Ballot boom: how can politicians use sound to win?

Whether its falling off paddle boards, engraving pledges into stone or channelling Gemma Collins on your TikTok account – a lot goes into political campaigning.

Yet, despite the debating and no matter your politics, there’s only one sound ringing in everyone’s ears ahead of 4 July, and – once again – it’s D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’…

But why has the track, initially used in Blair’s New Labour broadcast back in 1997, so encapsulated national sentiment, and what can politicians do to leverage sound more positively in their campaigns?

Sunak soaked: How the rain and the reign fell

As prime minister Rishi Sunak stood in the pouring rain, announcing that he was calling an early election despite floundering polls, the familiar song drowned out his speech, playing from a mobile speaker in the crowd.

Sunak’s voice, and with it his message, was lost. Head sunken and with not an umbrella in sight, the PM persevered, only for national headlines to chime “things can only get wetter”.

The man behind the sound stunt was anti-Brexit activist Steve Bray, who said his choice of music was down to the fact it was the perfect trolling anthem against the Conservatives – and from the broadsheets to TikTok it worked.

“The thing you actually heard was the soundtrack,” says co-founder of sonic branding agency DLMDD Max de Lucia. “That’s what resonated and remains in everyone’s mind. Afterwards, all I could hear in my head was the earworm!”

Likewise, co-founder and creative director at music and sound studio the Futz Butler, Paul Sumpter feels that while visuals bring the words of a message to life, sound can provide a more abstract, idealistic – but equally effective – take.

“It’s that connection between music and emotion that campaigns can really tap into,” he says.

On the New Labour anthem, Sumpter draws parallels between the emotions around austerity in the run up to the 1997 election and today, saying: “The mirror is very similar. If Labour are asking themselves what they should rail against, it’s that”.

How can politicians sound victory rather than defeat?

Exploring how politicians can seize the opportunity provided by sound rather than fall victim to its ring, DLMDD recently worked with audio testing company SoundOut to identify the best potential tracks for the competing leaders.

Using a combination of survey and sound matching technology, they found that ‘Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now’ and ‘Here Comes The Sun’ were the best choices for the Conservative leader.

Meanwhile, Starmer’s best options were David Bowie’s ‘Changes’, followed by ‘Take On Me’ by Norwegian synth pop band Aha.

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However, selecting the right song in real life is just the first hurdle – after all artists can be wary or even legalistic about being attached to a political movement. In the case of D:Ream, while Blair was a fan of the music and they happily obliged at the time, the band are certainly not keen to be associated with politics anymore (indeed, their first thought was “not again”).

In the UK, since New Labour, there are surprisingly few examples of politicians using songs as soundtracks. Aside from Theresa May notoriously jigging on stage to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ at the Conservative Party conference in 2018, it’s all been pretty quiet.

By contrast, US politicians have taken music in their stride, with Hillary Clinton tapping into Demi Lovato, Trump using the Rolling Stones ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ at campaign rallies (for which they threatened to sue) and Obama making use of Brooks and Dunn’s ‘Only In America’ in 2008.

De Lucia feels that this is ultimately down to the fact that Brits can be rather reserved when it comes to expressing their political views, something D:Ream can attest to.

“It’s not really the done thing to disclose your politics, is it? And I suppose putting your politics on the line for a musician is quite a big thing.”

Rally against the machine

Sumpter suggests both the success of the stunt and the wider hesitance of UK musicians to get involved are down to the irreverent nature of Brits.

“Music – like fashion – creates tribes and politics is very tribal. That is often as much about what you’re standing against than what you’re standing for,” he says.

On Matthew Wright’s LBC show last Saturday, listener suggestions about the song that best represented the Tory party ranged from the imperial march from Star Wars and ‘Barbarism Begins At Home’ by The Smiths to AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’. All more of a middle finger than an American smile.

From mods and rockers to punks and goths, British music is better known for raging against rather than for – and perhaps we’re used to that feeling relatable.

But being catchy is equally as important. Sumpter says good campaign music must have a memorable sports or national anthem-like quality. At the same time, to tap into the right tribe politicians need to keep their language simple, quickly and neatly summarising bigger ideas.

“Music has this indexability, so it signposts a bigger idea,” he adds. “There’s a common thread that the idea should be less than the length of a sentence.”

If there is one generation that loves both irreverence and quick symbolism, it’s Gen Z. Whether it’s the ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ song, or videos from the party’s own TikTok, political campaigners are missing an opportunity if they fail to cash in.

One Gen Z-minded social-first publisher, the The News Movement is well aware of how small snippets of content can be maximised.

“Not only did the D:Ream moment teach us a lot about the importance of checking the weather app before a big political moment, but also how important music can be to telling stories and staying memorable,” says editorial director Becca Hutson.

“Using trending sounds, popular music and artists in the music is a proxy way of demonstrating that you’re cool, of jumping to the top of search results and maybe prompting that all important ‘share’,” she continues.

In sports, while goals on the pitch are crucial, anthems will help carry a team forward by telling a story and cementing histories of glory and overcoming defeat, offering hope (take Arsenal’s ‘The Angel’).

It is the same with the TikTok algorithm and politics – and politicians could do well to tap into that.

As Hutson puts it, “Music for political campaigns might not sound important, but a mute campaign is just that. It doesn’t say a lot.”

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