Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Politicians Don't Know Pop Music - EMP Conference Highlights Part Five

In an intriguing presentation at the Experience Music Project Pop Conference on April 12th, Mike Barthel (a media studies grad student) and Rachel Arnold (a grad student in public administration) gave their paper, "Yesterday's Gone: The Use of Pop Songs in Presidential Campaigns."

Although I saw flaws in their research and its applicability to current campaigns, I was most interested in their assertion that people interested in entering politics tend to know very little about popular music and those who do are embarrassed by that. They used this finding to explain, in part, why so many random and inappropriate songs are often chosen as campaign theme songs.

Now, I always assume that political campaigns are overly researched and that people must be hired to pick music and theme songs. They suggest that it's much more random than this. I suppose that makes sense when you think about Ronald Reagan using "Born in the U.S.A.," George W. Bush using "I Won't Back Down," and McCain selecting "Little Pink Houses."

Barthel and Arnold decided to test the musical knowledge of future politicos in order to get an understanding of how these types of selections are being made. They surveyed public policy students, arguing that these students would be future political leaders and decision-makers. Their findings were horrifying, at least to the audience of music geeks at the EMP Pop Conference! They said that none of the students surveyed could name the lead singer of Blondie and only 58% knew all 4 Beatles. Nobody knew any of the current campaign songs. Additionally, the students had little interest in the question, "If you could pick a song for your own campaign, what would it be?"

The presenters asked if campaign songs would be "more effective if politicians had a greater understanding of pop music" and argued that "our study shows that those in power are really bad at using music to get their message across." Most disheartening to me was their point that, "politicians think music is fundamentally unimportant to politics."

Do you think music is important to politics? An audience member mentioned all the buzz around You Tube user-generated videos (especially with Obama) and that the new campaign songs may actually come from the people, rather than the political machine.

Previous EMP Pop Conference posts:

EMP Pop Conference Highlights Part One

Strippers, Retro Divas, and Yoko Ono - EMP Conference Highlights Part Two

Music and the War in Iraq - EMP Conference Highlights Part Three

Sublime Frequencies' Experimental World Music - EMP Conference Highlights Part Four

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