I’m obsessed with music. I cried when Rock & Roll Jeopardy was cancelled. I have playlists for everything from French Disco, to 90s R&B and even one for all the music used during this year’s Olympic figure skating programs. But some of my favorites are the dozens of playlists to track the hundreds of songs we used during Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, where I served as the director of special projects for the digital team.
Luckily, this role allowed me to work on a lot of cross-departmental projects, and while there were many music-related projects that I had nothing to do with, over time I became the campaign’s de facto music supervisor, working with colleagues to coordinate licensing and permissions for events, curating playlists, helping select performers for our fundraising concerts and commissioning remixes for our online videos and ads¹.
Hillary for America (HFA)’s goals were straightforward: to educate and inspire voters about the candidate, and hopefully convince them to go to the ballot box and vote! Music was one of many tools we used to help communicate HFA’s message. It united our supporters, became part of our signature, and if we were fortunate enough to capture the magic, it also spoke for us.
So on this, the third anniversary of the official Hillary for America launch event on Roosevelt Island, I’d like to celebrate the incredible work of our team, our collaborators, and share some of the stories behind the music we used publicly during the campaign. While there have been a few books written about using music in presidential politics (check out Don’t Stop Thinking About The Music: The Politics of Songs and Musicians in Presidential Campaigns), and someone even devoted their honors thesis to the topic, my musings are by no means meant to be a definitive analysis of our use or to rehash what went wrong on Election Day. I also won’t be talking about the music that motivated everyone at HFA’s headquarters (Justin Bieber’s Sorry and Ginuwine’s Pony were played constantly) or the many Slack channels devoted to Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
I will talk about “Fight Song.” While Rachel Platten’s tune might be the song most often associated with the campaign, there was a lot of other music used at key moments that you may have missed, starting three years ago today with the official campaign launch on Roosevelt Island. So sit back and join me as we take a journey in a small boat … on the ocean…
BORN TO BE FIGHTERS
When the team planning the launch event started to select music for the playlist, we sourced ideas from staff and listened to songs that matched our message. Reading the articles that claimed the campaign spent $90,000 curating the playlist made me laugh, because it was really just a bunch of exhausted staffers scrolling through iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud.
We took our project seriously. Knowing that these would be interpreted as “Hillary’s songs,” we wanted to select music that she liked and that offered an authentic representation of her personality. For Hillary Clinton, that turned out to be inspirational power pop (who knew?). Throughout this whole process, staffers played songs for Hillary to listen to in the car between events, then they’d report back with the ones she liked (or didn’t!) until we had pulled together a playlist that was candidate-approved.
Whatever music we played would be subjected to a high level of scrutiny, so we went the extra mile to avoid some pitfalls other campaigns have fallen into. We vetted the artists and lyrics, secured performance license agreements to be able to play music at live events and went a step further by asking for each artist’s permission to play their music, hoping to avoid an artist publicly denouncing the inclusion of their song at our event.
SIDEBAR: There are plenty of examples of artist backlash if you look back on campaigns through the years — George W. Bush’s use of Sting’s “Brand New Day” in 2000, John McCain’s use of the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” and Sarah Palin’s use of Heart’s “Barracuda” in 2008, and Donald Trump’s use of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World” during this last cycle. Rolling Stone has compiled a much longer list here.
The songs that would attract the most attention were the ones that would play as Hillary walked on and off the stage (“walk on/walk off” music in campaign speak). Clinton alum Howard Wolfson wrote that Hillary’s 2008 campaign spent a lot of time selecting these songs. While several were selected internally (“Blue Sky” by Big Head Todd & The Monsters, “Suddenly I See” by KT Tunstall and “American Girl” by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers), the 2008 team also attempted to crowdsource a theme song, landing on “You and I” by Celine Dion. It never really connected with the crowds and was dropped from rotation shortly after its debut. We took all of this into consideration as we compiled our list.
