The trail playlist comes with other requirements. As a general rule, the music played at presidential campaign events is as painstakingly appropriate and carefully inoffensive as the career politicians and telepromptered speeches it accompanies. If the choices do offer any glimpse into a candidate’s psyche, then most would-be presidents have minds that vibrate to the stultifying background buzz of a hotel elevator or an airport lounge. Theirs are the songs that played at the cruise ship buffet on your honeymoon, and populate your remaining FM presets. These songs are familiar old friends, or so ubiquitous they might as well be. They're songs your mom would like.
Most of the songs that make up Donald Trump's campaign soundtrack have a familiar feel to them, too. They've just been in deeply unfamiliar territory this year.
A majority of Americans have probably heard snarling '80s hair metal, risque Rolling Stones lyrics, and romantic top 40 ballads. They might be familiar with vintage Broadway show tunes and Italian opera. Except that they've just, in all likelihood, never before heard all of that music played together, or played on the presidential campaign trail, until the Trump campaign began last summer.
Donald Trump has scored his stage entrances to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” and his helicopter’s arrival and departure to the soaring orchestral overture from the soundtrack to the movie "Air Force One." Before he's taken the stage at his events, and as he's worked the crowd afterward, those who come to hear him speak are reminded that they "can’t always get what [they] want" via one of more than half a dozen Rolling Stones songs in regular rotation, including the eyebrow-raising “Brown Sugar” and "Let's Spend the Night Together," the pill-popping anthem "Mother's Little Helper" and the patiently confident “Time Is On My Side.” (“Now, you always say that you want to be free. But…you'll come running back to me...”)
Sometimes Trump trail music has seemed intended to flatter. Sometimes it seems to mock. Other times, it hasn't been quite clear what it's trying to say; it's just clear no one's ever said it quite that way on the campaign trail before.
On occasion, a Trump event song has offered a sort of societal status report -- Led Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown,” for instance, or R.E.M’s “It’s the End of the World.” Audiences have also heard songs wielded like a sonic weapon or symphonic subtweet, messages that have appeared directed -- some subtly, others less so -- at opponents.
Last month, as Trump raised the issue of rival Ted Cruz’s Canadian birth and its possible impact on the Texas senator’s presidential effort, Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” was famously added to the lineup at a Reno rally. Before an event in South Carolina several weeks ago, an announcer reportedly dedicated a song to President Obama: “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
Some Trump songs are such stalwarts that anyone who attends even one of his rallies is almost certain to hear them multiple times. Other wild cards pop up briefly for a single night or two -- just long enough to leave reporters wondering how they appeared, and why, and whether they really could have been approved by the candidate himself. Trump's campaign won't comment on individual selections, saying only that the Republican front-runner picks the music that plays at his events.
A good chunk of Trump's rally songs, in grand trail tradition, skew to slightly older ears, and there are more than a few safe picks in the mix (“Hey Jude.” “Eye of the Tiger.” The occasional Kenny G-variety smooth jazz.) But there are also high-culture curveballs: for example, Trump may be the only U.S. presidential candidate in history whose campaign has regularly featured a Puccini aria, one that he has played everywhere from Las Vegas to Louisiana.
Before a Nevada rally ahead of the Republican debate in December, some members of a restive crowd booed the opening chords of "Nessun Dorma" -- only to grow still as Luciano Pavarotti's performance reached its peak. Most probably could not understand Turandot’s defiant Italian lyrics, but the melody left the campaign-relevant message unmistakable.
“Dilegua, o notte!," sang the tenor. "Tramontate, stelle! Tramontate, stelle! All'alba vincerò! Vincerò! Vincerò!” (Vanish, o night! Fade, you stars! Fade, you stars! At dawn, I will win! I will win! I will win!)
The song “taps into the emotion of the Trump phenomenon,” one commenter wrote on the conservative Free Republic message board a few weeks later. “And beautifully. Nessum Dorma is about winning, as is Donald Trump.”
Many campaign playlists are subject to one bitter trail tradition: the need to pull a song following a protest by an outraged artist on the other side of the political spectrum. Trump -- whose campaign has been defined by controversy -- has been no exception. Early on, R.E.M. and Aerosmith both insisted he stop using their music. He did. Neil Young’s complaint last summer over Trump's use of “Rockin’ in the Free World” was publicly dismissed by the campaign, which noted that it had purchased a blanket license entitling them to play the song at live events -- but it hasn't been in the rotation either. Even Twisted Sister's Dee Snider -- who originally gave his approval to the use of "We're not gonna take it" -- seemed to be publicly rethinking his decision as voting neared.
