Campaign songs and the candidate

So Senator Hillary Clinton has asked the public to choose her 2008 presidential campaign song by voting at her website on a selection of nine songs.

It’s a clever idea, mixing pop culture, Web interactivity, and a faux election; the Clinton staff has been careful to screen the songs so that they align nicely with the Senator’s campaign themes.

The 1992 campaign song for Bill Clinton, Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow)” (a perfect choice for a self-indulgent Baby Boomer candidate) doesn’t make this most recent Hillary Clinton list. What does? The slate includes two U2 songs (“City of Blinding Lights” and “Beautiful Day”), two Motown songs (“Get Ready” by The Temptations and “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers), two rock songs (Smash Mouth’s “I’m a Believer” and “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones), two country songs (Shania Twain’s “Rock This Country!” and the Dixie Chick’s “Ready to Run”), and a “girl-power” song by KT Tunstall, “Suddenly I See.”

Clinton’s website does allow write-ins (a surprise) and the wags and Clinton-bashers are already offering suggestions (no surprise)— “Maneater” (David Brooks of the New York Times); “Shameless” and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” (Jon Sanders of TownHall.com); and “Baby Got Back” (Rush Limbaugh).

Bet on one of the U2 songs to win the contest (even though you could argue choosing an Irish group is a form of musical outsourcing, ordinarily not a popular move for a Democratic candidate). U2 has become the establishment choice for vaguely-uplifting, quasi-religious, feel-good music, which is why Bono and the band are invited to perform at public mega-events (Super Bowls, NBA Finals, Katrina concerts, etc.) That Bono militates for non-partisan diplomatic action on Africa’s numerous problems makes choosing U2 all the easier for Clinton fans.

(U2’s ceremonial performances and lucrative concert tours have opened the group to sniping about their rock legitimacy; the “sell-out” charge isn’t helped by the wildly popular YouTube and IFilm video of a Bank of America manager crooning a corporate version of U2’s “One,” including these (altered but now immortal) lyrics: “It is even better/Now that we’re the same/Two great companies come together/Now, MBNA is B of A/One bank, one card, one name that’s known all over the world.”)

Matching candidate and song?

Do campaign theme songs matter? When a song matches up well with the candidate, you could argue there is a “total branding moment” (as those in marketing might term it). Some good matches: Bill Clinton and “Don’t Stop”; Ronald Reagan and Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” in 1984 (Reagan also used the anti-war “Born in the USA,” a strange choice for the “Morning in America” candidate considering the song’s dark lyrics); Irving Berlin’s “I Like Ike,” written for Dwight Eisenhower’s 1952 campaign; and “High Hopes” for John F. Kennedy in 1960.

But the bad matches don’t seem to matter; George H.W. Bush’s choice of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in 1988 was loopy; his Democratic opponent, Mike Dukakis, picked Neil Diamond’s “America,” a more fitting song for a presidential run, and lost badly nonetheless. Al Gore’s 2000 campaign songs—“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive and “Let the Day Begin” by The Call—seemed better choices than the songs George W. Bush alternated between (Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” Billy Ray Cyrus’ “We the People” and Van Halen’s “Right Now”) but we know how that all worked out.

Republicans have a harder time with selecting “safe” songs. Cranky liberal songwriters will balk at a GOP candidate appropriating his lyrics and music: witness Isaac Hayes objecting to Bob Dole’s 1996 campaign transforming his 1960s hit “Soul Man” into “Dole Man” (Dole dropped the song), and John Hall of the group Orleans, now a Democratic Congressman, blocking the Bush 2004 campaign from using his “Still the One.” It’s no wonder W. turned to country music’s Brooks and Dunn for “Only in America” in 2004 (a song which also turns up in the opening of Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center).

First-hand strangeness

Covering a George Wallace rally in Boston in 1976, I experienced first-hand one of the stranger candidate-song pairings. Wallace had fellow Alabamian Bobby Goldsboro open for him with his treacly hits “Honey” and “Watching Scotty Grow,” hardly the sound-track for an angry, race-baiting populist. Wallace should have picked Charlie Daniels’ 1975 hit “South’s Gonna Do It Again.”

Yet the people who run presidential campaigns tend to believe that these songs matter. One of the more amusing bits in a wonderful documentary on Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic Presidential campaign (“CNN Presents: True Believers: Life Inside the Dean Campaign”) features Joe Trippi’s dogged efforts to promote LeAnn Rimes’ version of “We Can” as the former Vermont governor’s theme song—including Trippi’s displeasure when a different song is substituted at a Dean rally.

There are two sure things about Campaign 2008 candidate songs. First, no presidential hopeful will play any sort of rap or hip hop music as he or she strides onto a stage, not after l’affaire Imus. Second, no candidate will come close to eccentric Texas billionaire Ross Perot in picking the perfect song for their campaign. Perot’s totally appropriate pick for his failed 1992 independent bid? Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”


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