Earlier this week, the New York Times posed a question: “What Do Rally Playlists Say About the Candidates?” The answer, as always, is nothing. This is politics as Tinder profile, and they tell us far more about the 2020 presidential hopefuls’ strategists than the candidates themselves. One could probably argue that it’s this dunderheaded focus on “optics” and “relatability” that’s turned the entire process into a glorified homecoming court. At most, all they tell us is that every campaign could stand to lay off Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” for a while.
While their song choices don’t tell us much about all our would-be presidents themselves, they do provide a clear picture of the image they’re trying to project. Elizabeth Warren’s selection of Motown oldies and arrhythmic clap-alongs like the Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)” seems aimed at as broad a base as possible to counteract any perceived wonkishness. Slipping Bleachers and The 1975 into Joe Biden’s repertoire suggests his campaign is taking pains to overcome the idea that he’s old and out of touch. (Reporters, please ask Joe his favorite Moon Taxi song.) Kamala Harris goes deep on hip-hop and R&B, name-checking heavy hitters from A Tribe Called Quest to Migos, while Kirsten Gillibrand stakes her claim on the empowered pop that Alicia Keys and Lady Gaga once threw behind Hillary Clinton—although both Harris and Gillibrand will have to tussle over Beyoncé with Cory Booker. Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders apparently had his staff search Spotify for every song with “revolution” in the title.
When it comes to music as a branding tool, no one is more practiced—or prolific—than Beto O’Rourke. Rarely does a profile go by without mention of the 46-year-old former congressman’s “punk rock bona fides,” usually with an aside about his years playing in the El Paso band Foss. During his 2018 Senate campaign, he quietly released a Spotify playlist titled “BBQ for Beto,” a six-hour, 98-track marathon hangout that peppered in Hüsker Dü and Rites of Spring between Beatles standards. In his car, O’Rourke air drummed to The Who and big-upped Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes, and in debates, he insulted Ted Cruz by quoting The Clash.
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O’Rourke’s musical tastes are inextricable from his persona as a (relatively) young upstart looking to stick it to The Man, albeit by becoming him. It’s no surprise that his Times playlist includes the addendum that “his staff noted he curated [it] himself.” As expected, it’s a mix of his established favorites like GBV and The Replacements; Punk 101 from the Clash and the Ramones; rockin’ Boomer bait by the Rolling Stones and Cheap Trick; and a smattering of ‘Holy shit, a presidential candidate just mentioned The Minutemen, Mission Of Burma, and Reigning Sound.’ (Take that, Kirsten Gillibrand’s surprising inclusion of Le Tigre!) If 40-something guys who squeeze their beer bellies into fraying, medium-sized Minor Threat T-shirts decided the election, he’d be a shoo-in.
But there’s another image O’Rourke must adopt now that he’s officially on a national stage: he’s representing Texas now, and as such he must do right by its rich musical history or risk voters mistaking him for some . . . Midwesterner. And while his own tastes tend to run toward brash British Invasion-esque guitar pop and D.C.-bred punk, he’s made a respectable effort to pay homage to his home state here. Beto can’t lay the sole claim to using Willie Nelson or Steve Earle—Bernie Sanders plays them both at his rallies—but at least he opted for true fan favorite “Whiskey River” over Sanders’s predictable “On the Road Again.” And he dove into Janis Joplin’s Pearl tour de force “Get It While You Can” rather than another run through “Me and Bobby McGee.”
When it comes to deep Texas cuts, it also doesn’t get any more authentic than psych-rockers the Sir Douglas Quintet, whose “Texas Me” Beto included in spite of the lyrics, where Doug Sahm mourns the loss of his sense of state and self while out chasing bigger dreams (that could be read as autobiographical, if you were so inclined). And O’Rourke is hip to Texas music from the past quarter-century as well, featuring songs by Spoon, Khalid, and Leon Bridges, and even using his increased profile to introduce the nation to tunes by his old bandmates, Fragile Gang. If his White House bid doesn’t pan out, at least O’Rourke can take pride in knowing he did more than any other candidate to educate Americans on the El Paso music scene.
O’Rourke’s fellow Texan in this crowded race, Julián Castro, doesn’t have Beto’s musical acumen. In fact, he’s admitted that music was the only class he failed in high school. While this in itself isn’t disqualifying, it does leave Castro with a cultural gap that he has at times struggled to close. In a 2016 interview with Billboard, for example—one that’s already embarrassing to read now, for obvious reasons—the former San Antonio mayor joked that his aides warned him not to divulge his musical tastes, seeing as they’re “prosaic” and seemingly calculated, for crossover-appeal artists like Billy Joel and Bon Jovi. Including ranchera legend Vicente Fernández (whose songs Castro says he knows “by heart”) here was the only thing that hinted at investment on Castro’s part—or personality. In a race that has seen O’Rourke and Castro playfully sniping over which of them is, in fact, “the other Texan,” it’s worth noting that Castro named only one Texas artist, Selena, among his favorites. Until Pete Buttigieg took it, his walk-on song was “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco, for god’s sake.
Does Castro attempt to rectify any of that with his playlist? Not really. Among the Dems, he comes in for arguably the worst drubbing from the Times’ critics, who snark that his random hodgepodge of tunes by Imagine Dragons and Florence + The Machine “reflect the studious dullness of someone who learns about new records from supermarket speakers.” To his credit, Castro now takes the podium to Selena’s “Baila Esta Cumbia,” and he includes Spanish-language tracks by Gloria Estefan and Calle 13 on his list. Beyond that, it’s a rather milquetoast buffet of creaky classic protest rock (Tracy Chapman’s version of “The Times They Are a-Changin” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” presumably picked up at John Kerry’s estate sale); randomly shuffled electro-pop by Santigold; and a bizarre Hamilton/Dear Evan Hansen mashup. If medleys of Broadway showtunes don’t get your Texan juices flowing, you’ll probably be even less enthused by Castro’s obligatory nods to country, limited to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” and Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.” The latter happens to be Elizabeth Warren’s theme song as well.
Should any of this matter? Again, no. This is popcorn politics, to be mindlessly chewed on in these ludicrous early days of the Democratic primaries, before we get down to more pressing and terrifying debates than which candidate made the better mixtape. But when it comes to deciding whose rally you’d rather be stuck at, for many Texan music fans, O’Rourke has emerged as the frontrunner.