major Western powers, with political systems and election cycles that are imitated globally. They are often identified as primary examples of open democracy. This ties in with the fact that both nations have a flourishing cultural scene, particularly in music, which dominates Western cultural output. For example, the French Government has implemented laws to force French radio stations play more French-language music (Samuel, 2015) over and above English-language music currently dominant.

The aim of this dissertation is to explore examples of how music is being used as a political tool. The dissertation will be in two parts: firstly, it will explore the theoretical knowledge of the use of music to change emotion in the listener and to create identity in the broadcaster, drawing from the numerous pieces of work on the topic of music and emotion, and music and identity. Relevant materials from as fields such as psychology, linguistics, and sociology and cultural studies are included. Secondly, it will seek to link the theoretical with the practical through case studies exploring political campaign songs and instances where politicians use music to alter emotion and create an identity (both of the politicians as individuals and of their respective ideologies).

There are many academic works on the topics of music and politics. However, there are few that combine the two, with the possible exception of Street’s Music and Politics (2012). This dissertation will draw on studies from a range of schools of study including sociology, music (classical and popular), politics and cultural studies with a focus on the study of music and its consequences – particularly on the effects on emotion and feeling. These are explored in The Handbook of Music and Emotion (Juslin and Sloboda, 2010) and other works by academics such as Sloboda and Juslin. The dissertation will utilise sociological texts such as DeNora’s Music in Everyday Life (DeNora, 2000) and Clarke’s Music and Mind in Everyday Life (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010): the two primary sociological studies of music. Musical Identities (MacDonald et al., 2002) explores the effect of music on identity, and provides a starting point for my study of music and identity in politics.

From film soundtracks through advertisements to political campaign songs, music is being used in all walks of life to encourage society to do, buy, or feel something. Primarily, it feeds a consumerist ethos, often to create a modification in behaviour. DeNora, in, Music in Everyday Life, states:

Music is mobilised as a resource for producing the scenes, routines, assumptions and occasions that constitute ‘social life’. (DeNora, 2000, p.146)

However, in the political context it must be borne in mind that music has had an impact on our political actions and cultural thought in the past, with many political and activist campaigns bringing their message to the forefront of cultural engagement through music. In the mid-twentieth century, for example, Shostakovich used symphonies to show his discontent with the Soviet Union and the political processes in his own country. The Third Reich had ‘approved music’ (and, more significantly, music it deemed undesired and harmful thus was, as such, was banned). Equally, even earlier in the twentieth century, and before, the Black Rights movement, particularly in America, has used music since the time of slavery, such as the anthem: ‘We Shall Overcome’.

In more recent times, many musical subcultures have been aligned to radical politics: the right-wing Skinheads in 1960s England; Death Metal subcultures with anarchist tendencies, and the seemingly ideologically free trend of easy listening in the UK and America from the 1950s to the present-day that actually has a core value and ideology of status quo conservatism ideology. These subcultures have been explored in such texts as the Death Metal Music: The Passion and Politics of a Subculture (Purcell, 2003), Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and ‘Nazi Rock’ in England and Germany (Brown, 2004), as well as in Popular Music Studies Reader (Bennett, Shank and Toynbee, 2006).

When exploring music and emotion, it may be a logical step to study whether or not music is a political tool to create a positive political identity and enhance political gain. A key question is has music become much more of a mainstream political tool and an actively used political tool, to ‘sell’ politicians to the electorate? This question is at the heart of this paper and frames the dissertation. Political figures are always keen to enhance their likability rating and their humane – possibly even ‘human’ – persona. This is particularly the case where many suffer from an identity problem due to the public’s apathy, even downright hostility, towards them. Consequently, it is important both to explore existing academic work on the topic of music and emotion, on one hand, and, music and identity, on the other, to determine whether music helps or hinders politicians and then to examine in what direction the relationship between music and politics is destined to travel in the future.

Theoretical Review of Emotion and Identity in Music

The capability of music to manipulate the listener is the key theme to be addressed. The present chapter discusses the increasing body of literature on the subject of music and emotion, subsequently exploring the notion of music and identity. In recent times, there has been a rise in studies of both music and emotion, and music and identity, yet both are relatively new topics of research. Thanks to the flourishing of such literature, the sub-topics of these areas are new, exciting and a virtual step into the unknown. Music has many uses in so many different spheres of society that it seems as if the possibilities of these new developments are endless; politics is certain to be a specific cultural form and practice that will seek to benefit from any new studies that work to change the emotions of the electorate for political gain.

Previous Academic Studies on Music and Emotion

It is important to note that, given the many and varied definitions of emotion, this essay will adhere, in order to minimise confusion, to the definition of emotion in relation to music as outlined in The Handbook of Music and Emotion. This definition of music and emotion is a useful tool for politicians given its clarity and applicability in any given political scenario. However, one must remember that there are many sub-components to the creation of emotion through which music needs to be addressed. In The Handbook of Music and Emotion, its authors, state that:

Emotion refers to a quite brief but intense affective reaction that usually involves a number of sub-components – subjective feeling, physiological arousal, expression, action tendency, and regulation – that are more or less ‘synchronised’. Emotions focus on specific ‘objects’ and last minutes to a few hours. (Juslin, and Sloboda, 2010, p.10)

The idea that emotions may be altered by music is still ‘speculation rather than empirical enquiry’ (DeNora, 2003, p.84); that could be due to a lack of earlier scientific studies. However, many studies do conclude that music may be, and is, clearly utilised to manipulate emotions as explored in Music Structure and Emotional Response: Some Empirical Findings (Sloboda, 1991). Sloboda’s controlled tests found:

[A] clear differentiation between musical structures on the basis of the physical reaction they provoke. Tears are most reliably provoked by melodic appoggiaturas (…) and shivers by sudden harmony changes. (ibid., p.115)

Goldstein, one of the discoverers of endorphins, found in his studies that ‘music was especially effective as a stimulus’ as half of those questioned experienced ‘characteristic tingling sensations known as thrills’ (Goldstein, 1980, p.126). Panksepp, who named the field of neural mechanisms of emotion ‘affective neuroscience’ (Panksepp, 1992, p.554) has made many studies into the aspects of music. They include The Emotional Sources of ‘Chills’ Induced by Music, which deemed that ‘“chills” [experienced on hearing music] are related to the perceived emotional content of various selections, with much stronger relations to perceived sadness than happiness’ (Panksepp, 1995, p.171).

