Campaign Topics

Jonathan Bellman

…meaning “topics” in the musical sense, of course; musical ideas or subjects for discourse. Thanks once again to Phil for coming up with a thought-provoking blog that jars me out of the doldrums of faculty evaluations and search committee work. I’ve enjoyed—sort of—watching the linked videos of campaign songs, but what has struck me most forcefully is what the overall sound and production choices suggest about the candidates.

First the ubiquitous Obama Yes We Can video. Production is top-notch, from the synching of the singers to the candidate’s oratorical cadence to guitars sounds and arrangements to the visual production. Professional from first to last, which is of course not surprising because the producer, (Black-Eyed Peas), is of course an A-list professional. The construction of the “tune” is both Rock and something earlier—perhaps work-song, or spiritual—with the use of the motto at the end of every line in addition to the chorus. The visual is a rainbow of celebrity faces, with those of color being preponderant, which communicates (for those not threatened) the Coolness Of Youth Culture. The thing is just purely and simply a grand slam.

Phil links, also, Mariachi and Reggaeton tributes. Again, the music is very well performed (a good singing voice in the Mariachi one) and beautifully produced. Given that I have much less familiarity with these kinds of music I can’t comment on the way they communicate to their audiences beyond saying that solid musical performance and style understanding and production communicate very strongly: this candidate gets it. This is not pandering or condescending or trying to be cool for the kids for a minute and a half before saying “just kidding” and sending them back up to their rooms with a stern warning while the grownups take control again; this IS you, and it promises what you need. All of you.

[I’m sticking with Phil’s dictum about Dial M’s endorsement of Cthulu for President, BTW; I only want to talk about the videos and what they imply, and not push people one way or another.]

None of these three videos has the feel, to me at least, of amateurism, of the let’s-do-a-show enthusiast. The stakes are high, and the Obama people simply got the right musical and production forces involved. Contrast—if you can stand to—the godawful HillarySong Phil linked (“She’s Gonna Be Our President”). What kind of clueless, self-righteous idiot, no matter how deeply she believed in the candidate, would put this out there? Debbie assures me this is an independent job, and it positively reeks of niceness and what might be called Ladies’-I-Used-To-Sing-But-Not-Anymore-Oh-But-If-You-Insist narcissism, particularly with the out-of-control vibrato and shy-friend-holding-the-mike recording ambience. Where I live we have locally produced television advertisements that sound like this, and they make me crazy. It sounds like the aural equivalent of a radio broadcast from The Onion?

Take a hard look. What does a contrafact of the theme to a 1970s spinoff TV show say about the candidate?  Old. Back Then. Hey, it’s just us girls having a good time, just us girls gonna do it. By the end of the half-hour, too. ‘Cause, you know, we’re friends and we’re gonna and people have to listen when we use that voice. The wan, sparse playing and production communicate powerlessness and has-been-ness, and the voice—dear merciful heavens, that voice—communicates L-O-S-E-R more effectively than any amount of pernicious bile from Karl Rove. “Happy Landin’ With Landon” (1936) was Mozart by comparison with this.

Then there’s the more recently added Hillary4U&Me. In some ways even more excruciating, this is a mix of the Jackson Five (“1-2-3”) and the Partridge Family. (Debbie says, “Oh, God. Up With People.”) Beyond the dismal music, there’s that horrible 70s-variety-show choreography, the willowy young man playing the flute (nice), the Edison Lighthouse (“Love Grows Where My Rosemary Goes”) production values…what in God’s name are they thinking? The musical language, production, performance, instrumental sounds, and wordy, didactic lyrics communicate a fatal constellation of closely related ideas: YESTERDAY, NOSTALGIA, DECADES-OLD OLDIES, WHAT MOM LIKES, MOM SINGING WITH THE RADIO JUST BEFORE WE ARGUE AND SHE USES THAT MOM VOICE.

If it needs any further commentary, one might scan youtube for some of the bloodthirsty parodies of the “She’s Gonna Be Our President” song, with the new pictures they’ve put to it (no, I’m not providing links; too painful). That candidate has been more damaged by her supporters and campaign staff, in terms of the decisions made, than anyone in recent memory (though Dukakis comes to mind). The mix of incompetence, self-righteousness, and unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory characterizes my political party’s recent election strategies perfectly.

And it’s in the music. Dare I say it: The Music Itself.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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13 Responses to Campaign Topics

  1. Phil Ford says:

    Oh god, this was funny. Funny, mean, and true.
    On a related note, I’m amused that John Cougar Mellencamp is telling John McCain to stop using his songs at rallies. I once heard the story that McCain used to use Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down” on the campaign trail until Petty threatened to sue. At which point McCain backed down.
    In truth, politics and music don’t usually mix, and this makes the Obama ads so striking — this easy use of pop music is just so rare. One of the things about “music and politics” as a topic is just how rarely overtly political music manages to avoid sucking. Early Dylan, “Threepenny Opera,” and, uh . . .

