After a week of trying to unite a fractured party in Philadelphia, a few points of agreement seem to have emerged from the Democratic convention: that President Obama still has his fastball, that Sen. Tim Kaine can do the Dad Humor parts of the vice president’s job and that everyone could use a break from “Fight Song,” which has been an omnipresent part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign set-pieces.
“Please,” begged my colleague Alexandra Petri after a group of celebrities recorded a rendition of the song especially for the convention. “You don’t want future historians looking back at the decision to keep bombarding the American people with mediocre celebrity a cappella as the turning point in a close election.”
I might have more tolerance than Petri does for precision-engineered pop tracks. But whatever our basic tendency to fist-pump to anodyne affirmations, the use or overuse of “Fight Song,” along with “Brave” and “Roar,” by the Clinton campaign has concealed something particularly interesting about the way they’ve functioned on the trail. It’s not unusual for politicians to pick music to send cultural signals. But it does feel somewhat unusual for a candidate to use song lyrics to imply the politically unsayable.
If one of the biggest challenges to Clinton’s campaign for the presidency is her perceived insincerity, the idea that she’s layered on so many personalities and policy positions in an effort to please a shifting array of constituencies, then uncovering her true self and real convictions would require a team of archaeologists.
Clinton herself acknowledged how she is perceived in her speech Thursday night, telling the crowd in Philadelphia, “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.” But in a political environment that scorns even slow-moving evolution on issues as hollow opportunism, there’s no viable way for her to discuss the choices she’s made that have contributed to that consternation, and the reasons she made those choices.
Instead, the songs Clinton has played most consistently on the campaign trail, all of them by women, do a very small part of that work for her.
“Brave,” “Fight Song” and “Roar” are about the same idea: overcoming fear so debilitating that it’s silenced and diminished the person who experiences it. And they’re not remotely subtle on that score.
“And all those things I didn’t say / Wrecking balls inside my brain / I will scream them loud tonight / Can you hear my voice this time?” Rachel Platten sings in “Fight Song,” pledging that “Starting right now I’ll be strong.” In “Brave,” Sara Bareilles acknowledges the listener’s fear before asking them to imagine what might happen if you “Say what you wanna say / And let the words fall out / Honestly I wanna see you be brave.”
But while Clinton’s campaign songs allude to the effort it takes to overcome the compromise that comes from fear, they’re all triumphant testimonials from the victorious side of that struggle.
It was notable that when Katy Perry performed “Roar” before Clinton’s speech on Thursday, she skipped the first verse of the song, which ends with the line “I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything.” Instead, she jumped into the song with the lyrics “Now I’m floating like a butterfly / Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes / I went from zero, to my own hero.”
These choices may seem like trivialities, but, like everything else about Clinton’s campaign, these songs are picked to navigate a set of difficult political conundrums.
How can the campaign present Clinton’s evolution as natural growth rather than poll-tested cynicism? How can Clinton suggest that she’s finally doing and saying what she truly believes without somehow invalidating the decades of public service that preceded the campaign? And how can Clinton acknowledge the distorting impact of sexism without seeming too vulnerable to withstand the tsunami of ugliness that will surely slam into the White House should she be elected in November?
The answer is that there’s no good, direct way to do any of these things. It might not be enough, it might not be fully satisfying, and the message might get lost when you hear the chorus for the thousandth time. But images of wrecking balls inside our heads and exhortations to roar and be brave may be the closest we get to a frank conversation about the rawest chapters in Clinton’s personal history.