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Music and candidates: an uneasy alliance

In the 21st century, music and politics exist at a volatile intersection. In doing so, they offer glimpses into the national temperament.
/ Source: The Associated Press

So let's say it's the early 1980s, and you're a rising young musician named John Cougar Mellencamp. You cut a song with a chorus that oozes Jeffersonian democracy and adds a touch of postwar suburban placidity. "Ain't that America — for you and me," you sing in your gravelly Indiana voice. "Ain't that America; we're something to see. Ain't that America: home of the free. Little pink houses for you and me."

Now let's say you're a strategist for Sen. John McCain, Republican candidate for president in 2008. You hear "Pink Houses" 25 years after it was recorded and think to yourself, hey — this is perfect. Let's blast this out at the big guy's rallies and hitch our wagon to Mellencamp's imagery.

That scenario proved problematic when it unfolded earlier this year. First, Mellencamp is a Democrat and activist who has supported John Edwards. He didn't like his work being co-opted and asked McCain to stop. Second, and just as important, "Pink Houses" is an edgy, melancholy song about chances lost and potential wasted:

"'Cause they told me when I was younger, said, `Boy, you gonna be president.' But just like everything else, those old crazy dreams just kind of came and went."

For someone coveting the White House, that's not exactly staying on message.

In the 21st century, music and politics exist at an intersection as volatile as the lonely crossroads in Mississippi where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly bartered his soul for guitar prowess. And let's not pick on McCain; he's but one victim — or perp — of this music minefield.

For a generation, candidates who have tried to dip their toes into the pop-culture ocean have tended to fall in. "Happy Days Are Here Again" may have worked for FDR in 1932, but ever since Reagan asserted in 1984 that Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" was a patriotic paean, Democrats and Republicans alike have revealed tin ears as they try to set mood, convey message and show that they, too, are regular people attuned to the same mass entertainment as their fellow Americans.

And in doing so, they offer glimpses into the national temperament.

"Interesting thing about campaign songs: They mirror the life of America. It's as if we're taking snapshots," says Oscar Brand, an 88-year-old folk musician and radio host who recorded an album of campaign music ranging from the eras of George Washington to Bill Clinton.

Brand, though, focused mostly on what prevailed until roughly John F. Kennedy's time — songs crafted expressly for the candidates, among them "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too," "Lincoln and Liberty" and the mercifully obscure "Get on a Raft with Taft." These days, the zeitgeist dictates that candidates invoke existing tunes. We've seen how that turns out: Shouldn't presidential hopefuls bother to get a culture maven to idiot-proof song choices — or, at the least, print out a lyric sheet?

George H.W. Bush's 1988 co-opting of Bobby McFerrin's ironic smile music — "Don't worry, be happy" — was about as astute as a helmeted Michael Dukakis poking his head out of a tank. His son's re-election theme in 2004, "Still the One," seems nice until you hear the verse, "sometimes I never want to see you again." Same with one of Barack Obama's 2008 choices, U2's "City of Blinding Lights," which features this line: "The more you see the less you know, the less you find out as you go."

Often the songs are played in fragments as attempts to capture a mood rather than convey a message. Hillary Rodham Clinton has used pieces of Tom Petty's "American Girl" and Mellencamp's "Small Town" to convey the basic imagery of their titles; at a recent rally in a Pittsburgh suburb, her husband came on stage to the Police's "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic." What the other lyrics might be didn't much matter.

Missteps are understandable. Candidates and handlers are fumbling their way through the untamed frontier territory of iPod Nation, a confusing geography where remix culture, sampling, shuffles and playlists rule the day and context is often absent. In a prepackaged, portable, drive-thru culture, is it any wonder that they go for the microwave meal instead of baking from scratch?

"These songs are a quick and easy substitute to establish a connection between candidates and voters," says Sean Wilentz, a leading presidential historian and scholar of American musical traditions.

"This music is everywhere," Wilentz says. "And if you can choose the right song that can capture a bit of your message and a bit of your essence, you're going to choose it."

The key word is "essence" — particularly the essence of the American working class, whose approval and credibility candidates covet.

Clinton, for example: Her quest to appeal to her base can only be strengthened if it perceives her as an "American girl, raised on promises" who "used to daydream in a small town." (No matter that "American Girl" also contains the lyrics, "Take it easy, baby — make it last all night.")

It's not that different from, say, a beer ad. It's about comfort and familiarity, about whispering to a voter, hey — you've had life experiences while listening to this song, and I'm associating myself with it, so I must understand your daily trials, right?

But finding common ground is growing more difficult.

"The good old 20th-century model of everyone feeding from the same cultural trough, that doesn't work in 2008," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. Today, he says, "You pull songs out when you need them, some work, some don't, and then you move on."

Not if they're Tom Scholz's songs you don't. The man behind the band Boston spoke up sharply earlier this year when Republican Mike Huckabee used the group's 1970s anthem "More Than A Feeling" during at least one campaign event. The response from Scholz: Cease and desist.

"Huckabee was at the extreme opposite of everything I stood for or believed in," Scholz says. "I don't want to use the term unpresidential ... but somehow you expect these people to be a cut above all of that. It does seem odd to me that they are willingly and in some cases deceptively connecting themselves with some form of pop culture."

Scholz notwithstanding, the whole thing is about politicians reaching out with plaintive palms to create more than a feeling about their candidacies; they want to connect with all your yesterdays.

"If you play a song that has been part of culture for the last 20 years, it's not just those few words, it also brings up a little bit of trust and kind of the good-time vibe of the old days," says Levi Kujala, drummer for the Bozeman, Mont., band The Clintons.

Though band members don't necessarily endorse the candidate whose name they share, they created a different kind of campaign tune with the self-explanatory love song "Hey, Hill (If You Ever Dump Bill)."

"You look at people like Hillary. And she's gotta be a dork, you know?" says Kujala, laughing. "I don't think it's possible that she could be as cool and hip as the people she's going after by using that kind of music."

Not that candidates don't try and try again. McCain did, to mixed results.

Abba's "Take a Chance on Me"? Nope. "We played it a couple times," McCain says, "and it's my understanding they went berserk." The theme from "Rocky"? Turns out the head of MGM, a McCain backer, gave the go-ahead but didn't own the rights. "And the people they sold it to said `ERRRK!'" McCain says.

In recent months, the McCain folks have been favoring "Johnny B. Goode," a Chuck Berry rock 'n' roll classic from a half-century ago covered by dozens of musicians from Peter Tosh to Phish, Elton John to Judas Priest. Its energetic guitar licks make it a perfect rallying song, and its chorus — "Go, Johnny, go" — fits just right.

But with all the careful calibration of musical moods in 2008's election-year arena, the decision to focus on "Johnny" emerged from one of the most common political motivations of all: pragmatism.

"I think," McCain quips, "it might be because it's the only one that hasn't complained about us using it."