  2. David Cavlovic says:

    But God Help Us if Condi should ever run for President. That would send the cause of Mozart and Beethoven Piano Concertos back 200 years!

  3. Jonathan says:

    My Doktorvater was a duo-piano partner with her–Brahms-Haydn, for example. It’s first on the list of Stuff I Don’t Bring Up. (And I will say that while she was Provost at Stanford under President Gerhard Caspar–early 1990s, I mean–everyone thought she walked on water. Since then, well…

  4. rootlesscosmo says:

    The Obama reggaeton commercial is an earworm for me: “¿Comò se dice? ¿Comò se llama? ¡Obama! ¡Obama!” has been stuck on replay in my head for the past 24 hours.

  5. I thought the Yes We Can video sucked, but it’s a work of art compared to the Hillary videos. Wow.
    Phil, you’re right that an awful lot of overtly political music is bad, but I can think of a few more examples of good political music: The most obvious mainstream pop song is “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World.” The Clash has some good political work–“London Calling,” “Spanish Bombs,” “Working for the Clampdown,” etc. Morrissey had a great song in 2004 called “Irish Blood English Heart” which is explicitly about the violend in Northern Ireland. My friend Dave has a great band called The Daily Pravda, and their song “Lincoln Lovers” is specifically about the Republican National Convention in New York in 2002. The Indigo Girls have lots of good overtly political songs. And of course there’s Laibach, the greatest political band ever. I could go on.
    The trick, really, is that while it’s not too hard to write political songs that are against something, it’s very hard to write songs that are _for_ someting and even harder to write songs that are praising a specific _someone_. The best example I can think of is “Charlie and the MTA,” which is an enduring classic.

  6. Phil’s “style is substance” thing confuses me in this context. Certainly style can be substantive, but hipness and coolness (as styles) can also be less about substance and more about “what the kids like today.” To me, the “Yes We Can” video is more hip than substantive. (Granted, I’m out of my element on this subject.) What interests me is this question: can any of you imagine a way in which Clinton songs could have a prayer of being as hip as Obama songs? She’s older, she has that grating voice, she’s just not cool. And yes, she’s whiter; being white is a disadvantage in the coolness department, though it’s only fair that African Americans should get some small advantages given how many disadvantages they have.
    By the way, being conservative would be even more of a disadvantage, as the remarks about Rice indicate. I also didn’t notice any right-leaning songs in Galen’s list, and Phil’s cheap shot about McCain is itself more hip than substantive. (To respect Tom Petty’s wishes is not backing down in any significant political sense; the song had obviously been used to suggest that McCain is tough politically, not tough on sticking to his playlist.) I’m guessing a majority of readers would just say, “well of course conservatives can’t be cool; they are vapid and substance-less,” but certainly part of the problem is that conservatives don’t have much juice in pop culture. Conservatives aren’t cool; thus, conservative songs aren’t cool; thus, conservatives can’t have cool songs at their rallies; thus, conservatives aren’t cool.
    Anyway, I just find it depressing to think that the difference in these videos should make much difference in how people evaluate these candidates. (I was equally bothered by the apparent advantage Clinton got by crying in NH.) I also wouldn’t be remotely surprised if the “She’s Gonna Be Our President” song was planted by someone who doesn’t like Clinton. Making fun of that song is like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s also profoundly unfair to associate it with her. Profoundly unfair, and inevitable. This is why I hate politics.

  7. Addendum to my previous comment: I should have been clear that I think it’s appropriate to want a candidate to be eloquent and inspiring, and I also understand that winning the hipness vote is no guarantee of winning it all. After all, unhip conservatives do win these things sometimes. And whatever the real source of that Clinton video, it’s amusing to think how her staff must have reacted to seeing it out there. What do you do about something like that? It’s like having a Billy Carter or Roger Clinton in the family.

  8. David Cavlovic says:

    Does Doktorvater comfirm or deny that she is a good musician, at least?

  9. ” also didn’t notice any right-leaning songs in Galen’s list”
    It’s true, but I wonder if it isn’t a case of different genres having different political leanings and I just don’t have much familiarity with the more conservative genres like Country. That Toby Kieth song about putting a boot up your ass was certainly political and very popular. The “bomb Iran” song from the Iran Hostage Crisis days was successful enough that McCain gave it a comeback. On the other hand, the National Review’s list of the top 50 conservative songs was rather sad:

  10. Mix says:

    I have some more songs on my Obama mixtape.

  11. Scraps says:

    Mr. Bellman, I think you will find this post (and its attendant links) very interesting. It’s a pretty comprehensive summary of this season’s campaign songs, especially of the amateur variety, against a backdrop of campaign songs past.

  12. Jonathan says:

    Which post is that, Scraps? Did you forget to put the link in?

  13. georaavadoPek says:


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