Political Campaign Songs.
Campaign songs can be powerful – or perturbing – political tools
By Nick Lewis
Published in The National Post on Feb. 14, 2008
Barack Obama takes the stage to Ben Harper’s “Better Way” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours”. Hillary Clinton strides on to Celine Dion’s “You and I”, and leaves to “The Police’s Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” And since being asked by John Mellencamp to stop using his “Our Country,” John McCain has been using ABBA’s “Take A Chance On Me” as his political campaign song.
The campaign song goes back more than a century, when presidential hopefuls would rally support for their platforms with such nationalistic jingles as “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail to the Chief.”
But as today’s politicians try to lure both the youth vote and the Baby Boomer vote in the upcoming U.S. elections, they’re increasingly using popular and nostalgic music to sell themselves.
“Music has been used in marketing for years, whether it’s marketing products or candidates,” says Mehdi Mourali, assistant professor of marketing at the Haskayne School of Business in Calgary. “The right music will put you in the right mood and make you less critical of the message. The underlying assumption is that if people like that piece of music, associating it with that candidate will make them like that candidate.
“A picture is worth a thousand words, and a good song is better than repeating the message over and over. So if you can find a song that gets your message across, it will do you well to keep using it.”
While a great campaign song won’t necessarily win you an election, a bad one can certainly hinder you. Ross Perot famously used Patsy Cline’s depressing “Crazy” as his rally cry during the 1992 elections, which didn’t stand a chance against Bill Clinton and his use of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” as a promise of change.
For them to work, campaign songs must be upbeat, have a positive message and a constant beat that makes it easy to clap and sing along, helping create a sense of unity. They must be inoffensive and broadly accepted — another way of staying as mainstream as possible.
“The idea of a campaign song is definitely good, because music is such a powerful anchor,” says Karen Brunger, director of Toronto-based image consultants International Image Institute. “There’s a vibration in music that affects the vibrations in our bodies, and it helps create a sense of unity.”
The campaign song seems to be primarily an American phenomenon, and in the YouTube age, it’s rolling into an even bigger one.
Mr. Obama has been having success with an unsolicited campaign song by Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am., who says he was inspired by the Democrat’s speech in New Hampshire last month. “Yes We Can” is a music video that features A-list celebrities such as Scarlett Johansson, Kate Walsh, Common and John Legend singing along to Mr. Obama’s speech, and it has already been viewed more than four million times in less than 10 days.
Hillary Clinton asked the public to help her find a campaign song in summer 2007, saying in a tongue-in-cheek message on her Web site that she needed help with a decision her team had been “struggling with, debating and agonizing over for months.”
She offered nine songs to vote on, but many overzealous readers supplied their own suggestions, including Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back,” Foreigner’s “Cold As Ice” and The Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” Clinton ultimately chose Dion’s “You and I,” and shots of “outsourcing” soon came from those in the Republican party.
But it’s hardly the first time a Canadian song has been appropriated by an American politician. Clinton had previously used Tom Cochrane’s 1991 hit “Life Is A Highway,” which was then later used by Republican dropouts Mitt Romney and Rudolph Giuliani.
“I say, let everyone play it, it’s a popular song and you can’t stop them from playing it,” says Mr. Cochrane. “Sure, Giuliani and Mitt Romney are playing it, but so is Hillary, so it balances out. If they’re using it in a documentary or for broadcast purposes, they gotta get permission, but otherwise, anybody can play your song.”
Another Canadian favourite is Winnipeg’s Bachman-Turner Overdrive, whose “Takin’ Care of Business” and “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” have been used by Al Gore, George W. Bush and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.
“The songs are catchphrases,” frontman Randy Bachman, who penned both 1970s hits, explained to Rolling Stone magazine. “You’re hearing something that’s familiar, warm, makes you feel good. And you used to dance to it.”
Mr. Cochrane’s tour mate, registered Democrat John Mellencamp, politely asked Republican presidential candidate John McCain last week to stop using “Our Country” during his rallies.
Mr. McCain had been using Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” during his rallies, until he was asked to stop using it by the artist. Mr. Petty had previously threatened to sue George W. Bush from using the same song during the 2000 election.
There’s a long line of Republican candidates who’ve been stopped from using particular songs for their rallies. Bruce Springsteen asked Ronald Reagan to discontinue using his “Born In The U.S.A.” during the 1984 elections. Bobby McFerrin asked George Bush Sr. to stop using his “Don’t Worry Be Happy” during the 1988 elections. And when Bob Dole ran for president in 1996, his campaign office created the unauthorized Dole Man, a take on Sam & Dave’s “Soul Man,” and the artists again voiced their displeasure.
But what’s a Republican to do when all the best campaign songs are written by Democrats? The music industry has traditionally been a liberal stronghold, and statistics compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics during the 2004 U.S. elections found 82% of contributions from the music industry, worth $1.1-million, went to the Democratic Party.
“Certain artists don’t want to be affiliated with certain politicians, and if a politician is playing an artists’ tune, it seems like that artist is endorsing that politician,” says Mr. Brunger. “Music fans are of a diverse group, they don’t all align with one affiliation. A musician can’t risk turning away fans with politics they don’t agree with.
Poor musical picks
American politicians have been using popular music as campaign songs for decades now, but quite a few choices have been ill-advised. Here is a list of gaffes made by presidential hopefuls, choices that they wouldn’t have made had they listened to the song instead of just reading it’s title …
Rudolph Giuliani — The Clash’s “Rudie Can’t Fail” (2007)
This may seem like a great choice for someone who isn’t all that familiar with The Clash, but does a president really want to be associated with a chorus that repeatedly says “We been drinking brew for breakfast”?
Ronald Reagan – Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)
During his 1984 re-election campaign, Mr. Reagan stopped in Springsteen’s home State of New Jersey, where he praised the rocker and his “message of hope.” Trouble is, Born In The U.S.A. is about the opposite. It’s about a troubled Vietnam War veteran sent off to a war he didn’t understand, now returning to a country he no longer identifies with. (“I got in a little hometown jam/And so they put a rifle in my hands/Sent me off to Vietnam/To go and kill the yellow man.”)
George W. Bush – B.T.O.’s “Takin’ Care of Business” (2004)
Bush used this ‘70’s hit in a 2004 campaign video to tell voters that he was, well, takin’ care of business (and working overtime). But that’s not what the song is about. It’s from the point of view of a young slacker avoiding work, with the lyrics, “It’s the work that we avoid/And we’re all self-employed/We love to work at nothing all day.”
Hillary Clinton – Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5″ (2008)
While both songs seem ideal for Hillary on the surface, both contain lyrics that a candidate in a close race wouldn’t want to associate themselves with. “American Girl” has the line, “God, it’s so painful/Something that’s so close/And still so far out of reach.” And Parton’s “9 to 5″ has the lyric, “I swear sometimes that man is out to get me.”
John McCain – ABBA’s “Take A Chance On Me” (2008)
Mr. McCain’s new campaign song doesn’t exactly fill one with optimism, especially with its opening line: “If you change your mind/I’m the first in line.” Look, it’s everyone’s favourite second choice, John McCain!
Ross Perot – Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” (1992)
Where to even begin with Mr. Perot’s ill-advised choice? First, the tune is a tad depressing and doesn’t exactly promote a sense of unity. Second, do you really think people will want you to lead them if they think you’re crazy?
© Creative Commons image. Photo by Tim Bekaert.