Campaign songs can be powerful things: “Fight Song” has been seared into the part of my brain where bad 2016 memories are housed, my colleague Stassa Edwards says that Bill Clinton almost ruined Fleetwood Mac for an entire generation after using “Don’t Stop” to soundtrack his 1992 campaign. So what do the 2020 candidates have planned and what psychic wounds will they inflict on us in the years to come?
Lissandra Villa, a politics reporter at Time magazine, recently posted a list of songs that several 2020 candidates walked out to at an Iowa Democrats Hall of Fame dinner. They ranged from the classics (Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5") to classics in-the-making (Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road”) to whatever Amy Klobuchar picked.
To discuss these choices—part music criticism, part psychoanalysis—Jezebel reached out to Matt FX Feldman, the music supervisor responsible for the soundtrack of Comedy Central’s much-beloved Broad City.
“With this list, there’s some that seem like very good choices to me and some that seem like terrible choices,” Matt FX told Jezebel. “Or, just a little bit... off, so to speak.” Let’s get into it. Our interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
MATT FX: There are some songs on their own that I find almost a little hokey. “9 to 5” is one. But then when you put “9 to 5” next to Elizabeth Warren, it’s like... she’s so cute when she’s cheering, she gets so excited, it almost works.
I will say that as much as I like “9 to 5,” as someone who personally supports Warren, I wish she was using something a little more energetic. Like, I wish she was using a Robyn song from 10 years ago. That would be perfect for her. Something just like very inspiring. “9 to 5” is cute, but I wish there was a bigger banger, and I hope she switches to one down the line.
JEZEBEL: It’s interesting—Dolly Parton has repeatedly said she doesn’t want her music to be used for any of these campaigns, whether Democrat or Republican.
That is interesting. Though lyrically and tonally I see why it’s being used right now, I see why they’ve decided on it. But I think there’s a better song out there.
Someone like Lizzo definitely has a kind of sound that has longevity to it. Her sound appeals to young people, old people.
I think something that her and Warren have in common is this sort of “against all odds” kind of thing. They both have so many qualifications and yet in the face of the status quo feel so, feel like they’re shaking so much by just existing. It’s like “No, no, no, Lizzo is here to stay,” and for the same reason, I would like to think Warren is as well. That would be my own personal recommendation.
Eric Swalwell, John Delaney, and Steve Bullock: “Caught Up in the Country” by Rodeney Atkins, “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash, and “Small Town” by John Mellencamp, respectively
JEZEBEL: So what’s your take on this list?
MATT FX: Okay—so Iowa, right? I definitely think there’s a risk of pandering too hard, with it kind of being a little obvious of a choice, like “Caught Up in the Country” and “I’ve Been Everywhere” by Johnny Cash… I think almost falls into that category, as well as “Small Town.”
A little too on the nose, you’re saying?
Yeah, on the nose as well.
MATT FX: I think “Power to the People” sort of runs that risk [of being too on the nose] a little bit. But ultimately, it is an exciting song. And Sanders, it is his message. It’s very much where he’s rooted. I think it’s important to align yourself to a song or artist who is true to your values.
MATT FX: “Clampdown” is another song that I find hokey on its own but works. Like, Beto is a former punk rocker, etcetera, etcetera. And although “Clampdown” is a little bit silly, it does sort of make sense for him at the same time.
MATT FX: I find it very fascinating that there are two Clash songs being used in Iowa right now. If you think about The Clash and everything they stand for it’s like the opposite of [electoral] politics. And yet you’ve got Beto and you’ve got de Blasio both using them. I think it’s really funny that de Blasio is using “Rudy Can’t Fail” because I’m sure you’re aware of the whole ska thing that’s popped up in the last few weeks. And “Rudy Can’t Fail” feels like proto-ska, first wave. He stuck it in there because he knew he couldn’t use Streetlight Manifesto like, it still has a lot of the DNA that I think ska music has.
JEZEBEL: It has that big ska energy.
Like, of course de Blasio is coming out to “Rudy Can’t Fail.” Sure. But also like, as a New Yorker, I don’t have much faith in de Blasio being our next president so...
It’s like, “Hmm, I’m pretty sure he can fail.”
And speaking of energy, I think horns will always be kind of associated with power and leadership going all the way back to a king in ancient times and the horn players… there’s just something about it. I remember when I was supervising Broad City season three and we had the Hillary Clinton cameo, and although the song I was using was very future trappy, it was very horn heavy. And I think the horn sort of spoke to that leadership, presidential aspect of it.
Tulsi Gabbard, Marianne Williamson, and Jay Inslee: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder, “Mr. Blue Sky” by Electric Light Orchestra, respectively
MATT FX: Songs that I think have good energy that do work for me: “Higher Ground,” “Mr. Blue Sky,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”... these are great choices, right? Because, like, you’re trying to appeal to a pretty wide base of people, a very large age demographic. I’m not personally sure how diverse Iowa is, but it can’t be all white people. I’m hoping.
