New Campaign Aesthetics and the Sound of Populism

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the DIY Aesthetic

On June 26, 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for NY-14, a congressional district that includes parts of Queens and the Bronx. The victory was seen as both a major coup and a sign of deep divisions between the Democratic Party’s progressive/socialist and centrist wings. While Ocasio-Cortez’s brief adult life (she is only 28) has involved social justice work, she learned the campaigning strategies that carried her to victory while volunteering for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Her campaign was outspent nearly 17-1 by Crowley’s and her shoe-string budget is clearly reflected in the sounds of her ads. Digital technology makes it increasingly easy to produce a slick product on a budget, but Ocasio-Cortez, like Sanders, adopted a unique DIY aesthetic that includes ambient noise, simple background music, and multi-lingualism. The deployment of DIY audio-visual aesthetic techniques serves to humanize the candidate and connect them with the viewer, making them appear accessible and relatable, distanced from the high-budget products associated with campaigns. It also harkens back to a period in popular music history when DIY production became an aesthetic that was tethered to oppositional stances (groomed in underground clubs, basement shows, and home recording) and later deployed by recording studios that intentionally replicated the gritty, noisy DIY sound.

The music in the background of “See What’s Possible” is simple: a slow-paced electric piano with an added string patch that combines ethereal chords with serene, repetitive right-hand melodic figures. The ad opens with scenes of (assumed) labor: an older Latina riding the subway, a shop floor, and the lifting of a metal grate from a store front. Interspersed in these images is a close-up of a supporter hand-making an Ocasio-Cortez sign. Each of these brief shots includes diegetic sound—rumbling, shuffling, clattering, and coloring. Following this atmospheric introduction, the people in the ad tell their stories—labor, immigration, family, and connections to NY-14, including portions in Spanish and Arabic (with bi-lingual subtitles). Through scenes of everyday work and domestic life, the ad portrays the glory and hardships of the American dream for New York’s diverse working-class communities. Ocasio-Cortez is not pictured until two minutes into the two and a half minute spot. Her voice is not heard until the final ten seconds when she says “This campaign is about what we can accomplish together,” a phrase reminiscent of Bernie Sanders’ “Together” ad (which was donated to the campaign by non-profit media company Human).

For observers of the recent progressive populist wave in US politics, the aesthetics of this ad are familiar. Sanders’ ads like “It’s a Revolution,” “Make History,” and “Together” use similar sound-images and editing techniques. These include using ambient diegetic sound to set place, including diverse subjects, and simple musical accompaniment that highlights voices and diegetic sounds. All of these emphasize direct communication and mythic connotations of labor, immigration, community, and diversity. All of this is wrapped in the patina of low-tech production, as opposed to the typical Madison-Avenue fare of political campaign ads. Just as DIY music production moved from being a mode of production to an aesthetic that indexed critical political stances, do Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s advertising aesthetics index a similar opposition that is bubbling below the surface or is this just another style of campaigning?

(Originally published in the SAM Bulletin, Fall 2018)

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Author: jupatch

Justin Patch is assistant professor of music at Vassar College, where he is also affiliated with Asian Studies, Media Studies, and American Studies. His work investigates the role of sound in social life and has appeared in Soundings, Journal of Sonic Studies, Ethnomusicology Review, The European Legacy, The Journal of Popular Music Studies, and others. Discordant Democracy: Noise, Affect, and Populism in the Presidential Campaign was published by Routledge in 2018.