Saturday, September 20, 2008

Election Music

No, this is not going to be about Mike Huckabee's band.

Nor is about the bands who played at the political conventions.

No, I'm going to look at the most important music in the campaign - the music played during political ads. We don't usually engage background music directly with our brains, like we do other music. Instead, we listen to the spoken words and watch the picture. This allows the music to affect us emotionally, almost without our knowledge. Have you ever found yourself feeling tense after viewing a negative ad, or calm after an ad about education? It's all in the music. I believe that the music in a ad affects us almost much or more than the content does.

So what does this have to do with feminism? Well, nearly all of music is gendered. Some music will bring up feminine images and feelings, and some will bring up masculine images and feelings. The music used in the campaign ads is carefully chosen to reinforce gender stereotypes and sexism, even when the is no mention of gender in the ad itself.

(for a fun introduction to this topic that doesn't involve reading dry academic papers, read this analysis of the Buffy theme vs. the Angel theme.)

All of the ads mentioned in this post can be found here.

There are four basic types of music found in the ads:
  1. Strong Leader - obviously masculine. characteristics include a strong, often rock, beat, a powerful melody. Usually paired with a positive, issues-centric ad.
  2. Security - very feminine sound. Designed to appeal to the listener's sense of home and family.
  3. My Opponent is Evil - what it sounds like. Has a creepy, scary sound, but without an real threat. I also call this the 'creepy femme' theme.
  4. No Music - this is also notable, as we shall see.
We will examine each type in detail.

Strong Leader

Listen to McCain's "Ohio Jobs". Notice the strong beat, the short, syncopated notes, and the repeated phrases. Also, note the fast tempo. All of these are masculine sounds. As you listen, notice how your heart rate increases slightly, how you sit up and feel like doing something. This ad may be about jobs in Ohio, but the music makes it about a specifically masculine construction of work - in effect, it says: "McCain will help you get out there and succeed!" "Michigan Jobs" uses the same soundtrack as "Ohio Jobs". Obama's "Hands" contains his campaign's sole pure example of this theme.

Listen to McCain's "Disrespectful". This ad is about Sarah Palin, yet it contains the most masculine music of any republican ad. The voice-over says that Palin is being attacked, and that it's 'disrespectful' (Stop picking on the girl!), but the music says, "Palin's tough. They can't hurt her, she's as tough as Hillary." "Fact Check" is similar, but not quite as extreme.

"Foundation" is an interesting ad. It starts with the 'creepy femme' (see below) theme, but notice how the music changes when McCain says, "I've taken on tougher guys than this before." A drum beat begins, and the music becomes stronger ,pushing it over the line to the 'Strong Leader' sound. Obama's "Sold us out" is quite similar to "Foundation".

McCains's "Patriotic Act" uses an overly masculine, patriotic-sounding track for parody purposes.


This type of ad music is incredibly stereotypical. It features pretty, feminine melodies with a calming accompaniment and slow tempos. Obama's "Need Education", "Burden", "What kind", and McCain's "Enough is Enough", "Education", and "Symbol of Hope", are all examples. These ads are all about family values, education, and financial security. While few of the ads mention gender, the message - that these are the 'women's' issues - is quite clear.

"Crisis" is unusual - it combines a feminine flute melody with masculine beat; Strong Leader with Security, for a McCain-Palin ad. The implications are rather obvious.

Obama's "Still" uses 'old' sounding feminine music for the purpose of parody - but also to imply weakness...

Which brings us to the most musically offensive ad that I have found. McCain's "Advice" is about how "weak" Obama is, paired with a soft, feminine soundtrack and a female voice over! The ad clearly says, without using words, "We can't have a leader who is feminine in any way!", and given the masculine music given to Palin in "Disrespectful", this makes perfect sense.

My Opponent is Evil \ 'Creepy Femme'

This sort of music confused me a bit when I started this analysis. It is quiet, tense music, usually with a repeated xylophone or marimba melody. The melody has a fairly strong beat, while the accompaniment does not. Is is masculine? Is it feminine? Or is it just scary?

I believe that it is primarily feminine, hence the 'creepy femme' designation. The music lacks power. It is feminine, but with enough masculine elements to feel dangerous. It is scary, but in a manipulative, underhanded way, playing on the fear of strong women. It's "Watch out, she's going to stab you in the back!", not the "Oh, no, here he comes!" of horror movie music.

The 'creepy femme' theme is used in almost every negative ad, except those already mentioned. McCain's "Chavaz", and "Nothing new", and Obama's "Who advises", "Honor", "His Administration", and "Naked lies". There is one example of 'creepy masculine' music: Obama's "Fundamentals".

No Music

Two of Obama's ads contain no music, "Plan for Change", and "Real Change". This is excellent, as it forces us to think about the ideas presented, rather than respond to emotional appeals. Indeed, Obama's campaign is using no music in ads where McCain would have used Strong Leader music.


Obama's campaign shows more variety and reasonableness in choice of music, but both campaigns use it to manipulate emotions. Their opponents are presented as feminine and weak, while they themselves are masculine and strong - except when they are talking about financial security and education, when they suddenly understand what woman want!

Listen carefully to the music in political ads! Don't let yourself be taken in by the feelings presented by the music, and recognize the sexism that is being implicitly presented.

1 comment: said...

Totally fascinating analysis. It's honestly never occurred to me before to pay much attention to the campaign music, but I see what you mean. It makes a lot sense -- just as films and television shows use music to give out an aura of tension or gaiety. Interesting!