Georgia College Researchers Track Strategic Shifts in Campaign Music

Staff Report From Middle Georgia CEO

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

Music plays a subtle role in forming public opinion about presidential candidates. It gets marginally attentive voters interested in politics and reveals strategic shifts in campaigns.

These are some results of study through a unique website – Trax on the Trail – created last winter by Dr. Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, assistant professor of music at Georgia College. Used regularly by journalists nationwide, Trax has also morphed into an educational tool for teaching media literacy – with scholars Skyping into college classrooms and collaborating on high school lesson plans with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio.

“It’s wound up being more successful than I would ever have imagined. I had no way of anticipating that it would get as big as it’s become,” Gorzelany-Mostak said.

As the U.S. election season races to a climax – with presidential candidates spending millions of dollars to present visual and written images – Trax examines how sound shapes candidate identity.

Two changes noted by researchers: Democrat Hillary Clinton has softened her “women empowerment” image by sidelining Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song” and moving to classic pop songs like 1967’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell – while Republican Donald Trump has added traditionally conservative country music like Lee Greenwood’s 1984 “God Bless the USA” to his repertoire. In that way, Gorzelany-Mostak said Trump’s “channeling” Ronald Reagan, who used the song when running for re-election in 1984.

“I think when we listen to music, we’re not just hearing the song in the moment, but we hear in our minds all the moments throughout history where we heard that song and what was going on in our lives. And I think that creates a very powerful, positive association for a lot of people,” Gorzelany-Mostak said.

“It’s sort of operating on a subconscious level,” she added. “People don’t know their attitudes and their behaviors are being shaped in that way. But they are, to a certain extent, by music.”

Students work on Trax, watching C-SPAN and YouTube to catalogue songs into a single database. They check playlists on Spotify and often pick up songs from news outlets that mention what’s playing as a candidate enters the stage. The website collects into one forum essays on campaign music from a variety of experts, including Trax co-editor Dr. James Deaville, professor of music at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario.

Early next month, Gorzelany-Mostak and students will present their work at the American Musicological Society Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia.  She also gives talks for the American Democracy Project on campus and airs podcasts on WRGC 88.3.

Trax has been cited in the Boston Herald, The Guardian, Slate, Elite Daily, Inverse and Pacific Standard. But Gorzelany-Mostak expects excitement to subside after the election.

“Let’s just say, I’m not going to be very popular come Nov. 9,” she said.