Bill Clinton set the standard for the modern campaign song with Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” a song that was not only popular, but also became synonymous with his campaign. Our search began for something that could encapsulate our campaign as succinctly. Less than a week before the launch, we had it narrowed down to Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” until I was doing one last search through my iTunes library and re-discovered American Idol Season 9 champion Kris Allen’s “Fighters” — a bonus track from his 2012 album, Thank You Camellia. The lyrics aligned perfectly with a line in Hillary’s speech, (“For everyone who’s ever been knocked down, but refused to be knocked out”) and perfectly echoed a sentiment she has revisited through the years -
They could knock you down and make you fall
But we’ll get back up cause after all
We’re born to be fighters
Before making a final decision, we mashed up video of Hillary walking on stage at the 2008 DNC with all three options to see how they felt.
We decided that Hillary would walk on to “Brave”, walk off to “Fighters” and “Roar” would become part of the “rope line” playlist (the music that plays while the candidate is shaking hands, kissing babies, and taking selfies with supporters). We then started reaching out to the performers for their blessing.
Out of twenty-some songs that we had narrowed our list down to, only a few folks came back to us with a hard “no,” explaining that they weren’t comfortable taking sides during the primary or preferred that their music not be associated with anything political (as Adele famously informed Trump), on either side of the aisle. The majority of folks gave us an enthusiastic “yes!” — this remained true throughout the campaign.
Others, like Rachel Platten, took more time to get on board (you can listen to her tell her story in this episode of SongExploder featuring yours truly), so we kept a running list of songs to revisit down the road (Hillary and the travel team would be listening to this same playlist of fifteen songs for the next eighteen months, so for their sanity, we had to keep it fresh!)
TAKING THE SHOW ON THE ROAD
It’s not commonly thought of this way, but often when a political campaign organizes events, what we’re really putting together are two types of concerts: big public rallies and ticketed fundraisers. The latter uses the performances as an incentive to raise money — this could be anything from a big concert at the Greek Theater with Christina Aguilera, Ricky Martin, Stevie Wonder, John Legend and Cher to a more intimate dinner featuring an acoustic performance by Sting.
Having musicians at big public rallies is a way to draw a crowd of potential supporters to learn more about the candidate and their policies and to encourage attendees to volunteer. In an ideal world, the talent also attracts media coverage. Given the ever-changing calendar of events and priorities, our concerts were often built with very little lead time (sometimes just a few days), making it difficult to secure talent. Time and time again, our amazing surrogates team came through.
A few of my favorite events included: Lady Gaga & Tony Bennett’s fundraiser in New York, Charlie Wilson performing at a rally in South Carolina, the stars of Broadway uniting for the Stronger Together concert (including a new rap written by Lin-Manuel Miranda), and our fashion show fundraiser to kick off NY Fashion Week with Anna Wintour, featuring a performance by Demi Lovato.
18 months of fundraisers and rallies across the country finally culminated in the Love Trumps Hate concert series² during the last few weeks before Election Day. These concerts, deemed “GOTV rallies” to encourage attendees to Get Out The Vote, ran from coast to coast with A-list headliners that included The National (Cleveland), Jennifer Lopez (Miami), Katy Perry (Philadelphia), Bon Jovi (Pittsburgh), Steve Aoki (Las Vegas), Jay Z and J. Cole (with surprise guest Beyoncé in Cleveland), Matt and Kim (Keene, NH), Ne-Yo (Raleigh), Stevie Wonder (Philadelphia) and others.
YOU’RE GONNA HEAR US ROAR
Almost a year before Hillary announced her campaign, this happened:
Well, Katy didn’t end up writing a song for the campaign, but she did everything else! She was an early and vocal supporter, she let us use “Roar” at every event, and she invested her scarcest resource: time. She crisscrossed the country, performing at fundraising concerts and rallies, including the Democratic National Convention.
What I appreciated most was the thoughtfulness that she and her team put in to each project we asked her to be a part of — they wanted to understand our goals and make sure that whatever tactic we came up with, whether it was a video, a contest or performance, that we were maximizing the impact. As the most followed person on Twitter, Katy certainly knows a thing or two about creating engaging social content, and we were ecstatic to have her expertise.
Katy’s passion for our campaign helped expose Hillary’s message to new audiences, and encouraged her fans to be a part of the political process. She wasn’t the only musician to lend her talents to something other than performing — countless others shared digital content with their audiences, appeared in videos, and opened up their homes for fundraisers. Demi Lovato performed many times across the country, but also talked about her struggle with bipolar disorder and how Hillary’s mental health policies would help others.
