Supporters attending Obama rallies this election season have been tapping their toes to songs like Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” and Aretha Franklin’s cover of “The Weight” as the president sashays his way across stages to podiums across the country. Mitt Romney fans have been grooving to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” and the Four Seasons’ “Oh What a Night,” among other tunes. In short, each candidate has succumbed to the modern trend of presidential hopefuls appropriating tracks with lyrics that echo the gospels of their campaign (and maybe even make some voters think they’ve got groovy music taste, too).
But the 3,000 in attendance at an Oct. 18 Ohio fundraiser led by Bill Clinton and Bruce Springsteen were treated to a little bit of political history, even if it may have been (most likely was) accidental on the Boss’s part. He, of course, played a greatest-hits set of songs that best represent Obama’s agenda. “I’m thankful GM is still making cars,” he told the crowd, praising Obama’s auto-industry bailout. “What else would I write about? I’d have no job without it.” Cue the opening chords of “Promised Land,” to be followed by classics new—“We Take Care of Our Own”—and old—“Thunder Road.”
Then Springsteen bridged the gap between how candidates employ campaign songs now and how they were used in the past. Humorous an attempt as it may have been, Springsteen played an original campaign song for Obama centering on his “Forward” slogan, titled “Forward, and Away We Go.” Sample lyrics: “Smiling Joe he rarely bought the drama / Tuesday Romney was schooled by Obama / Then I couldn’t find another word to rhyme with Obama, so that was the end of it / Forward, and away we go.”
“I sent it in, but they rejected it,” the rocker joked. But the truth is, there was a time when “Forward, and Away We Go” wouldn’t just have passed as a campaign song. It might have even been a great one. Back when they were presidential hopefuls, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Harrison, William Howard Taft, and more commissioned original tunes, ranging from the lighthearted to the downright vitriolic. But in the 226 years since George Washington loyalists belted “God Save Great Washington” (PDF), campaign music and its purpose have evolved in some very strange ways.
The Early Attack Song
Songs have been used to drum up support for aspiring presidents from day one, when Founding Fathers would sing “God Save Great Washington” to rally their countryman around George Washington. The song, set to the tune of “God Save the King,” would sub Washington’s name for “King” in the lyrics.
It was John Quincy Adams, however, who took the campaign song to the next level. Facing stiff competition as the incumbent in the 1828 election from Andrew Jackson, Adams took to musical mudslinging. “Little Know Ye Who’s Coming” brimmed with lyrical barbs, warning that slavery, pestilence, and even Satan would come should Adams not be elected: “Fire’s a-comin’, swords a-comin’ / pistols, guns and knives are comin’ /… if John Quincy not be comin’.” When Jackson won, it turned out that Adams indeed would “not be comin’”—but neither did fires nor swords, proving that empty campaign promises have been around for hundreds of years.
William Henry Harrison’s 1840 ditty was a bit more polished. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” spotlighted Harrison’s heroism during the Battle of Tippecanoe and spotlighted his running mate, John Tyler. The song also happened to call his opponent, incumbent Martin Van Buren, a “little squirt wirt wirt.” Van Buren wasn’t exactly mute about the musical attack, firing back against Harrison, a Whig, with a song to the tune of “Rockabye Baby”: “Rockabye baby, Daddy’s a Whig / When he comes home, hard cider he’ll swig / When he has swug, he’ll fall in a stew / and down will come Tyler and Tippecanoe.” One can only imagine the “horses and bayonets” possibilities if this style of campaign song were still en vogue.
As the century turned, the songs got sunnier. Most campaign songs still featured original lyrics, but instead of troubadour-style assaults, they more closely resembled advertising jingles aimed at selling a presidential product. Tunes like 1908’s “Get on a Raft With Taft” favored jolly catchphrases and earworm melodies, but most important repeated the candidate’s name numerous times. (That practice wasn’t exactly new—see “Huzzah for Madison, Huzzah,” “Monroe Is the Man,” and “Grant, Grant, Grant” (listen here)—but “Raft with Taft” demonstrated how perfectly political slogans were suited to being popularized by song.
Perhaps no original campaign is as indelible as the Irving Berlin–composed “I Like Ike,” which began as a number in support of the presidential candidate in 1952 and spawned a catchphrase that became the benchmark that’s used for a successful political advertising campaign even today.
