More than any other art form, American popular music reflects our society. Films usually take two years from greenlight to theatrical release, but music has always proven nimble enough to both mirror the times and potentially help shape them too — especially among youth. How did Barack Obama’s presidency influence the songs constituting the soundtrack of an era, and how might Donald Trump’s presidency alter music’s course? Here are five ways, ranging from changes in musical tempos to the types of artists who might top the Billboard Hot 100.
1. A decline, then possible resurgence, of protest and “message” songs.
The 1960s and 1970s famously produced a catalog of iconic songs of protest with political or social messages. That trend even continued, albeit significantly diminished, into the mid-2000s: “American Idiot” by Green Day, “Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer, “Not Ready to Make Nice” by the Dixie Chicks. Yet Obama’s era produced virtually no high-charting songs of the sort.
Why not? Perhaps it’s a reflection of an increasingly corporatized music business hesitant to stick its neck out absent mass public support. Maybe the vast majority within a left-leaning arts community supported the Democratic president, almost eliminating a desire for rebellious songs. And at least during 2015-16, many dismissed Trump — a possible inspiration for protest or message songs — as a fringe anomaly destined to fail, right up until Election Day.
With Trump’s election, those factors would no longer hold in 2017. The near-demise of high-charting protest or message songs in the past decade could reverse next year, perhaps even at a level unseen since the early 1970s.
2. Happier and faster songs.
A researcher at New York University compiling decades of data discovered that a better economy, as indicated by a higher stock market, correlates with Billboard high-charting songs displaying slower average tempos and minor chords typically considered “sadder.” And vice versa: a worse economy correlates with faster average tempos and major chords. So according to this researcher, when times are economically bad, people want to hear speedier songs with “happier” chords; but when times are economically good, people are more willing to tolerate sadder or slower songs.
While it’s too early to determine conclusively how the economy will perform for the majority of the Trump presidency, early signs have been positive, as the stock market improved and unemployment remains low. If this holds up, expect sadder and slower hit songs under Trump.
However, most nonpartisan economists comparing the two candidates’ economic proposals determined that Trump’s would create lower wages, fewer jobs, lower GDP, and greater debt than Hillary Clinton’s would have. If those predictions hold up in the long run, expect happier and faster hit songs under Trump. Only time will tell if the economists prove prophetic or if Trump’s economic promises prove accurate.
3. Foreign-born artists topping American charts.
2015-16 saw a record 41 consecutive weeks where Billboard’s top Hot 100 song was by a non-American artist or group. This included Justin Bieber, Drake and The Weeknd from Canada, Adele and Zayn from the United Kingdom, and Rihanna from Barbados. One way millennials may quietly reject perceived xenophobia and strident nationalism is to be attracted to more foreign born chart-toppers. Perhaps we should expect more foreign born chart-toppers in the Trump presidency.
4. Lyrics about saving money.
2013’s “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis featuring Wanz, 2013’s “Royals” by Lorde, and this summer’s “Cheap Thrills” by Sia featuring Sean Paul were all Billboard No. 1 hits extolling the virtues of minimal financial spending and bargain hunting. A more recent No. 1 Hot 100 hit was “Closer” by The Chainsmokers featuring Halsey, whose chorus included the lyrics, “So baby, pull me closer/In the back seat of your Rover/That I know you can’t afford.”
That’s a far cry from the No. 1 song in early September 2008, the week before the financial crisis hit in earnest, creating the deepest recession since the Great Depression: “Whatever You Like” by T.I., a rap bragging of his unlimited cash funds allowing him to purchase his girlfriend “whatever you like.” Emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. America apparently did the same.
This trend of bragging about frugality over extravagance will likely continue under Trump, regardless of whether the economy tanks or soars under his leadership. After all, the newly-popular lyrical theme of saving money continued throughout the gradually improving economic conditions of Obama’s presidency too.
5. Less — perhaps zero — modern music in the White House.
Obama appreciates contemporary popular music at a level matched by no prior president. He referenced Kanye West’s album title My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in a speech. He walked to the podium at the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner shortly after his reelection to the rap song “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled, and at this year’s dinner to the repeated line “You’re gonna miss me when I’m gone” from “Cups” by Anna Kendrick. The First Lady even sang along with James Corden to “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé for Carpool Karaoke.
It’s impossible to imagine Trump doing any of that. He told Rolling Stone his favorite music acts were Paul McCartney, Elton John, and Aerosmith. All great acts, true, but also all at their peaks in the 1960s through 1980s. It’s impossible to envision Trump proclaiming his favorite song of the year as “How Much a Dollar Cost” by Kendrick Lamar, an album track detailing the plight of the urban poor, as President Obama did in People Magazine last year.
Obama was elected and reelected on the campaign slogans “Change” and “Forward.” Trump’s slogans reflect a rewinding of the clock, with his “Make America Great Again” slogan accompanied by supporters’ chants of “take our country back.” Yet in some respects, it may be Trump’s presidency that propels more change — at least when it comes to popular music.