These artists talking authentically about topics they were passionate about and personally connected to were instrumental in making sure that campaign content was seen by the general public, even when the media didn’t report on it.
AND WE RISE UP
The moment I first heard Andra Day’s “Rise Up” in June 2015, I knew it had to be a part of the campaign. It was a song of encouragement, of persistence — a call to action. Not only were the lyrics perfect, but Andra’s voice and emotion sent chills down my spine. I was sold, but it took a little time to get others on board. Since the song was too slow to be added to our rope line playlist, I first pitched it to other members of the digital team for possible inclusion in a video. Only once my colleagues started hearing it at SoulCycle (true story) did they come around.
Fast forward to February 2016, and the Finance team was working on a big fundraising concert at Radio City Music Hall, similar to the record-breaking “One Night Only” concert Elton John performed for Hillary during the 2008 primaries. Elton agreed to perform again, this time joined by Katy Perry. Seeing this as the perfect opportunity to finally bring “Rise Up” in to the campaign, I suggested that we see if Andra was interested in joining the line up. We were thrilled that Andra’s team quickly said “yes,” and with that, the I’m With Her concert was born!
With nothing but her pianist accompanying her, Andra sang a moving four song set, including “Gold” and “City Burns” from her debut album, as well as an inspired cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” She closed with “Rise Up,” adding an extended outro with new lyrics: “spread a little hope and love now, encourage them to rise up now.” The audience was rapt and when the final notes had been sung, everyone was on their feet, giving Andra a standing ovation. We were immediately obsessed with this new outro and asked her to jump into the studio to record the track. Within 48 hours we had the audio files and our video team³ started working on what would become one of my favorite collaborations of the campaign: “Love and Kindness” — a television and digital ad launched in the days leading up to the April 26th primaries.
Due to the success of the spot, the song became increasingly associated with the campaign. We were pretty excited about it, and Hillary really liked it, so we asked the talented Samantha Ronson (who had been DJ-ing events for us from coast to coast for months) to remix the song for our rallies. We could not have been more pleased with the results, and from that point on we played “Rise Up” at all of our events.
Andra didn’t stop there — she went on to perform at our She’s With Us concert in Los Angeles, and performed “Rise Up” with a drum line on stage at the Democratic National Convention. Dreams do come true!
Throughout primary season, we kept adding songs to the rope line playlist: Jill Scott’s “Run Run Run,” the classic Gap Band song “Outstanding,” Sheryl Crow’s “Woman in the White House,” Justin Timberlake’s then-ubiquitous “Can’t Stop The Feeling” and several others. There was even a department-wide email chain debating the inclusion of Michael Bolton’s “Just One Love” (it eventually made it into the rotation).
Near the end of the primaries, the campaign settled on the slogan Stronger Together for the general election. With a new slogan, it was also time to refresh our playlist. This time we set up a Google Form to let anyone working on the campaign make suggestions for new additions while we also researched songs that reflected our new messaging.
From that search, we added classic tunes like John Mellancamp’s “Our Country,” and Michael MacDonald’s “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” alongside newer tunes like Darius Rucker’s “Together, Anything’s Possible” and Capital Cities’ “Safe and Sound.” One of my favorite additions was a song called “Together” by Australian DJ Throttle and Canadian vocalist David Spektor — and apparently some of our supporters thought so as well (see below) — it even made headlines Down Under!
Throughout the campaign we released a few Spotify playlists for our supporters such as Girl Power⁴, another celebrating Women’s History Month, and one featuring Tim Kaine’s favorite songs after he was announced as Hillary’s running mate. Our goal was always the same: to celebrate Hillary and her supporters while also providing a new way for people to interact with and discover the campaign.
SOMETHING BORROWED, SOMETHING (DEMOCRATIC) BLUE
We were fortunate to have many musicians offer their music — both existing hits and newly composed tunes — for us to use. While a few fit nicely into our playlists and videos, others took on a life of their own outside the campaign. During the 2008 campaign, there was also a bunch of songs that were either created or remixed for Hillary, including Sophie B. Hawkins’ “Damn! I Wish You Were President,” “Wonder Woman” by Maya Days and “Hillary in the House.” Here’s a sampling of some of the great content produced by our team and our grassroots supporters in 2016:
Singing string quartet (and recent Amazing Race contestants) Well-Strung released a parody of Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” titled “Chelsea’s Mom” along with a video. Hillary loved it and invited the band to perform at a fundraiser in Provincetown in July 2015.
