March 2012: Do campaign songs matter?

A tip of the hat to the legendary New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

Campaign songs—songs that candidates play at rallies and other political gathering—attract much more media attention than they deserve.

The reason lies in a combination of the obsession by political consultants in “branding” their candidate in a certain way and selecting music that supports that positioning, and the Boomer-inspired belief that “you are the music you play.” (Today’s equivalent is the foodie’s “you are what you eat.”)

Those who maintain the music selected and played reflects some deeper truth about the candidate are indulging in a form of music snobbery—”cool kids don’t listen to _____________” (fill in the blank with an “unpopular” song or musical genre).

This emphasis on the music saying something about the pol and what he or she stands for has prompted numerous rock bands and singers to demand that candidates they don’t like (usually conservatives or Republicans) to stop playing their songs at campaign appearances. Tom Petty disapproved of George W. Bush adopting “I Won’t Back Down” in the 2000 presidential race and Michele Bachman using “American Girl” in 2011; Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson protested Sarah Palin playing “Barracuda”; and there has been a string of aging rockers raging against right-wing candidates borrowing their tunes.

Republicans could avoid the bad PR if they just stuck to country music. Ronald Reagan was well served by Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” after flirting with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” (a curious choice of an anthem for American exceptionalism); George W. Bush turned to Greenwood’s patriotic song and “Only in America” by Brooks and Dunn.

Campaign songs were once about the person running for office. There was “For Jefferson and Liberty” and “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” (William Henry Harrison) and “Lincoln and Liberty Too” and “Grant, Grant, Grant” and “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” Many of these songs were bespoke—written specifically in support of a given candidate and the lyrics reflected that.

Blame Franklin Delano Roosevelt for the move to borrowing popular songs. His use of “Happy Days are Here Again” was quite effective, and John F. Kennedy borrowed “High Hopes” from Frank Sinatra, but the clincher was the Clinton’s 1992 campaign embrace of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Start.” Political consultants became convinced that coupling music and candidate matters.

The people who run presidential campaigns believe that choice of songs matter. CNN’s documentary on Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic Presidential campaign includes Joe” Trippi’s dogged efforts to promote LeAnn Rimes’ version of “We Can” as the former Vermont governor’s theme song.

It isn’t too hard to see the hand of political image-makers in Mitt Romney’s February courtship of Kid Rock (a.k.a. Bob Ritchie). Romney appearances had been featuring Kid Rock’s “Born Free” and during the run-up to the Michigan primary Romney went to the singer’s home to talk politics.

As Romney explained (according to the New York Daily News):

“He’d written down some questions for me. He said first of all, he said, ‘Mitt, if you’re elected president, will you help me help the state of Michigan?’ And I said I would.”

Kid Rock then came to a Romney event and played his song in what most observers thought was an awkward episode. (Judge for yourself.)

The more authentic route is a song about the candidate. That’s why will.i.am’s celebrity-studded music video ode of joy to then candidate Barack Obama, “Yes We Can,” has a certain charm despite its creepy Glorious Leader overtone. And county singer John Rich’s “Raisin’ McCain” at least offers up the candidate’s heroic biography in promoting the man. And 2012 already has one truly authentic campaign song entry, “Game On,” a ditty in praise of Rick Santorum from the group First Love, with lead vocals from two home-schooled pastor’s daughters, sisters Camille and Haley Harris.


Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders
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