Further research into music’s role in adolescents’ mood regulation found that adolescents had:

[S]ome strong experiences from parties and concerts (…), and there the aesthetic pleasure was mixed with the atmosphere created by the context, location, and crowd. (Saarikallio and Erkkila, 2007, p.98)

This is, potentially, the significant piece of research for politicians hosting events and political rallies; here, instant ‘chills’ and ‘tingling sensations’, often indicated by core (key) ‘sound bites’ of ideological messages, are designed for instant audience ‘aesthetic pleasure’. These have an influence both within an audience’s own space as well as on those watching either via a live broadcast or in subsequent news reports by broadcasters, apparently balanced (in the UK), or less so (in the USA).

Additional studies have found that emotions are linked to the key of the music. One of the earlier studies on this subject, which paved the way for the studies of today, is the Experimental Studies of Elements of Expression in Music; Hevner found that ‘the major mode is happy and playful, the minor mode is sad, dreamy, but qualities such as excitement, vigour are not determined by either mode’ (Hevner, 1936, p.246). Kastner and Crowder wrote that children as young as three ‘show a reliable positive-major/negative-minor connotation when played musical passages in major and minor modes’ (1990, p.189). Cooke, in The Language of Music (1959, p.4), states that music is ‘the language of the emotions’, and, Meyer (1956, p.13) in Emotion and Meaning in Music argued that the difference [between being stimulated or not] lies in the relationship between the stimulus and the responding individual’. Both Cooke’s and Meyer’s work are ‘important contributions’ according to Davies (1994, p.29), as ‘[Cooke and Meyer] invite the thought that music has referential meaning as linguistic utterances do’.

Hence, with further scope for studies ahead, the study of the emotional effects of music, according to Scherer, a Professor of Psychology, (2004, p.251), ‘is likely to continue to thrive’. In Music and Mind in Everyday Life (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, pp.83-86), the authors touch on six main mechanisms of emotion induction and representation. These are: ‘Auditory Information; Emotional Contagion; Evaluative Conditioning; Episodic Memory; Semantic Meaning, and Expressive Performance’. These mechanisms are formulated similarly to Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, where the modes of persuasion are more simply described as: ‘ethos, pathos, logos’ (Aristotle. and Kennedy, 1991, p425).

Therefore, despite a few theoretical disagreements, it is agreed by almost all relevant academics that music not only can, but also does affect the type of emotion felt by the individual listener. However, the type of music, and what features the music has, from melodic appoggiaturas to major keys, is a major factor in whether or not music is able to or actually does have a significant impact or effect on emotion.

Previous Academic Studies on Music and Identity

Moreover, there is evidence to support the idea that identities may be created through music. In What Are Musical Identities, and Why Are They Important? MacDonald highlights research that underlines:

[The] ways in which identity with musical styles affects adolescents’ identification with various youth and/or other social groups. The research shows that the music we all choose affects many other non-musical aspects about ourselves, our identity to ourselves and others, and that young people use their liking of particular forms of music to ‘ally themselves with members of their peer group. (MacDonald et al., 2002, p.17)

The conclusions are that ‘music can act as a powerful identity for adolescents, perhaps more than any other aspects in their lives, and that as such it represents a fundamental influence on their identities’ (ibid., p.17). Such a thesis is reinforced by the work of Clarke when he states in his conclusions on the topic of music psychology that:

[M]usic is one way in which people learn about the values and behaviours appropriate to a culture, but it is also a way in which individuals can construct a sense of who they are. People’s musical tastes are in some sense also a representation or even a component of who they are. (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.108)

Bourdieu, the French sociologist who discussed theories around the dynamics of power, influenced the current ideas around ‘cultural capital’, argued that ‘one can buy into a particular class status by buying into the musical taste that goes with it’ (cited in Harper-Scott and Samson, 2009, p.53).

Clarke, a prominent musicologist, makes the unavoidable claim that music is a major part of our lives and something through which we, as humans, may associate with others:

[M]usic pervades everyday life in homes, on trains and planes, in cars and shops, at births and deaths, at weddings and at war, in concert halls, clubs, stadiums and fields. Music marks and orchestrates the ways in which people experience the world together. (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.1)

Street suggests that ‘music’s association with various social and political movements is not to be regarded just as window dressing, but rather as integral to these movements’ (Street, Hague and Savigny, 2008, pp.15-16).

DeNora concludes in her research that ‘music can remind [people] of who they were at a certain time’ and that music may be used as a ‘powerful aide-memoire’ (DeNora, 2000, p.66). Thanks to DeNora’s research, the opportunities for the politician’s political use of music to manipulate and benefit campaigns appear endless. As a simple example, a politician could use music to remind the electorate of how good or how bad the past was, and therefore bring forward a political point about a better future. Such a politician’s move could demean a sitting incumbent and boost the player’s own image as a positive future leader. DeNora concludes by saying: ‘the sense of “self” is locatable in music’. Consequently, music may provide the terms and templates – a working paradigm available to political strategists – for elaborating self-identity, because identity’s identification such that ‘music may be understood as providing a container for feeling (…) but to be sustained, and made known to oneself and others – must be established on a public or intersubjective plane’ (p.68).

