Presidential Playlists


By: Wall Street Journal

Presidential hopefuls are turning to pop songs to pump up their campaigns.
But the messages in the music may be beyond their control.

By JOHN JURGENSEN

Mitt Romney’s choice in theme music could seem incongruous for a presidential candidate trying to shore up his conservative credentials. He often mounts the stage to a remixed version of “A Little Less Conversation,” in which Elvis Presley urges a lover to stop talking and just “satisfy me, baby.” Mr. Romney’s camp doesn’t see the song as racy. “The theme it conveys is that Washington needs a little less talk and a lot more action,” says spokesman Kevin Madden.

In rotation at John Edwards’s events: a John Mellencamp song first heard in Chevy truck ads. Rudy Giuliani, a native New Yorker and opera buff, has been cuing up country act Rascal Flatts. Hillary Clinton has taken a shine to a rock song originally written for a space-shuttle launch.

Using popular songs for political purposes is a twist on a tactic that goes back to George Washington. The increasing use of such songs is an outgrowth of the fact that, in an age when voters are pulled by a growing number of media sources, politicians are looking for tools to help them cut through the clutter. There are trade-offs, however, including potentially loaded lyrics and the chance of artist backlash. John McCain had been playing “I Won’t Back Down,” but rocker Tom Petty asked him to do just that and stop using the tune for his campaign.

Another danger: With songs picked to trigger baby-boomer nostalgia or heartland appeal, most candidates are drawing on a well of material that has already been plumbed for television commercials and soundtracks.

“Suddenly I See,” a chugging ode to self-determination by Scottish singer KT Tunstall, is one of the songs attached to Mrs. Clinton — and a score of TV shows, including “Ghost Whisperer” and “Ugly Betty.”

Most candidates haven’t named “official” theme songs for their campaigns. That move usually follows a party nomination. Instead, they are using these playlists to amp up crowds, signal a candidate’s approach to the stage or accompany the handshaking marathons that follow.

So far, the soundtrack of the presidential race is loaded with populist anthems from classic rock and country music. Rap is absent, though there is a sprinkling of alterna-pop for the young electorate. The goal: Strike a visceral chord with listeners, piggyback on the literal message in the title or chorus — and hope people don’t analyze the lyrics too closely.

Musical selections can attract more scrutiny than position papers on health care. Mrs. Clinton was subjected to some criticism last summer when (based on a public Internet poll) she chose Celine Dion’s “You and I” as a theme song. In the song, Ms. Dion sings about clouds, stars and the “wings of love” over an undulating soundscape. Political detractors pounced on Ms. Dion’s Canadian citizenship. Air Canada used “You and I,” written by an ad agency, as a theme song about three years before Mrs. Clinton picked it up. And many music aficionados did what they often do — deride Ms. Dion’s music as generic and treacly. Lately, “You and I” has fallen out of the rotation at Mrs. Clinton’s events. A spokesman said songs are routinely swapped out to keep things fresh.

Though he doesn’t have a canned soundtrack, Mike Huckabee occasionally thumbs an electric bass with his cover band, Capitol Offense. At an Iowa straw poll and a New Hampshire fund-raiser, the group ran through rock staples like “Mustang Sally.” Such songs seem intended to balance Mr. Huckabee’s Baptist-preacher image, not double as talking points. But the former Arkansas governor could be sending inadvertent messages, says Joe Mathieu, program director for POTUS ’08, an XM Satellite Radio channel dedicated to the presidential race. Consider the Lynyrd Skynyrd epic “Free Bird,” a Huckabee favorite. “Isn’t that a song about being unable to commit?” Mr. Mathieu says. “You look at the title, and it’s great, but when you read a little further down, you find little land mines.”

A Los Lobos tune that Bill Richardson picked sounds sunny if you don’t listen to the words. Released near the end of the Reagan administration, “Mess We’re In” paints a grim picture with lines like “Old man dying from too much drink, blood and glass in the bathroom sink.” The chorus, however, is uplifting: “The smoke is clearing and we see a light/ Coming together for a different fight.”

Spokesman Tom Reynolds says Richardson “is a personal fan of the song” and thinks the upbeat tempo is perfect to energize a crowd.

After popping up in the soundtrack for the 2006 movie “The Devil Wears Prada,” U2′s triumphant “City of Blinding Lights” also announced Barack Obama’s recent appearances with Oprah Winfrey. It was savvy for the Illinois senator to go with U2, “a proven entity with a hipness attached to them,” says Josh Rabinowitz, director of music at Grey Group, an advertising agency. Mr. Obama’s team has also been known to play “Unwritten,” a bubbly directive to keep things real by British pop star Natasha Bedingfield. Young listeners would already know it from the Pantene shampoo ads Mr. Rabinowitz helped place it in, or as the theme from the catty MTV reality hit “The Hills.”