JEZEBEL: A sprinkling of brown people in there.
And in that respect, choosing someone like Stevie Wonder is very safe, but in a good way! And a song that both old and young people could jam to is a great idea. Like, I personally wouldn’t go too recent if I was advising a candidate.
MATT FX: OneRepublic for sure is a little too single demo, if that makes sense.
MATT FX: “Old Town Road” is a cultural phenomenon, right? Not only is it a cultural phenomenon, but people who fuck with it, people who appreciate what it stands for see some of the quote-unquote bipartisanship of it as a song. You know, connecting different genres, demos, etcetera. So while I personally wouldn’t recommend a super modern song, I think that one is a bit of an anomaly. And I get it, I’m cool with it.
MATT FX: My advice for a good campaign song: Nothing too ironic. I definitely think “Return of the Mack” is kind of a joke song. And I wonder how serious Yang thinks he’s being here.
JEZEBEL: Well, it’s interesting, because as much as I love “Return of the Mack” I thought it was a strange choice for Yang because I interviewed him a couple of months ago and I asked him what would his campaign song be, and he said, “How Soon Is Now?” “Return of the Mack” almost seems like a wink to the kind of meme culture that made him popular in the first place.
Yeah, I mean, everything from calling his group the “Yang Gang” to “every citizen gets an allowance.” I mean, these are amazing ideas, don’t get me wrong, but like... he seems to be running on the absurdity ticket. And God bless him. “Return of the Mack” certainly fits into that DNA.
JEZEBEL: A song from this new era of Panic that my 15-year-old self does not acknowledge.
MATT FX: You know, I actually don’t mind this choice at all. For starters, you have the horn section intro that has that regal thing I was talking about. But there’s also something about mayor Pete coming out to Brandon Urie’s voice that I actually quite like. Plus, you know, lyrically it works. High hopes and what not.
MATT FX: “Good As Hell” feels 100 percent on the money, that makes a lot of sense to me.
MATT FX: The Harris one is interesting.
JEZEBEL: Why is that?
I feel like this is a little tricky to talk about as a half-Chinese, half-Jewish person, but there seems to be a lot of discourse about Harris’s blackness. I feel like picking Mary J Blige in a way... It’s interesting. It feels like it was a choice.
I see what you’re saying. It feels like the “auntie” choice, like definitely leaning toward that relatable black woman that you can shoot the shit with.
I mean, look, it’s all about inspiring, it’s about picking a song that everybody knows, or if you don’t know you’re immediately sort of jazzed by.
So even you don’t know the words, or it’s not part of your musical lexicon, you still feel energetic and excited about. If you were on a political campaign, what would be the main thing you’d be looking for?
I’d be looking for energy. Like, the horns work, but I don’t think it’s the only way to go.
MATT FX: Something like the Bruce Springsteen feels a little slow to me. Honestly, I’m kind of surprised there’s no Hall and Oates.
JEZEBEL: Oh, that’s good!
Everyone loves Hall and Oates. If you look at the Youtube comments on their videos, it’s just so obvious that there are generations of people who bang with their music. And it seems to go across race and age and in that respect, that seems like a good pick to me.
JEZEBEL: When I was listening to the lyrics, it felt very... how I imagine the algorithm for a safe, feel-good hip-hop sounding song to make white women feel really invigorated. And it’s funny because I looked at the comments and someone said, “I heard this in the RBG movie!” When the first thing I see is “RBG brought me here, anyone else?” I’m like, okay, I know exactly the type of song this is.
Matt FX: I feel like they probably got it from that movie! I’ve never heard of this song. It’s got like a fun beat. I’d put it in the same category as “Rudy Can’t Fail” with de Blasio. It’s so odd that it just might work for that candidate, but does it work for them winning a nomination? Maybe less so. You know what I mean?
MATT FX: This one feels similar to the Klobuchar and de Blasio for me. I mean, “Lovely Day” is a great song, but it’s almost a little weak, it’s almost a little tame. It’s not super energetic. Also like Booker—it works, but I’m happy a more formidable candidate isn’t using it.
JEZEBEL: I see what you mean. It’s not super high energy, but I guess at this point neither is Booker’s campaign.
Exactly. It’s a fantastic song, but it’s not the first thing I’d think of when I’m thinking of a one, two, three, four, five... 19 candidates. You really want to stand out a little bit, one way or another. And definitely, energy is one of the easiest ways to do that.
I think that whoever it ends up winding down to, hopefully, they won’t have a song that drives us crazy after a while. When I heard “Fight Song” for the billionth time, I was ready to tear my hair out.
And that’s a perfect example of a song that’s too recent and too single demo. Like, “Fight Song” belongs in kids movies.
So maybe no Katy Perry or Taylor Swift or anything like that.
Hopefully not. If my say can impact future songs in any way, if anyone sees thisf: Hopefully no Katy Perry or Taylor Swift.