However, another important factor in using music effectively is the cultural context in which the music is played, in order to move the listener in the direction of the political identity or message (ideology) one wants to portray:

Whether listeners pay attention to the acoustic characteristics of the music or its meanings depends on how they listen, and what they are listening for – defined not just by their preoccupations, but by cultural conventions. (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.76)

The arena in which the voter is listening is significant, and the use of music has to come across as natural. Preoccupations and cultural conventions may be a distraction, as musicologists Peddie and Smethurst state:

[T]here are many reasons why a songs intended original political meaning escapes the listener. Those reasons are based on actions of commercial mediators, the limitations of listeners and factors inherent in the music. (Peddie and Smethurst, 2006, p.9)

Thus, ‘intent’ may not be achieved depending upon the audience’s cultural sophistication of the music used (rooted in age, culture or other factors). Put simply, if they neither know nor like a particular piece of music, or the listener is preoccupied, its use may well be irrelevant or even counterproductive.

It has been argued that even if ignorance of any particular piece of music is the case, it may well still have some impact through its musical construction, use of tone and chord sequencing (as mentioned above). In musical terms, Clarke (2005, p.91) states that ‘when listeners perceive motion in music, they experience a particularly strong and quite physical identification with music’. London, a prominent musicologist specialising in metre, has argued: ‘alternating long and short notes in a particular metre and at a particular tempo can create a perceptual or cognitive effect’ (London, 2004, p.6). If a listener can ‘identify’ with music as Clarke and London have stated, then one could hold a more favourable view of the context and hence identify with a politician using particular music. This is the principle essential to advertising.

Other sectors have used music to create an identity or persona for either a person or an inanimate object or product; one globally significant sector is the retail consumer field. The retail sector regularly uses music to encourage sales by reinforcing their brand or product, be it a person or an object, using music both in their stores and, primarily, in advertising campaigns. For example, on broadcast television and radio, and increasingly in social media, music is now a key component often more important than the actual visual information or ‘look’. DeNora identifies this when she writes, in Music in Everyday Life (2000, p.146), about the use of identity construction through music in the retail sector: ‘in all these circumstances, the retail outlet produces potential sources of identification for the consumer’. When Zolo, a political scholar, states that ‘as the media in general plays an ever greater role in politics and as politics becomes an extension of mass media’ (Zolo cited in Cloonan and Street, 1998, p.38). The result is that, with its increasing use in political campaigns and as a means of identity, i.e., the brand of politics a politician is seeking to establish, the use of music is blurring the differences among mass media, advertising, entertainment, politics, and the music industry itself. Thus, such a lack of distinction among cultural boundaries, ones that used to seem much more solid, is inevitable with the increased use of (popular) music in all forms of cultural activity. It is no great surprise that by extension culture, cultural associations, and music in particular, are playing a greater role in politics.

According to previous academic studies, there are different forms of musical identity. The link between music and national identity is mentioned in Musical Identities (Folkestad cited in MacDonald et al., 2002, p.160), one of the first books to explore and actively identify a clear link between music and identity. It states that ‘[music is a way of] obtaining security in one’s own identity whilst simultaneously achieving knowledge of others’’.

The same could be said for gender identity, given that there are:

[A]ssociations of particular kinds of musical materials in western art and popular music with masculinity and femininity [that] can be traced through musical history (…) there is unequivocal evidence for the marking of gender by musical preferences, beliefs and practices. (Dibben in MacDonald et al., 2002, p.130)

Tagg argued that there were gendered meanings in television theme tunes, alongside gender stereotyping:

[F]emale characters had a slower average tempo, (…) male characters tended to have more rhythmically and intervalically active bass lines and greater rhythmic irregularity. (…) Female characters featured piano, strings, flute and mandolin, whereas the males were played by electric guitar, trumpet and xylophone. (Tagg, 1989, pp.11-12)

Certain songs have been selected for use in conjunction with successful elections even when the political figure is not necessarily advocating the same sentiments as the music does. The book of Popular Music in Theory demonstrates that:

[I]n 1987 John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ was collectively sung at a Conservative Party Conference in Britain to greet Margaret Thatcher – one of Britain’s most right-wing leaders, who led one of the governments least sympathetic, [to its critics] to social democratic principles since the Second World War’. (Negus, 1997, p.193)

Thus, the atmosphere in which it was played was the very opposite in tone to that intended in the song and its lyrics, yet it contributed to a right-wing political victory. Irony in politics and music is, it seems, never far from the surface.

Cross, a researcher exploring the biological and cultural bases for human musicality, states that:

[A] cross-cultural perspective on music suggests that it also involves multiplicity of reference and meaning: a piece or performance is simultaneously capable of bearing many different meanings. (Cross cited in Clayton, Herbert and Middleton, 2003, p.23)

Thus, intent is not necessarily matched by reception (or exploitation).

This chapter has explored the existing theoretical knowledge on music being used as a tool in society, in culture and in politics, to create an identity for the one using music, probably alongside emotion in the listener. This dissertation has argued that there is clear evidence to suggest that music is used, intentionally and with occasional great sophistication, to create emotion and identity (maybe even an emotional identity). Equally, the present author has argued that it is unsurprising that music is used to influence our political opinions, just as it is in our consumerist every-day lives it is systematically ever-present and far-reaching in our political practices and procedures. Consequently, music is without doubt another tool in the box that may help a politician to election victory (or political loss, if mismanaged). Next, this dissertation shall examine the current state of research and knowledge about politicians’ use of music to manipulate emotion within a direct political sphere. To that end, the next chapter explores case studies of politicians using music for political gain.

Politicians using Music for Emotional Manipulation

Case Study 1: Tony Blair/The Labour Party and the use of music in the 1997 General Election Campaign


Given the overwhelming evidence that music may be used to create emotion (individual and consumerist and, as such, political) this may be the reason why politicians across the political spectrum from Left to Right are mobilising music worldwide in their campaigns in many and varied ways. On the political Left in the UK, Tony Blair’s Labour Party in 1997 (and throughout his political career) used music as a political tool for inspiring hope (an ephemeral emotion from emotional ephemera). Blair and the Labour Party used two key campaign songs as walk-on music at conferences and key speech locations, in party political broadcasts and at Labour Party rallies: ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ (D:ream, 1993) and ‘Proud’ (Small, 2000). The songs were used to such an extent that ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ and ‘Proud’ became synonymous with Blair’s election campaigns. Both songs, pop hits (‘Things Can Only Get Better’ was number one in 1993, and ‘Proud’ was number 16 in 2000 (Polyhex, 2016)), were written not for the Blair campaign, but were familiar to the public. The songs are experienced as positive, with their harmonic features, and in their anthemic construction and its upbeat musical tempo as well as the way they build musically to various staggered crescendos. To the listener these features hint of a sense of aspiration and pride, in essence parallel with the key sentiments of Blair’s political message.

