The Politics of Playlists


Does music have a political purpose? At a recent Berkeley Connect Music small-group discussion, students discussed what songs they would use in their presidential campaigns. Graduate student mentor Amadeus Regucera shared his pick: “I’m So Bored With the USA” by The Clash. His choice stood in stark contrast to many students’ more patriotic songs. One student chose “Now” by Lena Horne, a left-leaning song from the 1960s that asserts, “We mean action now.”

As the discussion continued, students delved into the unexpected connection between politics and music. The class browsed the Spotify playlists released by the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.  Many found the playlists amusing and thought the song choices seemed professionally curated by publicity teams. Hillary Clinton’s current campaign songs were mostly anthemic pop hits of the past year or two, while Barack Obama’s featured a broader range of musical genres and eras. Students thought this made Obama feel a little more genuine. Whether the choices were authentic or not, students recognized the goal the candidates were trying to achieve: reaching a certain constituency.

On this note, Regucera asked the students, “How does music factor into how you build relationships in your community?” Several students agreed that shared music tastes had helped them to find common ground with new friends. However, one student commented, “You can’t condense someone’s personality down to their music taste.” Perhaps your music taste isn’t the sole way to define you, but what’s on your playlist actually says a lot about you and your values. Every song has a message, and which songs you identify with can be very telling. On the other hand, one student shared, “I don’t think it’s saying anything about my personality – it’s more about memories.” He continued, “My playlist is a diary.”

However, said another student, “When you find someone who knows the same song you know, there’s a bond.” This is exactly what the politicians who made Spotify campaign playlists were going for – trying to establish an emotional connection with the people of America. “Music is another mode of language,” explained a student. “It can express the inexpressible.” Therefore, for politicians looking to capture the hearts of voters, music can be an extremely valuable tool. Music is sometimes described as a “universal language,” but this discussion made clear that it can also be a powerful form of political communication.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant