What does Donald Trump’s rally music say about his appeal? Interpreting a campaign’s musical choices isn’t an easy task. It’s not like campaign managers can get too creative. The music needs to be instantly recognizable, chantable, and, most important, American—if not always in nationality, then at least in mood. As much as I would love to hear one of the more interesting politicians walk up to the podium soundtracked by a stranger American sound—say, the techno of Drexciya, the free jazz of Albert Ayler, or even the abstract folk guitar of John Fahey—it simply isn’t feasible.

Yet it’s possible to see some differences between campaigns. The clearest musical distinction between the Trump campaign and President Biden’s is that the former rarely uses tracks to target specific voter demographics. In October and November of 2020, when the Biden campaign worried that it was losing some of the Latino vote, it used Puerto Rican star Bad Bunny’s “Pero Ya No” (“But Not Anymore”) to emphasize the need to “break up with” Trump. Team Biden also put out an ad featuring Mexican singer Alejandro Fernández’s “Decepciones,” which translates as “disappointments,” played over images meant to evoke Trump’s border policies.

“Trump’s musical choices are much more simply American.”

Trump’s musical choices are much more simply American. They seem to suggest: “We’re all Americans, damn it, so let’s make America great again!” Obviously the Rolling Stones aren’t the most unusual campaign music. Mick, Keith, and the gang, after all, developed what most consider to be the absolute archetype of rock ’n’ roll, and because of this, the Stones always felt far more American than the other British Invasion bands. The Beatles, The Who, and the Kinks did seem like they were invading America with British sensibilities. The Stones, in sound and mood, tried to give the impression that they were one of us (Americans, that is).Yet Trump’s use of the Stones is still unusual. In addition to songs like “Gimme Shelter” and “Start Me Up,” Trump has pulled a track off the 1967 Stones album Their Satanic Majesties Request, which is a bit strange. You see, Their Satanic Majesties Request is considered a misfire. On that album, the band moved away from the earthbound, corporeal groove of the blues and toward something more experimental, psychedelic, and even a bit, well, satanic. Derided at the time of its release as a kitsch ripoff of what the Beatles had achieved with Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band and despised by both Mick and Keith alike, the album has nonetheless grown in acclaim as something of a cult curiosity.

What does it mean that the Trump campaign has used that album’s one hit, “She’s a Rainbow”? Given that the song uses odd piano lines and bizarre Brian Jones theremin humming, it doesn’t sound like a particularly “America First” kind of song. So, could there be something expressed in such a choice? Who knows. But when I hear the track played at a Trump rally, I think of the way the record evokes the shadow side of certain bright promises. The song is spritely and upbeat. It sounds like a kumbaya circle of happy hippies. But like the record as a whole, it also hints at something unsettling. Behind the claims of tolerance and togetherness made by the contemporary left, there lurks something actually quite dark, wretched, and cruel.

We all know that Trump has a devilish sense of humor, and one could also detect some irony in some of the Trump campaign’s musical choices, like its decision to play R.E.M.’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine).”. I like R.E.M. enough, for instance—my very first concert was the band’s 1995 Monster tour when I was 7 years old—but the band never made it easy to root for it, what with an insistence on bourgeois urban liberal political messaging. The Los Angeles Times once described the group as one of America’s “most politically correct,” as if such a label were a badge of honor for a rock ’n’ roll band.

It’s hilarious to think of Trump and his team weaponizing the empty left-leaning moralism of R.E.M. against the Democratic Party, the left leaning moralists of America. “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)” perfectly expresses the contemporary Democratic National Committee mindset, with its functionaries saying that Americans complaining about inflation are “spoiled” and accusing anyone of racism who notices the hellscape that has spread across parts of San Francisco, Los Angeles, or Portland.

Other than that, there isn’t much that could distinguish these songs from those found on any campaign’s playlist. Perhaps one could say that inclusions of Prince’s “Purple Rain” or pieces from Andrew Lloyd Weber’s theater scores speak to the innate “queerness” that Trump has always embodied—his campy qualities, if you will—and another could look at all the Springsteen or Guns N’ Roses tracks and find that the campaign is emphasizing its rebellious Americana aesthetic. All of these thoughts could be true or untrue. But I suppose the beauty of a sentiment as precise, simple, and broad as “MAGA” is that it can absorb any manner of aesthetics, affectations, or concepts and put them to use. It’s as big, glorious, contradictory, and idealistic as America itself.

Adam Lehrer is an artist and Compact columnist, based in New York. He blogs at Substack and is the host of the System of Systems podcast.

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