Soul songs from the civil-rights canon, including Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” and “Give the People What They Want” by the O’Jays, let Mr. Obama make a statement about race without putting it in words. (“The music we choose is a reflection of who he is and the kind of music he listens to,” says Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki.) In the same way, songs like Mr. Petty’s “American Girl” deliver a girl-power theme for Mrs. Clinton.

Original campaign compositions are scarce, save for those from online satirists. Epitomizing the genre is “I Got a Crush on Obama,” featuring a sultry lip-synching model who pines for her candidate to an R&B beat. It has been viewed more than four million times on YouTube since it first exploded over the summer. The clip isn’t endorsed by the Obama campaign.

Some songs pop up on multiple campaign playlists. This past week, Mr. Romney’s team added lots of country music into the mix to set the mood in a South Carolina airplane hangar. The set kicked off with Alabama’s “Dancin’, Shaggin’ on the Boulevard,” a laid-back tune that depicts a place “where the girls are sunnin’ and a lookin’ good.” Later, Mr. Romney strode in to the strains of “Only In America,” taken from a Brooks & Dunn album called “Steers and Stripes.” Between fist-pumping choruses, the song celebrates a nation where “one could end up going to prison, one just might be president.” That song also served as handshake music after a recent Obama speech in Waterloo, Iowa. Another number from the Romney rally was the Rascal Flatts song “Life Is a Highway,” which Mr. Giuliani’s organizers also favor. (So did the folks who picked music for the animated blockbuster “Cars.”)

Songwriters rarely get a say in how politicians use their work. That is because the songs typically play at live events, often in venues whose owners pay a blanket license fee to ASCAP and BMI, organizations that collect royalties on behalf of songwriters. Using songs in a commercial or a radio ad, on the other hand, requires permission from the copyright holder and triggers a different set of fees.

Some musicians make noise when politicians borrow their music. Bruce Springsteen protested Ronald Reagan’s use of “Born in the U.S.A,” and Bobby McFerrin told George H.W. Bush to drop “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” in the 1988 presidential race. Isaac Hayes didn’t like it when “Soul Man” was rejiggered as “Dole Man” on behalf of Bob Dole.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Obama says the process of picking songs “isn’t an exact science.” Sometimes, they come from a connection with a celebrity supporter, such as Mr. Mellencamp, who last month brought Mr. Edwards out during a concert to the tune of “Small Town.” And Fred Thompson, the former Republican senator from Tennessee, has linked himself to a parade of country-music stars, including John Rich of the duo Big & Rich. (Mr. Rich’s musical partner, “Big” Kenny Alphin, donated $2,300 to Mr. Obama, according to Federal Election Commission records.)

Sometimes, songs come in through the request line. Eileen deParrie is a former Al Gore campaign staffer and a friend of the band Big Head Todd and the Monsters, a blues-rock group whose popularity swelled in the early 1990s. Over dinner with one of Mrs. Clinton’s field directors, Ms. deParrie suggested the band’s song “Blue Sky,” and the message was relayed up through the chain of command.

Todd Park Mohr, the lead singer of Big Head Todd and the Monsters, wrote “Blue Sky” about two years ago after a friend at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration told him the agency had been borrowing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” to herald shuttle launches. Mr. Mohr’s song features soaring instrumentals and references to “reaching for the distant light.” That’s translated into running music for Mrs. Clinton, who often talks about her 8th-grade correspondence with NASA, which informed her in a letter that only men could be astronauts. Mr. Mohr says, “I’d be psyched if it could become a ‘Don’t Stop,’ ” referring to the Fleetwood Mac hit that famously fueled Bill Clinton’s run to the White House. Political pundits agree that his use of that tune remains the gold standard for campaign anthems.

George Washington didn’t need a fight song to win the presidency — he got 100% of the electoral votes — but he had already been celebrated in verses tacked on to familiar tunes like “Yankee Doodle” and “God Save the King.” “We’ve been doing that since the country was settled,” says folk musician Oscar Brand, 87 years old, whose album, “Presidential Campaign Songs: 1789-1996,” features his versions of the campaign tunes of dozens of politicians, from Washington to Clinton.

The campaign theme song came into its own around 1840, when modern election strategy took shape. Before the dawn of radio, ensembles with names like the Hoi-Polloi Glee Club and Uncle Abe’s Choir joined brass bands at rallies, according to “Songs, Odes, Glees, and Ballads: A Bibliography of American Presidential Campaign Songsters” by William Miles. Voters got to know a candidate by seeing his portrait on songbooks and hearing his character extolled or torn down in verse. Abraham Lincoln was the “rail-splittin’ statesman.” (A compliment.) Grover Cleveland “sowed his wild oats all around.” (Not so much.)

—- Amy Chozick and Elizabeth Holmes contributed to this article.

Write to John Jurgensen at john.jurgensen@wsj.com

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