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.
The song didn’t surface at Trump’s rally on Saturday, but his playlist was populated exclusively by other white men — save for the Shangri-Las singing “Leader of the Pack.”
Curated by Trump himself, the mix included three cuts from Elton John, five from the Rolling Stones, some Johnny Cash, some Creedence Clearwater Revival and Pavarotti belting Puccini.
Typical of Trump, this is an atypical gesture. Instead of catering to the tastes of the electorate, he’d rather just hit shuffle and crank it (which might be refreshing if his bland taste hadn’t stopped developing around the spring of 1985).
Scouring the lyrics for symbolism won’t tell you much about Trump’s ideology, though. There are songs about intimacy, bitterness, promiscuity and murder. And didn’t the leader of the pack die in a nasty motorcycle wreck?
When those gnarly vroom-vrooms go bouncing off the I-X Center’s sprawling concrete floors, they generate no visible response from the thousands assembled.
Nobody’s singing along to any of these tunes. Nobody’s bobbing their head. Nobody’s even chewing their Doublemint to the backbeat. Nothing. Instead of energizing this crowd, Trump’s playlist simply replaces silence with a different kind of emptiness. It creates an absence of mood, an anti-mood — authoritarian hold music.
But Trump likes to play it loud, and then he likes to play it again. Saturday’s hourlong playlist loops three times before the man materializes, with the decibels always rising, rising. Elsewhere on the trail, this combination of incessant repetition and intensifying noise has pushed attendees toward the edge of their collective patience. Earlier this month, a particularly peevish Trump-flock in Michigan began chanting, “Turn it off!”
In addition to agitating audiences, the cranked volumes also stifle direct human conversation. Reporters say they’ve had trouble interviewing folks at these rallies, which casts an ominous little prophecy: If you’d like to be heard in Donald Trump’s America, your options will be to shout or to be Donald Trump.
Less than an hour before he’s expected to touch down, Trump’s most bizarre selection floats around the room: Elton John’s “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” an 11-minute odyssey that could only have been chosen for its ability to eat the clock.
But halfway through, Sir Elton is interrupted by a stern-voiced announcement over the PA:
“Mr. Trump supports the First Amendment just as much as he supports the Second Amendment. However, some people have taken advantage of Mr. Trump’s hospitality by choosing to disrupt his rallies by using them as an opportunity to promote their own political messages . . . If a protester starts demonstrating in the area around you, please do not touch or harm the protester. This is a peaceful rally.”
The air swells with boos and the amplified voice resumes its instructions.
“In order to notify the law enforcement officers of the location of the protester, please hold a rally sign over your head and start chanting, ‘Trump, Trump, Trump!’ Ask the people around you to do likewise until the officer removes the protester. Thank you for helping us make America great again.”
Then “Tiny Dancer” comes blaring from the speakers for the third time, now weaponized at 100 decibels. Minutes later, a rumpled teen who has scribbled “Refugees matter” onto a rumpled poster board is ambushed by Trump-Trump-Trumps and is swiftly ejected from the building to the tune of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.”
This is exactly how music is used most insidiously at Trump’s rallies.
These songs don’t pump people up. They make everyone feel comfortable — in their indignation, in their suspicion, in their hostility. The songs that Trump has chosen couldn’t be more banal, yet it’s precisely their banality that makes them so incredibly effective. They infuse the hateful atmosphere he cultivates with an air of utter normalcy.
So when he finally takes the stage to the Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” — a slice of prog-rock silliness made famous during the Chicago Bulls’ pregame ceremonies back when Jordan was dropping 30 points a night — Trump is hamming it up, but in an entirely familiar way.
Now the only sound coming from the speakers is Trump’s voice, a shouty call-and-response instrument that consistently turns vowels into little snarls. He roars a question: “Who’s going to pay for the wall?” The crowd roars back: “Mexico!” They know the script.
Trump perks up whenever he hears his own name being chanted in the throng, knowing he’s been given another chance to whip out his new catchphrase: “Get ’em outta here!” But after issuing a few dismissals, he seems bored by his own speech. “Let’s do a U.S.A. chant!” he says, brightly.
When it’s over, the music resumes at even higher volumes. As the candidate works the crowd, glad-handing his admirers, a few covert disrupters out themselves by trying to hurl obscenities within his earshot. Trump’s faithful immediately shout them down and away with even uglier words. Everything keeps getting louder. Pavarotti hits a monster note. People start plugging their fingers in their ears. “Uptown Girl” returns for its fourth and most punishing go-round.
And when the Caucasoid doo-wop finally fades out for good, and the soundman starts packing up the gear, all the young dudes lingering around the cable news cameras rush to fill the silence with a sound that feels more assaultive than it ever should.