WP Music Critic: Elton John Ballads, Billy Joel Doo-Wop Comprise ‘Authoritarian Hold Music’ at Trump Rallies

March 18th, 2016 11:01 AM

Did you realize Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” could be “weaponized” to instigate violence and that Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” was “authoritarian hold music” similar to Adolf Hitler? If not, then you just aren’t listening, man.

Washington Post music critic Chris Richards made the front page of the Style section with “And the Bland Played On.” The original online headline to the post was kookier: “Authoritarian hold music: How Donald Trump’s banal playlist cultivates danger at his rallies.” The essay reads more like an obscure blog post gone awry than somethhing worth of prominent play in a national newspaper:

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.

After claiming that “Trump’s rallies have become malignant assemblies where violence is not only tolerated, but encouraged without shame and practiced without remorse,” Richards located an ominous parallel in the rally's poisonous playlist, “a variety of benign rock songs played at unforgiving volumes.” The horror!

In such a paranoid piece, it’s no surprise Adolf Hitler made a cameo:

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.

Predictable, non-offensive selections, or insidious hymns to hatred? Richards knows.

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.

Whatever one thinks of Trump or his followers, Richards has stacked things so they can’t win. If the crowds get excited by the overly familiar tunes, he can bash them as easily-led, easily excited drones. If they are as bored as anyone else would be, then the songs become sinister, “authoritarian hold music.”

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.


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.

After Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl” circled around again:

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.

“U-S-A! U-S-A!”

So the music at Trump rallies is violent...and so is the lack of music Even if Trump wanted to mellow his harsh vibe, he apparently just can’t stop it.

Richards even helpfully compiled an enemies list---um--playlist--from the Trump rally. Besides those obvious instigators Billy Joel, Elton John, and the Shangri-La’s, the selections included Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Rolling Stones. The Stones remain faintly dangerous, but even the playlist selections are on the tame side. There’s no “Stray Cat Blues” or “Under My Thumb” to raise a legitimately “problematic” eyebrow, but the more gentle “Time Is On My Side” and “Heart of Stone."

Democrats were played a different tune. Back in May 2013, Richards sucked up to former Obama press secretary Jay Carney, talking to him about Carney’s favorite band, Guided by Voices.