Audiovisuality and the Media Swirl: Campaign 2016
Carol Vernallis / Stanford University
Why hasn’t this presidential campaign given us much in the way of music? Where are the short videos with lively soundtracks—things we’d want to share on Facebook or Twitter? Where’s the “Yes We Can” of 2016? Where are the Rick Rolls and Obama’s sung speech of “Never Letting Us Down,” or the musical ad with Romney’s “47% no income tax?” Through all the dim moments of this cycle we could use something uplifting or inspirational, a 2016 election song or video that not only moves us but encourages us to share something with others and participate more actively.
For many reasons this election cycle has felt like a lost cause. Not that Trump seemed likely to win. It’s been a track-the-clickbait nail-biter. The issues are so serious—climate change, economic inequality and insecurity, racism and police violence, the Supreme Court, the surveillance state—and the political discourse has barely touched them. Not music but comedy may be this season’s best antidote, from Triumph the Insult Dog’s harangues to Samantha Bee’s “Pussy Riot.”
Nevertheless, this campaign’s audiovisual clips reveal something about ourselves and the media swirl. It also gives us materials we may not have come upon, worth sharing over the next three weeks, spurring a few more of us to get out and vote.
The primaries were audiovisually richer than the general. Bernie Sanders’s clips were the most moving. His “America,” using the eponymous Simon and Garfunkel song, opens with establishing shots that marry new and old tech: wind farms and family farms, small-town coffee shops with Wi-Fi. These images crossfade into an unusual progression of protagonists, from young people, young couples both straight and gay, to older couples: when Paul Simon sings “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” a middle-aged couple dances at a Sanders rally. As the video progresses, older-styled gestures and dance-forms appear, suddenly both modern and historical, partly for the fresh-eyed cinematography, and partly for the ways these images coincide with musical articulations, as in a music video. Lines of activists share high-fives, a country-dance promenade of Sanders and his wife unfolds, a farmer and family throw hay bales to the beat, and the camera glides over a rally while Sanders sways his arm like a conductor’s from the podium. (The tenor helps us think back to fields of wheat and forward to masses of people joined together, as sensitive to one another as in a community choir.) These processes and audiovisual rhymes make possible the ways that the ad builds, gradually incorporating people and communities, dissolving them into a graph of a checkerboard nation (with people as icons), and changing them back into fully articulated crowds. Rolling Stone and The New York Times raved, with others calling it “magnificent,” and “so full of love, enthusiasm and patriotic uplift (complete with flag-waving) that it’s downright goosebumps-inducing.” As the song and ad claims, the people have all come to “look for America.” This ad creates an exquisite relation between the small and the vast.
But on the whole the primary season matched what we’ve been seeing in the general. My fellow media scholars and I have been asking why there’s little musically or audiovisually rich content this cycle. We’ve identified several possible causes. This fractious season may resemble reality television or a sporting event; in the heat of the fray, music may not be needed. Our collective feelings of dread, disgust, and anxiety may fail to provide good musical material for ads: to tap into them risks disengaging other segments of the electorate. What would such musical or audiovisual content sound and look like? There aren’t many musical correlatives for disgust, even in splatter films. And even if there were, you couldn’t use it in an ad—especially in the depths of our both-sides-do-it era.
The types of and scale of materials have shifted, too. An incendiary tweet or a racist image moves with greater intensity and speed than a song or musical accompaniment. And for the left, paradoxically, the lack of audiovisual competition may play a role: Trump and his superpacs haven’t produced big-budget, well-distributed commercials. Clinton’s advertisements can thus remain understated. There’s no true audiovisual conversation.
Clinton may also have been reticent to draw on music because it has served her so poorly in the past. In 2008, musical choices like Celine Dion’s “You and I” highlighted her age and lack of cool. (And of course Trump too is, among other things, an uncool septuagenarian.)
Perhaps both camps have heeded recent research asserting that political ads are largely ineffective (including their soundtracks): campaign resources should be devoted to the ground game—operatives knocking door to door in get-out-the-vote efforts. But this may be the wrong approach. This research may already be outmoded. Its data don’t account for onslaughts of outrageous Twitter posts, or Facebook’s silos of like-minded friends.
Trump has also been a destabilizing force. His erratic behavior makes it hard to gauge how to respond, audiovisually or otherwise. (Should you fight bullying with bullying?) His constant threats to sue or have people shot also carry weight, especially in an age of surveillance that could quickly turn into something like a Stasi state.
The reasons for the muting of music seem deeper, however. If you feel frozen, you’ll have difficulty singing or performing music (think of Doris Day in Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Gwen Welles in Altman’s Nashville). You may feel incapable of stirring someone with music. The constantly shifting political landscape might also paralyze musicians and directors: campaigns haven’t typically lurched from scandal to scandal, producing and destroying memes that can render a musical ad instantly obsolete.
As we enter the homestretch, more striking musical moments have been happening—right at the moment when the race seems to have stabilized. Journalists have finally summed up Trump (“that yellow troll fascist dwarf”); Sean Penn also quipped that “voting for Trump is like masturbating your way to hell.” Perhaps in some ways we’re coming together.
