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Mental images and audio-visual influencing - Music in political campaigns

by Sini Mononen

“The role of music in political campaigns adds up to much more than just rallying around the cause, or simply attracting attention. Music, in all different forms, is included in political parties’ and candidates’ image-building and communication agendas, which can be used in multiple ways to influence voters.” Researcher Sini Mononen takes a look at the use of music in political campaigns through everyday examples.

When the US President Donald Trump blasted the 1978 Village People hit YMCA at his 2020 presidential election rallies to rev up the crowds, there were many who pricked up their ears. What does the iconic 1970s disco band and its gay anthem have in common with the macho patriarch Trump?

Partially inspired by the Finnish visual artist Touko Laaksonen’s gay porn character Tom of Finland (see also FMQ's article on the musical), the Village People is a group widely known for their camp approach. When young men gather at a religious organisation in the hit song YMCA, the reference is not so much to do with Christianity. Instead, the piece can be heard as a symbol for the queer “congregation”, a community where members of a minority can meet each other and celebrate their existence.

Trump’s campaign, however, appeared to be deaf to this widely established meaning of the piece. The song’s opening lyrics ”Young man, there's no need to feel down, I said, young man, pick yourself off the ground” was no longer attached to rallying around a sexual minority but to the political message of a candidate who has been known to hold hostile views towards the LGBTQI+ community.

Trump’s choice to use Village People’s YMCA as a part of his campaign is an example of how the political context of music can alter its already established message. At the same time, it illustrates how cultural symbols can be “hijacked” to serve a purpose which is virtually the opposite to the original context.

Changing contexts

In Finland, the 2020 US election and its musical choices got people talking, especially during the inauguration when the hymn section of Jean Sibelius’s symphonic poem Finlandia (1899–1900) was heard in Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony as a part of Ryan J. Nowlin’s musical collage titled Godspeed. Nowlin had previously been commissioned to arrange music for many White House occasions in his capacity as a US Marine Corps Major.

Finlandia, and its hymn section in particular, is associated with the Finnish nationalism movement; the hymn is sometimes even viewed as Finland’s second national anthem alongside the official Maamme [Our Land] by Fredrik Pacius. Sibelius did not initially intend for the hymn to be sung at all. However, after completing the work, he arranged the hymn section for male choir. Several lyricists have written words to the hymn, including Wäinö Sola in 1937; his Finlandia lyrics have been frequently used by the Freemasons. In Finland, the hymn has most commonly been sung to the poet V.A. Koskenniemi’s 1940 song text.

The inclusion of the Finlandia hymn in Biden’s inauguration raised discussions about copyright in the Finnish media. The melody’s new context, however, is also a symbolic one. The hymn is an example of political music that has received numerous new interpretations within new political contexts.

In the United States, the Finlandia hymn is well known as the religious hymns Be Still, My Soul and We Rest on Thee, and it also lives on as part of the Icelandic hymn tradition. Finlandia has also taken on a whole new life as the national anthem of Biafra, which separated from Nigeria between 1969 and 1970. There, the song was known as Land of the Rising Sun. Another version of the melody was made famous by Joan Baez, who has performed the song under the name Finlandia as part of her activities both in the political song tradition and the international peace movement. 

Mieskuoro Pekka [Male choir Pekka] was a spontaneously assembled group of singers that organised a flashmob at Helsinki central railway station, in order to support Pekka Haavisto's presidential campaign in 2012. They performed Sibelius's Finlandia with the conductor Pasi Hyökki.

Campaign songs: parody and influencing

In Finland, music licencing rights dictate how existing songs such as YMCA can be included in political campaigns. Political parties are not free to choose just any music to serve their agenda. According to Juhani Ala-Hannula, the Head of Legal Affairs at the Finnish copyright association Gramex, music usage permits issued by copyright associations do not cover the use of music in political or pornographic contexts. This means that a performance permission for music played in a political event has to be sought directly from the copyright owners. Depending on the music usage situation and the music in question, such copyright owners can include composers, lyricists, arrangers, publishers, artists and record companies.

