Monday, February 18, 2008

Choosing the Right Campaign Anthem: Helpful Advice for Candidates... Common musical campaign blunders and how to avoid them...

Political campaigns make bad musical choices over and over again. They need to come up with a different system. As luck would have it, I have a new methodology for them. In the spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation, I invite politicians of every persuasion to follow my new and improved system.

JFK hooked up with The Chairman of the Board in 1960. "High Hopes" became a regular part of the march to Camelot.

That wasn't the first time a would-be POTUS used music in his pitch. The practice predates recording technology. Pre-Kennedy, however, candidates relied on people to generate campaign-specific music and jingles. They don't kick it old school like that anymore, which is probably a good thing. Can you imagine what kind of shitty music James Carville or Karl Rove would create?

The modern formula for song selection is simple. You pick off the rack with a few basic rules in mind. It has to be catchy. It must should sound upbeat and positive. It should already have strong recognition. Its title or most discernible lyric should echo a campaign theme or candidate trait. Bonus points for overt patriotism. Some place greater emphasis on specific elements than do others, but those are the the apparent justifications for candidate song choices.

Unfortunately, this recipe rarely results in anything tasty. Most of the time, candidates serve up (and are forced to eat) a casserole of shame. In some cases, John Q. never realizes just how stupid the songs are. Geniuses like you and me, however, get it. That opens an additional avenue for mockery. Let's take that drive.


Rudy Guliani found a beauty of a campaign song. It was fast enough. It was sort of catchy. Although it lacked massive recognition, it compensated for the shortfall by having a perfect lyric: "Rudy can't fail". In reality, the lyric was "Rudie can't fail", but homophones are AOK, so he ran with it.

"Rudie Can't Fail" is an old Clash ditty. Rudy isn't punk and "Rudie Can't Fail" wasn't a good choice. Yeah, it's cute to shout "Rudie Can't Fail", that's obvious. This, however, isn't the kind of shit that plays super good with the Republican primary electorate (especially the early bird special Republican retirees of Florida):

"Okay! okay So where you wanna go today?
Hey boss man!

You're looking pretty smart

In your chicken skin suit

With your chicken skin too!

You think you're pretty hot

In the pork pie hard

In your pork pie hat

Look out, look out...

Sky juice is a topper brew!"

Oh, there's also a part about drinking beer for breakfast. Not good for Rudy911.


Once upon a time, back when John Brown was still in college, there was this batshit insane gajillionaire with jug ears named Ross Perot who decided to mount a third-party challenge for the Presidency. . He chose a guy was was a little "out there" and/or "out of it" as a VP candidate. He used lots of graphs and charts. People were willing to listen, but they were also a little reticent to support someone who seemed, shall we say, so mentally unique.

Thus, Ross Perot took great care to select an appropriate campaign theme song. He picked a song everyone knew and loved. It lacked a patriotic bite, but it did have a memorable lyric: "I'm crazy". That's right, dummy actually brought attention to his weirdness by utilizing the famed Patsy Cline version of Willie Nelson's country standard. "Crazy" indeed. You gotta admire the balls, but it's a plain silly choice.

GRIDLOCK! (That's for my old school homies who remember Stockdale's debate).


When George W. Bush was running for re-election in 2004, he or someone who worked for him decided they needed a good, rock-solid, pro-American piece of rock 'n' roll patriotism. They went with the quintessential American rock singer, Bruce Springsteen. "Born in the USA". A few problems with that one.

First, and this is pretty obvious to those of us who are not deaf and/or unable to read, "Born in the USA" is less a celebration of America than it is a scathing critique written from the perspective of an angry and disillusioned Viet Nam vet. Whoops!

Second, they missed all of this the first time around. Reagan invoked The Boss on the campaign trail in '84 while trying to suck up New Jersey votes. Springsteen responded, expressing his irritation at the misappropriation of his hit tune. It was sort of embarrassing when it got headlines the first time. Twenty years later it was just twice as stupid. To his limited credit, Bush didn't campaign with this song on a regular basis.


Al Gore tried to score in 2000 by picking one of those irresistibly catchy 70s rock tunes. After Bill's inspired Fleetwood Mac move during the last election cycle, it seemed like a solid move. Having reviewed all available music that hadn't been flagged as objectionable by his wife, Gore settled on an upbeat song with a good chorus lyric that everyone has heard before. Bachman Turner Overdrive. "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet". Assorted issues.

