We seem to go through this every election cycle: Another GOP contender tries to trade his corporate-shill reality for some Reagan-Democrat populist cred, appropriates a bouncy, at-least-vaguely-patriotic anthem for his stump-speech recessional — and then gets publicly dressed down by an enraged guitar slinger.
This past week, John McCain was forced to bow in the face of a mad, mad Mellencamp when he tried to appropriate the Hoosier’s Chevy anthem “Our Country” for his suddenly front-running campaign. Never mind that John Edwards had been using “Our Country” for a year, with Mellencamp’s endorsement, before Edwards bowed out of the race. (Hurry, Johnny Mac! Romney’s been out of the race for a week already. How quickly can you strip the chassis of some campaign element that didn’t work so well for him, like…lacquered hair? “Gosh, I love America”? Mormonism?)
You’d think these guys would have learned, at least, to ask permission first — or maybe just read the lyrics. Most famously, Ronald Reagan’s handlers decided that “Born in the USA” would make a great campaign theme, never mind all that stuff about how you “end up like a dog that’s been beat too much/’Til you spend half your life just coverin’ up.” (Which is pretty much how the working class felt by the end of the Reagan years, not to mention African-Americans and gays.) Springsteen, of course, put the kibosh on Reagan using his song, but Mike Huckabee has managed to sneak it into a few of his rallies over the past several months. Romney thought Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation” would play up his go-get-’em persona, failing to consider that Elvis’ ultimate goal was to get his woman to “close your mouth, open up your heart and, baby, satisfy me.”
At least Elvis wasn’t around to embarrass Romney; four years ago, George Bush couldn’t even get away with playing a song as innocuous as Orleans’ “Still the One” without the band’s guitarist-turned-politico, John Hall, calling him out. Hall didn’t just reject the notion that he might support Bush; he publicly accused the president of violating copyright law, and called him a hypocrite for using music without permission while pitching his leave-every-poor-person-behind policies as creating an “ownership society.” Four years later, Hall is running for a second term in Congress; Bush, unfortunately, is still the one for a little while longer.
With “Our Country” no longer an option, McCain soldiers on with songs such as “Johnny Be Good” (a bit obvious), the theme from Rocky (Stallone’s a solid Republican, with excellent vocabulary) and Abba’s “Take a Chance on Me” (no, really). Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton last year held an online contest allowing supporters to choose a theme song, only to abandon their choice (Celine Dion’s “You and I”) almost immediately when someone reminded her that half the electorate have penises and therefore don’t like Celine Dion. Instead she uses songs like “Takin’ Care of Business” and, when speaking before the Rosie-the-Riveter types who make up her dwindling base, “9 to 5.” They’re effective, maybe, but they don’t provide quite the same inspiration that Bill’s campaign managed with “Don’t Stop.”
Then there’s Barack Obama, who has needed to toe the same line in his musical choices that he has in his general campaign message: I’m black, but not too black. As a result, his advisors have pumped up the volume on crossover classics like “Think,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Higher and Higher” and Sam & Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” The New York Post last month nearly punctured a hole in this strategy by erroneously (but intentionally?) reporting on its Page Six that an Obama rally had featured Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” — leaving readers to wonder, of course, which “bitch ain’t one.” Other reporters who attended that rally quickly put the lie to the Post‘s lie.
Obama is not merely avoiding potentially divisive rap hits (though he has made a point of talking about how he has talked to Jay-Z and Kanye West about how best to communicate African-American issues). Also off limits, for now at least, are songs with racial specificity (real or acquired) such as Sam Cooke’s monumentally inspiring “A Change Is Gonna Come.” That hasn’t stopped many of his supporters from using it, though, as a quick Google search of “Barack Obama Change Gonna Come” turns up more than 100,000 hits.
The song could be enormously effective for him if used in an ideal context, particularly if he’s winning big in October and his movement has swept up a critical mass of white voters. Whether or not it ever plays during one of his appearances before November 4, you can bet your last dime that it will play all over the media’s post-mortems of his campaign, all the way up to his inauguration and beyond.
In the meantime, Obama—or Hillary, for that matter—might want to borrow a page of sheet music from the John Kerry playbook. (Please, please, please don’t pull any other pages from that playbook, pray 75 million or so potential Democratic voters.) Kerry may have run a disastrous campaign in ’04, but his musical choices were smart (Springsteen’s “No Surrender” after his convention speech) and they showed flashes of wit that Kerry himself utterly lacks. (His introduction of Edwards as his running mate concluded with the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” which imagines a place where there “ain’t no smiling faces, lying to the races.” To these ears it couldn’t help but serve as a hilarious reference to Bush, who had famously crammed every single black Republican this side of Clarence Thomas onto a stage at the 2000 GOP convention.)
Obama has inspired such unbelievable levels of affection among his supporters, he’s starting to remind me of a ’70s-style love man; his introductory music ought to be “If Lovin’ You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want to Be Right).” Hillary, on the other hand, is grasping at straws in an effort to remind voters that they’re supposed to love her; her commercials might as well feature some greatest-hits footage with “If You Don’t Know Me by Now” as a backdrop.
As for McCain, he’s so quirky (and so old) that anything released after, say, the British Invasion seems wildly inappropriate. “He’s a Rebel,” perhaps? “Tell It Like It Is,” perchance? (Heart’s version, of course, unless he chooses Condi Rice as his VP, in which case he might be able to rock some Aaron Neville.) He could always latch onto Dolly Parton’s movie theme “Straight Talk.” Of course, McCain’s so desperate to court the Christians at this point that he’ll probably fall back on that tried-and-true Republican anthem, “God Bless the USA.”
It’s too bad nobody writes songs for candidates anymore. We could use a 21st-century (rap?) equivalent of “Row, Row, Row for Roosevelt” or “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — or even the 1976 Jimmy Carter tribute “Why Not the Best?” The blog Greetings, Gate, Let’s Dissipate has a terrific piece on campaign songs through the years. About a decade ago, folk singer Oscar Brand recorded an album of such songs for Smithsonian Folkways, Presidential Campaign Songs, 1789-1996; you can buy it from Amazon or download it at eMusic.
I guess that in the modern day, the best way to go viral with a campaign song is to make it funny/sarcastic, a la Jibjab or Barely Political (purveyors of Obama Girl and her descendants), or else do some serious sampling, as Will.I.Am and friends did in the wake of Obama’s New Hampshire primary-night speech:
At least there’s one candidate this season who isn’t lacking for an original campaign song. That would be Huckabee, who inspired songwriter Anne Johnston-Browne to turn what sounds like a Contemporary-Christian ballad called “Because of You” into an ode to the Huckster. Personally, I prefer SuperDeluxe’s tribute; it’s revolutionary, if not evolutionary:
PiÃ±ataland – “Little Know Ye Who’s Comin'” (originally written for John Quincy Adams, remade for John Kerry)
Anybody out there have original ideas for 2008 campaign anthems? Let’s hear ’em!