Previously composed and already established pieces of music, however, represent just one of the many ways how political parties seek to build their profiles through music. New works composed specifically for campaigns are a whole different chapter.

One such song was Suomi kuntoon [Let’s put Finland back on track], which was commissioned by Finland’s Centre Party for their 2015 parliamentary election campaign. The words were written by Juha Louhivuori, the melody composed by production company Miracle Sound, and the song was performed by Karoliina Kotala. The work has since then provided inspiration for parodies such as visual artist Martta Tuomaala’s media art work FinnCycling-Soumi-Perkele! (2016/2017). The politics of Finland’s then government, led by the Centre Party’s Juha Sipilä, is reflected in Tuomaala’s work through a critical and inclusive indoor cycling lesson.

Another classic in this genre is the well-known composer and producer Maki Kolehmainen’s pop song Kuuden vuoden kuuliaisuus [Six years’ allegiance]. The piece was composed for the 2012 presidential campaign for the National Coalition Party’s Sauli Niinistö, and it bears a close aesthetic resemblance to an AOR (Adult Oriented Rock) tune. Journalist Vesa Sirén wrote in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper about the piece’s conflicted background: instead of voting for the right-wing Niinistö, the song lyricist Sana Mustonen was said to have voted for the Left Alliance’s candidate Paavo Arhinmäki on the first round of the election, and the Greens’ Pekka Haavisto on the second.

In terms of music associated with political campaigns, it is not unheard of for songwriters to compose music for a candidate that they would personally never vote for. Partly for this reason, some music makers wish to remain anonymous and thus separate their work life from their political views.

FinnCycling-Soumi-Perkele! Vol. 2 trailer from MT on Vimeo.

Audio-visual politics

Finland is currently preparing for municipal elections. Originally planned for April 2021, the election has been delayed to June due to the pandemic. The current coronavirus restrictions prevent any large public gatherings, and thus affect campaigning as well. Some candidates have started to build an online audio-visual campaign in social media. Political parties, too, are involved in profile-building in their own way, through the music and sound worlds they disseminate through the internet.

For example, the National Coalition Party’s “Podcast for exceptional times” has adapted an aesthetic that mimics news bulletins with its opening image which resembles a TV test pattern, and with its fast-paced digital sound world. The Centre Party, on the other hand, seeks to strengthen their image as a down-to-earth party by choosing the acoustic guitar as the preferred instrument for their own podcast.

According to a music creator who has anonymously composed social media and TV commercial music for Left Alliance and Green League candidates, the first thing to consider when building an audio-visual profile for a candidate is their personality. The choice of music can thus reflect a candidate’s gender or age, for example, as well as carefully considering their target supporter base.

In addition to a clearly identifiable theme music section in the beginning of each video, a candidate’s social media account can include several jingles which are composed to reflect different moods, depending on whether the campaign video is focusing on a threatening, hopeful, or neutral aspect of current affairs or everyday life. While some extreme right candidates’ audio-visual campaigns have sought to use music to build action or horror film imagery with nearly dystopian undertones, many candidates favour music that avoids stirring strong feelings. In this regard, today’s political music, which is designed for audio-visual platforms, is sometimes the polar opposite of traditional political music such as protest songs, which actively seek to produce strong reactions from listeners.

Composing for audio-visual campaigns is in many ways similar to composing for drama productions or current affairs programs. Music and soundscapes, which have been custom-made for campaigns, often use effects that are familiar from the film industry in order to highlight the candidate’s character, political climate, and current reality – in other words, the general state of discourse, participation, society and day-to-day politics.   

All things considered, the role of music in political campaigns adds up to much more than just rallying around the cause, or simply attracting attention. Music, in all different forms, is included in political parties’ and candidates’ image-building and communication agendas, which can be used in multiple ways to influence voters.

Articles about Sibelius’s Finlandia and Tom of Finland as part of the US presidential election campaign have previously been published by the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper [in Finnish]. 

Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham
Featured photo: Screenshot from the Village People YMCA official music video.