Musically, in construction, in ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ the music and vocals start with a lone voice with a chordal piano accompaniment. The song continues into an embellished piano with the voice adding grace notes and appoggiaturas to the lyrics; these, as well as the rhythm section, and the use of all major chords, are repeated throughout. The repetitive lyrics and the sound of a choir accompanying and whipping up the vocalist, gives a sense of an electorate rallying behind Blair (as an individual and the Party politically). Both ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ and ‘Proud’ use choirs (reinforcing the ‘anthemic’ or church-like quality of each song). In Heather Small’s ‘Proud’, the first 25 seconds lack a voice, just three simple yet powerful pedalled chords with a flute-like instrument and some barely audible electronic sounds in the background in order to create tension. Then, upon the introduction of vocals and other instrumentation, an unexpected harmony change occurs with the pre-chorus chord progression rising a semi-tone from the verse and the inclusion of a B minor chord resolving to a G major chord. This, along with a positive change in mood of lyrics and a rapid crescendo of ascending scalic notes on the violin, creates a sense of ‘happening’ and inspirational intent for the listener.

The choir in ‘Proud’ encourages the vocalist, with the use of the musical tool of question and answer: ‘We need a change!’ Small sings expressively, with the choir replying: ‘Yeah!’. Both of the songs used by Blair, and the Labour Party, are excellent examples that demonstrate all of the qualities utilised by music to effect emotion in a political situation. According to the musical analysis of the songs chosen by Blair and the Labour Party’s campaign, they use primary music features – such as melodic appoggiaturas in the vocals of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ and sudden harmony changes in ‘Proud’. Sloboda’s (1991, p.115) research found these primary musical tools may be used to create emotion (emotional response); both songs are heavily reliant on major chords described as ‘happy’ (by Hevner, 1936, p.246) and ‘positive’ (by Kastner and Crowder, 1990, p.189).

Furthermore, the Tony Blair/Labour Party Campaign tried to create an emotional sense of togetherness through the deliberate choice of these songs because of the musical features they possess and which lead to emotion manipulation as defined in Music and Mind in Everyday Life (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, pp.83-86). The use of choirs is a musical tools to create the feeling of ‘togetherness’ and ‘emotional contagion’ (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.84) through numerous voices and reassurance by the choir behind the vocalists in both songs; particularly, the question and answer featured in ‘Proud’ is described by Clarke (in Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.84) as one of the six main mechanisms of emotion induction. This features along with another main mechanism Blair uses: episodic memory, an important element to ensure that ‘music may evoke a memory of an event from the listener’s life’ (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.84). Small’s song ‘Proud and its recurrent lyric: ‘What have you done today to make you feel proud?’ is an apposite example of the way in which a song refers (as did the Labour/Blair campaign did) to in order to ‘evoke a memory of an event from the listener’s life’ (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.84). These songs were considered particularly suitable for the election campaign as their musical features manipulate emotion.

The two songs were used throughout the election campaigns of Blair and the Labour Party in many ways: as slogans in speeches, party political broadcasts, and the songs’ titles themselves especially encapsulated the feeling and were fundamental in underlining the key message that Blair and the Labour Party wanted to convey to the electorate – hope. Subsequently, Blair and the Labour Party won the election in 1997 with the ‘largest number of Labour MPs (419) in history, with the largest swing since 1945’ (Crewe, Gosschalk and Bartle, 1998, p.xvii) and ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ became, by logical extension, the theme to the post-victory celebrations. The way in which the tune had grabbed the attention of the electorate is particularly telling in this extract of the Labour Party campaigner John O’Farrell’s recollections of the campaign:

[T]he specially extended sing-along ‘Labour-have-just-won-a-landslide’ mix. The lights swung over us and we clapped our hands in the air chanting ‘Tony! Tony!’ (O’Farrell, 1999, p.323)

This links to the ‘strong experiences from popular music concerts (…) with the aesthetic pleasure created by the context, location and crowd’, as identified in the research of Saarikallio and Erkkila (2007, p.98).

In the following general election in 2001, Blair used ‘Proud’ and won again. The influential demographic, that came out to vote for Blair’s and the Labour Party’s message of hope and optimism and change, was young people (18-24’s). Blair’s use of popular music gained traction with young voters, even with the media’s disregard for the youth vote: ‘they are the don’t vote, won’t vote, don’t give a damn vote’ (Toynbee, 1997). Blair appealed to the youth vote in particular by using the popular music of the day to induce emotion, as listeners were paying attention to the music through cultural conventions, as mentioned by Clarke, Dibben and Pitts (2010, pp.83-86).

Blair also talked specifically about music in some of his speeches: ‘I am (…) from the rock and roll generation, the Beatles, colour T.V, all the rest of it, that’s where I come from’ (Bennett and Stratton, 2010, p.95). The Labour Party and their leader Tony Blair

[R]ode the wave of enthusiasm of British style and youth culture, and harvested political capita from Cool Britannia, the term encapsulated the newly invigorated nation in the wake of the election of Tony Blair. Blair tapped into the nerve of contemporary youth culture, with, for example, Noel Gallagher, the front man of Oasis, invited to a prestigious reception at Downing Street. (Addison and Jones, 2000, p.141)

Studies show that ‘[r]ock [music] is chosen almost exclusively by the younger age groups’ (Lamont and Fournier, 1992, p.164 cited in Fink, Robinson and Dowden, 1985) so it is no coincidence that these particular artists were chosen.

