Lately I’ve been thinking about what goes into a good campaign slogan, chant, or epithet. This post focuses on chants.
The Trump campaign birthed vastly more memorable chants than the Clinton campaign:
“Lock her up. Lock her up.”
“Build the wall. Build the wall.”
“Drain the swamp. Drain the swamp”
Despite following her campaign avidly and voting for her, I cannot recall a single chant from Hillary’s campaign. A quick perusal of “Hillary Clinton Campaign Chant” on google points to a far less impressive offering:
And the obvious: “Hill-a-ry, Hill-a-ry”.
I am positive that I heard these chants while watching the rallies, but I do not remember them.
What makes a chant memorable?
In the spirit of the set of rules cited in “Justin Timberlake Has a Cold” from Issue 20 of N+1 , I think it is worth writing down a few rules for composing a good, memorable chant. These are the tenets of chantability.
1.) An effective chant must contain fewer than 4 syllables.
It needs to fit into a 2 or 4-beat bar that is repeated. All of the chants listed above satisfy this criteria. Triple-meter chants are non-starters, for reasons that I hope are waltzingly obvious.
As an example of a chant that falls outside of Rule 1.), I can recall walking by a few rallies near the Trump tower in NYC. I could hear clearly the “Not My President” chant in action. Because this chant is 5 syllables long, it requires the added complexity of 2 repetitions before you can nod your head to it:
“Not – my – pres-i – dent, NotMy – Presi – Dent!”
(I have all intentions of writing this down on a staff consisting of 2 bars in 4/4 meter, but I hope you can get the sound of it — Pres-i is a dotted eigth/sixteenth type figure).
Don’t get me wrong — when I hear that chant, I want to get up and dance (and throw in a Lil Jon “WHAT?” at the end, or even “OKAYE!”). But this impulse is distracting from the message. The chant is too inventive, rhythmically. These protesters would have a stronger message if they had stuck to 2 or 3 syllables:
“Re – ject – Trump. (breath). Re – ject – Trump (Breath)” (4/4 bars, 3 syllables)
“Trump Sucks Trump Sucks Trump Sucks” (2/4 bars, 2 syllables).
Keeping the entire chant to 3 syllables or less allows it to bore deeper into our brains. Time dilutes every message.
2) An effective chant must contain a verb.
This is the primary place that Hillary’s chants fall short. “Hillary, Hillary, Hillary” is simple, but it has no action, no verb. The same goes for “USA, USA”.
Trump’s chants, on the other hand, employ very colorful verbs in spades* : “drain”, “lock”. You could even make the argument that the verbs are strong enough that they could fully signify their corresponding 3-syllable slogans ALONE, as single words:
“Drain! Drain! Drain! Drain”
“Lock! Lock! Lock!” (though this one is a bit weaker than “Drain”, in my opinion).
While “I’m with her” technically HAS a verb (to be), its strength is diluted by:
a). The fact that it is contracted into the WORST of all subjects, from a political perspective, “I”. Individuals don’t win elections. WE win elections by STAMPING OUT THE OTHER GUY.
b). The verb “to be”, which, as we’ve all been taught, is the root of all weak, passively-constructed evils in writing. Ick. “Hillary WAS accompanied by her supporters.” “The debates WERE won by Hillary.” “I AM supporting her.”
Here are some better chants:
“We – Want – Her.”
“Yank – the – Tou – pée”
“Fi – re – Trump”
3) An effective chant must employ vowel phonemes in a recognizable way.
This one is more complicated, but the general idea is that you want your chant to be somewhat recognizable even if all the consonants were stripped away. For instance, you could argue that the “Fire Trump” chant above would be better and more humorously shortened to the two-syllable “Dump Trump”. Chanting this in a crowd, however, is problematic. As was famously documented in the Simpsons, what people hear can depend heavily on the acoustics and the size of the crowd and/or what kind of microphone is being used to create the youtube video that gets uploaded. “Dump Trump” could easily become “Trump! Trump!”. Despite it missing a verb, “U-S-A” is a fantastic arena chant because it has only a single bona-fide consonant sound, and three distinct vowel sounds — “oo”, “eh”, and “ay” (as in “say”). This is probably the only criteria by which the Trump slogans fail, with “Build the Wall” being the most flagrant failure, combining three very similar vowel sounds.
I can’t think of one right now, but a slogan that employed the vowel sounds “ee”, “ah”, and “oo” in that order would be very effective, as the distance, phoneme-wise, between each successive vowel is enormous.
Perhaps “Pee – On – You” works? **