The playlist has become an unofficial political campaign requirement akin to kissing babies. As such, one may be inclined to dismiss it as purely political pandering. Nevertheless,we argue that its use is a legitimate contemporary campaign strategy that deserves attention.
While the political playlist is an artifact of the digital age, it builds upon a practice that gained mainstream popularity in the 1980s, when home recording became affordable and widely available. Dual cassette deck stereos allowed people to select certain songs from their own taped musical collections and record them onto blank cassettes. This new compilation became known as a mixtape, and what made the mixtape so revolutionary was its ability to be shared with others.
Although the technology has advanced greatly over the past decades (from analog cassettes to digital music streaming on websites such as Spotify), the intent behind creating and sharing a personal compilation of music has largely remained the same. Whether created by a musician sharing some esoteric underground tunes in order to find like-minded souls or by a would-be romantic trying to fan the flames of love, the mixtape is more than a collection of music. It is a means to construct identity, spread a message, and build relationships. Those relationships could be platonic, professional, romantic, or even political.
Since the point of the mixtape is relational, it is important to consider the audience when looking to build common ground and a successful relationship. If two musicians exchanged mixtapes and found that they were not on the same page in terms of tastes and influences, it is unlikely that a musical partnership would form. The political relationship is no different, which brings us to Hillary Clinton’s 2015 Spotify playlist.
Hillary Clinton tweeted a link to her official campaign playlist on Spotify on June 30, 2015, the day she began actively campaigning, which suggests the importance of music to her and her team. While Clinton has since released four other playlists, her original playlist included fourteen songs:
For the purpose here of Trax on the Trail, there are two main points we would like to make regarding Hillary Clinton's playlist.
Themes and Narrative of the Playlist
The first point we would like to make is that Clinton took a different approach with respect to the thematic nature of the political playlist than previous candidates such as Barack Obama. Obama’s 2012 playlist included a number of distinct major themes, including patriotism, continuation/inertia (given he was running for reelection) and community involvement, while also hinting towards his own sociocultural identity. Whereas Obama went for breadth, Clinton preferred depth and nuance. Her playlist includes a number of themes (e.g., strong leader, fighter, survivor), which work in concert with one another to create a powerfully singular narrative. To make this point, we identified the major themes of the songs by examining the songs’ choruses, which make up the “music bite” (analogous to the sound bite of non-musical rhetoric) of the following songs. The first theme is “She is a strong leader of people…”
The theme of these songs is that you and she need to change the world (“Wake Up Everybody”), and that you must be brave and speak out (“Brave”), get loud with what you say (“Let’s Get Loud”), and feel the rush as the world watches (“Pumpin' Blood”). The next theme is “…and will fight for them/with them…”
The theme here includes the powerful metaphor of fighting. The music bite of “The Fighter” foreshadows the third theme discussed below, but also couples nicely with “Fighters”: in a democracy the people and politicians have to work together and fight for what is important. The third theme is “… and is (and will continue to be) stronger than ever.”
The last theme echoes with expressions of strength (importantly, all from female performers): her strength is growing and is restless against what is holding her back (“Break Free”), and she is notably able not just to speak but also to get her message out loud and clear (“Roar”), and she will only grow stronger as she faces the inevitable opposition (“Stronger”).
Taken together, these three individual themes can be combined to create a narrative for her campaign: “she is a leader of people, will fight for them/with them, and is (and will continue to be) stronger than ever.” In other words, Clinton’s playlist introduces to our understanding of political playlists the idea that songs in such a context constitute a much richer and more developed political message than any one individual song can attain. When individual songs are combined to create themes, those themes can further coalesce to form a narrative, which, if done well, can be powerful. In essence, the political mixtape becomes more than a collection of individual songs.
Furthermore, Clinton’s 2015 playlist includes one additional theme, which does not readily fit into the above narrative. Examining the music bites of “Believer,” “Best Day of My Life,” “Beautiful Day,” and “Vivir Mi Vida,” we encounter the theme of an optimistic celebration of one’s life. Clearly, it contrasts with the earlier themes, but there is value in this more positive and upbeat theme. Its hopefulness offsets the rather intense metaphors found in the major themes that constitute the narrative (i.e., blood in the heart, giving them hell, scars and fighting, and primal ferocious roars, which will continue unabated until the ultimate end).
Audience Analysis Gone Awry?
Our second major point is more critical than the first: Clinton’s playlist is far more political than personal.
Earlier, the mixtape was described as a means of relationship building, not a tool to pander to an audience. The mixtape is based on the premise that the songs were selected carefully in a good-faith effort to connect with the intended audience through personal revelation.
