The backlash of the loose cannon: musicians and the celebrity cleavage


Dr Domagoj Bebić 

Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb. He is the general secretary of the Institute for New Media and E-Democracy. His research interest is mainly in cyberdemocracy and digital media. 


Dr Marijana Grbeša

Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Political Science, University of Zagreb. She was the Head of School of Journalism and the Vice-Dean for International Relations. Her research interest is mainly in political communication and political marketing. She is an op-ed contributor for the leading Croatian newspapers.


US2016 - Section 2

Section 2: Campaign

Back in February 2016 The Guardian published an article claiming that if the US were ‘a rockocracy’ then the 2016 election would already be over, with Hillary and Bill back in the White House. This pretty much sums up the tune of the 2016 US presidential election. Musicians overwhelmingly aligned with Clinton and trumpeted against Trump. Yet, with what effect? 

While the power of music in politics is a well-established fact, the actual influence of celebrities in election campaigns is not that straight-forward. Nonetheless, the assumed ability of the stars to harvest voters’ support offered reason enough for US politicians to recruit celebrities to their campaigns. While this is historically true for both Democrats and Republicans, it was only with Bill Clinton and especially with Barack Obama that celebrity endorsement has become more massive and potentially more influential. 

Obama’s relationship with celebrity musicians has been especially creative, outgrowing the usual ‘photo ops and rally performances’ mix and moving into a number of new formats. Songs of appreciation for Obama (e.g. Young Jeezy ‘My President’), the Emmy-winning music video ‘Yes We Can’ produced by the, the frontman of the Black Eyed Peas and Bruce Springsteen’s epic Obama-endorsing tours are most paradigmatic. 

Hilary Clinton continued the trend of celebrity crowding in 2016. The names she gathered in her music camp were impressive: Jay-Z, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Katie Perry, Christina Aguilera, Cher, Jon Bon Jovi, Mariah Carey, Ice-T, Elton John, Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Martin, Madonna, Morrissey, Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent, Sting, Barbra Streisand, Bruce Springsteen and many others. 

However, the musicians’ endorsement for Clinton for the most part lacked the devotion and energy that accompanied their support for Obama. Support for Clinton seemed largely a corollary of campaigning against Trump – it was the ‘right thing to do’, rather than a passionate act of advocacy. Los Angeles rapper Ty Dolla $ign, probably nailed it by saying that while ‘nobody is excited’ about Clinton, she has his vote.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, gathered a scant group of celebrity supporters, with Clint Eastwood, Hulk Hogan and the country singer Loretta Lynn being the most renowned. However, Trump was extremely successful in mobilising the ‘don’t let Trump win’ campaign.

A number of musicians refused to allow him to play their songs in his campaign (Adele, Neil Young, Rolling Stones) or were utterly irritated by Trump asking permission to use their music (REM’s Michael Stipe). Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters held a concert with the ‘Trump is a pig’ sign on the stage while Springsteen called him ‘a moron’. Particularly interesting is the ambiguous relationship between hip hop musicians and Trump. Once hailed in the rap songs as a symbol of wealth, Trump turned into a loathed figure. Next to YD’s FDT (F**k Donald Trump), Eminem’s Campaign Speech was probably the strongest anti-Trump rap song in the campaign: ‘and that’s what you wanted, a f**kin’ loose cannon who’s blunt with his hand on the button, who doesn’t have to answer to no one – great idea!’

What then are the key music lessons of the 2016 election?

First, the 2016 campaign suggests that celebrity musicians’ endorsement has irreversibly penetrated the political mainstream. The rise of social media accelerated this process by upgrading musicians from potentially prominent points of influence into powerful channels of reach. For example, on the day preceding the Election Day a version of the Beyoncé’s video I am with her that endorsed Clinton had 757 thousand views (and 7300 shares) on the official Clinton’s Facebook fan page but 2.3 million views (and 16 700 shares) on the singer’s fan page. The views and shares were gathered in only one day and although Clinton and Beyoncé posted somewhat different versions of the video, the discrepancy is apparent and points to a challenging conclusion: through musicians’ social media platforms politicians can potentially reach an audience they can only dream of reaching through conventional political communication platforms or traditional media. 

Secondly, no candidate in recent US history has been as successful in mobilising the anti-candidate campaign as Donald Trump. Musicians (including the usual ‘rage against the machine’ hip hop crew) massively aligned against Trump and consequently, supported Hilary Clinton. Therefore, musicians’ support for Clinton was rather a movement against Trump’s aggressive, insulting and chauvinist populism than the typical candidate endorsement. The Manichean rift between bearable Clinton and unacceptable Trump was the key base of musicians’ mobilisation. Still, despite massive recruitment against him, Donald Trump won the election. The ‘celebrity cleavage’ that is becoming an ever more prominent variable in campaign studies was in this election heavily biased towards Clinton, but did not reflect the actual political cleavages. Moreover, by becoming part of ‘the mainstream’, music was defeated by enraged populism, clearly the biggest winner of the 2016 election.