I’ve heard from observers at Donald Trump rallies that the music played for the crowd is awful. Banal, terrible, appalling, loathsome, beastly, vile, odious, ghastly, abhorrent, repulsive, horrid, obnoxious and revolting.
“Well, what you expect from such a man?” you might say. But hang on. Is there a method at work here? From The Washington Post:
The first thing resembling music at Saturday’s Donald Trump rally comes from the crowd waiting outside of Cleveland’s I-X Center, barking their man’s name in vicious staccato. The sound rips clear across the parking lot, where six cops on horseback patrol the blacktop, expecting the worst.
That’s because Trump’s rallies have become malignant assemblies where violence is not only tolerated, but encouraged without shame and practiced without remorse. The Republican presidential front-runner recently described the flying fists of his constituency as “a beautiful thing,” only to backpedal after being asked whether paying the legal fees of his sucker-punchiest supporters might sanctify their violence.
Trump has provided this toxic American moment with its own distinct soundtrack — his rallies feature a variety of benign rock songs played at unforgiving volumes. And while the pundits have enjoyed some high-quality giggles over the quirkiness of Trump’s song selection, what matters far more is how this music shakes the air, how it shapes the psychology of the room.
At first touch, Trump’s rally playlists look like typical trail fare. Lots of classic rock, lots of nostalgia sparks. What’s strange is how Trump has glommed onto the Beatles’ “Revolution” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” — two counterculture hymns that feel completely incongruous with his autocratic hoodoo-voodoo.
If anything, this is an important reminder that once a tune leaps off a singer’s lips, it becomes a sort of public utility, a container that can be filled with opposing ideas. Ultimately, a piece of music represents whoever’s listening to it.
Philosopher Slavoj Zizek has written about this — specifically, on how Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” has repeatedly served as an empty signifier, “a symbol that can stand for anything.” Adolf Hitler enjoyed listening to “Ode to Joy” on his birthday; the Soviets and Maoists liked it, too. Japan’s kamikaze pilots listened to it on the runway before takeoff, and, in 1985, the European Union adopted it as the continent’s anthem.
Over the past eight months, “Rockin’ in the Free World” has become almost as elastic. It’s been played at Sen. Bernie Sanders’s campaign events, and it was blaring last summer when Trump floated down the escalators of his eponymous skyscraper to announce his candidacy for president of the United States.
Oh, dear. Mr. Young cannot be happy. Read on.