Candidate tunes

Phil Ford

I’m back, and a lot seems to have happened since I left for vacation. Obama and Huckabee out in front — whooda thunk it? We’ll see what happens in New Hampshire in a little while. But while we’re waiting, let’s consider the musical angle . . .

Just before Christmas, Jason George, a reporter from the Chicago Tribune, got in touch with me and Robert Fink about an article he was writing about the music that presidential candidates use to pump up the crowds at their appearances. Interestingly, there seems to be a bipartisan consensus on Bachman-Turner Overdrive and U2 — the former a Canadian band (you’re welcome), the latter Irish, both bands somehow saying something that resonates with the American followers of Obama, Romney, and Clinton alike.* Or maybe “message” isn’t the point. With a few small tweaks Romney and HRC could trade lists and no-one would be the wiser. A lot of these tunes seem to have been chosen because they’re feel-good, crowd-pleasing barnstormers that most people will recognize. As has often been noted, with the proliferation of digital media and the ability of each individual consumer to construct a daily me of personalized cultural choices, fewer and fewer songs belong to any kind of “consensus culture.” There are more niches, more genres, fewer songs that everyone knows; blockbuster kids’ movies like Shrek and Cars, which provided songs for both HRC and Romney, are probably the closest things we have to a universal cultural reference. For that matter, so is American Idol, which has had more than one contestant trying out Elvis’s “A Little Less Conversation,” the remix of which is in Romney’s list.

You’ll notice that some front-runners are missing from the lists below — Jason told me that getting them was like getting tax records. Why be shy about your campaign’s musical choices, of all things? Perhaps there’s something intrinsically mockable about any politician’s appropriation of music. Musical taste is an intimate personal thing, and an arena political event is about the most un-intimate musical setting imaginable. Either you really do choose music that “says something about you” and expose yourself to particularly cruel mockery, or else your choices remain safely impersonal and you come off as a soulless hack. I read somewhere that Giuliani’s camp have used the bonehead cock-rock anthem “Eye of the Tiger” for their candidate. I can see why you might want to keep that quiet. (Might I suggest this instead?)

Perhaps we could use these lists as yet another instrument of political divination. The pundits have read every other kind of tea leaf — why not music? So, based on musical choices, who will win New Hampshire? On the Democrat side, it’s Obama, hands down. Curtis Mayfield! Earth Wind and Fire! Sam and Dave! And no conspicuously lame songs, like the horrible Bon Jovi/Jennifer Nettles duet “Who Says You Can’t Go Home” that HRC chose. Obama’s choices also seem to manage the difficult balancing act of self-revelation (enough to avoid looking like a soulless hack, not enough to be easily mockable) better than the others. What about Huckabee, though? No information there, unfortunately, though Youtube does show us that the hegemony of BTO extends even unto his camp. Say what you want about Huckabee’s positions on the issues, he plays a decent bar-band bass.

I’ve written elsewhere about Ron Paul’s open-source fundraising strategy; turns out his campaign music is open-source, too. Leaving aside the campaign song listed below, one of the more curious unreported aspects of Paul’s campaign is the number of unsolicited hiphop tracks that have been recorded in his honor. (Here’s an overview; the better tracks are here, here, and  here.)

I dunno, what do you all make of this? I’d be curious to hear what Matthew Guerrieri would have to say about it — it seems like his kinda thing. Andy H-D? Gabriel? Phil? Just curious. And here are the lists, with links to almost every song on Youtube.

Hillary Clinton (D)


You Aint Seen Nothing Yet (BTO)


Ready to Run (Dixie Chicks)


Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic (Police)

Suddenly I See (KT Tunstall)

Shooting Star (Black Stone Cherry)

Life is a Highway (Rascall Flats)

I’m a Believer (Smash Mouth version of Monkees tune)

American Girl (Tom Petty)

Working 9-5 (Dolly Parton)

City of Blinding Lights (U2)

Who Says You Can’t Go Home (Bon Jovi w/ Jennifer Nettles)

Rock this Country (Shania Twain)


Taking Care of Business (BTO)

John Edwards (D)


Your Life is Now (John Mellencamp)

Land of Hope and Dreams (Springsteen)


A Change Would Do You Good (Sheryl Crow)

Barack Obama (D)


Hold on, I’m Comin’ (Sam & Dave)

Think (A. Franklin)

City of Blinding Lights (U2)

Sign, Sealed, Delivered (Stevie Wonder)


(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, (Jackie Wilson)


I’ll Take You There (The Staples Singers)

Move Along (The All American Rejects)

Move on Up (Curtis Mayfield)

There’s Hope (India.Arie)

Shining Star (Earth, Wind & Fire)

Ron Paul (R)


“Hope for America” (Written specifically about Ron by a supporter and musician named Steve Dorr.)

