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Republicans are from Nashville, Democrats are from Funkytown

July 11, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • Then President-elect Bill Clinton joins Michael Jackson and Stevie Nicks during a performance of Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" -- a theme song of the Clinton-Gore campaign -- during a presidential inaugural event in January 1993.
Then President-elect Bill Clinton joins Michael Jackson and Stevie Nicks… (Associated Press )

It's a familiar stereotype: Country-music fans are Republicans; pop and hip-hop listeners are Democrats. Well, according to a new analysis by the Echo Nest, those stereotypes happen to strike pretty close to the truth.

The Echo Nest, whose platform powers the customized webcasts at Spotify and iHeartRadio, among other sites, uses sophisticated analytical tools to categorize songs for the sake of generating compelling playlists. It also has been developing (anonymized) "taste profiles" of listeners based on their use of those sites and the feedback they provide.

The company recently looked at those profiles to see if there was any correlation between political affiliation and listening habits. Its chief technologist, Brian Whitman, put it this way in a blog post Thursday morning: "Can we tell if someone is a Republican just from his or her iTunes collection? And if so, which artists are the key 'tells' for both sides?"

As it happens, many of the profiles included information volunteered by the users about the politicians they supported. The company took the profiles with unambiguous party affiliations, then fed half of them into its "statistical machine learning classifiers" to try to come up with a model for identifying Republicans and Democrats from their taste profiles alone.

What it found, Whitman wrote, was that the profiles' data about favorite musical properties -- more than just the names of a listener's favorite artists and songs -- provided good clues to party affiliation. This was especially true for Republicans, who tend to listen to fewer types of music than Democrats.

Sadly, Whitman offered no insights as to why the correlation exists. It could be as simple as geography; rural and Southern states, which are filled with country fans, tend to vote Republican, while urban areas are hotbeds of hip-hop, rap -- and Democrats. Demographics play a role too, no doubt. But based on Whitman's blog post, the company apparently didn't try to plumb its data for more revealing hints about why fans of different genres line up the way they do, politically.

The company did come up with a list of 20 artists most closely associated with one or the other party -- in other words, artists whose fans were more likely to be predominantly Republicans or predominantly Democrats. For the GOP:

  1. Kenny Chesney
  2. George Strait
  3. Reba McEntire
  4. Tim McGraw
  5. Jason Aldean
  6. Blake Shelton
  7. Shania Twain
  8. Kelly Clarkson
  9. Pink Floyd
  10. Elvis Presley

You'll notice that the top seven are contemporary country artists. If you have an explanation for the band in ninth place on the list, I'd like to hear it.

For Democrats:

  1. Rihanna
  2. Jay-Z
  3. Madonna
  4. Lady Gaga
  5. Katy Perry
  6. Snoop Dogg
  7. Chris Brown
  8. Usher
  9. Eminem
  10. Bob Marley

The top nine include rap, hip-hop and dance acts, but all are fixtures at the top of the pop music charts. Driving this point home, Whitman said he took the Billboard Top 10 artists and ran them through his predictor, and found that the list skewed strongly Democratic. "If only people [who] buy singles in music stores vote this November, it will be a complete Obama landslide," he wrote.

The company's profiles also showed that at least 10 artists had roughly equal numbers of fans in both political camps:

  1. The Beatles
  2. Marilyn Manson
  3. The Rolling Stones
  4. Johnny Cash
  5. Pantera
  6. Alice in Chains
  7. Paradise Lost
  8. Moonspell
  9. Fleetwood Mac
  10. Tiamat

OK, the Beatles and the Stones make sense. But who knew that the world of headbangers would be so diverse?

For the Echo Nest, the hunt for correlation between profiles and politics was just a lark. You can expect the company to try to mine its data for something more meaningful (and monetizable) in the future.

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