Grammar is a problem. So is the song itself. Although it's fun to listen to BTO, it's hard to sing along with "Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet". The seemingly random pauses and cadence shifts make it a tough one. Just try it yourself. If you aren't BTO's #1 fan, it's tricky. Finally, it suffers from the common out of context lyric problem. "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" may seem like a promise for consistent improvement, but if you actually bother to listen to the song... Well, it's a different story. You got your "met a devil woman" thing going on, the whole "so I took what I could get", etc.

Stuttering songs about getting it on are not awesome choices.

In a somewhat similar vein, Mitt Romney tossed family values aside to crutch on Elvis Presley's "A Little Less Conversation", another song about gettin' nekkid. The idea was to paint a portrait of a man of action. The result was to look sort of awkward and silly.


John Kerry did it. John Edwards did it. They did it together and they did it separately. Both should be ashamed. They went back to early rock 'n' roll and fell for the same name trap Rudy911 encountered. I know it must be hard to resist the use of a song that features your name, but it must be done. Otherwise, you end up with Johnny B. Goode blaring behind senators.

The song is, of course, a masterpiece. The commonly-played Chuck Berry version represents some of his best work. Everyone knows it. It's really upbeat. It has the candidates' name in it. Good stuff! Well, except for the fact that the protagonist is a functional illiterate. There's also the problem with the whole diminutive version of the name. "John" to "Johnny" is moving in the wrong direction when you want to be commander in chief. The song seemed especially ill-suited for Kerry, as its lyrics tell the tale of a country boy who makes it big on the merits of his six-string. Better for the millworker's son, but only marginally.


Barack Obama is rolling with Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours) and Aretha Franklin's "You Better Think". In the process, he's committig Al Gore's mistake of cherry picking key lyrics that promote campaign themese even though they the actual songs involved have absolutely nothing to do with them.

Stevie is signing about trying to re-establish a relationship after screwing around. Aretha Franklin is warning an errant lover than his potential assignations will result in disaster. The lyrics may feature "the right words", but they're only right when context is completely stripped away from them. That annoys people who actually listen and it also risks reinforcing the "flash over substance" bullshit opponents like to slime him with. Not so good.


We've already found a few would-be Presidents who couldn't resist hearing their names in the chorus. That's the second most common error in song selection, though. The first? We've already mentioned it once but it's happened so often I've decided to lump the multiple incidents together under one heading. We can call it pissing off the performer. Although I'm sure that some Democrat somewhere probably pissed off Lee Greenwood or someone once, this is primarily a Republican problem. They can't keep their hands out of the left's musical cookie jar.

We mentioned Reagan and Bush tangling with Springsteen. More recently, we've seen one of the dudes from Boston get pissy about Huckabee rocking "More than a Feeling". Tom Petty didn't back down when George Bush II decided to campaign to his song. He threatened to sue W until he stopped using "I Won't Back Down". Even Orleans performer John Hall battled Bush over "Still the One". John Mellencamp didn't think too highly of John McCain blaring his populist advertising jingle, "Our Country", though he was cool with John Edwards using it. W's papa managed to escape an ass-whipping over the appropriation of "This Land is Your Land" only because Woody Guthrie was already dead.


Hillary Clinton let visitors to her web site select her campaign theme song from a series of saccharine choices. The winner? A Celine Dion song, "You and I" won the ill-conceived election. Look, Celine has a lot of fans. Many of those fans fall into Hillary's demographic. Most of them, probably. But Celine has NO reach beyond that. None. In fact, there are more people who absolutely hate Celine Dion's crappy big-voiced Muzak than who would ever really intentionally listen to it.

In a way, it's a good match, I suppose. We're talking about two women who simultaneously boast huge fan bases but who also have an army of motivated detractors. If you want anyone except Celiniacs* to feel inspired, "You and I" (a song originally commissioned and written by an airline as an ad jingle) is an absolute fuck-up.

Obviously, the current recipe isn't working. The campaigns make bad choices over and over again. They need to come up with a new system. As luck would have it, I have a new methodology for them. In the spirit of bipartisanship and cooperation, I invite political campaigns of every persuasion to follow my new and improved system.

Here is my five step system.


That's right. You see, if you try to find a "match" for your message you are doomed. It just won't work. If you find anything remotely close to your overarching theme, it will only be after whittling down about 99.99% of available music. Undoubtedly, the small chunk that remains will consist of pretty shitty songs. Dont' try to force a fit.

The song has your name in it? Wow. What a coincidence. Unless you're a farm boy with a guitar or a 70s British punk with a drinking problem, that doesn't seem to work out too well. The song contains words that are sort of like you're big advertising tag line? Resist the urge. The underlying message won't echo your sentiments.

