Featured Posts, Music

Playing for the President

Recently, the Guardian ran a piece about the US presidential election, for which the headline was: “Can Bruce do it again for Obama?” The Bruce in question was, of course, Bruce Springsteen.

Now, Springsteen may be one of the greats of American rock, a man who can fill stadiums across the world, a man so famous that he does not need a surname. But should we take seriously the thought that an entertainer – however worthy and however popular – can secure the election of a presidential candidate not once, but twice? After all, the Guardian story seemed to assume that Bruce did it for Barack in 2008, so he can do it again in 2012.

Indeed, the Guardian was so convinced that it devoted an editorial to praising Bruce Springsteen. Even the New York Review of Books illustrated a piece on the election campaign with – you’ve guessed it – a picture of the Boss.

There seems to be no getting away from the thought that musicians are the key to electoral success. Late last summer, a US academic, Erik Nelson, argued that the hip-hop artists who once supported Obama (and who made him “the first hip-hop president”) had now deserted him. The suggestion was that these performers wielded political power.

This idea – that musicians matter to electoral politics – is not entirely alien to us in the UK. Tony Blair’s New Labour was reported to have benefited from the support of the stars of Brit Pop (Blur, Oasis, Pulp), and the aura of ‘Cool Britannia’ that accompanied it.

There were all those pictures of Noel Gallagher, then of Oasis, chatting affably with the Labour elite in 10 Downing Street, celebrating the 1997 victory. And just like the rappers in the States, those stars of Brit pop also turned on Blair, as harsh political reality kicked in.

Maybe these stories of musicians supporting or deserting politicians should be dismissed as so much celebrity gossip, except that the business of choosing campaign songs – D:Ream in the UK, Fleetwood Mac in the US – takes up a lot of time and energy.

Political strategists know, as do advertisers in the commercial sector, that music is a potent device in securing attention and affection for a party or a brand. Music changes what we see and what we feel; it animates the messages that are being delivered.

Musicians too have power. Research done in Canada has shown how different performers can have a differential effect on people’s willingness to support a cause. Endorsement matters (Oprah Winfrey, it seems, swung votes for Obama in 2008). It is not completely far-fetched to think that Bruce could do the same in 2012.

In a country as vast and diverse as the US, where the parties are less tightly structured than here, popular entertainers do provide a key source of communication and of cash. Musicians do matter, but perhaps not to extent that some fans (and British newspapers) fondly imagine.


About Author

johnstreet John Street is a professor of politics at the University of East Anglia.

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May 2022
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