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Rocking the Vote

Sometimes a presidential candidate’s most important running mate is his or her campaign song

By Erik Hage


As we head into the Pennsylvania presidential primary on Tuesday, it makes sense to think about an important but often overlooked element of the presidential race: the campaign song.

Choosing one is a far from a trivial matter for candidates, and political history is littered with tunes that we associate with great victories, from Bill Clinton’s use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” to “I’m Just Wild About Harry” (Truman), to FDR’s “Happy Days Are Here Again.” (The Clinton choice seems apropos on another level: If any presidency mirrored the inner-band dynamics of Fleetwood Mac, it’s Clinton’s.)

A campaign song is meant to inspire voters, work crowds into a frenzy and associate a message with the candidate. If there is one sure way to capture the imagination of America, it is through music, which remains an insidiously influential medium.

This is why a bad choice of song can spell trouble. Barack Obama has primarily been using Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” among other tunes—an inspired choice, as long as you don’t listen too closely to all of the lyrics (e.g. “unwrap me baby” and “I’ve done a lot of foolish things”). But for Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection bid, staffers chose “Born in the U.S.A.” a song about a Vietnam vet who got screwed over by his country; Bruce Springsteen himself condemned the choice.

In January 2007, as Gerald Ford was laid to rest, PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer ended its tribute to the former president by remembering his 1976 campaign. Ford was 33 points behind in the general election that year with only 10 weeks to go. Then he whipped out the song “I’m Feeling Good About America,” written by a San Francisco ad-man, and launched a TV campaign around it.

“It worked . . . a switch of 11,000 votes in two states!” exclaimed analyst Mark Shields on the program. “Forget about Harry Truman. It was just an amazing comeback.”

Fellow commentator David Brooks emphatically pointed out, “This is eight years after Woodstock. . . . This is about the time of John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever. They’re running a song that sounds like it’s 1932, and that is harkening back to something else. And that’s a powerful cultural message, even the guitar. You take away the words; just the guitar alone is powerful.”

The message here is that Ford’s incredulously bad campaign (remember “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe”?) was sparked to life by a sentiment in a song. Jimmy Carter won, but with only 50.1 percent of the popular vote.

But there is a subtext here, and that is the shaky relationship between pop music and politics. (Two words: Tipper Gore.) Ford cut against the pop zeitgeist, but recent candidates insist on turning to pop and rock music, the risk being that a bad choice can expose just how stiff and out-of-touch with popular culture a candidate is.

Consider Hillary Clinton: She put it out to her supporters to choose a song for her, hosting a monthlong online contest. Celine Dion’s “You and I” won, and Clinton dutifully adopted the ditty. But then her campaign seemed to have a dawning realization that Celine Dion just might not be a good idea—perhaps buying a clue from the Huffington Post, which called it the worst campaign song of all time.

That would make it worse than the spooky John Quincy Adams dirge “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming,” 1964’s “Hello, Lyndon [a.k.a. Dolly]” or even “Get on a Raft with Taft” (reassuring, that last one is).

Subsequently, the Hillary campaign phased Celine out by using the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does is Magic,” Springsteen’s “The Rising,” and forgotten ’90s band Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ “Blue Sky.” But one can only assume that many voters want a president who is in touch enough with culture to know—and to know immediately and unequivocally—that Celine Dion sucks.

The Republicans have had an even tougher time of it: Tom Scholz of the band Boston scorned former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for using “More Than a Feeling” in his failed bid for the nomination, while John Mellencamp gave a similar thumping to eventual nominee John McCain for his adoption of “Our Country.” Both candidates relented.

In 2000, George W. Bush raised the ire of Tom Petty for using “I Won’t Back Down” to get the crowds going. Dubya was forced to turn to Hannah Montana dad Billy Ray Cyrus for “We the People.” (And remember when Bush Sr. used “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in 1988? Now that was some crazy shit.)

For 2004, W. turned to Orleans’ “Still the One”—oops, cock-blocked again: Former Orleans songwriter John Hall happens to be a Democrat, and a pissed-off one at that. (Perhaps that’s what sparked his successful 2006 congressional run.)

So what does it all mean? For one, since Republican candidates seem intent on proving their conservative cred, they shouldn’t use pop or rock music at all. Preferably, McCain should use something with more gravity, like “Finlandia” by Sibelius or something by Wagner—but then again, since a Republican candidate now has to also establish anti-immigration cred, tunes by a Fin or German are probably a bad idea. (“La Bamba” is way out.) And don’t even try R&B.

Hillary can probably squeak by with her revolving jukebox of choices; most of America has terrible taste anyway. But why not have some fun? “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” perhaps? Maybe Bill can have his own stumping song—“Double Shot of My Baby’s Love,” by the Swinging Medallions.

Obviously, the one candidate who can pull it off is Obama. With nearly 800,000 friends on his Facebook page (McCain: about 111,000) and a YouTube hit in “Yes We Can” by Black Eyed Peas’ (an unsolicited song, by the way), he seems the candidate most attuned to the windsock of pop culture. And pop culture and mass media, for better or worse, still dominate young people’s lives.

Here’s a man who can speak credibly about economic policy and Beyoncé. Does that really matter? I’m not so sure, but with plenty of young voters queuing up during a high-stakes campaign, I’m not so quick to say that it doesn’t.

And every song that I’ve heard Obama leap on stage to—from U2 to Jay-Z to the Isley Brothers—bespeaks, if nothing else, a campaign of impeccable musical taste.

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