Not every candidate’s stump team was clever enough to compose an entire original song for a campaign. Enter “contrafactas,” songs that use a preexisting—and typically widely known melody—and set new lyrics to it. Van Buren’s crude spin on “Rockabye Baby” is an early example, but one of the best is “Hello, Lyndon,” used during Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign. The Broadway smash Hello, Dolly! had just opened mere months before Johnson’s campaign high-kicked it into full gear. The show’s composer rewrote lyrics to the title song to fit Johnson’s campaign, and Dolly herself, Carol Channing, introduced the song for Johnson.
Reappropriating the Classics
Whether it’s George W. Bush smiling and waving as “Still the One” blares or Obama trying his best not to dance—you know he always wants to (who doesn’t?)—while “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” plays at his rallies, modern candidates can thank Franklin D. Roosevelt for the tradition of talking well-known songs and employing them to represent their campaigns. In 1932, FDR was the first president to choose a preexisting track for his campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again” from the musical Chasing Rainbows.
Roosevelt’s choice was perfect, heralding a very clear, timely, and resonant message that reassured voters as the country was on the cusp of the Great Depression. While most songs used by today’s politicos essentially serve as entrance music, they’re employed with a range of effectiveness. Some are a bit too on-the-nose to have an effect on the electorate, such as George H.W. Bush’s use of “This Land Is Your Land” or Ronald Reagan’s occasional use of “God Bless the U.S.A.” Though “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was a chart-topping hit just two years before George McGovern used it for his campaign, it failed to pack the political punch candidates need to rev up their crowds.
So though Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” was two decades old by the time Bill Clinton insisted on using it for his 1992 campaign, it proved the power of the perfect marriage between campaign song and candidate. The lyrics brimmed with optimism, the band jibed with the boomer generation whose vote he was courting, and the song’s message proved so flexible and timeless that Clinton continues to use it today, as he did at the most recent Democratic National Convention.
The age of co-opting artists’ songs for political purposes has brought with it a predictable snag: some musicians don’t agree with the platforms of the candidates who wish to use their tracks. Springsteen famously protested Ronald Reagan’s use of “Born in the U.S.A.” at rallies in 1984, pointing out that the song’s ruminations on the struggles of Vietnam War vets hardly gelled with the candidate’s political message. John Mellencamp also sparred with the Gipper when he tried to use “Little Pink Houses” during the campaign.
Indeed, in the past few decades, an artist’s refusal to let a candidate use a song has been a problem reserved, often a bit embarrassingly, for Republicans. In just the past few years, Tom Petty put the kibosh on Michele Bachmann’s desire to play “American Girl” at stump events (after having sparred with George W. Bush when he tried to use “I Won’t Back Down), Heart refused to let Sarah Palin play “Barracuda” at rallies, and an entire playlist of musicians—Jackson Browne, John Mellencamp, Foo Fighters, and Van Halen—all protested John McCain using their songs in 2008.
While finding a properly inspirational song by an artist who doesn’t loathe your politics is an understandable challenge for some candidates, choosing one that isn’t, well, weird shouldn’t be that hard. Yet history has brought us an array of befuddling choices. Chief among them is Ross Perot electing to make Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” his campaign song of choice. It’d be an admirable selection for a candidate trying to attack, say, Perot’s affinity for charts and graphs. But it’s downright hard to understand why Perot’s team thought a torch song about being hopelessly in love would recruit new voters.
Then there’s Paul Ryan’s undeniably odd recent musical endorsements. After the Republican vice-presidential nominee blared the rebellious 1984 angst anthem “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” a song about anarchy sung by men in high-heeled combat boots and full drag makeup, at campaign events, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider demanded that Ryan not play the song anymore. The cease-and-desist request was hardly new—the more newsworthy aspect of the blow-up was the monumental mismatching of political ideals and song message in the first place.
Though he never played their songs at rallies, Ryan received a similar reaction when he said one of his favorite bands was Rage Against the Machine. Lead singer Tom Morello called Ryan “the embodiment of the machine our music rages against.”
The Modern Age
Could Romney get away with a folksy ballad about Obama’s alleged “apology tour”? Probably not. Would Obama be the laughingstock of the country if his campaign ads featured a bubbly jingle? Probably. In the modern age, it’s the sound bites—“47 percent,” “binders full of women,” “we built it”—that make the most impact in political advertising, not bouncy original songs.
But could we imagine laughing uproariously—and immensely enjoying—an event in which Springsteen performs a bizarre pro-Obama ditty on national TV? Why, yes we can.