Local Current Blog

Minnesota music is in the mix as 2020 candidates fire up their campaign playlists

When Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) announced her presidential candidacy this past winter in Minneapolis, she played a Dessa song to amp up the crowd. (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Before a presidential candidate steps onto stage or opens their mouth, a playlist can communicate the candidate’s persona, their values, and who they’re trying to reach. Is what’s blaring over a sound system for rally-goers waiting for hours, rain or shine, an old song or a new release? Is it a deep cut or a popular anthem? These questions are often mulled over by political onlookers from data scientists to pop culture writers.

A recent New York Times report parsed themes in the rally playlists of nine Democratic frontrunners (and President Trump), taking into account gender, race, era, and genre of the featured musical acts. For example, Congressman Beto O’Rourke and Senator Bernie Sanders play majority male artists (94% and 93% respectively); Senator Kamala Harris’s playlist comprises almost entirely black and Latinx artists; and Senator Elizabeth Warren plays a lot of vintage jams from the 1990s and earlier.

Back in June, 19 Democratic candidates converged for the first time at the Iowa Democrats’ Hall of Fame dinner where they introduced themselves to party figures. Each candidate had only five minutes to speak, and like at a baseball game, they got to choose their own walk-up music; the selections were quickly interpreted by a number of media outlets.

Two Minnesota artists got play during those initial walk-ups. Kristen Gillibrand, who has since dropped out of the race but built a campaign around women’s rights, treated politicians to Lizzo’s “Good As Hell.” The song became a signature at her rallies throughout the summer.

Representing for her home state, Senator Amy Klobuchar stepped on stage to Dessa’s “The Bullpen,” featuring the lyrics “It’s been assumed I’m soft or irrelevant/ ‘Cause I refuse to down play my intelligence/ But in a room of thugs and rap veterans/ Why am I the only one/ Who’s acting like a gentleman.” Klobuchar’s selection garnered her kudos from Elle and Slate. “Klobuchar coming through with the hot verses from a great female MC. I’m undone!” wrote Elle’s R. Eric Thomas.

Klobuchar’s playlist was not included in the aforementioned NYT piece, but among those that were, one candidate emerges at the king of Minnesota music plays. Texan Beto O’Rourke has played a total of three Minnesota-connected artists, with selections including Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry,” and two Replacements numbers including “Can’t Hardly Wait” and “Left Of the Dial.”

O’Rourke was in a punk band himself growing up, which explains his campaign’s heavy use of classic and alternative rock numbers. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll ever again see a bigger Replacements fan on a major ticket than 2016 vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine, who’s gone so far as to jam with Tommy Stinson.

Harris — who plays many funk and soul hits at rallies — blasts Prince’s “Kiss.” Senator Cory Booker and Mayor Pete Buttigieg join Gillibrand in Lizzoland on the “Good As Hell” train.

Maybe Lizzo should just run for president herself. Three candidates released official Spotify playlists for their campaigns — Harris, Buttigieg, and Gillibrand — and only two artists overlapped on all three playlists: Aretha Franklin and Lizzo, who had the most songs featured overall. That makes four political playlists now that have featured Lizzo, including Barack Obama’s annual summer mix.

(Obama is a noted Prince fan. In 2015, President Obama released a playlist that featured the then relatively unknown Philadelphia band Low Cut Connie. As a result, the band’s lead singer visited the White House and later told Bill DeVille in The Current’s studio how he spied a then-unseen image of Prince performing while the Obamas grooved on stage. The photo has since come out in a book by White House photographer Pete Souza.)

Donald Trump is also apparently a Prince fan, but after “Purple Rain” played at a Trump event, the late artist’s estate asked that the song be removed from that particular presidential playlist.

Some artists choose to bow out of the ring altogether. At both the Iowa dinner and throughout her campaign, Elizabeth Warren greets supporters to Dolly Parton’s iconic “9 to 5,” a nod to her campaign’s populist approach. Parton, however, disapproves of all political use of her music. “We did not approve the request, and we do not approve requests like this of (a) political nature,” Parton’s manager told the Associated Press.