What’s in a Song? The Music that the Democratic Party Hopefuls Listen To

[This is a thought exercise. Nothing more.]

The media and most right-minded people have been unsuccessfully demanding that #45 releases his personal tax records, as all presidents in modern history have done. I believe that this is an important step in a candidate’s campaign, as it can reveal a lot about an individual’s commitments, ethics, and general prudence. However, I find myself thinking that a more nuanced expression of the individual would be helpful in understanding how the candidates think and what is important to them.

The music we listen to can reveal much about us as individuals: what is important to us, how we treat others and want to be treated, are we iconoclasts or traditionalists, etc., etc. To this end, I propose that looking at a presidential candidate’s musical tastes, particularly what they listened to as teenagers or in their twenties, can be valuable. That music had a profound impact on them as individuals as they grow into their forties and beyond.

There has been quite a lot written about the musical preferences of some of the Democratic presidential candidates in 2019, or at least more than in the past. President Obama’s playlists got attention and were pretty good –  revealing of his tastes and a willingness to listen to a diversity of styles. This lines up perfectly with the type of president that Obama appeared to be (or at least who we wanted him to be): someone who didn’t prejudge, was open to new ideas, and subtle in his ways of working. I want a candidate’s playlist to show us something about them now or in their youth. Are/were they angry? Are/were they idealists? Are/were they in touch with the human experience?

With this (and only this) in mind, here is my current ranking of the Democratic presidential candidates.

1.       Beto O’Rourke is a fan of punk and metal. Beto’s 2015 playlist highlighting some of his favorite punk songs shows the depth of his appreciation and his iconoclastic origins. He also played in a band called Foss, with a singer who went on to form the Mars Volta.

1.       Andrew Yang aims to be the first self-proclaimed ex-goth presidential candidate. He cites the Smiths, Joy Division, Depeche Mode, Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Sugarcubes as among his favorites. While you can hear many of these bands on supermarket soundtracks these days, in the 1980s and 1990s, listening to this music represented a feeling of dissatisfaction with the status quo.

3.       Pete Buttigieg is a moderately distant third after Beto and Andrew tied for first. Mayor Pete does have a documented appreciation for Spoon and has joked that he would like Phish to play his inauguration. If having Phish play your inauguration doesn’t signal a liberal stance, then I don’t know what does. And while a senior at Harvard, Mayor Pete wrote an interesting piece on how popular music reflected the unease of post-9/11 America – particularly referring to Dave Matthew’s Some Devil and Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, both which are pretty dark reflections on the state of the world at the time.

4.       Kamala Harris claimed Bob Marley and Miriam Makeba were among her favorites in a 2012 New York Times profile, but named Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain as one of her all-time favorite albums. Who can go wrong with that album? If one can really appreciate this album, I believe they are deeply in tune with their inner peace and soul. It is an absolutely beautiful record. More recently there has been some stupid controversy over Kamala stating on a radio show that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac when she was younger. They are both very great examples of west coast rappers giving voice to African-Americans living in too often ignored parts of urban America. More politicians should listen to Tupac.

5.       Bernie Sanders gets an honorary fifth place on this list. As mayor of Burlington, Vermont, he opened a youth music center: 242 Main. This club provided local and touring punk bands a place to play and for young kids who might otherwise be getting into trouble, a place to hang out and see some bands that their parents might not approve of. Newly archived videos of Bernie’s 1980s era community access TV show demonstrate his willingness to listen to mall punks talk about their disaffection for whatever mainstream life had to offer them. While I don’t know what music Bernie likes to listen to, I can imagine him listening to Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, Springsteen (at his most working class) – self-appointed spokespeople for some of the Americans on whose backs America was built.

We don’t know much about the other 18 candidates in terms of musical preferences. A spot check turned up pretty uninspired Spotify playlists by Senator Cory Booker and the Bidens. This does not mean that they are not good candidates. Their policy positions might be strong. They might be very capable of taking down the current sitting President. But their music preferences don’t help tell that story.

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