Mitt Romney (R)
A Little Less Conversation (Elvis remix)

Aint No Stoppin’ Us Now (McFadden & Whitehead)

Head over Heels  (The Go-Go’s)

Love that Dirty Water (The Standells)


Beautiful Day (U2)
I’m Free”  (The Rolling Stones/Fatboy Slim)

Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours (Stevie Wonder)

Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond)

Vertigo (U2)

You Aint Seen Nothing Yet (BTO)


Dancing in the Street (Martha and the Vandellas)

Pride (In the Name of Love (U2)

Such Great Heights (Postal Service)


Only in America (Brooks & Dunn)

Don’t Stop Believin’ (Journey)
I’ve Been Everywhere (Fred Mollin)

Life is a Highway (Rascall Flats)

Down On the Corner (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys)

*Robert Fink got off the best line in Jason’s article, talking about U2:  “The effect [of the U2 song] is uniformly reported to be exhilarating, and you can see how a song that relies for its feeling on the simultaneous sensation of fast-forward motion and slowly changing
harmonic scenery — old and new at the same time, moving very fast, yet feeling safe and secure — would appeal to candidates trying to appear both energetic forces for change and reassuring figures of stability.” This strikes me as exactly right.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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8 Responses to Candidate tunes

  1. GABRIEL says:

    I’m at a total loss regarding Ron Paul and the hip hop camp. But I feel that way in general–I haven’t gotten my head around the cross-section of Paul support at all. I suppose there is a basically libertarian strain within hip hop (this probably cuts across various hip hop communities–the West Coast thing, with its symbolic connections to gangsters, for instance, who are basically anti-establishment, the underground, also anti-establishment and at least potentially libertarian.
    I like the point that music choice for campaigns is nearly impossible–How about the history of this: Dukakis (eminently mockable in any case) looked like Such an idiot for his musical choices, and Ashcroft’s “The Eagle Will Soar” or whatever was as asinine as political theater can get. But when it works, it works–as recently as the 80s Reagan got enormous mileage out of his appropriation of “Born in the USA,” right?
    GS

  2. Don’t forget Bill Clinton and his use of Fleetwood Mac. That was very successful as well, getting the baby boomers and a lot of Gen X with that choice. Like Obama’s choices, they portray hipness while still being positive. And in both cases it isn’t unbelievable that the candidates actually listen to that music, unlike Romney or Ron Paul (he’s got to be a country fan).

  3. Mark says:

    Back in the mid-seventies, when I was in junior high and diggin’ BTO in wood shop, I never woulda thunk that the group would have a second life in commercials and campaigns thirty years later.

  4. Matthew says:

    I think the most remarkable thing is the almost complete segregation by race—apart from Romney’s three oldies selections (disco and Motown—pretty safe) and Obama’s All-American Rejects, it’s black and white by candidate. Given the micro-management of political campaigns, that can’t be a coincidence.
    I’m wondering what considerations would keep somebody like Hillary, say, from using Aretha or the Pointer Sisters or even that old chestnut, “We Are Family.” It’s more complex than avoiding triggering some sort of latent straight racism in the electorate; Obama, notice, is doing just fine. I think it must be some fear that a Caucasian candidate using African-American music would somehow carry overtones of inauthenticity, or even worse, exploitation.
    When I run for president, by the way, my campaign song will be Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Going to Go.” I may lose the evangelical vote, but I’ll have the Puritans locked up.

  5. rootlesscosmo says:

    Romney–or whoever chose that music–is such a clueless dork. “Good Vibrations” is a drug song and “Dancin’ in the Street” is an urban riot song.
    My vote goes to the candidate whose choices are “A Love Supreme,” “Beim Schlafengehen,” and “Kick Out the Jams, Motherfucker.”

  6. Bob says:

    I think, in the tradition of despair.com, that the musicological community might also come up with some appropriate songs to recommend to those who do not make it to the top of the heap. There are the obvious ones: “I’m a loser,” “Leavin’ on a jet plane,” “I don’t wanna spoil the party so I’ll go,” “Too Late Baby.” What are some of the more obscure ones? I always liked Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone again, Naturally”. James Taylor, “I was only tellin’ a lie.” Johnny Cash, “I’ve been flushed from the bathroom of your heart.” All the “Abschied”s (of course); “Gute ruh’, tu’ die augen zu” … What else???

  7. Phil Ford says:

    Nah nah nah, nah — hey, hey hey — goo-ood bye . . .

  8. Bob says:

    I heard Also Sprach Zarathustra/2001-space-odyssey on the news today, the background music to Huckabee’s “Hey, we didn’t come out as bad as I thought we would!” enthusiastic speech to NH workers. What would the inverse be? Tail end of Salome, perhaps…

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