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.
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.)
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.
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
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
. . . 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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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’ will.i.am
(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
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.
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.