Blair and the Labour Party certainly gained inspiration from campaigns such as Rock the Vote: an apolitical campaign that courted various public figures, from music, comedy and the arts for various events such as voter registration, concerts and comedy, all for the cause of voting. Musicologists Cloonan and Street conclude that:

These events [Rock the Vote] should not be cynically dismissed as trivial moments in the ever-changing popular culture scene. They are, in fact, powerful emblems of the ways in which political aspirations both express themselves within, and draw inspiration from, popular culture. (Cloonan and Street, 1998, p.38)

It is certain, particularly given the academic research cited above, that Blair himself, carefully and thoughtfully, used music to manipulate emotion in the electorate, reinforcing his message of hope both as a political ideology and as a personal identity for public response through the ballot box.

However, Blair is a politician who has experienced both extremes through using music in politics. The emotions that he ‘gave’ the electorate differed starkly over time. Close to the end of his tenure, the tune that had brought him so much success – ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ – became a phrase through which to ridicule his achievements in government. The Telegraph mocked the campaign in an opinion piece where it was stated: ‘It began with Tony Blair’s promise that things can only get better. They haven’t’ (The Telegraph, 2006). Even in the following election of 2001, voter turnout among the young was low, because of ‘distrust and cynicism’ (Dermody and Hanmer-Lloyd, 2004, p.202) just as it once was: ‘the big winner was apathy. The Labour vote fell by two million and three out of five young people stayed at home [i.e., did not vote]’ (Cockerell, 2003, p.7). This could be seen as a warning sign for those hoping for constant success. Music in politics may be a limited resource for opposition parties and politicians, especially when they apparently fail to deliver upon any of the promises inherent within the very music used to gain voter support in the first place. The Blair/Labour Party example identified above suggests that perhaps (popular) culture tools, such as music, may be used only in moderation to be truly effective, and that they work better in opposition before Realpolitik kicks into the emotion stimulated by music used merely as a political tool.

Case Study 2: Barack Obama and the USA Presidential Campaign of 2008


Another example of music’s part in politics is Barack Obama’s 2008 Presidential Campaign (USA). In the spring of 2007,, a member of the hugely successful band Black Eyed Peas, gathered some of his celebrity friends to turn Obama’s concession speech at the New Hampshire Democratic Primary into a song and music video. They did so to show their support of Obama becoming the presidential nominee for the Democratic Party of the United States.

The video is in black and white. Obama’s speech runs in the background of the video, while famous faces sing the words that Obama speaks. They repeat the buzzwords of his speech and subsequently the title of the song: ‘Yes We Can’ (, 2008). The music video alone, uploaded onto YouTube, subsequently gained over 20 million views; many more if the numerous downloads and other video streaming sites additionally hosting the video were counted. The ‘Yes We Can’ music video was one of the many ways in which Obama utilised, i.e., reached and encouraged, his supporters and their use of popular culture as well as his own (including music, pop stars and social media), turning them all to his advantage. Significantly, the video was the most widely viewed and most effective element of the campaign. It also elicited from the global public itself a plethora of additional video responses from the public doing their own versions, also in their native languages (such as in French and Spanish), extending its significance even further. The Spanish versions, for example, are an additional political factor in places such as California where the dominant language is Spanish rather than English (U.S. Census Bureau, 2013, p.10).

The musical features of ‘Yes We Can’ stimulate emotion in listeners in many ways, the clearest being the sudden harmony changes quoted by Sloboda (1991, p.115) and the use of crescendo where the chorus is repeated. ‘Chills’ have been associated with crescendos by Panksepp (1995, p.171). The use of the crowd is key to build up to the chorus with their shouts of: ‘Yes We Can’ (, 2008). The root chords progression throughout most of the song is G major, B major, E minor and C major9; however, the song lacks the dominant chord of D major, which may make the listener feel there is more to be done. Perhaps this factor symbolises Obama’s need for individual action (memory) from the listener; he cannot achieve it all on his own, given the barriers, he and society face as potentially the first Black President of the USA). Vernallis states that the song ‘feels like it undulates rather than progresses’ (Vernallis, 2011). The sudden harmony changes could be a musical tool as evidence shows that ‘harmony changes create shivers’ (Sloboda, 1991, p.115).

Vernallis, the author of the article Viral Web Media and the Obama Campaign, continues to draw the sentiments of the song and the campaign together. She points out how the various musical aspects of the song that link with the Obama campaign and the feeling that it probably gives the listener are essential components of the song and the campaign:

A European American female sings ‘oh’ on the end of a third beat. [John] Legend then sings something close to ‘hope’, as if the ‘oh’ has transformed and become crystallized into a palpable object; later he seems to reach up and grab the high-pitched word. (Vernallis, 2011)

The melodic appoggiaturas by John Legend could aid emotion induction, given research that shows how ‘tears are most reliably provoked by melodic appoggiaturas’ (Sloboda, 1991, p.115). These musical tools of musical manipulation may be linked back to all of Clarke’s mechanisms of inducing emotion referenced above. The expressive performance by John Legend; the ‘emotional contagion’ through the stares down the camera by the performers, evoke the memory of Obama’s speech, and the event. The semantic meaning, too, is induced through many musical techniques, including how:

The vocal phrases often bridge across the four-bar cycling harmony. This creates a propulsiveness that, along with added voices, more strongly rhythmic performances, and a rising melodic contour, might suggest gathering forces. (Vernallis, 2011)

The rhythm, of course, plays a major part in inducing emotion: ‘the clapping suggests a 6/8 pattern, while the chanting of “Yes We Can” is 4/4’ (Vernallis, 2011). In London’s research around the Psychological Aspects of Meter, the slower and faster rhythmic strata line up together in ‘Yes We Can’; this leads to, as London identifies, to ‘a perceptual or cognitive effect’ (London, 2004, p.6). Such synchronisation captures the motion of a crowd rallying together and could lead to emotional contagion, as suggested by Clarke, Dibben and Pitts (2010, pp.83-86).

