Carleton prof tracks music on American campaign trail

A Carleton professor is studying American presidential candidates like Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders—but more specifically, the sound and songs the candidates use while campaigning.

Music professor James Deaville is co-editing Trax on the Trail, a website that gathers information on music used in the 2016 election and determines how it shapes candidate identity. The research is intended for everyone, from scholars to students.

Deaville said his role in the website is managing the scholarly aspects of Trax on the Trail. He publishes an essay every week for the website.

“I’ve always been interested in the connection between music and media,” he said.

Deaville said music can act as a persuasion tool, especially in election advertisements.

“It’s there, but you don’t notice it. A bit like the air that we breathe,” he explained. “That led me to consider the clear case that candidates are using music to help support their case.”

Together with Dana Gorzelany-Mostak, the creator of Trax on the Trail, the two launched the website in December 2015 in order to study music used in the election and share that information.

“What I thought would be interesting for 2016 would be to develop some sort of project where we would be tracking the music as the campaign unfolds,” Gorzelany-Mostak said. “The best format to do that in was a website . . . It provides a space for public engagement as well.”

The two professors first met in 2008 after Deaville sat in on Gorzelany-Mostak’s dissertation about music used in past presidential elections, Deaville explained.

Gorzelany-Mostak, assistant professor of music at Georgia College, received funding from the college to help support the Trax on the Trail website after the two professors came up with the idea in early 2015.

“We thought this is a fascinating area. Citizens need to know how their attitudes about candidates are being subliminally shaped by the music that accompanies the [advertisements],” Deaville said.

Gorzelany-Mostak noted there has been a lot of research published on how political and popular culture intersect, but not as much research on the role sound plays in elections.

“The goal of the website is to sort of bring discussions of sound and music into the forefront. But more importantly, to bring together diverse voices to talk about it,” she said.

Contributors to Trax on the Trail include musicologists, political science professors, and historians.

She said she enlisted Deaville to co-edit the website because of his expertise, including his research on music used in advertising.

Deaville explained that candidates are advertising and branding themselves when they play music during the election, especially at rallies.

“Trump uses an operatic aria that’s as big as his ambition to come onto stage, whereas [Hillary] Clinton has used Katy Perry,” Deaville said. “That ties in with another interest of mine, which is music in advertising and how music sells products—one of the products it sells is a candidate.”

Cannon McClain, a research assistant for Trax on the Trail at Georgia College, said his job is to figure out when and where the music is used during the election and record the information on the website.

Echoing Deaville, McClain said candidates like Trump are using certain songs to “play into their identity,” with lyrics that “play along with their message.”

Gorzelany-Mostak said she doesn’t have a solid plan for the future of Trax on the Trail, but there’s still a possibility of using the website to track music used in the next presidential election.

“We’re going to focus on this now and see where things might go down the line,” she said.