Volume 97 Issue 9 A&E

Candidates borrow historic musical tactics to define campaigns

by Bridget Rea

Since Andrew Jackson’s 1824 campaign, presidential campaigns have used music as part of their strategies. With the rise of popular music, specifically rock, presidential campaign songs have become associated with a hopeful’s policy or personality.

Having a campaign song is good for a candidate because it helps people remember things about them. When a candidate would hold their rally, glee clubs, which are choral groups usually consisting of men, would sing these short catchy songs, which were called ‘glees.’ This later developed into passing out the words and music to the public so that they could follow along.

The way people came up with these songs was rather varied, especially in the early days. The most famous one written for a specific candidate was for William Henry Harrison’s 1840 campaign with “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” referencing Harrison’s nickname and his running mate.

No new song has been written or had words changed for an already-written song since Richard Nixon’s 1972 campaign. However, Bob Dole’s unsuccessful campaign in 1996 had the famous Sam and Dave song “Soul Man” re-written to suit him in “Dole Man.” President Obama’s original campaign had many songs, from the will.i.am song “Yes We Can” based on his New Hampshire concession speech to the Aretha Franklin classic “Think.”

Since popular songs have become anthems for political gain, some artists have requested the candidates don’t use their songs for their campaigns, especially if the band members do not agree with the political messages that the candidates are trying to enforce. For example, when Mike Huckabee ran in 2008, he used Boston’s “More than a Feeling,” and band founder and philanthropist Tom Scholz requested that he stopped using the song. This was not surprising, as Scholz wrote an entire album criticizing corporate America.

Some of the requests to stop have been intense enough to warrant a civil suit, like in George W. Bush’s 2000 bid. His use of Tom Petty’s song “Won’t Back Down” led to a lawsuit because of Petty’s aversion to Bush, and the artist went so far as to play the song, ironically, at Al Gore’s concession party.

Perhaps one of the most famous campaign songs used was Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” used during Bill Clinton’s 1992 run. It propelled him to the forefront of a strong baby-boomer voting populace to show that he was just like them. Not only was the use of the song clever, but Fleetwood Mac even reunited during his first inauguration to sing it. The election was historic because it was the first time in thirteen years that a Democrat was elected into the White House.

The choice of campaign song changes over time. The baby boomers are a shrinking set of eligible voters. Today, they’re still critically important since getting younger voters out there is a struggle, but as the Millennials become more rooted in the political system and Generation Y comes into the voting system, it may be important to update the playlist to songs that today’s largest voting base can relate to. That isn’t to say that Ted Cruz—who the internet has been very quick to label as one of the most elusive serial killers of all time—shouldn’t have the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” as his campaign song, but the rumor of Hillary Clinton adopting Katy Perry’s “Roar” would breathe some freshness into a process that’s been stuck in the ‘70s.

Donald Trump has already come up with a campaign song: Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Perhaps the antecedent to ‘it’ is the bill for the wall he plans to build, but I have to commend him on how well the music reflects his personality. Give the song a listen and it’s evident that the raucous noise blaring through the speakers is quintessentially Trump.

On a much milder note, John Kasich has adopted U2’s “Beautiful Day.” Bernie Sanders has yet to declare one, but he has used Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” in his ads, which is about as grass-roots as one can get when it comes to something that is somewhat recognizable. If it were up to me, however, I’d remaster one of Sanders’ songs that he recorded in 1987. Admittedly, no amount of auto-tune will save it, since most of it is more speaking than what could be considered singing, but in standard Sanders fashion, it’s terrifically endearing.

Since running for re-election isn’t uncommon, it makes sense for incumbents to choose a song that implies that they’re still worth having in office. George W. Bush did this in 2004 when he chose Orleans’ “Still the One.” John Hall, Orleans band member, protested the use of the song. This time, the protests didn’t escalate further.

Songs have been politically charged for a long time, promoting one side of an issue over another. A clear example of this were the songs used by the Union and the Confederacy during the American Civil War (Battle Hymn of the Republic and Dixie, respectively). The use of music as political commentary has been going on for ages, but songs in American politics have helped frame the culture around the presidential election in innumerable ways. From a marketing standpoint, anything that can bring a candidate into the minds of the people is beneficial, so choosing a song that is popular is helpful in having the public considering the candidate’s bid for presidency.

Undoubtedly, candidates will continue to use music as a form of promotion since it has been useful for bids for nearly two hundred years. As for this election, the jury is still out on official picks, but if the trend continues as it has for the past forty years, expect an announcement over the summer.

Categories: Volume 97 Issue 9 A&E

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