Chapter Summary

The chapter has provided two examples of major political figures using music as a campaign tool in modern-day politics. They have done so successfully and in collaboration with other popular musical eras: BritPop in the case of Blair and, for Obama, the emergence of YouTube and its exploitation by Black popular music artists). Both the Blair and Obama case studies have used positive songs with lyrics in the songs resonating with the messages of their respective political campaigns. All of the music described may be linked to evidence that the music used may affect emotions.

One similarity between the two case studies that is particularly striking is that all of the music played in the case studies involved a choir or a crowd. Their part in the song was in order to create a feeling of welcoming togetherness and ‘emotional contagion’ (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, pp.83-86), one of the main mechanisms inducing emotion. Furthermore, it tried to capture ‘the aesthetic pleasure [that] was mixed with the atmosphere created by the context, location, and crowd’ (Saarikallio and Erkkila, 2007, p.98) demonstrated in studies around music and its impact in concerts.

The next chapter will explore the notion that music may be used to create an identity for politicians. If music may indeed be used to create emotions, and is being applied by politicians as a tool, it may be asked whether music could go further in creating an identity for politicians themselves and for their agendas.

Politicians Using Music for Identity Construction

A particularly intriguing and fascinating way in which music is used in politics, is the way individual politicians use music both to ‘create’ and to ‘project’ a likeable persona through the advancement of their own musical preferences and tastes. DeNora states that ‘the sense of “self” is locatable in music’ (DeNora, 2000, p.68). DeNora’s arguments encourage and confirm empirically the hypothesis that politicians, in the creation of a political and personal identity (often merging the two), could be aided through having their public persona, facilitated, even constructed, with music not only as its tool, but also as its building blocks.

As previously stated, music may contribute towards creating many different forms of political identities. Examples include a national identity; a political party identity; an interest group identity (increasingly so with the splintering of mainstream politics), and an ethical identity. There are studies, as above, that conclude that ‘music can be used increasingly as a means by which we formulate and express our individual identities’ (MacDonald et al., 2002, p.1). In the UK, for example, Desert Island Discs is a musical choice programme of some significant cultural and historical standing (created by Roy Plomley and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 since 1942) in which significant public figures are interviewed; these guests pick their eight favourite tracks they would take if they were a castaway on a desert island.

Desert Island Discs creates the perfect atmosphere for influencing a listener, as the effectiveness of identity construction through music depends on ‘how they listen, and what they are listening for – defined not just by their preoccupations, but also by cultural conventions’ (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010, p.76).

Desert Island Discs is not a political show. Rather, it is an arena where the politician has much more control over the interview than over a usual political interview. The vast majority of past and present Prime Ministers and Party leaders have appeared. Some critics suggest that politicians choose their tracks ‘very carefully’ (Furness, 2014); with current (2016) presenter Kirsty Young suggesting that, the music chosen apparently by politicians is not selected by them alone. Young has stated that: ‘I’m sure [politicians] show it to the communications department. I think probably there’s a bit of a compromise, as there is with every politician’ (Furness, 2014). If politicians are taking their music choices so seriously, i.e., with an eye (or ear) as to how it reveals who they are, they must feel that choices such as these do have a significant effect on the electorate.

In one particular work, Cohen and Duberley (2013) analyse the selections of guests on the show who are known solely for their work in the field of science. The authors make the link that programmes such as these allow individuals to create a narrative of and about their lives through a narrative of their making, using the medium of music. In using music, the individual enables the listener to understand the progress and the process of the narrative of their lives, and the feeling and emotion that the music may bring to the individual.

It [the discussion of music] is here in particular that interviewees express emotion, including passion, sadness and regret as well as utilizing music to convey some core aspect of their self-identity. (Cohen and Duberley, 2013)

As a listener, one may create a link between the music the interviewee chooses and a piece that the listener also likes (if an attempt is being made to construct a ‘populist identity’). Cohen and Duberley (2013) emphasise that Desert Island Discs has benefits for the interviewee ‘concerning the development of understanding of the interweaving work and non-work preoccupations and wider social values in the development of careers and the construction of identity’ (Cohen and Duberley, 2013). That way, a narrative through music may be used to construct or, at the very least, enhance, an identity. This could be one of the reasons why politicians take appearances on Desert Island Discs, as well as other instances when describing their musical tastes, so seriously.

David Cameron, the current Conservative Party leader, appeared on Desert Island Discs as Leader of the Opposition in May 2006. Cameron picked a wide and varied range of music to take with him: the music (see Table 1) ranged from Bob Dylan’s ‘Tangled Up in Blue’ and The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’ to Mendelssohn’s ‘O, for the Wings of a Dove’ (Magee, 2012, p.444). Such a wide selection covered all social class bases. Studies show that there is a class distinction in music, as Bennett states: ‘The elites from our samples are clearly steeped in classical music, and stand in direct opposition to our working class interviewees’ (Bennett, 2009, p.92).

Table 1 – David Cameron on Desert Island Discs (Furness, 2014)

Artiste Title
Bob Dylan ‘Tangled Up In Blue’
Benny Hill ‘Ernie’
Pink Floyd ‘Wish You Were Here’
Felix Mendelssohn ‘O, For the Wings of a Dove’
Radiohead ‘Fake Plastic Trees’
The Smiths ‘This Charming Man’
REM ‘Perfect Circle’
The Killers ‘All These Things That I’ve Done’

The Smiths, a left-wing anti-establishment band of the 1980s, hated the ‘desert island’ endorsement from Cameron so much that the guitarist of the band said of Cameron’s pick: ‘I forbid David Cameron from liking the Smiths’ (Adetunji, 2010). Many thought that Cameron, a well-off, privately educated Oxford graduate, was portraying himself as having a more common, populist musical taste than one would otherwise expect of such an ‘Old Etonian’ and all that that implies (establishment, upper-class high culture tastes). It may be said that it is due to Cameron’s creating a ‘self-image’ that a listener ‘develops by a process of monitoring our own behaviour and making social comparisons, constantly comparing ourselves with others (…) that particular situations and social groups exert a powerful influence in what we do and what we say’ (MacDonald et al., 2002, p.8). Furthermore, the choice of The Smiths is a similar situation to that of when ‘in 1987 John Lennon’s “Imagine” was collectively sung at a Conservative Party Conference’ (Negus, 1997, p.193) and did not have the same sentiment, yet as the research shows, ‘[Music] involves multiplicity of reference and meaning’ (Cross in Clayton, Herbert and Middleton, 2003, p.23).