Surrender the idea of finding a song that "defines" the candidacy. That's the critical first step.


Now that you aren't limited to a small slice of the musical pie, you can focus on the quality of the music. Find something that is catchy and upbeat, that's the part of the formula that doesn't change. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" may have the sweet melancholy feel you love, but it won't turn out the vote. You need some pep.

Don't limit yourself to the obvious, but don't go stretching into the import bin for rare previously-unheard B-sides. There's a cool factor out in the real world to being the guy who listens to great-but-relatively-unknown stuff, but that space sits just right outside the line of being the music nerd. You don't want to slip into nerd country. You also don't want to seem "too outside of the mainstream".

Pick a good knee-bobbing, non-threatening, rock 'n' roll-y song most people have heard and that both cool people and dimwits can dig. You can use "Top 100 Songs of All Time" list for inspiration. Those are the kinds of songs people know and love that also have enough critical acclaime cache working for them.


Now you have a short list of potential winners. Although we aren't concerned with trying to "fit" a campaign theme, we do need to take a moment to prevent potential blowback. That means the songs should be subjected to a three-pronged vetting process.


Do some research on the artists responsible for the music. We're looking for two things here.

First, the musical genius responsible for your super-awesome campaign soundtrack must not be a raving lunatic, sex offender, or source of massive controversy. You may just love Michael Jackson, but you can't use his music. You will piss people off if you talk about the youth of America after an R. Kelly song plays to the crowd. You can't accept the endorsement of the Benevolent Fraternal Order of Motorcycle Cops if you pumped up the crowd with some NWA. Gary Glitter used to rock stadiums and may seem like a good choice, but now everyone knows he's an evil kiddie-diddler. You might be ashamed that Bush is from Texas, but there's no reason to open up a can of Dixie Chicks' worms. I don't know why you'd think a Harry Belafonte song met Step Two, but you can pretty much rule him out because he hugs on Hugo Chavez.

Second, the artist should be "on your side", apolitical, non-litigious or dead. You don't need the humiliation of some guitar player bagging on your fascist tendencies all over the news. It doesn't pay to have that country star who's song you're using accuse you of being a spineless wimp who doesn't won't fight the good fight. You don't need Tom Petty threatening to run you into court or the dude from Boston bitching about your position papers. Avoid activist singers. Your only alternative is to pull the Bush/Guthrie move, which involves utilizing the work of a dead artist.


Although it is apparently a departure from the usual way of selecting campaign songs, it is now time to actually read the fucking words. "Beautiful Dreams" by The Awesomest Band may seem great at first glance, but you might change your mind when you find out the third verse is all about ethnically cleansing anyone with a skin complexion darker than a manilla envelope. "We Can Do It" might feel just right--until you find out the "do it" part refers to a multi-generational orgy fueled by crank and lubricated by olive oil.

Read. The. Fucking. Words. Don't preach abstinence with Marvin Gaye warbling "Let's Get it On" in the background, candidate. Don't court the favor of the NRA with John Lee Hooker's "Boom Boom" serving as your theme. Find out if the song is really a gentle love ballad or a twisted death threat.

Candidate after candidate has failed to read the words. It has been their undoing. Don't follow in their clumsily dancing footsteps.


If you ever find yourself thinking or saying something like, "Isn't it awesome that this song talks about Lorna and my wife is named Lorna" or something along those lines, abandon the song. You are trying to pick a good song, you are not trying to be cute.

Don't be cute. Don't be smart in that "I can outsmart them all" kind of way. Don't think too hard. Just pick a good song. Being clever is the root of 29% of all evil, based on my careful calculations. Don't be clever. It won't work out for you. Instead, it will backfire either because you aren't really that clever or because other clever people will be able to see that you're trying to be clever, which will turn them against you.

Irony is not your friend here. Sneaky inside jokes are not a good plan. Just pick a good freaking song.


You picked a bad-ass tune by a reasonably inoffensive performer that doesn't contain lyrical stylings that bait protesters. It has a good beat and you can dance to it. Now own it. Crank it up and let it rip.

This entire process should be completed QUICKLY.

If you're spending too much time thinking about campaign background music, you're better suited to be a random blogger in Kansas than the President of the United States of America.

*I thought I had just made up the word "Celiniacs" all by myself during the writing of this post. A big of Googling, however, reveals that some jackhole named "Koolan" wrote "welcome to our farm of Celiniacs" in August of 2007. S/he was using the word to refer to Dion fans, as well. Foiled again in my effort to create an ass-kicking new word. This time by only one other utterance.


Technorati Tags: Tags: Furl Tags:

No comments:

Post a Comment