Campaign Refrains

Music and presidential elections can sometimes be a combustible mix. A song may set the tone for a candidate's persona and policies, inspire followers—and at times get the music’s artists calling up their lawyers.

Just ask British band Queen, which issued a statement denouncing Donald Trump’s use of their hit “We Are the Champions” during the Republican National Convention without their permission—after they had already requested that he refrain from using their songs.

And it’s not just Republican candidates who use songs without getting the artists’ approval. Cindy Lauper objected to the use of her song “True Colors” by Democrats in Mitt Romney attack ads. And, in 2008, the duo Sam & Dave asked the Obama campaign to stop using the song “Hold On! I’m Comin'.”

For months, IC alumna Dana Gorzelany-Mostak ’96 has been detailing this particular sound and fury. The IC music school graduate is the creator and coeditor of Trax on the Trail, an addictive website that chronicles and dissects the soundtracks surrounding the long and winding road to the U.S. presidency.

“During campaign season, a lot of musical activity goes on,” she said of her area of research. “And some of it is documented, but it’s difficult to assemble a complete picture of what a soundscape looks like in an election and how that soundscape evolves over time.”

Together with James Deaville, a professor at Carleton University in Canada, Gorzelany-Mostak hatched the idea last March for a site that would track the music of this year’s presidential election. Two months later, Gorzelany-Mostak was hired as an assistant professor of music at Georgia College, which provided the resources. The goal was to offer scholars and the public “a more complete record for a single campaign” and a conversation hub.

Trax on the Trail was a few months old when Elite Daily featured Gorzelany-Mostak’s thoughts on the George M. Cohan–inspired Donald Trump tribute (and other topics) in late January. Gorzelany-Mostak was stunned by Elite Daily’s interview request, but others would soon follow. The Boston Herald came calling. So did Variety and the Guardian.  

What explains the buzz? Gorzelany-Mostak says campaign music is news in a world where the newspaper is a relic. “There are a lot more spaces for conversations to take place,” she says, citing the Daily Show as an example. “You can only talk about somebody’s platform so many times.” Also, the same online outlets that candidates use to “engage the public with their music”—think Facebook and outlets like YouTube—voters can use to share their own campaign-related creations.

Music “plays into that broader intersection between entertainment and politics,” Gorzelany-Mostak says. “And I think the candidates have an awareness of the way younger people get their information and the way people engage politically. Music is a nexus for that.” It can help create candidates as well as establish and define their community of supporters, she adds.

Gorzelany-Mostak believes that music, which just about everyone loves, invites political participation.

It’s easy to dismiss the latest Trump or Clinton parody, but it can be examined “as a serious artifact of the campaign season that provides some insight into what people are thinking and feeling at a given moment,” she explains. “Just because they pour it into song rather than writing a conventional blog post doesn’t make it any less valid as a topic of research interest or discussion.”

Gorzelany-Mostak’s career in academia—and an emerging one as an affable pundit—began after Ithaca College, where she majored in voice performance and music education. She taught elementary school, performed professionally, and gave voice lessons before earning her Ph.D. from McGill University in musicology in 2013.

As for the future, Gorzelany-Mostak won’t make any decisions about Trax on the Trail until after Election Day.

When asked what songs Gorzelany-Mostak would use if she were on the campaign trail, her research assistants quickly assembled 12 gems—including Carole King’s "You've Got a Friend" and USA for Africa’s “We Are the World”—befitting their opinion of their leader’s shiny, upbeat personality.

Reviewing the list, Gorzelany-Mostak displays the type of analysis that has made Trax on the Trail an election-year pleasure. The playlist, she concludes, “rings a little bit old.”