Near the end of the campaign, our tech team had built a tool that would allow you to donate “In Honor” of someone or something. Given the amount of content we were producing on a daily basis, we were trying to figure out a way to promote the tool and break through the noise. Jamie Lidell’s people had offered his song, “Me and You,” for us to use and it was the perfect fit.
Former American Idol contestant Jessica Sanchez released “Stronger Together,” written by Carol Bayer Sager, Bruce Roberts and Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds that was played during the DNC.
A group of studio musicians and songwriters from Los Angeles put together this fun remix of Steve Winwood’s 1982 hit single “Valerie,” titled “Hillary,” to encourage people to support our campaign.
Crazy-Ex Girlfriend creator and star Rachel Bloom partnered with Funny or Die to release “HOLY SH*T (You’ve Got To Vote)” featuring Moby, Jane Lynch, Adam Scott, Mayim Bialik, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and others.
BACK TO THAT SMALL BOAT ON THE OCEAN…
January 2016, just a few weeks before the Iowa caucus, we finally got permission from Rachel Platten to use “Fight Song.” At that time, the campaign was using the slogan “Fighting For Us,” and we thought that this was the right moment to switch up Hillary’s walk on/walk off music before the start of the primaries and caucuses.
Our supporters latched on. It became a rallying cry and a song of encouragement. For many tired staffers and volunteers, it was a reminder to keep going. If Hillary could travel non-stop from coast to coast talking about her vision for the country, we could find the energy to keep working seven days a week.
We were watching the returns come in at HQ on March 15th (one of our many “Super Tuesdays” with primaries in five states: North Carolina, Ohio, Florida, Illinois and Missouri), and as the night went on, Hillary won all five contests. Each time a win was announced, we blasted the song, singing along as loudly as we could. It was our anthem. From then on, Fight Song was Hillary’s “theme” and played at each event for the rest of the campaign.
The song inspired so many people. Elizabeth Banks and producer Bruce Cohen even created a star-studded acapella cover with Eva Longoria, Ben Platt, Connie Britton, Idina Menzel, Mandy Moore, America Ferrera and many others that we debuted during the convention.
“Fight Song” moved us then, and it still does today — I was at a wedding recently where a group of campaign staffers sang/screamed along LOUDLY on the dancefloor while confused partygoers looked on.
Hillary for America saw how music could move and inspire people to join our campaign. Music also started to heal us after a tough loss. A few short (or very long, depending on how you look at it) days after Election Day, Kate McKinnon (as Hillary Clinton) performed a moving cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on Saturday Night Live, ending with “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.” A different kind of fight song.
There has been a lot of great songs that have come out since November 2016. Music is bringing people together in the age of #TheResistance. Logic, Alessia Cara and Khalid’s “1–800–273–8255” encourages those struggling with depression to reach out for help. “Youth” by Shawn Mendes and Khalid particularly moved me in the wake of yet another violent shooting at a school.
No matter what kind of story you’re telling, music is certainly a powerful piece of the puzzle. It was for us. While it might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about a political campaign, it helped shape the soundtrack for a moment in history (or dare I say, her-story).
I’m looking forward to adding new songs to my playlists as we get closer to the midterms and move towards 2020. Onward. Together.
¹ Like everything at Hillary for America, music supervision & selection was a team project, and I was fortunate to work alongside the best in the biz: our amazing surrogates team (Michelle Kwan, Adrienne Elrod, Genevieve Roth, Diane Hamwi), advance (Jason Chung, Greg Hale, Alex Hornbrook), vice chair (De’Ara Balenger, Huma Abedin), comms (Christina Reynolds, Kristina Schake, Josh Schwerin), vetting (Karuna Seshasai and team), legal (Emily Cole, Joslyn Massengale) finance (Dennis Cheng, Jacqui Johnson, Lisa Gioia, Stephanie Daily-Smith), video (Sierra Kos and team), ads and so many others to bring these projects to reality.
² Largely put together by the amazing Genevieve Roth.
³ The talented Russ Calkins!
⁴ Compiled by Meg Vázquez & Nichole Sessago.