To better understand the dichotomy between pandering and legitimate relationship building, it might be useful to understand how one of the authors of this post (Dave) used a mixtape when he was younger:
I’m unsure if other people did what I did as a very young man, but on one occasion I made a cassette mixtape in a futile effort to impress a young lady. I did not necessarily compile songs that I liked. Rather, I compiled songs that I hoped she would like, and then, regardless of what the songs were, I professed to love them. I thought it was a foolproof strategy. For the record, the strategy did not work.
The point here is that, in the context of Clinton’s political playlist, she is giving the intended audience what she thinks they want to hear, and this has overtaken the need to express any genuine image of her own identity. There is nothing about “her” in the playlist, and several journalists and online commenters have made this claim. Certainly, the themes included in her playlist may represent who she really is—a tough fighter. However, there are no songs included from the late 1960s (when she was a young teen getting her political balance), or the 1970s (when she went from being a student who worked on Watergate to becoming First Lady of Arkansas), or from the 1980s or 1990s (when she went from First Lady of Arkansas to First Lady of the United States), to the 2000s (when she was a U.S. Senator). Although she has been in the national political spotlight since the 1990s (and state politics since the 1970s), and we may already know a great deal about her, there is still value to a wide range of songs that represent who she is as a person and a politician. Instead, the oldest song on her playlist was released in 1999, and the second oldest dates from 2010. The remaining twelve songs were published in every subsequent year, with most of the songs released in 2013 and 2014.
Now, it is possible that the 68-year-old Clinton is a fan of recent music and just wanted to reveal that through her playlist. If that is the case, she picked some of the most popular songs of the past five years. The following is a list of the songs on her playlist, the number of views each music video has had on YouTube, and the ranking of each song by Billboard, as of February 2016:
This review illustrates that Clinton’s playlist includes some of the most critically acclaimed and popular songs from the past five years. Whereas Obama used a strategy of including a wide variety of artists that resonated with different socio-cultural audiences in 2012 (i.e., his playlist included artists representing every major U.S. demographic from a number of generations: Latino, African-American, whites, male, female, homosexual, heterosexual), Clinton’s playlist seems to aim straight for the masses—those who consume and value contemporary popular music; and it seems to do so quite well.
The only two songs that seem odd on the surface are by Kris Allen and Bon Jovi. Certainly “Fighters” and “Beautiful Day” do not compare commercially or critically to the other songs, but there is more to the performers behind these songs.
Allen has had some success in that he won the 2009 season of American Idol. He is also from Arkansas and was born and raised not too far from Little Rock, the capitol where Clinton began her political life.
Bon Jovi’s song has not had much success either, but it’s BON JOVI! While not every song of his is a huge hit, his name is widely recognizable in popular culture. Moreover, he is a longtime supporter of Clinton (both Clintons, actually) and regularly performs at Clinton fundraisers.
Thus, while Clinton’s digital age mixtape has a solid thematic basis that builds a powerful narrative, it politically panders to young audiences, who, based on the above statistics, seem to like these songs. However, young people also seem to like her Democratic challenger, Bernie Sanders. In differentiating himself from Clinton during the early primaries, Sanders had said that he would govern by principles and not polls (Obama directed a similar criticism toward Clinton in the 2008 campaign). The argument is that Clinton’s policies are like her political playlist: they are based on what is popular.
We have no doubt that the themes and ideas in these songs represent who she is, but we offer the following: when making a mixtape, be it political or personal, the candidate should include songs that are important to him/her and the audience, and not just the audience (see Joanna Love’s article on Trax).
That is, it would be ideal for her to include songs from her life that show her legacy as a fighting spirit. A person’s musical tastes tell us what they believe, but they also reveal who they are—their personality. Clinton’s Spotify playlist addresses the former quite well but misses the latter.
- David R. Dewberry and Jonathan Millen
 David R. Dewberry and Jonathan H. Millen, “Music as Rhetoric: Music in the 2012 Presidential Campaign” in Studies of Communication in the 2012 Presidential Campaign, ed. Robert Denton (Lanham: Lexington, 2014), 175–94; and “Musical Rhetoric: Popular Music in Presidential Campaigns,” Atlantic Journal of Communication 22 (2014), 81–92.
 Kenton O'Hara and Barry Brown, Consuming Music Together: Social and Collaborative Aspects of Music Consumption Technologies (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006).
 “Hillary Clinton Launches Campaign with Help from Spotify, Echosmith,” Rolling Stone, June 14, 2015, http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/hillary-clinton-launches-campa...
 Jana Kasperkevic, “Just One of the Cool Kids? Decoding the Hillary Clinton Spotify Playlist,” The Guardian, June 13, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/13/hillary-clinton-spotify-p....