CNN | 11/22/2019 | Listen

The Clash or Johnny Cash? Listen closely to Dems' walk-out songs

Updated 11:58 AM ET, Sun June 16, 2019

Editor's Note: Benjamin Schoening is an associate professor of music and head of the Department of Music at the University of North Georgia. He is coauthor of "Don't Stop Thinking About the Music" and, most recently, coeditor of "You Shook Me All Campaign Long," focusing on the music of the 2016 presidential election. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN) - When Democratic candidates converged on the state of Iowa, each candidate took the opportunity not only to speak, but to present a musical soundscape when they walked onto the main stage at the annual Democratic dinner a week ago.

So, what does this music say about the individual candidates, their politics and the message they would like to convey to the masses? Let's take a look at the musical choices of four candidates -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Beto O'Rourke, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and former Rep. John Delaney.

Sanders walked out to John Lennon's "Power to the People," a choice that perfectly matches his political message from beginning to end. It makes sense that Sanders, a democratic socialist who supports tuition-free public colleges, universal healthcare and a $15 minimum wage, would choose a song with the lyrics, "You got a million people working for nothing, You better give 'em what they really own." The song, which repeats the title phrase several times, reinforces the image of Sanders as someone who will restore the power of the country to the people and address the plight of working-class Americans struggling to survive.

Most importantly, it is a song about activism and getting involved to make change. One verse goes, "Say we want a revolution ... You better get on your feet, And head to the street" -- prominent themes of the Sanders' grassroots campaign. As one of the most progressive 2020 candidates, Sanders' choice of Lennon is apt, especially since the famed singer-songwriter was known for his activism and often seen as a political radical.

In a similar vein, Beto O'Rourke's use of The Clash's "Clampdown" pits the candidate squarely against the perceived ideals of President Donald Trump. The song's opening lyrics, which include the lines, "Taking off his turban, they said is this man a Jew?" and "They put up a poster saying we earn more than you" make specific reference to the marginalization of certain groups and inequities in society instilled by the establishment. The song is ultimately a call to reject these ideals and resist those who work as part of the "clampdown."

O'Rourke, who was once part of a punk rock band himself, said The Clash changed his life by being openly political and " trying to be a voice for those who otherwise would not have a voice -- but then making it popular."

O'Rourke's choice ultimately paints him as an anti-establishment candidate who is resistant to the attitudes perpetuated by the current administration as well as the mores of Washington in general. It presents him as someone who is aware of the flaws in the current political system and ready to take a stand against inequality.

While Sanders and O'Rourke have cast themselves as rebels intent on political change, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard's choice, "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, projects hope, unity and dependability, with lyrics like: "If you need me call me no matter where you are ... just call my name I'll be there in a hurry."

Through this song, Gabbard presents herself as a candidate who can always be called upon, no matter the circumstance, to help a country face whatever obstacle may stand in the way.

This message could be effective in both the primary and general election, as it speaks to unifying the various factions of the Democratic Party as well as reaching across the aisle to create a better country for all Americans.

Finally, John Delaney's choice of "I've Been Everywhere" by Johnny Cash can be seen in a couple different ways. First, it works to present Delaney as an experienced candidate who is ready to take on the challenges of the party and the nation. The song, which lists places like Chicago, Buffalo, Wichita and Oklahoma, links the candidate to multiple constituencies, whether they be rural or metropolitan. In short, this song is about presenting a candidate who can appeal to a broad scope of people within the electorate

Delaney has already pit himself against Sanders on healthcare and economic policies ahead of the first Democratic debates, And by choosing Johnny Cash, who epitomizes authenticity and grit with broad musical appeal among both conservative and liberal audiences, Delaney may be taking a moderate, "big tent" approach to his campaign.

The musical soundscape of a campaign is an important one -- it can present a concise message and establish an emotional connection between the candidate and the electorate. And as the candidate's needs change along the campaign trail, these shifts are reflected in the music selections, which can help forge new connections. With more than a year until the 2020 elections, this is likely far from the final musical word from any of these candidates.

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