The Politic Melodic: A Campaign Song History
In ways that grow more important by the day, the 1972 presidential contest between incumbent Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat George McGovern has dictated the tone, style and execution of every election since. It birthed the modern-day primary format; it defined and honed the press ‘approach to all political coverage; it featured the most effective use of the presidency itself as a campaign asset; and, finally, even in defeat, McGovern’s campaign dramatically shifted every campaign’s approach to “the ground game,” as it is often called. Oh and yeah, 1972 brought us some Watergate thing, too.
There is another way, though, that ’72 changed the way we look at campaigns, this one by far the least important, but from our perspective the most interesting of all. The McGovern campaign marked the first instance in presidential politics that a pop song was used as a major party candidate’s campaign theme song. Before ’72 — and in rare instances since — campaign songs were vanity ditties written by overzealous campaign staffers or voters, the sorts of things that all parties involved should have felt embarrassed by. Just peruse Oscar Brand‘s excellent Presidential Campaign Songs: 1789-1996 release for Smithsonian Folkways — re-recordings of the themes to 41 of the winning presidential campaigns to date (the record was released in 1999).
Through that album, we learn that voters were once dubiously implored to “Get on a Raft With Taft,” and that Benjamin Harrison modestly bragged of himself, “He’s All Right” (that passed for a great pun in 1888 politics). By and large, they are (comparatively) witty rejoinders about policy (“Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Back Again” declares, “Since Roosevelt’s been reelected/ Shine liquor’s been corrected”) and maybe some biographical information as well. In short, these were not means for inspiration; instead, these essentially served as campaign advertisements. After all, should his special tune have happened to go viral in 1808, it was awfully important that James Madison stay on-message with the talking point, “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah.”
That was then. Ever since, campaign theme songs have grown in their symbolic importance, and must strike an often uncomfortable balance between relevance to the candidate himself and what perception the candidate wants to convey to potential voters. (When it comes to campaign songs, “the base” is irrelevant. Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination in 2008 the moment she asked her supporters to name her tune in a kitschy web video. They chose Celine Dion’s “You and I.”) There are numerous examples of this. Most recently, consider the song that the Barack Obama campaign chose to close the Democratic Convention: Brooks & Dunn’s “Only In America” — which was George W. Bush’s campaign song in 2004. Is that change you can believe in? Of course, the campaign wanted to reach a demographic that, say, the pre-acceptance speech pick of the National‘s “Fake Empire” — also used in an Obama TV commercial — might not, but for a campaign whose mantra is “12 more years,” it’s bold, to put it kindly.
As has been well-documented to the point of clichÃ©, Democrats have a much easier go with finding campaign songs, both thematically (there aren’t many songs about tax cuts or smaller government) and symbolically. And by symbolically we mean getting permission. Legally the campaigns do not need permission to play a song at rallies, however the frequent protests by artists unhappy with their implicit endorsements can be embarrassing. This year alone, the McCain campaign has had to deflect self-righteous press releases from Heart, Jackson Browne, Van Halen, Abba and the Foo Fighters, among others. To find a more hospitable audience, the McCain team might want to look country (music) first.
McCain’s trouble finding willing musical partners is not a new one, of course. In 1984, Ronald Reagan was infamously asked to stop using “Born in the USA,” whose critical message was being distorted by its usage, in Bruce Springsteen’s eyes. (Forgotten in that story is that Reagan’s opponent, Walter Mondale, used “Gonna Fly Now,” aka “The Rocky Theme.”) And in 1988, George H.W. Bush countered Michael Dukakis ‘pick of Neil Diamond’s “America” with Woody Guthrie‘s populist and even socialist classic “This Land Is Your Land.” In retrospect maybe that wasn’t such a bad choice, since the first Bush was so focused on foreign policy: “This land is yours to deal with. I got dibs on the rest of the world.”
Even when Obama picked Brooks & Dunn — noted conservatives — for this year’s DNC, the country music stars ‘reaction was muted and savvy: “Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now,” they said. “Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.” Nicely spun!
Ever since Will.I.Am.‘s “Yes We Can” video and the unadvised sequel “We Are the Ones,” Obama has been seen as the music candidate, even more so than Bill Clinton playing the saxophone or Bobby Kennedy palling around with folk singers. He’s talked several times about what’s on his iPod (“Everything from Frank Sinatra to Jay-Z” is his canny response), he’s had the Decemberists and the Arcade Fire open at his rallies and there are currently 39 songs and 23 albums already on eMusic written in tribute to the man. So, considering all of this, why is it that his official campaign soundtrack, Yes We Can: Voices of a Grassroots Movement, is so terrible? Corny, contrived, maudlin… you name it. There are worse ways to spend $24.99, but in terms of music, not many.
So let us shift our attention, then, to the most surprising musical revelation of the campaign — and no, I don’t mean Hillary Clinton advisor Howard Wolfson’s indie rock blog. No, that would be the emergence of Meghan McCain — daughter of John and Cindy — as a one-woman Pitchfork.
At McCainBlogette , Meghan regularly updates a section of the site with a playlist of favorite songs — and her taste is actually pretty great. In September she touted Au Revoir Simone, Asobi Seksu, Klaxons, All-Time Quarterback and the Shout Out Louds, among others. Not exactly the stuff of a musical dilettante. And it goes past indie: her playlist of favorite blues songs from July is beyond legit: Son House, the Reverend Gary Davis, Blind Willie McTell, Houston Stackhouse and Mississippi Fred McDowell, among others.
As a First Daughter, there’s no doubt that she could offer some amazing bands a bizarre invitation to perform at the White House, or even make some better musical suggestions for the McCain campaign right now. Sure, the rejection letters will arrive posthaste, but it’d be one way to change the story, to use a ubiquitous phrase. Or there’s always Vincent Gallo. Uh… strike that.
Considering all of the above, just what are the official campaign theme songs for the McCain and Obama campaigns? McCain has at times — we think he was being serious, but it can be hard to tell — named Van Halen, Abba and the Foo Fighters as his picks, but as mentioned before, he has been spurned by all. And as for Obama, despite all of the chatter around the rock star nature of his campaign, he’s never named one. Instead, there’s been a rotation of Stevie Wonder, U2 and other artists that would make for a dull Sirius station that could safely be played in your local Wal-Mart.
Whereas campaign songs were once viewed as assets — think of Louisiana governor Jimmie Davis ‘”You Are My Sunshine” — they are now potential sources of voter alienation, our musical tastes being so distinctly personal and identity-tied that to tether yourself to any one tune poses a potential liability. Before you scoff at McCain and Obama for their unwillingness to musically commit, though, let us return to the start of this whole discussion: the campaign of 1972. Representing the GOP perhaps all too well was the under-siege “Buckle Down with Nixon” — hardly the stuff of happy days. And as for McGovern, how did he usher in pop music’s introduction to official politics? Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that Nixon didn’t win by more.