Moribund Music: Can Classical Music Be Saved? suggests that:

[A]lmost all politicians now claim to love pop and rock. Maybe they do, but I can’t help wondering how much pressure any politician who didn’t like them would be under to pretend otherwise’. (Beckingham, 2009, p.40)

Other critics, political and cultural, have argued that such public-relation-aware actions are due to the fact that politics is becoming more professionalised. Huq discusses this issue as follows:

In an era when politics has become deeply professionalised no decision can be left to chance. Each detail is meticulously assessed in advance by advisors who select what will play well and what will not. David Cameron’s eclectic choice of playlist on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in 2006 featured a bit of classical music, a dash of Benny Hill and music by the Smiths. It sounded like it was chosen in committee, and it probably had been. (Huq, 2014, p.97)

However, the phenomenon of Desert Island Discs having been ‘chosen in committee’ is not associated only with those of Cameron’s class or politics. It is systematic in nearly all politicians’ appearances on Desert Island Discs, and is the topic of much debate. For example, when Ed Miliband, then Leader of the Opposition and the Labour Party at the time in 2013, appeared on the show, The Guardian rather tellingly commented: ‘Virtually the first thing Kirsty Young asked him was if he had chosen the music himself, reflecting widespread public suspicion about this sort of thing’ (Petridis, 2013). Miliband chose songs (see Table 2) such as ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ i’Afrika’ (the revolutionary anthem that was chosen as the national anthem of South Africa after the end of Apartheid). This was a choice that could be considered as underlining his left-wing credentials of freedom and equality, and his knowledge and understanding of other cultures, features vital for a left-wing party committed to cultural diversity.


Another choice of Miliband’s was the pop hit ‘Angels’ by Robbie Williams, which reminded him of his wife (creating an impression of the romantic in him in addition to his ‘populist’ credentials). ‘Angels’ was voted the ‘best song of the past 25 years’ (Sedghi, 2013) by the BRIT awards. Its selection by Miliband was seen as pandering to the electorate, in the hope of enhancing his identity as a man of the people. This may also be seen as a ‘powerful aide-memoire’ and that ‘music can remind them of who they were at a certain time’ (DeNora, 2000, p.65). This is because when ‘Angels’ was released, Labour was in power. It could be interpreted as suggesting that music can remind one of what one wants or wanted to be, rather than what one now may be. Such a view, i.e., playing to the audience members’ hopes rather than their realities, is a key sentiment often tapped into by a politician in order to be viewed favourably by the electorate. A politician of hope rather than despair always does better, as appears to be shown in Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ campaign.

Such choices need to be appreciated within the context that the two most popular pieces of music chosen by politicians on Desert Island Discs are classical. ‘Jerusalem’ and The Enigma Variations are well known British pieces of music that strengthen the idea of national identity, which Folkestad in MacDonald et al., allude to in Musical Identities: ‘[music is a way of] obtaining security in one’s own identity’ (Folkestad in MacDonald et al., 2002, p.160).

Table 2 – Ed Miliband on Desert Island Discs (Furness, 2014)

Artiste Title
Enoch Sontonga ‘Nkosi Sikelel’ i’Afrika’
Hubert Parry ‘Jerusalem’
Paul Robeson ‘Ballad of Joe Hill’
A-ha ‘Take on Me’
Neil Diamond ‘Sweet Caroline’
Robbie Williams ‘Angels’
Josh Ritter ‘Change of Time’
Edith Piaf ‘Non, Je ne Regrette Rien’


Cameron and Miliband chose music dominated by male singers; in their appearances on the show, all songs except one, picked by Miliband, were performed by men (‘Non, Je ne Regrette Rien’, sung by Edith Piaf, was the only female vocal selection). Dibben writes in Musical Identities that: ‘popular music with masculinity and femininity can be traced through musical history’ (Dibben in MacDonald et al., 2002, p.127) thus it should not be surprising that politicians who are aiming to be in power use male-dominated – ‘strong’ – music to enhance their identity of being powerful. The sole song sung by a female, ‘Non, Je ne Regrette Rien’, could legitimate the comments on the music choices as their having been decided ‘by committee’: having only one song by a woman could be seen as a token sop to rouse female voters. This doubtlessly ties in with existing ideas around the gender identity roles in music as previously discussed by Dibben, including the diminished presence of women in music and their wider impact: ‘This marginalisation of in musical life, in turn, reinforces the marginalisation of women in real life’ (Cusick in Cook and Everist, 1999, p.475). Instrumentation is even gender-stereotyped: ‘female characters featured piano, strings, flute and mandolin, whereas the males were played by electric guitar, trumpet and xylophone’ (Tagg, 1989, pp.11-12). The use of masculinity is apparent in Cameron’s choices of ‘The Clash’ and ‘The Killers’, as both heavily feature electric guitar in their music.

Given the evidence, both politicians have used music to create an identity, in these instances mainly in order to seem more human and similar to ‘the common man’. The choices made by Cameron and Miliband were also very ‘masculine’, although a constant criticism of these leaders in the press was that both lacked a combination of charisma and strength.

In the USA, no programme such as Desert Island Discs exists in the media per se. However, American politicians use Spotify (a primary music streaming service available globally and particularly in the USA) as a means of constructing identity through musical taste. Hillary Clinton, for example, during her presidential campaign in 2016, released The Official Hillary 2016 Playlist on Spotify. Clinton used her playlist to appeal to her ‘diverse’ voter base: Black/White, male/female, old/young, Hispanic/American, and, hip/classic America Songbook titles. She reportedly paid $90,000 dollars for help in compiling her playlist (Browne, 2016).