The best recent musical moments so far remain understated, like Mary J. Blige’s acapella singing while directly facing Clinton. I like this recent flashmob clip celebrating Hillary’s pantsuits, shot in Washington Square; it’s enjoyable even if it seems a bit too well funded for its own good. It couldn’t possibly be a Trump promo. Compare it to the Trump rally clip with the USA Freedom Kids (three young girls, who according to their father were bilked by Trump); viewers on social media likened their performance to something you’d see for Kim Jong-un.
The biggest political ads of this season haven’t carried much aesthetic weight. (I wonder what later studies targeting effectiveness will show.) The music in Clinton’s ads suggest a stay-the-course approach, often drawing directly on minimalism, with stripped-down piano accompaniment. Sometimes something humorously sinister sneaks in, a là Danny Elfman. The soundtrack is usually complemented by footage processed to drain Trump of physical magnetism, and the overall scene is often tinted an unnatural blueish-gray, more dystopian than The Bourne Ultimatum. The bulky sans-serif font suggests overcompensated clarity (shouting) and bargain-basement utility. Why project limited resources for the public, I wonder, when the campaign has likely been so well-funded? (In fairness, Clinton’s ad agency has a house style: “Google it/The Briefing” looks sharp.) A subset of these ads, especially targeting military vets, feel more traditional, with their sensitive strings and subjects looking into the distance. Ads of girls and women listening to or re-voicing Trump’s misogynistic assertions, and others supportive of African American and LGBT communities, are more moving. (The music often softly percolates underneath, and the LGBT-themed “Equal” nicely pivots into a fuller arrangement.) Two Hillary campaign videos worth mentioning include a Trump University infomercial’s spoof (with a faux Ivanka voice-over promising to take all your money), and an immigration ink blot series comprised of morphing black forms accompanied by a melancholic string quartet (both bloom momentarily into trains and shackled people).
Trump’s ads have almost always looked shoddier. (Was he not only tweeting late at night but also editing on free software?) One on Hillary’s coughing seemed particularly embarrassing. Trump’s first ad intimates that Clinton literally has trouble with her eyes (cloudy); once it’s finished with Mexico and ISIS, the music and image sweetens and clarifies. One of Ivanka Trump saying publicly donated money will be matched by her father feels like a late-night acne-treatment commercial. Cheap and plentiful, these were mostly distributed on Facebook.
Most of the user-generated clips circulating now seem like tired retreads of earlier YouTube campaign genres, even though they may have been funded by superpacs. Given their low view-counts we may not need to worry about them. I like a cover of Justin Bieber’s “Sorry” with Trump’s lines with the tweaked hook line (“how many times can you [I] sing sorry?’”); a “Batman v Trump: Official Trailer” with Trump CGI’d in; a dance battle with the candidates heads photoshopped in; a mashed-up speech (Trump singing about Pokémon); a sung meme showcasing a single gesture, Clinton’s Debate 1 shimmy; and of course the Gregory Brothers’ songified debates. Both Trump and Sanders also appeared for SNL cameos, green-screened into Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” but only Sanders seemed to embrace all the characters.
One idiom I’m particularly fond of, deriving from folk music and stand-and-deliver stars, is will.i.am’s “Yes We Can,” (2008) directed by Jesse Dylan. I now see this video as connecting with Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” There’s Joss Whedon’s “Save the Day,” a tongue-in-cheek video quickly hijacked by the alt-right. The production company Anonymous Content has just made a clip with 1,000 stars too. The promise of a tiny bit of sex (Mark Ruffalo agreeing to appear full monte) might hope to provide what stirring music once did. will.i.am has just done an amusing sendup of a debate—but it turns the music down.
Campaign-rally and convention music has also felt déjà vu. I could give a shoutout to Katy Perry for participating in Clinton’s campaign (“Roar” and “Fight Song”), and note that Trump, always engaged in the scam, used a rash of songs without the artists’ blessings (the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Queen), reminding us how Bruce Springsteen chided Reagan for misusing “Born in the USA” in an earlier race-baiting campaign. But the response to Trump’s sloppiness, the music video “Stop Playing Our Song,” with Usher and Sheryl Crow, was enervated. The original song’s intensity has been diminished, the perpetrator (Trump) remains unnamed, and no course of action is offered.
But some new turns have delighted me. During the first debate Tecate beer placed an anti-Trump commercial spoofing his “wall.” We might complain about the ad’s Eurocentrism, noting that Tecate is owned by Heineken. Primarily white men cross over a long, snaking, mini-wall at coffee-table height—good for smashing down beer cans—to another group of possibly more Latino men, whom we might assume are on the border’s southern side. The ad begins like recent film trailers, with a swiftly rising glissando, and a camera soaring above a vast, desert flanking an eagle. (Trump has been pushing that eagle.) Then we have Anglo-sounding guitar-based rock. Still, though the commercial’s weighted North, I’ve seldom seen a big corporation take this kind of political stand: it feels like we’re possibly moving into a new era, with new genres. Not only might a corporation outsource their production and merchandising, they might share out their politics.
