In one of the strangest turns yet in a very odd presidential race, one of last year’s least-offensive, most-empowering, and also arguably blandest chart-toppers has become a political flashpoint for the 2016 election. I am speaking, of course, of “Fight Song,” the former Billboard No. 6 single, career-making hit for charming 34-year-old Rachel Platten, and a current staple—probably!—at your local gym. It’s also the preferred campaign-rally entrance and exit anthem of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, whose use and abuse of the tune is proving perhaps less successful than it might be for a SoulCycle instructor. The song is irking journalists, political rivals, and, according to a report by Yahoo! News published yesterday, Clinton’s own staffers too.
While only one critical staffer would go on record for the story, yesterday Yahoo suggested that, if more of Clinton’s employees did break their silence, they would probably complain loads about the Platten tune. Hunter Walker, the author of the piece, reports that some critical tweets have been favorited by Clinton’s own employees, “a gesture that could be seen as a silent, social-media scream from a campaign that has cracked down on leaks.” Walker says that few staffers would talk to him, allegedly fearing chastisement, and he remarks that Clinton’s former political director, Guy Cecil, has tweeted about not being able to get the song out of his head.While Cecil’s tweet doesn’t seem, on its face, totally negative, Yahoo! interpreted it as such: Cecil “took to Twitter to complain about the tune’s catchiness,” Walker wrote.
Yahoo!’s take on Platten’s song isn’t exactly original: It’s only the latest installment in a largely negative canon of “Fight Song” literature on the Web right now. That disdain is something that the campaign is actively working against, which is why staffers working on the Millennial strategy for Clinton’s campaign—including the campaign’s director of Millennial media, Christopher Huntley, and Millennial vote director, Sarah Audelo—predictably defended the song in the story. Other sources, however, viciously summed up the two main critiques that have dogged the use of Platten’s tune in Clinton’s campaign context since at least the Democratic National Convention. Namely, that it is overplayed (“I would rather be strapped to a chair and forced to listen to ‘Tiny Dancer’ on a loop for 9 hours than hear Fight Song one more time,” the Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi once tweeted) and that it is cheesy (“It’s schmaltzy, forgettable,” says Los Angeles Times music writer Gerrick Kennedy.)
And yet, from Katy Perry to Kelly Clarkson, Clinton’s 2016 campaign playlist is long on cloying, chart-topping, empowerment-pop ballads from established artists; so why have journalists seized upon the underdog of the bunch? To answer that question, we turned to Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, an assistant professor of music at Georgia College and State University who studies political campaign playlists. Gorzelany-Mostak has previously analyzed the musical choices of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, Mitt Romney in 2012, and, yes, Clinton in 2008, to tease out their symbolic messages; Gorzelany-Mostak also runs Trax on the Trail, a database that tracks the musical choices of candidates on the 2016 presidential campaigns. We talked about Clinton’s youth-pandering playlists; critiques of her inauthenticity; and the real perils that annoying songs can pose to campaigns.
Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign playlist is full of contemporary pop songs with empowering, somewhat-schmaltzy messages. Why do you think that “Fight Song” is hitting a nerve?
I do think that overuse is part of the reason. At Trax on the Trail, the website that I run that’s tracking the music used in the 2016 campaign, we have 82 entries to date—that’s the number of times that we have read a press reference to the song being played at an event—for “Fight Song.” That number is significantly higher than any other individual track that we have in our database by more than half—clearly, it’s overused.
That the song is [perceived as] sentimental and schmaltzy adds fuel to the fire as well. In the song, [Platten] positions herself in a very vulnerable way, which is I think part of the reason why some people find it irritating in a way that [they haven’t] with other selections that Clinton has used. Another possible reason the song has invoked some hatred is that, more so than the other women singers represented on Clinton’s playlist, Platten’s voice is distinctly girly in the opening part of the song, and some people perceive little-girl singing voices as annoying and irritating.