All of the songs featured in the Official Hillary 2016 Playlist on Spotify (see Table 3) have a narrative within the selection: that narrative is one of a positive upbeat message combined with being a ‘fighter’ and a ‘believer’. Such an interpretation is clear from the titles of the songs, let alone from the music itself. What is equally interesting is that all of the songs featured were all released after 1997: a fact one would usually question regarding a playlist that is clearly not representative of her age, for someone who is of a privileged class and a powerful member of the political and cultural elite.

Clinton is clearly using this playlist to gain the youth vote (as Obama indicated in the earlier case study). Her choice of popular music, including rock, is more likely to be favoured by the younger members of society. Artists such as Katy Perry and Kelly Clarkson have huge young support, as is demonstrated by their vast social media following. Studies show that ‘different age groups have quite distinct patterns of musical taste (…) and that rock is chosen almost exclusively by the younger age groups’ (Lamont and Fournier, 1992, p.164 cited in Fink, Robinson and Dowden, 1985).

By appealing to, and through, youth culture to the younger voter, and by using popular music theme tunes in an election campaign in order to engage with the young, Obama managed to gain their vote by using tools that other candidates simply did not at that time adopt. These are routinely used now.

Clinton is merely following good practice. As Macdonald concluded, ‘music can act as a powerful identity for adolescents, perhaps more than any other aspects in their lives, and (…) as such it represents a fundamental influence on their identities’ (MacDonald et al., 2002, p.17). The use of music to gain the youth vote in particular is well founded.

Clinton also includes one song in Spanish, which like Miliband could be interpreted as a token gesture to the Latin American community, a key demographic in deciding the next USA President.


Table 3 – The Official Hillary 2016 Playlist (Browne, 2016)

Artiste Title
American Authors ‘Believer’
Gym Class Heroes ‘The Fighter’
Katy Perry ‘Roar’
Kelly Clarkson ‘Stronger’
American Authors ‘Best Day Of My Life’
Pharrell Williams ‘Happy’
Jennifer Lopez ‘Let’s Get Loud’
NONONO ‘Pumpin’ Blood’
John Legend ‘Wake Up Everybody’
Sara Barelles ‘Brave’
Kris Allen ‘Fighters’
Jon Bon Jovi ‘Beautiful Day’
Marc Anthony ‘Vivir Mi Vida’

All of the politicians discussed have used music to create an identity. Their various identities have specific goals and the music is selected with a view to a particular way for a listener of perceiving that identity. All have chosen music, thus have projected a musical taste and sensitivity, which has the intentional aim of being characteristic of music capable of altering emotion.

Furthermore, all of the case studies featured have ‘bought into’ the notion of ‘cultural capital’, whereby ‘one can buy into a particular class status by buying into the musical taste that goes with it’ (Bourdieu cited in Harper-Scott and Samson, 2009, p.53): these politicians have used music as currency to gain traction with certain elements of the electorate. Whether or not they have done so effectively may be a question that may be difficult to isolate and judge effectively in its success or failure in huge political campaigns. However, music could be seen as a snapshot of how the politician manages to convince the electorate of the listeners’ ability and identity in order for them to feel linked to the individual politician or political ideology. Perhaps equally importantly, politicians have demonstrated their ability to use of all of the tools available during a campaign, including music and its dissemination through traditional outlets such as BBC Radio 4 and new platforms such as Spotify and social media. After studying these examples, it has become clearer that politicians need to approach using music carefully: as an identity construction tool and with a tone that does not convey to the listener, the electorate, the feeling of tokenism or selected-by-committee, but which was almost definably approved by a committee – if not chosen by one.


The main aim of this dissertation was to examine the use of music by politicians in modern-day politics. In the previous chapters, certain themes have emerged. It has been demonstrated that there is clear evidence of politicians using music intentionally, as a political tool for political gain. As was identified in the above case studies, politicians have used music to change and manipulate emotion in their respective electorates and to construct specific political identities. The case studies on music and emotion used positivity in their campaigns, and used music to emphasise this message in order to resonate with voters.

All of the music described may be linked, used and related to evidence that music used may affect emotions and may be connected with the main mechanisms of emotion induction (Clarke, Dibben and Pitts, 2010 pp.83-86). Furthermore, as indicated, music is evidently used in the creation of a new identity, at best, possibly to reinforce an existing perception of a politician’s identity, at worst. The music chosen, by politicians and in politics, to create an identity has been intentionally chosen because of its emotionally manipulative characteristics: those capable of altering emotion in the listener. Politicians have used music as currency or cultural capital to gain traction with certain parts of the electorate. However, it must be recognised that music is only one of many instruments that are part of a larger image construction by a politician or an ideology.

Music needs to be viewed as part of the wider cultural capital of the arts. In the twenty-first century, particularly within Western culture, we are consuming more than ever in an ever-shorter time. All the while, the yearning for money and power (often symbolised by technology and its use) is narrowing into an increasingly homogenised political economy, one where politicians and their ideologies seem increasingly pasteurised, and one that is desperate for any sort of tool that could make a politician stand out from the crowd.

Future studies could aim to answer the question of whether or not the use of music to manipulate emotion and construct (political) identity is conscious or unconscious. i.e., is evidence-based or merely perceptual, and how it is actually received by the listeners as compared with how it is intended to be received.

The constant use of music in politics could turn more people away and have the opposite effect to what the politicians are seeking. Musical taste is multi-faceted, variable and truly personal. It is telling that in the ‘success’ case studies cited (all are associated with a winning campaign, both politically and personally), each has used music for their first, primary, election test yet reduced the importance of music in their subsequent re-election campaigns. This may perhaps have been so as not to remind the electorate of the failed hope that was initially induced, avoiding evoking memories of positive campaigns that turned to dust. In this context, the links between memory and music and music’s ability to trigger negative thoughts out of positivity would perhaps constitute a further dissertation.

Like many other political tools, music should indeed be used. However, music needs to be used wisely and in moderation, taking in to account its limitations and potential to backfire. As such, there is considerable scope for music to be used even more widely than it is currently used in political spheres.






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