During this election cycle, finding, sourcing, and making connections among clips can prove challenging. One sweet clip is of a mariachi band performing in the Oval Office possibly chimes with a 2008 one. (The Dems produced one mariachi tape that upset a community because the musicians weren’t in an appropriate neighborhood. Might this one help make good on an earlier oversight?) Might the YouTube-based “Fuck Trump” hip hop videos also have been funded by a Democratic superpac? (A Macklemore video is particularly wonderful.) On Trump’s side, the mashed up documentary footage accompanying his official music video with “C’Mon Ride the Train” by Quad City DJs incongruously suggests racial inclusiveness with a proletarian flare (and supposedly a prosumer created the initial cut). The singer so expressively effuses about “getting on the choo-choo” that we can imagine she’s doing the arm gestures, but Trump almost never mingles with the crowds. Perhaps some of the ad’s pleasure comes from latent content: Trump promises “It’ll be beautiful,” but we don’t know how; perhaps the singer can fill in a bit? Somehow we’ll whirl our way into the White House. Or perhaps there’s even more latent content: that Trump plane forcibly inserts itself 27 times into the crowd, perhaps foreshadowing the new revelations of his sexual assaults.
Like many academics I tend to look for political content outside of traditional or official discourse. One of the most influential videos for reading this election season may be Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Trump got into it with Beyoncé over “Formation,” and Trump surrogates have falsely accused Beyoncé of speaking vulgarly about genitalia—in one case misquoting the lines from a remix of “Flawless,” a song she performed with Nikki Minaj, in which Minaj touts her own genitalia (and doesn’t seize someone else’s without consent). SNL just spoofed Lemonade’s “Sorry” substituting in Ivanka, Kellyanne, Tiffany, and Omarosa.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade, a 50-minute audiovisual film comprised of music videos and interstitial poetry, not only confronts common marital difficulties but also provides a means to hold the American past, present, and future together. It develops historical strands about Africa, the Middle Passage, slavery, reconstruction, lynching, neo-liberalism and the disinvestment in black neighborhoods of the 70s, Hurricane Katrina, and the police murders of African-Americans. It often takes place below ground, or in confined quarters, with palpably poor air quality. As such it could be seen as existing in direct conversation with Trump’s rallies, with his circling helicopters overhead and Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.” (After Trump menaced Hillary during the second debate, this spatial relationship seems more strongly etched.) Lemonade expands out as Beyoncé, at the Video Music Awards, brought police-shooting victims’ mothers to the red carpet. Expanding further, some fans (including me) heard “Fuck Donald Trump” emerging in the mix during Beyoncé’s Formation tour.
My academic training also encourages me to see our culture as in need of conversation about what we’re frightened of, or have pushed aside, and to expect that these issues will bubble forth somehow, transmuted or veiled. Music video has long been a place to find the underdiscussed: shot quickly and less susceptible to some forms of censorship, tied to youth and rebellion, and relatively free from narrative demands, it can thereby allow a freer play of desires and thoughts. In recent heavily digitally processed, mind-twisting videos, artists like Rihanna, Lana Del Rey, and Allie X and Allie X often slide toward some indeterminate abyss (just beyond the frame). We watch moment-by-moment to see if they’ll endure. These clips capture the ever-present anxiety of our contemporary moment, life without a banister, caught within what Berlant has identified as the biopolitical production of precarity under post-Fordism.
Another thread in today’s music videos leads elsewhere. Empowering videos by musicians of color like Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” link directly to Black Lives Matter. Women of color (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jill Scott, J-Lo, and FKA Twigs) also seem to have been pulling out the stops—sometimes through topic, sometimes purely through self-presentation and delivery. They may sense they’re the most capable of helping us imagine a transition from Obama to Clinton. (Perhaps even European American female musicians like Sky Ferreira and Miley Cyrus have been backing away a bit to create more space for them.)
Two recent clips, Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky” and “Don’t Touch My Hair” (directed by Alan Ferguson), fall within this last group. Solange says she wanted to show the video’s subjects, African-Americans, as regal and proud. The figures in the images simultaneously project a sense of firmness as well as telegraph an awareness of the larger cultural moment. Like Sanders’ “America” these two clips find a way to create a fit between the micro and macro. The music and image are so in sync that they project an image of our dream of democracy itself. I can’t quite say how the videos do this. Perhaps the image captures something about the music. There’s a sensitivity to fine details (the single thread pulled back from Solange’s dress), the mid-ground (the water-stained patterns on white cloth), and the largest scale (the many figures in the frame who all move in concert).
I hope Hillary’s team is planning a final audiovisual spectacular for its get-out-the-vote effort. Perhaps they’re holding out, responding to studies that show music succeeds best as an end-game? (There’s the just released 30 Days, 30 Songs, a project delivering a new protest message every day leading up to the election.) Maybe now that Trump is imploding we’ll hear new voices sing louder. But so far one of the most moving ads is a silent video with a man using sign language. “We Shall Overcome” still feels very far away, but I’ll use some of these clips to help me make it to the 8th (not the 35th).
Please feel free to comment.