But Clinton actually opened this can of worms [in the first place]. She released her first official Spotify Playlist on the same day that she held her campaign kickoff rally, she’s penned an essay on women in the music industry for Billboard, and she’s attended the Gospel Music Awards. I think it’s safe to come to the conclusion that the Clinton campaign wants us talking about Clinton’s engagement with music.
Does the particular ire some people are showing for “Fight Song” have anything to do with the usual complaint that Clinton is fake and inauthentic?
I absolutely think it does. Already-existing discourses regarding a candidate’s trustworthiness, candor, and authenticity frequently map onto their musical choices. So it’s not surprising that charges of pandering, fakeness, [and] inauthenticity are the critical lens through which detractors are choosing to interpret Clinton’s playlist: It’s an extension of the conversations people are already having about her, and it’s another vehicle through which they can re-affirm what they already believe is correct. I think the reality of it is that, for her, whatever she chooses, her tastes are going to be met with suspicion by those who already perceive her to be untrustworthy and inauthentic.
Does this debate over “Fight Song” necessarily hurt Clinton, or does it help to keep her trending on Twitter and in the news?
In short, no. In general, campaign music preaches to the choir—I don’t think it hurts [candidates], and I don’t think it drives them away. And those that already perceived Clinton as being a sellout and a panderer and as being inauthentic, this debate isn’t going to change their minds. That being said, any conversation about a candidate keeps their name at the forefront, and that potentially could be a good thing for them.
In your expert opinion, does “Fight Song” deserve to be picked apart? Do you think that Clinton’s musical strategy is working here, and that “Fight Song” is playing well into that strategy?
To me, a [musical] strategy is a success when you manage to galvanize the people who are already in your court and get them excited about your campaign and motivated to go out there and vote. If what these reports say is true, and if there are staffers on Clinton’s campaign that are not happy with her musical selection, maybe that is an indication that, in some way, her strategy has failed. For a playlist to work, it needs to authentically convey [a candidate’s] history, tastes, values—and it also needs to speak to the tastes and interests of the candidate’s core constituency.
With Clinton’s playlist, here’s what I think is somewhat problematic about it: She’s choosing a lot of songs by younger artists—Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez, and Rachel Platten. The strategy’s obvious: She’s trying to be appear more hip, fresh, and young. But until Bernie Sanders moved off the scene, a lot of younger female voters seemed to find Sanders and his message and platform appealing, while Clinton had a lot of stalwart middle-aged and older fans that were still very much in support of her candidacy. It was as if her playlist wasn’t speaking to her core supporters, but instead was speaking to this younger group of supporters that she wished to court.
The convention brought an interesting dimension to this, however, because it featured older artists like Paul Simon, Carol King, and, in Elizabeth Banks’ [video] a cappella version of “Fight Song,” the prominent voice of Jane Fonda. So you did see at the [Democratic National Convention] that she’s trying to broaden the generations she’s speaking to through her music.
What’s the worst thing that an annoying song, or a memorably annoying song, can actually do to a campaign? Are there any major stakes here?
While campaign music is very much about speaking to those that are already in your camp, and isn’t a conversion tool, I do think the right song can have a very positive impact. When I started my research on political campaign music [and told people about it], a lot people would say, “Oh, I remember: Bill Clinton and ‘Don’t Stop,’ right?” Even for people who were children when Clinton ran his first campaign in 1992, that’s the moment that sticks in their minds. That was one of the greatest choices of a campaign song in modern history: The song effectively telescopes his history, his personality, and his platform all into this perfect nostalgic package. It also allowed him to establish common ground with the Baby Boomer generation of voters.
As I see it as a researcher, there’s a lot of ways to engage in politics and be politically active. While I don’t think music in and of itself makes people more predisposed to go to the polls, I think the act of participating, like going to a Sanders rave or going to a Clinton fundraiser concert, those are political acts that encourage people to be engaged in a way that they may not otherwise be engaged—even if it doesn’t translate to a vote.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.