Recently, in what may have the roughest development yet, Adele asked Trump to stop using her tracks. For most of Trump's campaign, the British singer's voice has been a constant at virtually all his rallies, perpetually “Rolling In the Deep,” and bracing for the “Skyfall.” (“I know I’d never be me without the security of your loving arms keeping me from harm...”) The mogul is such a fan, he used a night off the campaign trail this fall to attend one of her concerts. But over the past few days, her music seems to have quietly disappeared from the playlist, at least for now.
Still, that playlist is long, and deletions have been relatively rare. So Trump's mostly conservative audiences this year have heard from Bruce Springsteen and John Lennon. Trump's "good friend" Elton John might now be sounding less than thrilled with his regular appearance in the lineup ("It's nothing personal," the singer told the Guardian around the Iowa caucuses, but "I’m not a Republican in a million years. Why not ask Ted f---ing Nugent?") -- but as of late last week, Trump audiences were still being serenaded with “Tiny Dancer” and “Rocket Man."
And there's been a consistent nod to New York values by way of the sweeping Broadway ballads of alienation, love and loss that play at nearly every Trump event: Fantine’s unrequited yearning in"On My Own," from "Les Miserables." The melancholy nostalgia of “Memory,” from Cats, as Grizabella recalls better days, complete with a spoken-word interlude about the magical rebirth of one lucky Jellicle cat. And, always, the "Phantom of the Opera" song “Music of the Night.”
If Trump really does select every song played at his rallies, some of them might come across as a wink of sorts -- perhaps a self-aware mogul poking fun at his public caricature. There was the time Travie McCoy’s “I want to be a Billionaire” and Calloway’s “I want to be rich” reportedly popped up at one event. The Rolling Stones' “Sympathy for the Devil” is a Trump trail standard: “Please allow me to introduce myself. I'm a man of wealth and taste,” Mick Jagger sings -- in Satan’s voice.
But even viewed through that frame, the Phantom's "Music" might still come across a bit off-key. The song features a man who seeks to impose his will on a world that has rejected him. Who tries to lure (or force) others to “open up your mind... in this darkness which you know you cannot fight” and calls on them to “let your darker side give in to the power of the music that I write.” Who boasts that, with the sound of his song, “the senses abandon their defenses, helpless to resist...”
“Close your eyes, for your eyes will only tell the truth, and the truth isn't what you want to see,” urges the Phantom. “In the dark it is easy to pretend that the truth is what it ought to be...”
To call this an atypical campaign music choice is to understate the live effect; its appearance in a political setting, ahead of a candidate's speech, seems to invite confused analysis and wild speculation. Some Trump attendees at a rally in Plymouth, N.H., earlier this month, asked for their interpretation of the pick, suggested it was intended as a parody of Trump critics’ takes. Others guessed it might be a sentimental selection or a personal favorite. A few said the confusion was the point or that it held no meaning at all.
The campaign, as always, won't elaborate on song choice, and Trump himself has never publicly clarified why he has chosen to share with his rally audiences a musical wish for listeners to embrace their dark sides and “belong to me...”
A few weeks ago, Trump used song lyrics to personally deliver a much clearer message: He warned of hidden dangers posed by refugees by way of his own dramatic live reading of the Al Wilson song “The Snake.” The Northern Soul classic tells the story of a soft-hearted woman who takes in a dying snake, only for the animal to fatally attack her as soon as it recovers. Peering over his reading glasses at a rally podium, Trump emphasized each syllable: “‘Oh shut up, silly woman,’ said the reptile with a grin. ‘You knew damned well I was a snake before you took me in!’”
If he's delivering a message with one of his recent favorites -- the Beatles' "Revolution" -- it's a far less unsettling one. “We all want to change the world,” sings John Lennon. “But when you talk about destruction, don't you know that you can count me out? Don't you know it's gonna be alright?” In a campaign year packed with sour notes, Trump's latest campaign song choice, at least, calls for harmony.
Jenna Johnson contributed to this report